Sunday, November 30, 2014

Geddes on methods

Earlier posts have examined some recent thinking about social science methods (link, link). Here I will examine another recent contributor to this field, Barbara Geddes.

Geddes is a specialist in comparative politics, and her 2003 Paradigms and Sand Castles: Theory Building and Research Design in Comparative Politics is a thoughtful contribution to the debate about how the social sciences should proceed. Her central concern is with the topic of research design in comparative politics. How should a comparative researcher go about attempting to explain the varying outcomes we observe within the experiences of otherwise similar countries? How can we gain empirical grounds for validating or rejecting causal hypotheses in this field? And how do general theories of politics fare as a basis for explaining these concrete trajectories -- the rise of authoritarianism in one country, the collapse of communism in the USSR, an outbreak of democracy in that country, or a surprising populism in another? Geddes finds that the theories that guided comparative politics in the sixties, seventies, and eighties proved to be inadequate to the task of explaining the twists and turns the political systems of the world took during those decades and argues that the discipline needs to do better.

Geddes's proposed solution to this cul de sac is to bring theory and research design closer together. She wants to find a way of pursuing research in comparative politics that permits for more accumulation of knowledge in the field, both on the side of substantial empirical findings and well grounded theoretical premises. Theoretical premises need to be more carefully articulated, and plans for data collection need to be more purposefully guided so the resulting empirical findings are well suited to evaluating and probing the theoretical premises. Here is a good summary paragraph of her view:
The central message of this book is that we could steer a course through that narrow channel between untested theory and atheoretical data more successfully, and thus accumulate theoretical knowledge more rapidly, if certain research norms were changed. Although research norms are changing, basic principles of research design continue to be ignored in many studies. Common problems include inappropriate selection of cases from which to draw evidence for testing theories and a casual attitude towards nonquantitative measurement, both of which undermine the credibility of evidence gathered to support arguments. The failure to organize and store evidence in ways that make it accessible to others raises the cost of replication and that also slows theoretical progress. Uncritical acceptance by readers of theories that have not undergone systematic empirical test exacerbates the problem. (5)
What does Geddes mean by "theory" in this context? Her examples suggest that she thinks of a theory as a collection of somewhat independent causal hypotheses about a certain kind of large social outcome -- the emergence of democracy or the occurrence of sustained economic development, for example. So when she discusses the validity of modernization theory, she claims that some components were extensively tested and have held up (the correlation between democracy and economic development, for example; 9), whereas other components were not adequately tested and have not survived (the claim that the diffusion of values would rapidly transform traditional societies; 9).

Geddes does not explicitly associate her view of social science inquiry with the causal mechanisms approach. But in fact the intellectual process of inquiry that she describes has a great deal in common with that approach. On her view of theory, the theory comes down to a conjunction of causal hypotheses, each of which can in principle be tested in isolation. What she refers to as “models” could as easily be understood as schematic descriptions of common social mechanisms (33). The examples she gives of models are collective action problems and evolutionary selection of social characteristics; and each of these is a mechanism of social causation.

She emphasizes, moreover, that the social causal factors that are at work in the processes of political and economic development generally work in conjunction with each other, with often unpredictable consequences.
Large-scale phenomena such as democratic breakdown, economic development, democratization, economic liberalization, and revolution result from the convergence of a number of different processes, some of which occur independently from others. No simple theory is likely to explain such compound outcomes.  Instead of trying to "explain" such compound outcomes as wholes, I suggest a focus on the various processes that contribute to the final outcome, with the idea of theorizing these processes individually. (27)
What Geddes's conception of "theory" seems to amount to is more easily formulated in the language of causal mechanisms. We want to explain social outcomes at a variety of levels of scale -- micro, meso, macro. We understand that explanation requires discovery of the causal pathways and processes through which the outcome emerged. We recognize that social outcomes have a great deal of contingency and path dependency, so it is unlikely that a great outcome like democratization will be the result of a single pervasive causal factor. Instead, we look for mid-level causal mechanisms that are in place in the circumstances of interest -- say the outbreak of the Bolshevik uprising; and we attempt to discern the multiple causal factors that converged in these historical circumstances to bring about the outcome of interest. The components of theories to which Geddes refers are accounts of reasonably independent causal mechanisms and processes, and they combine in contingent and historically specific ways.

