Wednesday, December 31, 2014

A more inclusive university

The challenge of creating a truly inclusive university is a difficult one. Inclusiveness is more than diversity. It is an institution and culture in which people from all social groups -- race, nationality, gender, sexuality, religion, ethnicity -- are fully embraced and respected. It is an environment in which every individual is afforded the opportunity and space to do his or her best work, unimpeded by stereotype or discriminatory arrangements. But achieving this harmonious and democratic outcome is challenging, for a variety of reasons. Most important among these is the difficulty of overcoming limitations of perspective from the various groups, including especially the majority group. Practices that seem innocuous and neutral to majority group members are often experienced as demeaning and limiting by non-majority group members — what some students now refer to as “micro-aggressions”.

The inter-university consortium know as the Future of Minority Studies continues to do good work in attempting to make progress on improving the inclusiveness of universities, and the most recent contribution to its publication series is particularly salient. This is The Truly Diverse Faculty: New Dialogues in American Higher Education, a collection of essays by highly talented young faculty of color who write honestly about their experiences at a range of universities around the United States. Edited by Stephanie Fryberg and Ernesto Javier Martinez, the volume goes beyond the rhetoric of diversity that is present at most American universities to probe honestly the challenges that exist for faculty of color. The volume contains primary articles from talented younger scholars like Victoria Plaut, Denise Sekaquaptewa, and Tiffany Willoughby-Herard, as well as comments by more senior scholars such as Chandra Mohanty, Nancy Cantor, and Michael Hames-Garcia.

A central challenge for the goal of a truly inclusive and democratic university is the patterns of race and privilege that are built into our institutions through their history. Most universities in the United States are overwhelmingly “white” – their faculty and their cultures have been constructed through a history that made it difficult to impossible to genuinely incorporate racial diversity. And this appears to be more true the further one ascends into the ranks of the elite research universities. These observations are less true of several segments of American higher education: the historically black universities and colleges, the non-flagship public universities, and the community colleges in many parts of the country. But for the elite colleges and universities in the US, the demography, history, and culture all tip sharply towards what Phillip Goff calls “Whiteness” in his contribution to the volume. (One could say much the same about the gender composition and culture of many universities and departments.)

This fact presents a major challenge to people who want to see universities change fundamentally with regard to race and culture. We want the twenty-first century university to be genuinely multi-racial, multi-cultural, multi-religious, and multi-ethnic. We want these “multi’s” because our country itself is multicultural, and because we have a national history that has not done a good job of creating an environment of equality and democracy across racial and cultural lines. And we want the universities to change, because they are key locations where the values and skills of our future leaders will be formed. So if universities do not succeed in transforming themselves around the realities of race and difference, we cannot expect the larger society to succeed in this difficult challenge either.

This means that university faculty and administrators need a much better understanding of the scope of the problem. Why is it that the current American university is often such a negative environment for many faculty of color – especially junior faculty? What concrete and practical steps can we take to get from where we are to where we want to be – from an environment defined by majority values, culture, and power, to one that is genuinely and democratically framed by the multi-cultural reality of our society? How can we make the transition that is required that will lead us to the university of the future, in which our department meetings, our tenure processes, and our university-wide intellectual communities are genuinely respectful of racial, ethnic, and gender differences?

The essays in this volume are a valuable contribution to making the university better. One thing that we have learned through a body of multicultural research over the past several decades, is how important it is to get past “perspective blindness.” When majority faculty members or administrators think about race in the university, they generally have only a very limited understanding of the concrete situations that faculty and students of color face. So the concrete specificity of the articles in this volume provides a valuable learning opportunity for the majority members of any university. There is valuable pedagogical work going on in many universities that is designed to make more apparent the hidden biases and practices that are still too common. For example, the Center for Research on Learning and Teaching at the University of Michigan has developed many tools for highlighting the situations of race and gender that can arise in the classroom that majority faculty members are simply unlikely to see without some help (link). This volume is enormously valuable in this respect as well. Reading the collection helps department chairs, deans, and presidents have a better idea, in concrete terms, of what it means to recognize that faculty of color face an environment that imposes greater burdens and greater stresses, and that these burdens and stresses make their research and teaching agendas all the more difficult to achieve. So the university needs to arrive at concrete strategies for counteracting these negative effects.

(FYI -- some of this post is adapted from my own short contribution to the volume in my comments on Phillip Goff's excellent piece.)

