Saturday, September 24, 2016

New Directions in the Philosophy of Social Science

I am very happy to say that my new book appeared this week, New Directions in the Philosophy of Social Science. Thanks to all the people at Rowman & Littlefield who helped bring it to completion, including especially my editor Sarah Campbell. I hope that the book will be of interest to readers of Understanding Society, in that it is my effort to put into book form many of the ideas and themes that have come in for discussion in the blog over the past several years.

Here is a free sample of the book:

Sample of New Directions

Here is how I describe the genesis of the book:
This book is one of the fruits of an experiment in philosophical writing that I began in 2007. I created Understanding Society as an online venue where I would be able to do a different kind of academic writing. It was to be a “blog”; but, more accurately, it was a venue for “open-source philosophy” where I could formulate my thinking about a series of ideas and topics about the social sciences and the nature of society without attempting to regiment my thoughts into a sequential argument consisting of “chapters” and “books.” I described the work from the start as a “web-based, dynamic monograph on the philosophy of social science,” and it has lived up to this description better than I ever could have hoped. To use a different point of reference, the blog became my laboratory notebook, representing the findings and progress of my thinking about a number of topics about the nature of society and social knowledge.
Here is the table of contents:
A Better Social Ontology
Actor-centered Sociology
Social Things
Reduction and Emergence
Generativity and Complexity
Social Causation
Social Realism
Key themes include the value of an actor-centered approach to sociology; the unavoidable features of plasticity and heterogeneity of the social world; the sources of stability in higher-level social things; the relationships between levels or strata of the social world; the nature of social causation; and the appeal of scientific realism in the social sciences.

A discussion forum

I would like to continue the social interconnectedness of this work with the international group of readers and scholars who have visited Understanding Society over the years by inviting you to contribute to an ongoing discussion and commentary on topics raised in the book. To that end I've created a new page specifically designed for discussion of topics and issues raised in the book. Please visit here and provide your comments, thoughts, reactions, or criticisms. This site is located at

Monday, September 19, 2016

Measuring happiness internationally

One reasonable way of thinking about the most fundamental goal of international economic development is to increase the level of human happiness in all countries, and to reduce the degree of inequality of happiness within and across countries. But, as Aristotle asked several millennia ago, what is happiness? And how can we measure it, either in a given individual or in a population? Utilitarians and economists chose to avoid the problem of measuring subjective happiness, and the associated problem of comparing utilities across persons, by substituting preference satisfaction for subjective happiness. And worries about the challenges of measuring subjective happiness led philosophers like John Rawls and economists like Amartya Sen to prefer to focus on the objective prerequisites of life satisfaction -- primary goods, in the case of Rawls, and capabilities and functionings, in the case of Sen.

And yet the idea of happiness, or life satisfaction, is too important to dispense with. New efforts have been made to develop survey tools and methods that permit assessment of the average level of life satisfaction for groups of people in different countries. Among others Jeffrey Sachs has played a lead role in conceptualizing and furthering this project. The result is a series of World Happiness Reports, beginning in 2012 (link), which can be seen as a counterpart to the World Development Reports (link) and the Human Development Reports (link). Here are some orienting thoughts from Jeffrey Sachs's introductory essay in the 2012 report.
Most people agree that societies should foster the happiness of their citizens. The U.S. Founding Fathers recognized the inalienable right to the pursuit of happiness. British philosophers talked about the greatest good for the greatest number. Bhutan has famously adopted the goal of Gross National Happiness (GNH) rather than Gross National Product. China champions a harmonious society.

Yet most people probably believe that happiness is in the eye of the beholder, an individual’s choice, some- thing to be pursued individually rather than as a matter of national policy. Happiness seems far too subjective, too vague, to serve as a touchstone for a nation’s goals, much less its policy content. That indeed has been the traditional view. Yet the evidence is changing this view rapidly.

A generation of studies by psychologists, economists, pollsters, sociologists, and others has shown that happiness, though indeed a subjective experience, can be objectively measured, assessed, correlated with observable brain functions, and related to the characteristics of an individual and the society. Asking people whether they are happy, or satisfied with their lives, offers important information about the society. It can signal underlying crises or hidden strengths. It can suggest the need for change.

Such is the idea of the emerging scientific study of happiness, whether of individuals and the choices they make, or of entire societies and the reports of the citizenry regarding life satisfaction. The chapters ahead summarize the fascinating and emerging story of these studies. They report on the two broad measurements of happiness: the ups and downs of daily emotions, and an individual’s overall evaluation of life. The former is sometimes called “affective happiness,” and the latter “evaluative happiness.” (6)
Sachs reports that the research team preparing the ground for a World Happiness Report finds that life satisfaction is affected by a number of intangibles -- for example, "community trust, mental and physical health, and the quality of governance and rule of law" (7). The contributors emphasize that GNP per capita is a component, but not the most important component, of variations in life satisfaction across countries and regions.

What has always been challenging in prior discussions of promoting happiness is the problem of measurement. How do we assess an individual's level of happiness or satisfaction? And how do we assess the level of these goods for a population or group? The second large task, once the measurement problem has been addressed, is to uncover the social factors that account for variations in satisfaction and happiness levels. This problem is a more familiar one, since it can be treated using epidemiological and statistical tools to identify the factors most strongly correlated with positive or negative variations in satisfaction levels.