And in fact she sometimes adopts this language of independent mid-level causal mechanisms:
To show exactly what I mean, in the pages that follow I develop a concrete research strategy that begins with the disaggregation of the big question — why democratization occurs — into a series of more researchable questions about mechanisms. The second step is a theorization of the specific process chosen for study — in this case, the internal authoritarian politics that sometimes lead to transition. The third step is the articulation of testable implications derived from the theorization. (43)
And later:
I argued that greater progress could be made toward actually understanding how such outcomes [as democratization and authoritarian rule] by examining the mechanisms and processes that contribute to them, rather than through inductive searches for the correlates of the undifferentiated whole. (87)
(This parallels exactly the view taken by McAdam, Tarrow, and Tilly in Dynamics of Contention, where they argue systematically for a form of analysis of episodes of contention that attempts to identify recurring underlying processes and mechanisms.)

It emerges that what Geddes has in mind for testing mid-level causal hypotheses is largely quantitative: isolate a set of cases in which the outcome is present and examine whether the hypothesized causal factor varies appropriately across the cases. Do military regimes in fact persist with shorter average duration than civilian authoritarian regimes (78)? Like King, Keohane, and Verba in Designing Social Inquiry: Scientific Inference in Qualitative Research, Geddes is skeptical about causal methods based on comparison of a small number of cases; and like KKV, she is critical of Skocpol's use in States and Social Revolutions: A Comparative Analysis of France, Russia and China of Mill's methods in examining the handful of cases of social revolution that she examines. This dismissal of small-N research represents an unwelcome commitment to methodological monism, in my view.

In short, I find Geddes's book to be a useful contribution that aligns more closely than it appears with the causal mechanisms approach to social research. It is possible to paraphrase Geddes's approach to theory and explanation in the language of causal mechanisms, emphasizing meso-level analysis, conjunctural causation, and macro-level contingency. (More on this view of historical causation can be found here.)

Geddes's recommendations about how to probe and test the disaggregated causal hypotheses at which the researcher arrives represent one legitimate approach to the problem of giving greater empirical content to specific hypotheses about causal mechanisms. It is regrettable, however, that Geddes places her flag on the quantitative credo for the social sciences. One of the real advantages of the social mechanisms approach is precisely that we can gain empirical knowledge about concrete social mechanisms through detailed case studies, process tracing, and small-N comparisons of cases that is not visible at the level of higher-level statistical regularities. (A subsequent post will examine George and Bennett, Case Studies and Theory Development in the Social Sciences (Belfer Center Studies in International Security), for an alternative view of how to gain empirical knowledge of social processes and mechanisms.)

Sunday, November 23, 2014

How professionals think

photo: Morris Engel, Dock Workers 1947 (link)

The topic of how actors arrive at their choices and behavior has come up a number of times here. The rational choice model has been considered (link), and other, more pragmatist approaches to agency have been considered as well (link). Finally, a number of posts have considered the idea of character as a key determinant of action (link).

A team of distinguished experimental economists have recently provided a different perspective from any of these on the subject of agency and action. Alain Cohn, Ernst Fehr, and Michel André Maréchal recently published a provocative piece in Nature that appears to show that a certain segment of white-collar professionals (bankers) make very different decisions about their actions depending on the “frame” within which they deliberate (link). If they are thinking within the everyday frame of personal life and leisure, their actions are as honest as anyone else’s. But if they are prompted to think within the frame of their professional environment, their actions become substantially less honest. That professional environment is the large international bank.