Monday, December 29, 2014

John Levi Martin on theory

I've found the work of John Levi Martin to be particularly original when it comes to rethinking some of the basis assumptions of sociological theory. (Here are a few earlier posts on his work; link, link. John also provided a guest post here.) So I was pleased to receive a copy of his most recent book, Thinking Through Theory. The book takes a fresh look at the role of "theory" in the intellectual work that sociologists do, and it provides valuable guidance to Ph.D. students in sociology as they begin crafting their own intellectual tools. Here is how he introduces his topic:
This book is about the improvement of sociological theory. The focus here is on good thinking. I'm not saying that no one thinks well in our discipline, but we often can do better. Unfortunately, few theorists are explicitly concerned with the issues of how to avoid thinking in circles, how to know when we are contradicting ourselves, how to avoid thinking tautologies are meaningful. (vii)
JLM's central idea about the role of theory is what he calls "theory-work": attempts to "improve the precision, clarity, and coherence of our ideas" (10). Sometimes this means working hard to establish whether two sociological ideas are compatible. More generally, JLM recommends the hard work of teasing out the logical implications of the hypotheses and concepts that we use in attempting to make sense of the social world we encounter. (He calls this work "orthological", or "right-thinking".)

JLM doesn't give this example, but it would appear that Mancur Olson's discovery of the undermining logic of free riding within collective action is an example of what he means by good theory work. In The Logic of Collective Action: Public Goods and the Theory of Groups) Olson worked out the implications of the two framing ideas -- self-interested decision-making and the fact of shared interests within a group:
  1. People act in their own best interests.
  2. People have shared interests.
  3. Therefore people act out of regard for their shared interests.
Olson demonstrated that the typical circumstances of groups with shared interests lead us from premise 1 to the negation of conclusion 3. Here Olson does exactly as JLM recommends; he works out the logic of collective action through careful analysis of the premises and the situation.

I like JLM's approach to the logic of theorizing in the social realm, but I find that I occasionally take issue with specific claims he makes. For example, in a brief discussion of Diane Vaughan's treatment of the Challenger space shuttle disaster in The Challenger Launch Decision: Risky Technology, Culture, and Deviance at NASA, he thinks that reference to "institutional culture" is tautological when used to explain behavior within a specific organization. "Institutional culture is itself nothing other than the pattern of social action that takes place in the institutional setting" (35; cf. 45). But a culture is more than an ensemble of behaviors. It is the embodied mental equipment that leads individuals within the institution to act as they do, and it is the microfoundations of training and socialization through which these individuals come to possess that mental equipment. These are organized processes and cognitive realities at both the individual and the ensemble levels, and it is reasonable to attribute a stable reality to them. Different organizations have substantially different cultures and norms, and it is perfectly justified to be realists in referring these cultures and norms as causal factors. This is not a tautology. Frank Dobbin does a good job of articulating this notion in Forging Industrial Policy: The United States, Britain, and France in the Railway Age (link).

I'm also unconvinced by the categorical position JLM takes on "actors". "There are no collective-level actors" (38). JLM correctly observes that organizations have internal structure, and that the sub-units of the organization contribute to the "decision" the organization makes. But he is insistent that decisions and actions are always conducted by individuals. I agree that there are always microfoundations for an organization's actions at the level of various individuals within the organization (link, link) -- just as there are microfoundations at the level of the neuron for the calculations that the individual considers. But neither set of microfoundations resolves the question of where the level of agency lies. And it seems to me that there are clear cases where an organization functions normally according to its own procedures and arrives at a decision, and it is appropriate to attribute the agency to the organization rather than the individual who signed the last document. Awarding tenure within a university is a good example. Decisions are made at a range of levels, subject to locally enforced procedures and criteria, and tenure is recommended. The fact that the provost is the final stop in the process doesn't mean that the action belongs to her alone.

These are not inconsequential quibbles. Rather, they contribute to a recommendation to JLM, to be more receptive to an appropriately developed realism when it comes to mid-level social structures and actors. JLM is right in saying that realists need to be substantially more rigorous in theorizing the entities and forces that they purport to identify at the meso (supra-individual) level (100). He is appropriately critical of some aspects of critical realism. But that doesn't mean that realism is illusory. Hard work is need to show how an organizational culture wields causal power, how a fiscal agency "decides" an interest rate policy, or how regulatory agencies are systematically subverted. And in my view, we need some new theoretical tools to allow us to arrive at a solid actor-centered social realist answer to these kinds of questions. But the questions themselves are legitimate and important.

This is a bold book. At bottom it is a call for rethinking almost all of the theoretical concepts that we use in the social sciences -- norm, institution, rationality, actor. JLM wants sociology to question its premises and look differently at the domain of the social world. I agree with him that this rethinking is needed. There are quite a few disparate voices attempting to do just that -- Fligstein and McAdam, for example, and Crozier and Friedberg before them (link, link), in their innovative efforts at joining actors and structures. Thinking Through Theory is a worthy contribution to this effort.