The World Happiness project relies on value-survey instruments to measure population life satisfaction. Existing surveys include the Gallup World Poll, the World Values Survey, and the European Social Survey and European Values Survey. The primary instrument used in the 2012 report is the Gallup World Poll (GWP). GWP uses a 0-10 scale and asks adults to place their current quality of life on this scale (the Cantril ladder).
In the Gallup World Poll respondents are asked (using fresh annual samples of 1,000 respondents aged 15 or over in each of more than 150 countries) to evaluate the quality of their lives on an 11-point ladder scale running from 0 to 10, with the bottom rung of the ladder (0) being the worst possible life for them and 10 being the best possible. (11) 
Here are distributions across the Cantril Ladder for the world and for several regions:

As the researchers recognize, there is a serious question here of how to calibrate and interpret the responses offered by thousands of Brazilians, Finns, and Thais for this question. What justifies us in thinking that a respondents' ratings of 5 in Brazil and Thailand mean that Brazilians and Thais are about equally happy? Similarly, what justifies us in thinking that a 0 ("worst possible life I can imagine") means the same in the two countries? Hypothetically, if a Brazilian can imagine a quality of life that includes arbitrary incarceration and torture, whereas a Canadian cannot, doesn't this imply that the Canadian's score of 5 reflects a higher level of absolute life satisfaction than the Brazilian? Intuitively it seems that possibilities like these (cultural or circumstantial differences in worst and best life circumstances in different countries) imply that cross-national comparisons of satisfaction levels based on this kind of survey are suspect.

Here is an OECD research report that directly addresses some of the issues raised by the life satisfaction survey methodology; link. This report focuses on several methodological issues, including this comment on the effects introduced by alternative question wording:
In contrast, Helliwell [one of the authors of the 2012 report] and Putnam (2004) examined the determinants of responses to both a global happiness and a life satisfaction question in a very large international data set (N > 83 500), drawn from the World Values Survey, the US Benchmark Survey and a comparable Canadian survey. They found that, although the main pattern of results did not differ greatly between the two measures, the life satisfaction question showed a stronger relationship with a variety of social indicators (e.g. trust, unemployment) than did the happiness question. However, in this work happiness was measured on a four-point scale and life satisfaction was measured on a ten-point scale; it is thus not clear that question wording, rather than scale length, produced this difference. (70)
Helliwell and Wang respond to this concern about question wording in the report:
The bottom line of our comparisons among life evaluations is that when life satisfaction, happiness and ladder questions are asked about life as a whole, they tell very similar stories about the likely sources of a good life. The information base for these comparisons is still growing, however, so there may be some systematic differences that appear in larger samples. (15)
Helliwell and Wang also address the questions of reliability (consistency across measurements of the same variable at different times) and validity (accurate correspondence to the unobservable variable under scrutiny). Their strongest case for the validity of these survey-based attempts at measurement of satisfaction is the fact that it is possible to demonstrate that variations in life satisfaction measures are largely correlated with a small number of factors that are plausibly relevant to the creation of life satisfaction.
As will be shown in the next chapter, more than three-quarters of the cross-country differences in national average measures of happiness can be explained by variables already known through experimental and other evidence to be important. (17)
Perhaps more credible than international comparisons are within-country comparisons of satisfaction levels. We might feel more confident in thinking that Canadians share a conceptual space of worst and best outcomes with each other, and this shared framework means that their assessments of their personal situations along the Cantrel ladder will be comparable. But even here, it seems likely that there are cultural and circumstantial differences within a country that might lead to the same kinds of inconsistencies. Are Brazilian favela dwellers likely to identify the same worst and best outcomes as residents of the elite neighborhood of Botafogo? Helliwell and Wang make a brief reply to this kind of concern (19), but more needs to be said.

Beyond measurement is causal explanation of differences across sub-groups. In Chapter 3 Richard Layard, Andrew Clark, and Claudia Senik attempt to tease out the material and circumstantial factors that account for variation in levels of life satisfaction across groups and countries. The factors that they identify include (59):
  • income
  • work
  • community and governance (trust, equality, freedom, bonding, ...)
  • values and religion
  • mental health
  • physical health
  • family experience
  • education
  • gender and age
They find that these factors serve to explain a substantial amount of the variation in life satisfaction in different groups. Here is a sample regression table based on data from three different surveys.

And here is their effort to recast most of these factors in a comparative analysis, estimating the effect of a given factor as a multiple of a 30% increase in income.

The largest positive effect identified here on life satisfaction is an increase in social support; whereas the largest negative effects are becoming unemployed and becoming separated in a marriage.

This approach to economic development assessment seems important for the outcomes it wants to be able to measure and assess. It is certainly true that average income is a poor measure (to say the least) of the wellbeing of a population. So it is worth exploring other approaches that attempt to get at wellbeing in a more direct way. It remains to be seen, however, whether survey research based on questions about levels of happiness or life satisfaction can do the job. There are certainly interesting statistics coming out of this research pertaining to the level of importance of various factors in causing a higher or lower level of reported satisfaction in a group. But whether the conceptual problems of interpretation mentioned above can be solved is still uncertain. This comes down to the familiar question of validity of the measurement instrument; but in order to assess validity, we need to have better answers to the original question -- what is life satisfaction? And can it be defined in a way that makes sense across persons or groups?