Here is the abstract to their paper in Nature:
Trust in others’ honesty is a key component of the long-term performance of firms, industries, and even whole countries. However, in recent years, numerous scandals involving fraud have undermined confidence in the financial industry. Contemporary commentators have attributed these scandals to the financial sector’s business culture, but no scientific evidence supports this claim. Here we show that employees of a large, international bank behave, on average, honestly in a control condition. However, when their professional identity as bank employees is rendered salient, a significant proportion of them become dishonest. This effect is specific to bank employees because control experiments with employees from other industries and with students show that they do not become more dishonest when their professional identity or bank-related items are rendered salient. Our results thus suggest that the prevailing business culture in the banking industry weakens and undermines the honesty norm, implying that measures to re-establish an honest culture are very important.
Their research is an exercise within experimental economics. The methodology and findings are described in a brief article in Science Daily (link):
The scientists recruited approximately 200 bank employees, 128 from a large international bank and 80 from other banks. Each person was then randomly assigned to one of two experimental conditions. In the experimental group, the participants were reminded of their occupational role and the associated behavioral norms with appropriate questions. In contrast, the subjects in the control group were reminded of their non-occupational role in their leisure time and the associated norms. Subsequently, all participants completed a task that would allow them to increase their income by up to two hundred US dollars if they behaved dishonestly. The result was that bank employees in the experimental group, where their occupational role in the banking sector was made salient, behaved significantly more dishonestly. 
A very similar study was then conducted with employees from various other industries. In this case as well, either the employees' occupational roles or those associated with leisure time were activated. Unlike the bankers, however, the employees in these other industries were not more dishonest when reminded of their occupational role. "Our results suggest that the social norms in the banking sector tend to be more lenient towards dishonest behavior and thus contribute to the reputational loss in the industry," says Michel Maréchal, Professor for Experimental Economic Research at the University of Zurich.
The test activity is a self-reported series of coin flips. Participants are asked to flip a coin a number of times and are informed that if they report more successes than average for the group, they will receive a cash reward. Here are graphs that capture the central findings of the study:

The left panel represents the distribution of successful coin tosses reported by the control group, while the right panel reports the average number of successes reported by bank employees in bank-salient conditions. The right panel is visibly skewed to the right in comparison to the control group, which indicates that individuals in the professional-identity group misrepresented their success rate more frequently than the control group. They were less honest within the terms of the experiment.

This is a striking set of findings for a number of reasons. First, it strongly suggests that there are strong markers and incentives within the social environment of the bank that lead its employees to behave in dishonest ways. There is something about working in and around a financial institution that appears to provoke dishonesty. This sounds like a "culture of workplace" kind of effect. It suggests perhaps that bankers are acculturated over an extended period of experience to possess traits of character and behavior that lead them to behave dishonestly.

But second, the data seem to refute the "culture and character" interpretation. The same set of experiments supports the finding that when these same individuals approach the coin-tossing task with a mental framework oriented towards everyday personal life, their choices revert to the generally honest behavior of the broader population. In other words, these findings do not support the idea that banking either recruits or creates dishonest people. Rather, the findings seem to imply that banking encourages dishonest behavior within the specific framework of banking business and only while the workplace signals are salient.

This research has gained broad exposure in the past several weeks because of its possible relevance to the past thirty years of bank fraud and financial crisis that we have experienced. But really it seems more interesting for the theoretical insight it provides into the difficult topic of agency: how do people think about the practical issues that confront them? How do they decide what to do?

These findings suggest that we should explore further the notion that actors possess distinct mental frames that they can take up or put aside readily, and that lead to very different kinds of behavior when confronting the same kinds of problems. Further, we should consider the possibility that these frames are highly portable and contingent: the actor can be led to choose one frame or the other, with important behavioral consequences. This finding seems to point in the same direction as ideas advanced by Kahneman and Tversky in much of their work together, including Judgment under Uncertainty: Heuristics and Biases.