(Here is one of my own earlier efforts to confront the topic of theory in sociology; link. As noted in the post, Gabriel Abend has also done excellent work in clarifying the several uses of "theory" in sociology; link.)

Friday, December 26, 2014

Underinvesting in the public good

There are quite a few investments in social programs that would have spectacular return on investment, but that in fact remain unfunded or underfunded. I am thinking here of things like broadened preschool programs, enhanced dropout prevention programs, regional economic development efforts, and prison re-entry programs. Why are these spectacular opportunities so dramatically under-exploited in the United States and other nations?

One line of answer derives from a public choice perspective: the gains that follow from the investment represent public goods, and public goods are typically under-provided. But that doesn't really answer the question, because it is governments that are underinvesting, not uncoordinated groups of independent agents. And governments are supposed to make investments to promote the public good.

Another plausible answer is that the citizens who are primarily served by most of the examples provided above are poor and disenfranchised; so the fact that they would benefit from the program doesn’t motivate the politically powerful to adopt the policy.

There is also a powerful influence of political ideology at work here. Conservative ideas about what a good society looks like, how social change occurs, and the role of government all militate against substantial public investment in programs and activities like those mentioned above. These conservative political beliefs are undergirded by a white-hot activism against taxes that makes it all but impossible to gain support in legislative bodies for programs like these -- no matter what the return on investment is.

Failure to achieve these kinds of social gains through public investment might seem like a very basic element of injustice within our society. But it also looks like strong evidence of system failure: the political and economic system fail to bring about as much public good as is possible in the circumstances. The polity is stuck somewhere on the low shoulders of the climb towards maximum public benefit for minimum overall investment. It is analogous to the situation in private economic space where there are substantial obstacles to the flow of investment, leaving substantial possible sources of gain untapped. It is s situation of massive collective inefficiency, quite the contrary of Adam Smith's view of the happy outcomes of the hidden hand and the market mechanism.

This last point brings us back to the public goods aspect of the problem. A legislature that designs a policy or program aimed at capturing the gains mentioned here may succeed in its goal and yet find that the gains accrue to someone else -- the public at large or another political party. The gains are separated from the investment, leaving the investment entity with no rational incentive to make the investment after all.

Some policy leaders have recognized this systemic problem and have turned to an innovative possible solution, social impact bonds (link). Here is how the Center for American Progress explains this idea.

A social impact bond, or SIB, is an innovative financial tool that enables government agencies to pay for programs that deliver results. In a SIB agreement, the government sets a specific, measurable outcome that it wants achieved in a population and promises to pay an external organization—sometimes called an intermediary—if and only if the organization accomplishes the outcome. SIBs are one example of what the Obama administration calls “Pay for Success” financing. (link)

Essentially the idea is to try to find a way of privatizing the public gains in question, so that private investors have an incentive to bring them about.

This is an interesting idea, but it doesn't really solve the fundamental problem: society's inability to make rational investment in its own wellbeing. It seems more like a way of shifting risks of program success or failure from the state agency to the private entity. Here is a McKinsey discussion of the concept (link), and here is a more skeptical piece in the Economist (link).

Monday, December 15, 2014

George and Bennett on case study methodology

Establishing causal relationships within the fabric of the social world is more challenging than in the biological or physical-chemical domains. The reasons for this difficulty are familiar — the high degree of contextuality and contingency that is characteristic of social change, the non-deterministic character of social causation, and the fact that most social outcomes are the result of unforeseen conjunctions of independent influences, to name several.

Alexander George and Andrew Bennett argue for the value of a case-study method of social research in Case Studies and Theory Development in the Social Sciences. The idea here is that social researchers can learn about the causation of particular events and sequences by examining them in detail and in comparison with carefully selected alternative examples.