Thursday, September 15, 2016

Guest post by Dave Elder-Vass

[Dave Elder-Vass accepted my invitation to write a response to my discussion of his recent book, Profit and Gift in the Digital Economy (link). Elder-Vass is Reader in sociology at Loughborough University and author as well of The Causal Power of Social Structures: Emergence, Structure and Agency and The Reality of Social Construction, discussed here and here. Dave has emerged as a leading voice in the philosophy of social science, especially in the context of continuing developments in the theory of critical realism. Thanks, Dave!]

We need to move on from existing theories of the economy
Dave Elder-Vass

Let me begin by thanking Dan Little for his very perceptive review of my book Profit and Gift in the Digital Economy. As he rightly says, it’s more ambitious than the title might suggest, proposing that we should see our economy not simply as a capitalist market system but as a collection of “many distinct but interconnected practices”. Neither the traditional economist’s focus on firms in markets nor the Marxist political economist’s focus on exploitation of wage labour by capital is a viable way of understanding the real economy, and the book takes some steps towards an alternative view.

Both of those perspectives have come to narrow our view of the economy in multiple dimensions. Our very concept of the economy has been derived from the tradition that began as political economy with Ricardo and Smith then divided into the Marxist and neoclassical traditions (of course there are also others, but they are less influential). Although these conflict radically in some respects they also share some problematic assumptions, and in particular the assumption that the contemporary economy is essentially a capitalist market economy, characterised by the production of commodities for sale by businesses employing labour and capital. As Gibson-Graham argued brilliantly in their book The End Of Capitalism (As We Knew It): A Feminist Critique of Political Economy, ideas seep into the ways in which we frame the world, and when the dominant ideas and the main challengers agree on a particular framing of the world it is particularly difficult for us to think outside of the resulting box. In this case, the consequence is that even critics find it difficult to avoid thinking of the economy in market-saturated terms.

The most striking problem that results from this (and one that Gibson-Graham also identified) is that we come to think that only this form of economy is really viable in our present circumstances. Alternatives are pie in the sky, utopian fantasies, which could never work, and so we must be content with some version of capitalism – until we become so disillusioned that we call for its complete overthrow, and assume that some vague label for a better system can be made real and worthwhile by whoever leads the charge on the Bastille. But we need not go down either of these paths once we recognise that the dominant discourses are wrong about the economy we already have.

To see that, we need to start defining the economy in functional terms: economic practices are those that produce and transfer things that people need, whether or not they are bought and sold. As soon as we do that, it becomes apparent that we are surrounded by non-market economic practices already. The book highlights digital gifts – all those web pages that we load without payment, Wikipedia’s free encyclopaedia pages, and open source software, for example. But in some respects these pale into insignificance next to the household and family economy, in which we constantly produce things for each other and transfer them without payment. Charities, volunteering and in many jurisdictions the donation of blood and organs are other examples.

If we are already surrounded by such practices, and if they are proliferating in the most dynamic new areas of our economy, the idea that they are unworkably utopian becomes rather ridiculous. We can then start to ask questions about what forms of organising are more desirable ethically. Here the dominant traditions are equally warped. Each has a standard argument that is trotted out at every opportunity to answer ethical questions, but in reality both standard arguments operate as means of suppressing ethical discussions about economic questions. And both are derived from an extraordinarily narrow theory of how the economy works.

For the mainstream tradition, there is one central mechanism in the economy: price equilibration in the markets, a process in which prices rise and fall to bring demand and supply into balance. If we add on an enormous list of tenuous assumptions (which economists generally admit are unjustified, and then continue to use anyway), this leads to the theory of Pareto optimality of market outcomes: the argument that if we used some other system for allocating economic benefits some people would necessarily be worse off. This in turn becomes the central justification for leaving allocation to the market (and eliminating ‘interference’ with the market).

There are many reasons why this argument is flawed. Let me mention just one. If even one market is not perfectly competitive, but instead is dominated by a monopolist or partial monopolist, then even by the standards of economists a market system does not deliver Pareto optimality, and an alternative system might be more efficient. And in practice capitalists constantly strive to create monopolies, and frequently succeed! Even the Financial Times recognises this: in today’s issue (Sep 15 2016) Philip Stevens argues, “Once in a while capitalism has to be rescued from the depredations of, well, capitalists. Unconstrained, enterprise curdles into monopoly, innovation into rent-seeking. Today’s swashbuckling “disrupters” set up tomorrow’s cosy cartels. Capitalism works when someone enforces competition; and successful capitalists do not much like competition”.

So the argument for Pareto optimality of real market systems is patently false, but it continues to be trotted out constantly. It is presented as if it provides an ethical justification for the market economy, but its real function is to suppress discussion of economic ethics: if the market is inherently good for everyone then, it seems, we don’t need to worry about the ethics of who gets what any more.

The Marxist tradition likewise sees one central mechanism in the economy: the extraction of surplus from wage labour by capitalists. Their analysis of this mechanism depends on the labour theory of value, which is no more tenable that mainstream theories of Pareto optimality (for reasons I discuss in the book). Marxists consistently argue as if any such extraction is ethically reprehensible. Marx himself never provides an ethical justification for such a view. On the contrary, he claims that this is a scientific argument and disowns any ethical intent. Yet it functions in just the same way as the argument for Pareto optimality: instead of encouraging ethical debate about who should get what in the economy, Marxists reduce economic ethics to the single question of the need to prevent exploitation (narrowly conceived) of productive workers.