(I chose the photo of dock workers above to raise the idea that workplaces may have many different configurations of behavior that they create through signals and incentives. This may serve once again to suggest that Cohn, Fehr and Marechal's work may lead some researchers to examine other workplaces as well. Are policemen incentivized towards aggressiveness? Are dock workers incentivized towards solidarity? Are doctors incentivized towards interpersonal insensitivity?)

Sunday, November 9, 2014

ENPOSS Call for Papers

The European Network for Philosophy of Social Science will hold its next meeting as a joint conference with the North American counterpart, the Philosophy of Social Science Roundtable. The meeting will occur at the University of Washington in Seattle May 8-10. Here is the call for papers.



8-10 May 2015

University of Washington, Seattle

Deadline of submission of abstracts: 15 December 2014

See more here:

Saturday, November 8, 2014

The luminaries and the researcher

Social theory is a well-defined field that is centered on a group of core thinkers that we might refer to as "luminaries". These are figures from the nineteenth or early twentieth centuries like Weber, Durkheim, Marx, Simmel, and Tarde; mid-century thinkers like Bourdieu, Foucault, Gramsci, and Habermas; and more recent thinkers such as Tilly, Merton, Boudon, and Coleman. Each brings forward a group of guiding ideas, concepts, and hypotheses on the basis of which to understand specified kinds of phenomena.

It isn't a caricature to imagine research abstracts in sociology or social studies that begin with the phrase, "The essay pursues a [Mertonian, Durkheimian, Gramscian, Tillian] methodology in order to understand the empirical phenomenon of X, Y, Z."

Or in other words, these luminaries define something like a research paradigm for certain kinds of social phenomena for many social science researchers.

My question here is a simple one; is this a good way for social research to proceed? Is it smart for social research to be theory-driven in this way? Does social science improve its grasp by embracing paradigms and research frameworks in a disciplined way?

The basic view I want to advocate is that dogmatic adherence to any single theoretical framework is a bad idea in social research. I favor "theory-eclectic" research rather than theory-driven research. It is a good thing for researchers to be deeply acquainted with numerous theoretical approaches, and they should build their ideas around the snippets  of theory that seem most suitable to the particulars. What I mean by this is not that researchers should ignore theoretical frameworks, but rather they should be aware of as many such frameworks as they can (within reason) and pick and choose among them as the particulars of an empirical case seem to warrant.

The rationale for this position comes down to a feature of social-science realism: theories are frameworks organized around common social mechanisms, there are multiple kinds of mechanisms at work in a given social milieu, and therefore it is reasonable to invoke multiple theories in attempting to explain the phenomena in play. The social world is heterogeneous and plural; so we need to be pluralistic in our use of theories as well.

There are social scientists who are strongly identified with a single theoretical framework -- Michael Burawoy, Michael Mann, James Coleman. And there are others who are substantially more eclectic when it comes to framing their explanations -- James Scott and Peter Bearman, for example. And my own view is that social researchers are better advised to emulate the latter over the former.

I'm led to think about this question because I am immersed in the Social Science History Association program this weekend in Toronto, and the question of the relation of theory to research is always in the air. A particularly interesting session focused on the continuing relevance of Chuck Tilly's writings for research on contention and state formation. (That's a photo of the audience above.) And thinking about Tilly unavoidably means thinking about the relation between theory and complicated social phenomena as well.

So the position I am led to is this. Social research requires theories of how social processes work. It would be foolish to ignore the excellent work of theorizing various aspects of the social world offered by the luminaries. But it would also be foolish to imagine that any one of these theoretical frameworks is total and complete. Rather, the researcher should be eclectic, pluralistic, and curious when it comes to making use of social theory to make sense of a particular range of complex social activity.

(Friend and fellow-blogger Mark Thoma at Economist's View will be participating in a session on Thomas Piketty's book and ideas on global inequality Saturday afternoon. Welcome, Mark, and thanks for bringing your perspective and expertise on this issue to the SSHA!)