Here is how they describe the case-study method:
The method and logic of structured, focused comparison is simple and straightforward. The method is “structured” in that the researcher writes general questions that reflect the research objective and that these questions are asked of each case under study to guide and standardize data collection, thereby making systematic comparison and cumulation of the findings of the cases possible. The method is “focused” in that it deals only with certain aspects of the historical cases examined. The requirements for structure and focus apply equally to individual cases since they may later be joined by additional cases. (67)
George and Bennett believe that the techniques and heuristics of the case study approach permit the researcher to arrive at rigorous and differentiated hypotheses about underlying social processes. In particular, they believe that the method of process-tracing has substantial power in social research, permitting the researcher to move from the details of a particular historical case to more general hypotheses about causal mechanisms and processes in other contexts as well (6). They discourage research strategies based on the covering-law model, in which researchers would seek out high-level generalizations about social events and outcomes: “highly general and abstract theories … are too general to make sharp theoretical predictions or to guide policy” (7). But they also note the limits of policy relevance of “independent, stable causal mechanisms” (7), because social mechanisms interact in context-dependent ways that are difficult or impossible to anticipate. It is therefore difficult to design policy interventions based on knowledge of a few relevant and operative mechanisms within the domain of behavior the policy is expected to govern, since the workings of the mechanisms in concrete circumstances are difficult to project.

Fundamentally they align with the causal mechanisms approach to social explanation. Here is how they define a causal mechanism:
We define causal mechanisms as ultimately unobservable physical, social, or psychological processes through which agents with causal capacities operate, but only in specific contexts or conditions, to transfer energy, information, or matter to other entities. In so doing, the causal agent changes the affected entity’s characteristics, capacities, or propensities in ways that press until subsequent causal mechanisms act upon it. (137)
And they believe that the case-study method is a suite of methodological approaches that permit identification and exploration of underlying causal mechanisms.
The case study approach – the detailed examination of an aspect of a historical episode to develop or test historical explanations that may be generalizable to other events – has come in and out of favor over the past five decades as researchers have explored the possibilities of statistical methods … and formal models. (5)
The case study method is designed to identify causal connections within a domain of social phenomena.
Scientific realists who have emphasized that explanation requires not merely correlational data, but also knowledge of intervening causal mechanisms, have not yet had much to say on methods for generating such knowledge. The method of process-tracing is relevant for generating and analyzing data on the causal mechanisms, or processes, events, actions, expectations, and other intervening variables, that link putative causes to observed effects. (214)
How is that to be accomplished? The most important tool that George and Bennett describe is the method of process tracing. "The process-tracing method attempts to identify the intervening causal process--the causal chain and causal mechanism--between an independent variable (or variables) and the outcome of the dependent variable" (206). Process tracing requires the researcher to examine linkages within the details of the case they are studying, and then to assess specific hypotheses about how these links might be causally mediated. 

Suppose we are interested in a period of violent mobilization VM in the countryside at time t, and we observe a marked upswing of religious participation RP in the villages where we have observations. We might hypothesize that the surge of religious participation contributed causally to the political mobilization that ensued. But a process-tracing methodology requires that we we consider as full a range of alternative possibilities as we can: that both religious and political activism were the joint effect of some other social process; that religious participation was caused by political mobilization rather than caused that mobilization; that the two processes were just contingent and unrelated simultaneous developments. What can we discover within the facts of the case that would allow us to disentangle these various causal possibilities? If RP was the cause of VM, there should be traces of the influence that VM exerted within the historical record -- priests who show up in the interrogation cells, organizational linkages that are uncovered through archival documents, and the like. This is the work of process tracing in the particular case. And I agree with George and Bennett that there is often ample empirical evidence available in the historical record to permit this kind of discovery.

Finally, George and Bennett believe that process-tracing can occur at a variety of levels:
The simplest variety of process-tracing takes the form of a detailed narrative or story presented in the form of a chronicle that purports to throw light on how an event came about.... A substantially different variety of process-tracing converts a historical narrative into an analytical causal explanation couched in explicit theoretical forms.... In another variety of process-tracing, the investigator constructs a general explanation rather than a detailed tracing of a causal process. (210-211)
One of the strengths of the book is an appendix presenting a very good collection of research studies that illustrate the case study methodology that they explore. There are examples from American politics, comparative politics, and international relations. These examples are very helpful because they give substance to the methodological ideas presented in the main body of the book.

Sunday, December 7, 2014

Historicizing social action

Khmer rouge soldier

It is self evident that people are influenced by the historical circumstances in which they are raised and live. People are historicized as actors. The hard question is, how deep does that influence go?

When we consider the mental features that are invoked within the process of interpreting and acting within the world, there is certainly a range of capacities and functions at work, and there are some important differences of level that exist among these. Some of these features are more superficial than others. Take beliefs. If a person is raised in a culture in a cold climate he or she will have more beliefs having to do with snow than counterparts at the equator. A person raised in a highly racialized society will have different beliefs about other people than one raised in a more racially tolerant society. Likewise the norms of interpersonal behavior differ across settings; here too it appears that this mental feature is a fairly superficial one. Beliefs and norms seem particularly close to the surface when it comes to the features of the actor that respond to social and cultural context. Are there historical effects that go deeper into the actor — effects that show up as differences in basic ways of thinking and acting?