We need to sweep away both of these apologetics, and recognise that questions of who gets what are ethical issues that are fundamental to justice, legitimacy, and political progress in contemporary societies. And that they are questions that don’t have easy ‘one argument fits all’ answers. To make progress on them we will have to make arguments about what people need and deserve that recognise the complexity of their social situations. But it doesn’t take a great deal of ethical sophistication to recognise that the 1% have too much when many in the lower deciles are seriously impoverished, and that the forms of impoverishment extend well beyond underpaying for productive labour.

I’m afraid that I have written much more than I intended to, and still said very little about the steps I’ve taken in the book towards a more open and plausible way of theorising how the economy works. I hope that I’ve at least added some more depth to the reasons Dan picked out for attempting that task.

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Tilly on moving through history

We have long given up on the idea that history has direction or a fundamental motor driving change. There are no iron laws of history, and there is no fundamental driver of history, whether market, class struggle, democracy, or "modernization." And there is no single path forward into a more modern world. At the same time, we recognize that history is not random or chaotic, and that there are forces and circumstances that make some historical occurrences more likely than others. "Men make their own history, but not in circumstances of their own choosing" (Marx, Eighteenth Brumaire). So historical process is both contingent and constrained. (Here are several earlier posts on the contingency and causation in history; link, link, link, link, link.)

One of the most insightful historical sociologists in generations is Charles Tilly. He was also tremendously prolific. His volume Roads From Past To Future offers a good snapshot of some of his thinking about contention, social change, and political conflict from the 1970s through the 1990s. The essays are all interesting (including a summary appreciation by Arthur Stinchcombe). Particularly interesting are two chapters on the routinization of political struggle, "The Modernization of Political Conflict in France" and "Parliamentarization in Great Britain, 1758-1834". But especially worthy of comment is the opening essay in which Tilly tries to make sense of his own evolving ideas about social process and social change. And there are some ideas presented there that don't really have counterparts in other parts of the historical sociology literature. As is so commonly true, Tilly demonstrates his basic ability to bring novelty and innovation to social science topics. 
How do we get from past to future? If we are examining complex processes such as industrialization, state formation, or secularization, we follow roads defined by changing configurations of social interaction. Effective social analysis identifies those roads, describes them in detail, specifies what other itineraries they could have taken, then provides explanations for the itineraries they actually followed. (1)
Especially important here is a distinction that Tilly draws between "degree of scripting" and "degree of local knowledge" to analyze both individual actions and collective actions. He believes we can classify social action in terms of these two dimensions. Figure 1.1 indicates his view of the kinds of action that occur in the four extreme quadrants of this graph -- thin and intense ritual, and shallow and deep improvisation. And he offers the examples of science and jazz as exemplars of activities that embody different proportions of the two characteristics.

figure 1.1. Scripting and local knowledge in social interaction, p. 2

The idea of "scripting" refers to the fact that both individuals and groups often act on the basis of habit and received "paradigms" of behavior in response to certain stylized action opportunities. At one stage in his career Tilly referred to these as repertoires of contentious action. And it reflects the idea that individuals and groups learn to engage in contentious politics; they learn new forms of demonstration and opposition in different periods of history, and repeat those forms over multiple generations.

Local knowledge captures for Tilly the feature of social action that is highly responsive to the actors' intimate knowledge of the environment of contention, and their ability to improvise strategies of resistance in response to the specifics of the local environment. James Scott describes Malaysian peasants who toppled trees in the path of mechanized harvesters (Weapons of the Weak: Everyday Forms of Peasant Resistance; link), and David Graeber describes the strategies adapted by the Spanish anarchist group Ya Basta! as a means of creating disruption at the Summit of the Americas in Quebec in 2001 (link). In each case actors found novel ways suited to current circumstances through which to further their goals.

Tilly's general point is that historical circumstances are propelled by both these sets of features of action, and that different actions, movements, and conflicts can be characterized in terms of different blends of improvisation and script.

Also important in this chapter is Tilly's advocacy for what he calls "relationalism" in opposition to individualism and systems theory.
Relational analysis holds great promise for the understanding of social processes. Relational analysis takes social relations, transactions, or ties as the starting points of description and explanation. It claims that recurrent patterns of interaction among occupants of social sites (rather than, say, mentally lodged models of social structures or processes) constitute the subject matter of social science. In relational analysis, social causation operates within the realm of interaction. (7)
This seems to be very similar to the point that Elias makes through his theory of "figurational sociology" (link). This is a theme that recurs frequently in Tilly's work, including especially in Dynamics of Contention.

Finally, I find his comments about the inadequacy of narrative as a foundation for social explanation to be worth considering carefully.
Negatively, we must recognize that conventional narratives of social life do indispensable work for interpersonal relations but represent the actual causal structure of social processes very badly; narrative is the friend of communication, the enemy of explanation. We must see that the common conception of social processes as the intended consequences of motivated choices by self-contained, self-motivated actors -- individuals, groups, or societies -- misconstrues the great bulk of human experience. We must learn that culture does not constitute an autonomous, self-driving realm but intertwines inseparably with social relations. (7)
These comments are particularly relevant in response to historians who attempt to explain complex social outcomes as no more than the intersecting series of purposive strategies by numerous actors; Tilly is emphasizing the crucial importance of unintended consequences and conjunctural causation that can only be captured by a more system-level account of the field of change.