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Seven years of Understanding Society

This week marks the seventh anniversary of Understanding Society. That's 954 posts, almost a million words, and about a hundred posts in the past twelve months. The blog continues to serve as an enormously important part of my own intellectual life, permitting me to spend a few hours several times a week on topics of continuing interest to me, without needing to find the time within my administrative life to try to move a more orderly book manuscript forward. And truthfully, I don't feel that it is faut de mieux or second-best. I like the notion that it's a kind of "open source philosophy" -- ideas in motion. In my view, this is an entirely legitimate primary way of contributing to philosophy and sociology.

Highlights of the past year include -- 

  • Extensive discussion of critical realism, with posts on Kaidesoja, Cruickshank, Bhaskar, and guest contributions by several of them as well as Mervyn Hartwig 
  • Some extended thinking about causal mechanisms
  • A burst of posts about agent-based models and other ways of analyzing and simulating social complexity
  • Several posts on Margaret Archer's theory of morphogenesis
  • Posts on rising global inequalities
  • Posts on the recent history of China
  • Posts on the continuing effects of racial inequality in the US
One thing I have always found intriguing about writing the blog is the amount of data the medium provides in terms of page views, visits, popular posts, and home locations of readers. A blogger has an inherently closer relationship to his or her audience than a traditional academic. Academics rarely have the ability to observe how widespread the readership is for their work -- books or journal articles. Citation indexes provide one kind of metric, but citations are presumably a very small percentage of the readership of a work. I find it interesting to see on a daily or monthly basis where the flow of readers is coming from, and which topics elicit the greatest interest. With more than a million page views a year on the blog, this data is pretty granular. Here are the top five posts of all time since 2007, based on the number of page views:

  • What is a social structure? (65,962)
  • Lukes on power (33,131)
  • Sociology as a social science discipline (29,446)
  • Why a war on poor people? 16,352)
  • Social mobility? (15,614)
The "war on poor people" post is interesting -- the great majority of those 16,000 views came within a few weeks of its publication. The reason? The post was cited and linked in a column by Paul Krugman on the same subject in the New York Times website. This shows something important about social media -- the circulation of a particular digital item can vary enormously depending on the early links it acquires. I guess this is the academic equivalent of a viral cat video on YouTube.

What I would really like to see in the future is a more porous membrane between academic blogging and academic publishing. There is no reason why the arguments and debates that are presented within an academic blog should not enter directly into engagement with formal publication -- specialists writing about mechanisms, explanation, or historiography might well want to engage in their published work with the ideas and arguments that are developing in the online world of academic blogging. For example, I think the series of exchanges among Kaidesoja, Elder-Vass, Hartwig, Cruickshank, and Ruth Groff in Understanding Society in December and January make a substantive addition to debates within the field of critical realism. It would make sense for other specialists to take these sources into account in their published work.

I suppose many scholars would look at blog entries as "working notes" and published articles as "archival" and final, more authoritative and therefore more suitable for citation and further discussion. But I'm not sure that's the right way of thinking about the situation. When I compare the intellectual work process I undertook in writing Varieties of Social Explanation or Understanding Peasant China: Case Studies in the Philosophy of Social Science with the care and concentration I give a blog post, I would say that the latter is just as rigorous and often more creative; less labored, more willing to lay out a new idea quickly. So speaking as a focus group of one, I would say I'm more satisfied with the quality of thinking and presentation I've conveyed in the blog than in the books I've published.

I'm very appreciative of the many smart people who read the blog on a regular basis and offer feedback or disagreement. I have learned a tremendous amount within the philosophy of the social sciences by thinking about the topics I've selected, reading new books, and engaging with smart (often young) scholars around the world about these ideas. There's a bit of an occupational tendency for us all to stay within the literatures that are most familiar to us. Writing the blog has taken me into topics, authors, and controversies that were completely new to me. (A good example is Sygmunt Bauman's concept of liquid modernity" (link).) 