Values may be a little deeper, given that they have to do with the goals that people have in their actions and plans. One person sets a high value on the wellbeing of his or her family; another is primarily interested in material and financial success for himself or herself. Expectations and habits seem even deeper in the sense that they are only semi-conscious; they are features of the social cognition mechanism that generally work at a level that is invisible to the individual.

And what about character? We might think of a person’s character as the most enduring features of action and reaction; character has to do with the most fundamental aspects of the personality when it comes to making life choices. One person displays loyalty; another displays a commitment to the idea of fairness; and a third shows a basic lack of trust of others. These are differences in character. This seems like the most basic or fundamental of the mental attributes that influence interpretation and action. But like other features of practical cognition considered here, this attribute too seems historically malleable.

If this informal hierarchy of the furniture of the actor seems at all plausible, then we have essentially postulated an onion-like ordering of features of practical cognition (the thought processes and heuristics through which an individual processes his/her current situation and the actions that may seem appropriate). Here is a diagram that captures this rough hierarchy:

 Screenshot 2014 12 06 15 27 35

And the problem of historicized mentality comes down to this: how far down the onion does the effect of cultural and social context extend?

There is an analogy to this question in Chomsky’s linguistics. The superficial part of grammar is the specific set of rules that apply to one’s local language — French, Swahili, or Cajun. This feature of linguistic performance is plainly context-dependent. But Chomsky maintained that this superficial plasticity exists on top of a universal underlying grammar capacity that every human being possesses from birth. The universal grammar — essentially the capacity to learn and execute the rules of the language one hears around oneself as a child — is a constant and is not affected by context.

If we were Chomskian about action and behavior, we might take the view that there is a constant human nature at the center of the onion, which allows for the formation of the more superficial kinds of differences in action that we acquire through experience of particular times and places. And we might attempt to reconstruct this fundamental set of capacities by trying to answer the question, “What capacities must a human being have in order to acquire character, habits, expectations, values, norms, and beliefs?”.

Presumably this is a legitimate question, since there are non-human organisms that lack the ability to form some of these features. But what that implies to me is that it is possible to push the inquiry below the level of the features of human action that we have identified to this point, and that at some point we should expect to arrive at a situation of neurocognitive invariance.

But here is the crucial point: it appears to me that all the capacities identified on the diagram are themselves socially and culturally malleable. Historical circumstances certainly affect the beliefs and norms that an adult has within those circumstances; but they also affect the habits and character of the individual as well. And this means that human mentality is deeply historicized. Very fundamental features of the ways that we understand and react to the world are shaped by the cultures, institutions, and extended historical experiences that we undergo as children and adults. And this is true of the features of character that we bring to life’s decisions as much as the beliefs and values we have acquired through earlier experiences.

The image of the Khmer Rouge cadre above poses quite a number of relevant questions, and most pressing is this one: How was this generation of Cambodian young people shaped such that they were amenable to the murderous emotions, compliance, and actions illustrated in the photo?

Thursday, December 4, 2014

New tools for college success


Today is the second White House College Opportunity Day of Action in Washington DC. President Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama have spearheaded this effort to increase the participation levels of disadvantaged students in post-secondary education. Several hundred presidents of universities around the country have come together in Washington to share best practices in encouraging college participation and college success for all Americans, including low income and educationally disadvantaged young people. The disparity in college attendance rates between the top and bottom quartiles of family income is shocking, even when we control for SAT/ACT performance. (Various estimates were offered today, including an estimate of more than 75% attendance in the top quartile versus less than 10% for the bottom quartile.)

Central themes for the day include several important ideas: using big data sets of disaggregated information on student performance to refine curriculum and pedagogy, using new technologies in support of more effective teaching and learning, and controlling the cost of higher education. Participants have emphasized a crucial point: economically and socially disadvantaged students are not provided the support and advising in their early years that are necessary to help them feel that college is a feasible path for them. And the challenge of learning about the college application process and the financial aid process is a high hurdle for disadvantaged first-generation students and families. Measuring academic success and improving successful completion are critical issues facing every university. And finding ways of changing the attitudes of disadvantaged students and families towards the feasibility of college is urgently needed.