And Tilly thinks the two points (relationality and narrative) go together:
Relational analysis meshes badly with narrative, since it necessarily attends to simultaneous, indirect, incremental, and unnoticed cause-effect connections. (9) 
So how does all of this help us think about important events and turning points in our own history? What about the 1965 march from Selma to Birmingham pictured above?

Several of Tilly's points are clearly relevant for historians seeking to contextualize and explain the Selma march. The march itself reflected a well-understood script within the Civil Rights movement, in its organization, chants, and implementation. At the same time the organizers and participants showed substantial local knowledge that was inflected in some of the improvisations involved in the march -- for example, the great distance to be covered. Both script and improvisation found a role on that day. That said, I don't think this analytical distinction is as fundamental as Tilly believes. It is one useful dimension of analysis, but not the key to understanding the event.

Second, a telling of the story that simply presented a narrative of decisions, actions, and interactions of various individuals would seriously misrepresent the march. In order to understand the demonstration and the movement it reflected we need to understand a great deal about the preceding fifty years of race, economics, and politics in the United States and beyond. And we need to understand some of the realities of the Jim Crow race system in place in Alabama at the time. The event does not stand by itself. So we need something like Doug McAdam's excellent Political Process and the Development of Black Insurgency, 1930-1970, 2nd Edition if we are to understand the structural conditions within the context of which the movement and the march unfolded. Simple narrative is not sufficient here -- just as Tilly argues.

And third, this complex demonstration reflects relationality at every level -- leaders, organizations, neighborhoods, and individual participants all played their parts in a complicated interrelated set of engagements.

A different way of putting these points is to say that the Selma march is a single complex event, involving the actions and strategies of numerous actors. It is enormously important and worth focusing on. But it is not a miniature for the whole Civil Rights movement. An adequate treatment of the movement, and a satisfactory understanding of the movement's transformational role in American society, needs to move beyond the events and actions of the day to the larger structures and conditions within which actors large and small played their parts.

Does the framework of script and local knowledge help much in the task of explaining historical change? This scheme seems to fit the swath of historical change that is most interesting to Tilly, the field of contentious politics. It seems less well suited, though, to other more impersonal historical processes -- the rise of global trade, the surge of involuntary migration, or the general trend towards higher-productivity agriculture. In these areas the distinction seems to be somewhat beside the point. What seems more important in Tilly's reflections here are his emphasis on the contingency of a historical sequence, and his insistence on the idea that social actors in relationships with each other are the "doers" of historical change.

Monday, September 5, 2016

Capitalism as a heterogeneous set of practices

Image: O. Beauchesnes, "Map of the Geographical Structure of Wikipedia Links" (link)

A key part of understanding society is making sense of the "economy" in which we live. But what is an economy? Existing economic theories attempt to answer this question with simple unified theories. The economy is a profit-driven market system of firms, workers, and consumers. The economy is a property system dependent upon the expropriation of surplus labor. The economy is a system of expropriation more or less designed to create great inequalities of income, wealth, and well-being. The economy is a system of exploitation and domination.

In Profit and Gift in the Digital Economy Dave Elder-Vass argues that these simple theories, largely the product of the nineteenth century, are flawed in several fundamental ways. First, they are all simple and unitary in a heterogeneous world. Economic transactions take a very wide variety of forms in the modern world. But more fundamentally, these existing theories fail completely to provide a theoretical vocabulary for describing what are now enormously important parts of our economic lives. One well-know blindspot is the domestic economy -- work and consumption within the household. But even more striking is the inadequacy of existing economic theories to make sense of the new digital world -- Google, Apple, Wikipedia, blogging, or YouTube. Elder-Vass's current book offers a new way of thinking about our economic lives and institutions. And he believes that this new way lays a basis for more productive thinking about a more humane future for all of us than is offered by either neoliberalism or Marxism. 

What E-V offers is the idea of economic life as a jumble of "appropriative" practices -- practices that get organized and deployed in different combinations, and that have better and worse implications for human well-being. 
From this perspective it becomes possible to see our economy as a complex ecosystem of competing and interacting economic forms, each with their own strengths and weaknesses, and to develop a progressive politics that seems to reshape that ecosystem rather than pursuing the imaginary perfection of one single universal economic form. (5)
The argument here is that we can understand the economy better by seeing it as a diverse collection of economic forms, each of which can be characterised as a particular complex of appropriative practices -- social practices that influence the allocation of benefits from the process of production. (9)
Economies are not monoliths but diverse mixtures of varying economic forms. To understand and evaluate economic phenomena, then, we need to be able to describe and analyse these varying forms in conjunction with each other. (96)
Capitalism is not a single, unitary "mode of production," but rather a concatenation of multiple forms and practices. E-V believes that the positions offered here align well with the theories of critical realism that he has helped to elaborate in earlier books (19-20) (link, link). We can be realist in our investigations of the causal properties of the economic practices he identifies.

This way of thinking about economic life is very consistent with several streams of thought in Understanding Society -- the idea of social heterogeneity (link), the idea of assemblage (link), and a background mistrust of comprehensive social theories (link). (Here is an earlier post on "Capitalism 2.0" that is also relevant to the perspective and issues Elder-Vass brings forward; link.)