(Why did I choose the photo of the Harvard Book Store at the top? Because it is for me one of the strongest icons of intellectual stimulation I have in my personal history; more so than Emerson Hall, and maybe tied with the Pamplona Cafe across the street. As a graduate student in philosophy I spent many hours in the store exploring the different sections and gaining new ideas about history, society, politics, Marxism, and economics is a riotously cross-disciplinary way -- much as the Internet now serves to stimulate and provoke cross-context connections. And the occasional conversation with an acquaintance or a stranger over a book we both noticed feels a lot like the kind of interaction now possible online.)

Saturday, November 1, 2014

Social knowledge at the micro level

People engage in their social worlds on the basis of a dense set of abilities and cognitive frameworks that permit them to make sense of the interactions they encounter, and to shape their behavior in ways that work for their purposes in the setting. People are creative, adaptive social actors, and this means that they engage with their social worlds on the basis of active, cognitive sense-making processes. These frameworks are rich and textured, and they plainly result from a long process of social learning on the part of the actor-in-formation.

The kinds of things that are encompassed here include --
  • Manners and stylized patterns of interaction
  • Frameworks for recognizing and interpreting the cues presented by others
  • Background knowledge about local social hierarchy 
  • Rules of thumb for dealing with new action scenarios
  • Strategies for communicating and signifying socially important meanings to others
Some people are better at each of these modes of social interaction than others. Some are better at recognizing the cues of behavior or comportment of others -- this stranger is safe, that one is menacing. Some are more adept at piecing together an action plan appropriate to the present circumstances. Some are more sensitive to the social expectations of a situation than others -- the social dolt who neglects to offer a polite greeting before asking for assistance from a shop clerk in Wissembourg. And these differences have consequences; the person who is chronically insensitive or brusque in rural France is likely to find he or she receives minimal assistance from strangers when needed.

This fact about social interaction raises several kinds of questions for sociologists. First, mapping out the "grammar" of these micro norms of interaction and social knowledge is itself an interesting task. Much of the work of Erving Goffman takes this form of investigation -- for example, Behavior in Public Places: Notes on the Social Organization of Gatherings (link). One might describe this as discovery of a social grammar in a particular setting -- a set of rules of interaction that can be discerned in ordinary social behavior.

Second, it is certainly an interesting question to ask what cognitive and emotional capacities are required for an individual to become adept in a familiar environment (one's home village) or an unfamiliar context (a visit to Hong Kong by the middle-aged French farmer, let's say). This is analogous to Chomsky's ur-question: what mental capacities are required in order to acquire a human-language syntax?

And the processes of learning through which these kinds of skills and knowledge frameworks are acquired are certainly of great interest for sociologists. How does one learn how to behave in one's home setting; in one's work setting; or in an unfamiliar social context? What is the process of observation and adaptation through which one becomes an expert denizen of a particular social context? How much is endogenous to a given community, and how much is constructed from broader cultural avenues (e.g. film and television)? Did real Valley girls make Beverly Hills 90210, or did Beverly Hills 90210 make the Valley girls?

Several recent books provide very interesting analyses of these kinds of questions. One is Diego Gambetta's Codes of the Underworld: How Criminals Communicate. Gambetta's central issue is communications and signaling. Given the illegality of their activities, how do organized crime groups communicate their "sales" approach to their clients, victims, and the public? How does the Sicilian mafia communicate its effectiveness and menace as a source of protection for shopkeepers? How does it keep lesser groups of criminals out of this racket or that? How does it avoid adulteration of the brand?

At a more micro level, how do "made" men learn how to act as gangsters? How do they learn how to dress, how to talk, how to swagger? Gambetta suggests seriously that they do so in important measure through movies and television depiction of gangsters -- The Godfather and the Sopranos were highly influential on gangster dress and behavior, Gambetta maintains. (Tony Soprano made one serious sartorial error in the Sopranos, wearing shorts to a barbecue. The producers were informed by mafia insiders this would never happen.) And Gambetta believes there is a fairly clear explanation of this fact, the workings of convention as a way of stabilizing behavior and communicating one's identity. If one wants to say, "I'm a gangster" without confessing to a crime, what better way than wearing the sunglasses and open collars of the Corleone family in the Godfather? And the influence goes in both directions; according to Gambetta, Michael Caan (Sonny Corleone) spent an inordinate amount of time with gangster Carmine Persico during the filming of The Godfather.