There is some very facile talk about the connection between the last two topics -- technology and cost. Sebastian Thrun, CEO of Udacity, was particularly outspoken on this topic. But it is important to remember that a quality education costs money to support, it requires committed faculty members who develop meaningful relations with their students, it requires effective support services, and we are right to be suspicious of claims to dramatically reduce those costs. Learning is more complex than simply being exposed to great online graphically rich course materials and video lectures. Of course we should be searching for innovations that work to improve learning and control costs, and many examples were presented today. But hoping for a magic pill, whether Udacity, Khan Academy, or Coursera, that leads to great college-level learning and costs almost nothing is chimerical. The idea of a $10,000 bachelor's degree is such a chimera, beloved in some state houses but unattainable at an acceptable level of quality of outcome for the graduates.

More promising is the strategy of using realtime student learning data to finetune and focus the learning process to achieve greater success outcomes for students. Can a calculus teacher or an entry-level chemistry professor use realtime data during the semester to identify individual students and topics that require greater attention? Can entry-level courses in psychology, statistics, or biology be redesigned using this kind of data to improve the flow of topics and pedagogy to address sticking points? Can this kind of data provide some guides to designing better uses of new technologies in the university learning process?

There are some good examples of these kinds of uses of big data within universities. Here are some examples supporting student advising (link) and student success (link). And here is a review of recent thinking on the use of big data in several sectors including universities (link). We might call this "student success 2.0," and every university is well advised to find ways of using these tools to improve retention and student success.

A particularly difficult challenge for universities is how to handle incoming students who are under-prepared for college-level math courses. It would be fantastic if there were proven bridge programs that succeed in bringing students from where they are when they leave high school to where they need to be in order to succeed in STEM fields in college. Are there good examples of such programs that effectively use new technology, great teachers, and big data to support real student progress?

One thing is clear: there is no magic bullet that ensures that the student with a weak grasp of algebra is instantly ready for Calculus I. But are there cutting-edge examples of bridge curricula that take students barely at a ninth-grade level of math skills to an ability to perform adequately in an entry-level college math course? Are there examples in use that make good use of technology and realtime data to customize the educational experience to support this degree of academic progress?

The challenge of increasing college attendance and completion for disadvantaged students is one of the most important social issues we face. As Secretary of Education Arne Duncan put the point this morning, the disaffection of disadvantaged young people in our country is at a crisis level. We must find ways of providing real pathways towards good jobs and middle class lives for the least advantaged young people in our society, and improving college access and improving attendance and completion are crucial steps towards that end.

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Shaping of inner-city African-American experience

It is recognized by ethnographers that place and history mean a great deal in the everyday experience that people have in their neighborhoods — villages, industrial towns, universities. The ways that we perceive the world and the patterns of action and reaction that we bring to it are profoundly shaped by the histories and practices of the communities in which we live. Current-day social reality is a path-dependent consequence of our pasts.

Elijah Anderson provides a striking exploration of this basic insight in Code of the Street: Decency, Violence, and the Moral Life of the Inner City, his 1999 ethnographic reflection on inner-city Philadelphia. Anderson wants to understand the content of the "code of the street" -- the values around which young inner-city men and women orient their actions and aspirations. And, in the urban world of the late 1990s in America, a lot of that code circles around violence and aggression. Anderson wants to know how inner-city youth think about violence, and he wants to understand why impoverished urban neighborhoods have become so much more violent than their counterparts were when W.E.B. Dubois studied them early in the twentieth century.
Here I take up more directly the theme of interpersonal violence, particularly between and among inner-city youths. While youth violence has become a problem of national scope, involving young people of various classes and races, in this book I am concerned with why it is that so many inner-city young people are inclined to commit aggression and violence toward one another. (preface)
Here is a strong description of the underculture of violence that Anderson identifies on Germantown Avenue:
The inclination to violence springs from the circumstances of life among the ghetto poor—the lack of jobs that pay a living wage, limited basic public services (police response in emergencies, building maintenance, trash pickup, lighting, and other services that middle-class neighborhoods take for granted), the stigma of race, the fallout from rampant drug use and drug trafficking, and the resulting alienation and absence of hope for the future. (kl 430)
Consistent with the basis ethnographic insight mentioned above, Anderson wants to understand two things: what is the "code of the street"; what are those norms of behavior and masculinity that come together in inner-city Philadelphia (or Detroit, Miami, or Chicago)? And second, what were the historical and social circumstances that shaped the emergence of this set of norms?

Here is Anderson's preliminary answer to the first question:
At the heart of this code is a set of prescriptions and proscriptions, or informal rules, of behavior organized around a desperate search for respect that governs public social relations, especially violence, among so many residents, particularly young men and women. Possession of respect -- and the credible threat of vengeance -- is highly valued for shielding the ordinary person from the interpersonal violence of the street. (kl 74)
The answer to the second question is more complex. A part of Anderson's answer has to do with widespread alienation among urban young people from the legitimacy of basic social institutions, including the criminal justice system. But the more general historical cause that he explores is the history of racial discrimination and impoverishment that American cities have almost always witnessed. Racism and almost insurmountable segregation have created a thoroughly disaffected underclass in American cities.