The central new element in contemporary economic life that needs treatment by an adequate political economy is the role that large digital enterprises play in the contemporary world. These enterprises deal in intangible products; they often involve a vast proportion of algorithmic transformation rather than human labor; and to a degree unprecedented in economic history, they depend on "gift" transactions at every level. Internet companies like Google give free search and maps, and bloggers and videographers give free content. And yet these gifts have none of the attributes of traditional gift communities -- there is no community, no explicit reciprocity, and little face-to-face interaction. E-V goes into substantial detail on several of these new types of enterprises, and does the work of identifying the "economic practices" upon which they depend.

In particular, E-V considers whether the gift relation familiar from anthropologists like Marcel Mauss and economic sociologists like Karl Polanyi can shed useful light on the digital economy. But the lack of reciprocity and face-to-face community leads him to conclude that the theory is unpersuasive as a way of understanding the digital economy (86).

It is noteworthy that E-V's description of appropriative practices is primarily allocative; it pays little attention to the organization of production. It is about "who receives the benefits" (10) but not so much about "how activity and labor are coordinated, managed, and deployed to produce the stuff". Marx gained the greatest insights in Capital, not from the simple mathematics of the labor theory of value, but from his investigations of the conditions of work and the schemes of management to which labor was subject in the nineteenth-century factory. The ideas of alienation, domination, and exploitation are very easy to understand in that context. But it would seem that there are similar questions to ask about the digital economy shops of today. The New York Times' reportage of working conditions within the Amazon organization seems to reveal a very similar logic (link).  And how about the high-tech sweat shops described in a 2009 Bloomberg investigation (link)?

Elder-Vass believes that a better understanding of our existing economic practices can give rise to a more effective set of strategies for creating a better future. E-V's vision for creating a better future depends on a selective pruning of the more destructive practices and cultivation of the more positive practices. He is appreciative of the "real utopias" project (36) (link) and also of the World Social Forum. 
This means growing some progressive alternatives but also cutting back some regressive ones. It entails being open to a wide range of alternatives, including the possibility that there might be some valuable continuing role for some forms of capitalism in a more adequate mixed economy of practices. (15)
Or in other words, E-V advocates for innovative social change -- recognizing the potential in new forms and cultivating existing forms of economic activity. Marxism has been the impetus of much thinking about progressive change in the past century; but E-V argues that this perspective too is limited:
Marxism itself has become an obstacle to thinking creatively about the economy, not least because it is complicit in the discourse of the monolithic capitalist market economy that we must now move beyond.... Marx's labour theory of value ... tends to support the obsessive identification of capitalism with wage labour. As a consequence Marxists have failed to recognise that capitalism has developed new forms of making profit that do not fit with the classic Marxist model, including many that have emerged and prospered in the new digital economy. (45)
This is not a wholesale rejection of Marx's thought; but it is a well-justified critique of the lingering dogmatism of this tradition. Though E-V does not make reference to current British politics in the book, these comments seem very appropriate in appraisal of the approach to change championed by Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn.

E-V shows a remarkable range of expertise in this work. His command of recent Marxian thinking about contemporary capitalism is deep. But he has also gone deeply into the actual practices of the digital economy -- the ways Google makes profits, the incentives and regulations that sustain wikipedia, the handful of distinctive business practices that have made Apple one of the world's largest companies. The book is a work of theory and a work of empirical investigation as well.

Profit and Gift in the Digital Economy is a book with a big and important idea -- bigger really than the title implies. The book demands a substantial shift in the way that economists think about the institutions and practices through which the global economy works. More fundamentally, it asks that we reconsider the idea of "economy" altogether, and abandon the notion that there is a single unitary economic practice or institution that defines modern capitalism -- whether market, wage labor, or trading system. Instead, we should focus on the many distinct but interconnected practices that have been invented and stitched together in the many parts of society to solve particular problems of production, consumption, and appropriation, and that as an aggregate make up "the economy". The economy is an assemblage, not a designed system, and reforming this agglomeration requires shifting the "ecosystem" of practices in a direction more favorable to human flourishing.

Thursday, September 1, 2016

Sociology circa 2008

I often find handbooks in the social sciences to be particularly valuable resources for anyone interested in thinking about the big issues and challenges facing the social sciences at a particular point in time. Editors and contributors have generally made intelligent efforts to provide articles that give a good understanding of a theme, methodology, or issue in the given field of research, without diving into the full detail of a scholarly monograph on the minutiae. Earlier posts have highlighted a number of such handbooks (link, link, link).

An excellent example of such a volume is Hedstrom and Wittrock, Frontiers of Sociology (Annals of the International Institute of Sociology Vol. 11). This volume took its origin in the 2008 meeting of the IIS, supplemented by a number of additional pieces. It includes excellent contributions from highly impactful sociologists from Europe and North America.

The editors describe the motivation for the volume in these terms:
There may be a greater urgency today than for a very long time for sociology to examine its own intellectual and institutional frontiers relative to other disciplinary and scholarly programs but also relative to a rapidly changing institutional and academic landscape. In this sense, current sociology may be in a situation more analogous to that of the classics of sociology and of the IIS than has been the case for a large part of the twentieth century. (1)
A core theme in the volume is the idea of intersections between sociological research and adjacent disciplines.