Gambetta goes into a fair level of detail in describing and explaining the use of nicknames within the Mafia. He rejects group-level functional explanations; rather, he wants to know what situations and interests lead individual criminals to continue to make use of nicknames for some of their associates. Based on the records of the maxi trial in Palermo in 1986-87 he argues that nicknames are more common among foot soldiers and killers in the mafia than in other occupational groups, and that they are also more common in urban settings than rural settings. He argues that nicknames persist among gangsters for several reasons. They permit insiders to accurately identify individuals with otherwise indistinguishable birth certificate names. They confuse the police and prosecutors, allowing individual gangsters to slip from one identity to another in evading arrest or conviction. And sometimes they serve a within-group purpose as well -- allowing a little bit of cautious fun at the expense of one another with the use of ridiculous nicknames. 

The second recent book I've found interesting on the topic of micro sociology is Peter Bearman's Doormen. Bearman is interested in making sense of the ways that doormen have professionalized their actions by mediating between the private worlds of their tenants and the public world of the street. Here is how he describes his research at the fifty thousand foot level:
Here, through the window of observed behavior, we observe that the real springs for social action rest in a nest of workable social theories, bags of tricks, and larger network processes. These theories, tricks, and processes appear to be social facts, that is, things that are not changeable by the will of a single individual -- either the researcher or the research subject. (257)
Bearman makes a point of moving back and forth between fieldwork and social models. He wants to make sense of the social phenomenology he observes -- how the job market for doormen works, how informal networks of knowledge sharing facilitate movement of young men into open doormen jobs (rather than waiting for years in queues for those same jobs), how weak ties play a crucial role in this world, and the ways in which these mechanisms prolong the workings of race- and ethnicity-based inequalities. And he makes expert use of the results of various areas of social modeling theory to explicate features of doorman activity -- for example, the queuing of tasks and responses to tenants' requests (chapter 3).

The situation of the doorman is unusual, Bearman finds, compared to many other semi-skilled service occupations. The doorman provides a buffer between the tenant's world of privacy and privilege and the polluted world of the hustle-bustle street. He argues that the situation of the doorman is an unusual one, in that the doorman gains a high degree of personal knowledge about his tenants, and uses that knowledge to provide personalized service to them. 

Bearman makes a great deal of the fact that there is a wide social separation between doorman and tenant, even as there is a quasi-intimate relation between them based on the personal  knowledge the doorman has of the tenant. The doorman knows an enormous amount about the life of the tenant, while the tenant knows almost nothing of the doorman's private life in Queens or Staten Island.

One of the striking things about Bearman's book is the skill with which he diagnoses the semantics of the behaviors and spaces that he considers. What does the lobby of the residential building signify? In what ways do different residence styles signify different attitudes and qualities for their tenants? What does the routine, meaningless small chat between resident and doorman mean? What does the doorman's uniform signify, for himself, for the tenant, and for the visitor? (According to one of the informants quoted by Bearman, the uniform makes him socially invisible as a human being.) This emphasis on social meanings is crucial and welcome; it is an acknowledgment for sociology of the insight that Geertz brought to ethnography, that the social world is a web of meanings that need to be deciphered if we are to understand the behavior of people within these settings (The Interpretation of Cultures).

Both these books are interesting because of what they bring to an actor-centered view of the social world. Both books are specifically interested in examining the social meanings invested in various modes of speech, dress, or comportment. As I've argued in earlier posts (link, link), we urgently need to have more nuanced theories of the actor, beyond stylized accounts of beliefs, desires, and opportunities. And studies like these provide a very welcome contribution to the task of formulating such a sociology.