Anderson's framing of his topic is very similar to the perspective argued above about situated knowledge. Here Anderson highlights the links that exist between social cognition, conceptual frames, and behavior:
How do the people of the setting perceive their situation? What assumptions do they bring to their decision making? What behavioral patterns result from these actions? What are the social implications and consequences of these behaviors? (kl 106)
A particularly powerful part of the book is Anderson's extensive use of individual stories -- decent people, crack addicts, young mothers, working poor, and others. The long story of John Turner, the final chapter in the book, is particularly powerful. These stories serve to document Anderson's key lines of interpretation -- the meaning of the street code, the way the violence of the street is experienced and accommodated, the ways that these men and women think about the world they inhabit. This use of detailed personal stories from field notes means that the reader has at least a degree of independence from Anderson's narrative, since there is always the possibility of interpreting these vignettes differently from Anderson.

Here Anderson quotes an older man at the funeral of a young man from the neighborhood:
I knew the boy well. I always warned him about these drugs, but he couldn’t resist. He knew. I told him I’d come to his funeral. And this is what I’m doing. It is a shame. But you know, it is the system. It is the system. No jobs. No education. And the drugs are all about. You realize what amount of drugs come in here [the neighborhood]. That’s not us. It is them. The white people. They bring the drugs in here. They don’t want us to have nothing. But this is what they give us. All this death and destruction. I know a boy did shoot him, but it was really the system. The system. (kl 2276)
It is striking to compare the ethnography that Anderson constructs with that presented by Al Young in The Minds of Marginalized Black Men: Making Sense of Mobility, Opportunity, and Future Life Chances. The topics of violence, the drug trade, and a culture of fundamental disaffection are distinctly not the focus of Young's research or his central findings. In conversation Young takes the view that these themes are over-emphasized in media presentations of urban problems, and often sensationalized. Instead, Young seeks to uncover the thought processes through which the young men he studies think about work and life aspiration. And yet the housing projects of Chicago are not very different from the lower reaches of Germantown Avenue. Are these ethnographers contradictory, or are they simply separate threads in the complex social and personal realities of inner-city American cities?

(Readers will note that there are many points of convergence between Anderson's cultural sociology in this book and the intricate drama of the streets expressed in The Wire. Here is a nice piece by John Skrentny on culture and race that address some of the same issues; link.)

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.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Granular perspectives on the Cultural Revolution

It has been observed in earlier posts that there is still a lot we do not understand about China's Cultural Revolution (post, post, post). Why such a sudden and apparently crazed eruption of violence? Why such ultra-radicalism among extremely young adolescents? Why the apparent self-destruction of the Party? How to explain the behavior of Mao and other high Party officials? How much artful politics and how much contagious irrational behavior?

Yiching Wu's The Cultural Revolution at the Margins: Chinese Socialism in Crisis provides an important body of new evidence and perspective on these topics. Wu undertakes to find the perspective of the margin in this study -- the players who were not major national leaders in politics or military, but local activists, cadres, and youth who brought their own, often heterodox, political demands and goals to the struggles. Here is how Wu describes his overriding purpose in the book:
This book is a history of the Cultural Revolution from the perspective of its unruly margins, written with the purpose of better understanding and recuperating a moment of political and ideological possibilities that have been silenced in conventional history and understudied in existing scholarship. Exploring what may be considered a decentered account of the Cultural Revolution, this book attempts to give voices and historical visibility to those otherwise consigned to the peripheries of the movement, where the discontented, disadvantaged, and excluded pressed their demands by creatively exploiting the paralysis of the political order. (xvi)
Wu believes that the currents he uncovers help to explain the surprising twists and turns of events between 1966 and 1976 in China. But they are also important for reasons having to do with China's subsequent development as well. The suppression of the more populist and anti-bureaucratic elements of the CR movement in 1966-1967 prepared the ground for China's turn to market reform and regularization of the economy a decade later.
I argue that the origins of the momentous changes that have radically transformed contemporary Chinese society since the late 1970s and early 1980s can be traced, at least partly, to the height of the Cultural Revolution in 1967–1968, when the turn toward demobilization of the mass movement and restoration of party and state organizations became hardly mistakable. (xvii)
Essentially, if I understand Wu's argument correctly, he believes that the ultra-left strands of the CR were defeated fairly early in the decade of the Cultural Revolution, and the silencing of these voices prepared the ground for a more moderate or even "right-ist" set of policies after the end of the CR period.