The large topic areas include:
  1. The legacy and frontiers of sociology
  2. Sociology and the historical sciences
  3. Sociology and the cultural sciences
  4. Sociology and the cognitive sciences
  5. Sociology and the mathematical and statistical sciences
A handful of chapters are particularly relevant to themes that have come up frequently in Understanding Society. Here are a few representative ideas from these chapters.

Peter Hedstrom, "The analytical turn in sociology" [analytical sociology]

What I find particularly attractive in analytical philosophy is rather the general style of scholarship as well as a number of specific conceptual clarifications that are of considerable importance for sociological theory.

The style of scholarship one finds in analytical philosophy can be concisely characterized as follows:

  • An emphasis on the importance of clarity: If it is not perfectly clear what someone is trying to say, confusion is likely to arise, and this will hamper our understanding. 
  • An emphasis on the importance of analysis in terms of breaking something down to its basic constituents in order to better understand it. 
  • An academic style of writing that does not shy away from abstraction and formalization when this is deemed necessary. 
By adopting principles such as these, it is possible to devise a more analytically oriented sociology that seeks to explain complex social processes by carefully dissecting them, bringing into focus their most important constituent components, and then to construct appropriate models which help us to understand why we observe what we observe. Let me try to briefly indicate what I have in mind, starting with analysis in terms of dissection and abstraction. (332)

Philip Gorski, "Social 'mechanisms' and comparative-historical sociology: A critical realist proposal" [critical realism]

A second important principle of critical realism, which follows directly from the above, is ontological stratification. This principle is a familiar one for social scientists, who often speak of the various “levels” or “dimensions” of a particular “system” or “phenomenon.” But critical realism provides a basic principle for identifying these levels: namely, the principle of emergence. Consider the pin factory example once again. A modern manager or engineer could undoubtedly increase the output of the factory’s workforce simply by making various kinds of organizational or technical adjustments—to the sequencing of tasks, the spatial layout, the introduction of new tools or machines, and so on. From the perspective of critical realism, then, the factory qua organization or institution is an autonomous reality.

This is not to deny that the output of the pin factory could also be increased by changing the composition of the workforce—e.g., by hiring more skilled or dextrous or energetic workers. The principle of stratification should not be confused with the principle of holism. To say that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts is not to say that the composition of the parts is of no consequence. This brings us to a third important principle of critical realism: explanatory a-reducibility. A-reducibility is not the same as irreducibility. Irreducibility implies that one level or strata of reality cannot be explained in terms of another at all, that decomposing that strata into its constituent parts is useless; a-reducibility, on the other hand, merely implies that one level or strata cannot be fully explained in terms of another. So, to say that the output of the pin factory is a-reducible to the composition of its work force is not to say that the latter has no effect on the former, only that no individual-level property or power can fully explain the collective output of a factory, which is to say, that the factory has emergent powers and properties—that it is real. (148-149)

Richard Breen, "Formal theory in the social sciences" [agent-based models]

Game theory and social interaction models follow the rational choice model, but there is another approach to modelling the way in which context influences aggregate outcomes which has not developed from, nor necessarily makes use of, rational choice: this is agent based modelling. Agent based models (or ABMs) are simulations, usually computer based, of the interactions of agents. These simulations are used to generate aggregate properties of the agent population using very simple characterisations of the agents themselves. As Macy and Willer (2002: 146) put it in their review of the field: ‘ABMs explore the simplest set of behavioural assumptions required to generate a macro pattern of explanatory interest’. The roots of this approach are deep, but it is only within the past 15 years or thereabouts that agent based models have become popular. Nevertheless, one of the most influential pieces of agent based modelling predates the availability of powerful computers: this is Schelling’s (1971) model of residential segregation. The Schelling model consists of a set of agents, each of which is of one of two types—call them red and blue—arrayed on a network structure such as points on a circle or a lattice. These agents have a preference for a balance of neighbours of each type and in each round of the simulation those agents who are dissatisfied in this respect are allowed to move to any other available location. The strength of preference can be varied in the Schelling model, reflecting the extent to which agents want to be with a majority of their own type or are willing to be in a minority. It transpires that, even if agents’ preferences for neighbours of their own type are very weak, after several rounds of the simulation there is complete segregation, so that the network consists of areas that are completely red or completely blue but lacks any mixed areas. This outcome is a stylized version of residential segregation by race in the United States, but the model suggests that a strong desire for such segregation on the part of the agents is not necessary to generate segregation: it can arise from only weak preferences for residing with one’s own type. The Schelling model nicely illustrates the characteristic feature of agent based models: namely that a complex social outcome is generated as an emergent property of the interaction of agents who follow very simple rules of behaviour. A more recent and almost equally well known, but much more elaborate, example of an agent based model is the Sugarscape model of Epstein and Axtell (1996) in which a population of agents, again following simple rules, exploits the natural resource of a landscape and in so doing generates social outcomes, such as a distribution of wealth and cultural distinctions which, according to the authors, closely resemble their real world counterparts. 