I wrote recently of Martin Whyte's critique of the "social volcano" interpretation of contemporary China. Whyte argues that an important survey of public opinion demonstrates that China is not riven by social conflict over inequalities and corruption. Wu plainly believes otherwise:
The state's concern for security may be justified by the ominous reality of proliferating social antagonisms in China. Nationwide, cases of “mass incidents”— a euphemism for protests, riots, and other forms of unrest— escalated from fewer than 10,000 in 1993 to 15,000 in 1997, 32,000 in 1999, 50,000 in 2002, 58,000 in 2003, 74,000 in 2004, and 87,000 in 2005.18 By 2010, the number of protests and riots reportedly had more than doubled again, to 180,000.19 The deep disaffection of those left behind by China's rapid economic development is often rooted in a historical experience obscured by the dominant discourse. The danger posed by the country's socialist and revolutionary past to the current sociopolitical order is evident, as shown in a popular ditty:
Beijing relies on the [Party] Center, Shanghai on its connections, Guangzhou leans on Hong Kong, The drifting population lives by Mao Zedong Thought.20 (6)

Here Wu plainly believes that there is growing unrest and dissatisfaction, potentially relevant to anti-regime mobilization. 

Wu's approach to this material is original and illuminating. He discusses the decade as a "heterogeneous" set of processes that were often independent from the official ideologies and discourses advanced by political leaders and propagandists. Here is an illustrative statement:

The term “margins”  here pertains not only to the actors involved— those who  were disadvantaged or marginalized in Chinese social and political life— but also to the issues and demands that galvanized political contention, practices that went against the grain, and points of view outside the range of the permissible. Often tentative, heterogeneous, and dispersed, these developments  were not marginal in the sense of being trivial or having little political relevance. Although politics at the margins often played no decisive role in determining Red Guard factionalism, it sometimes mobilized tens of thousands of people and occurred in major political centers. (10)

What this comes down to fundamentally is the idea that the CR was not one unified thing, but rather a heterogeneous mix of groups, views, interests, strategies, and passions that cannot be readily described in simple abstract terms. 

A key thread in Wu's construction is the toxic role that was played in the early years of Red Guard activism by the CCP's class classification system. Individuals, including especially children, were classified as red or black, heroes or monsters, depending on the occupational status of their fathers and the record of political behavior associated with their families. So a system of hereditary privilege based on bloodlines of proletarian purity was created favoring the sons and daughters of Party and military cadres, and creating permanent and sometimes deadly discrimination against the children of "bourgeois" or "rightist" fathers. (Wu notes that this pattern of privilege continues into the twenty-first century; an astonishing percentage of China's contemporary billionaires are princelings.) And Wu believes that this flattened system had deeply destructive consequences in the decade of turmoil that ensued.

One of the most gripping stories in the book is Wu's careful uncovering of the (short) life and writings of Yu Luoke, an industrial apprentice whose reasoned essay "On Class Origins" on the Communist impropriety of the hereditary privilege created by the classification system eventually found readership in the millions. (Yu was executed at the age of 26 in the presence of 100,000 spectators for the crime of having promulgated these counter-revolutionary ideas; 92.) As Wu presents the case, Yu's analysis was precise, rigorous, and theoretically informed; and it laid the basis for a more liberal understanding of universal rights in Chinese society. 
The theme of heterogeneity carries through to Wu's analysis of the social composition of various segments of activists within the CR. This is particularly evident in his treatment of the Shanghai January Storm (January 1967). Workers were a critical part of this important episode; but workers were not a homogeneous group in Shanghai or elsewhere. Rather, there were different ideologies, grievances, and interests across various groups of workers:
In Shanghai, the sources of socioeconomic discontents were highly diverse, and the lines of demarcation were multiple: between workers employed in state enterprises and those in collective sectors, between senior and junior workers, between permanent and temporary workers, and so on.... One of the most important divisions in Shanghai was that between regular, permanent workers and the vast semiproletarian workforce consisting of temporary and contract workers. (101-102)

Wu demonstrates how important it is to provide a more granular analysis of the various groups of the "proletariat" who became activists in Shanghai -- a lesson that conforms well with current thinking within theories of contentious politics more generally.

There is much more of interest in The Cultural Revolution at the Margins: Chinese Socialism in Crisis. But this brief discussion serves to illustrate a more general point as well: the history of China's Cultural Revolution is not yet complete, 38 years after the death of Mao. Yiching Wu has made another important step forward in filling out that history.