In obvious contrast to the agents of rational choice models, those of agent based models of the sort I have referred to follow simple rules of the kind ‘if X then do Y’—so, in the Schelling model, the rule is: if your preferences are not met move; if your preferences are met, stay where you are. To the extent that agents change their behaviour they are adaptive, rather than forward looking. (218-219)  

Hans Joas, "The emergence of universalism: An affirmative genealogy" [new pragmatism]

The type of sociology I am representing here tries to understand—as I said—creative processes. The creative process that interests me most at the moment is the creation of new values. I prefer not to speak of the creation, but of the genesis of values, because it is one of the seemingly paradoxical features of our commitment to values that we do not experience them as being created by us but as captivating us, attracting and grasping us (“Ergriffensein”). There is a passive dimension in all creative processes that has always been described in terms like “inspiration”; but in the case of values it is clearly only from an observer’s standpoint that we can see values as created. The participants in these processes do not feel committed to an entity of their own making, but consider values as being discovered or rediscovered.

A sociological study of major innovations in the field of values is neither a philosophical attempt to offer a rational justification for these values nor a mere historical reconstruction of the contingencies of their emergence. Philosophical justifications do not need history. In the case of human rights, they mostly develop their argument out of the (alleged) character of reason or moral obligation as such, out of the conditions of a thought experiment or the fundamentals of an idealized rational discourse. The history of ideas is then mostly seen as the pre-history of the definitive solution that can be found in the work of Kant or Rawls or Habermas. —Historiography, on the other hand, certainly has some implicit elements of an evaluative character and of their justication and it can be a historiography of philosophical, political, or religious arguments concerning human rights and universal human dignity. But as historiography it seems to be nothing but an empirically tenable reconstruction of historical processes and not a contribution to the justification of values. In their division of labor philosophy and history support a strict distinction between questions of genesis and questions of validity. (18)

Jack Goldstone, "Sociology and political science: Learning and challenges" [internal organization of sociology as a discipline]

Both economics and political science have relatively simple structures to their academic fields. Economics divides itself, roughly, among micro- economics, macro-economics, trade or international economics, and economic history. Of course there are myriad specialties that cross these lines: labor economics, price theory, general equilibrium theory, development economics, finance, welfare economics, experimental economics, health economics, environmental economics, the economics of public goods, the economics of innovation/R&D, etc. etc. Nonetheless, economics gives itself great coherence as a field by having a simple fourfold division to guide its basic undergraduate and graduate foundation courses, and its staffing of departments.

Political science similarly has a four-fold division: American (or other home country) politics, comparative politics, international relations, and theory (actually the history of political thought). This can be even more simply conceptualized as the politics of my country, the politics of other countries, the relations among various countries, and the intellectual history of the field. Again, political science has myriad subfields that operate within and across these divisions: comparative democratization, legislative politics, the presidency, deterrence, political psychology, opinion research, public administration, etc. etc. But the basic four-fold division gives a certain coherence to structuring pedagogy and hiring.

Sociology, sadly, has no such internal structure. There is no reason for this, except for the history of the field as succumbing alternately to grand unifying visions (Marxism, Weberianism, Functionalism) and fractioning into a large number of different specialties. Sociology certainly could set itself up as having four basic fields: American (or the national society in which the department is located) society, comparative macro-sociology (the sociology of other societies and their relationships, including most of development and political sociology), micro-sociology (social psychology, small-groups, social identity, race/ethnicity/gender), and organizational or meso-sociology (professions, organizations, net- works, business, religion, education, medicine, etc.).

Of course sociology, like economics and political science, could retain its hundreds of sub-specialties that cut across these divisions. But requiring all students to take a course in each of these four areas, and specialize in one of them, would give much greater coherence and institutional structure to the field. Right now, sociology presents itself through one vast intro survey course and an unstructured mass of specialized courses that have little intellectual organization.

Aage Sørensen, "Statistical models and mechanisms of social processes" [social mechanisms]

Understanding the association between observed variables is what most of us believe research is about. However, we rarely worry about the functional form of the relationship. The main reason is that we rarely worry about how we get from our ideas about how change is brought about, or the mechanisms of social processes, to empirical observation. In other words, sociologists rarely model mechanisms explicitly. In the few cases where they do model mechanisms, they are labeled mathematical sociologists, not a very large or important specialty in sociology.

We need to estimate relationship in order to figure out if our theoretical ideas have some support in evidence. For this purpose, we use statistics. Statistics is a branch of mathematics and might seem alien to sociologists for this reason. However, while sociologists are not very eager to formulate their theories as mathematical models, sociologists are very eager to learn statistics, and quite good at it. They therefore use statistical models to estimate the relationships that concern them in research. These statistical models are usually presented by statisticians as default models, to be used when a substantive model is lacking. The models are invariably additive, at least as a point of departure. They have the virtue of being parsimonious. The statistical models have the defect that they sometime are poor theories of the processes under investigation. (370)

I have argued that the integration of theory and evidence in sociology must take place by choosing theories that allow for such integration by producing ideas about what generates change in social processes. In order to be fully successful, this strategy should result in the formulation of mathematical models for change. These ideas are not novel. They form the justification for the creation of a specialty in sociology called mathematical sociology and the power of the ideas is illustrated with numerous examples in Coleman (1964) and related work. Nevertheless, sociologists have largely chosen a different strategy for going about testing their ideas with evidence. They adopt ad hoc statistical models as described in textbooks and they have become quite sophisticated at statistics. I have tried to show that this use of statistical models and the fascination with their elaboration has blinded sociologists to exploring fundamental properties of the processes they investigate, such as social mobility processes. In turn this has sometimes produced quite unreasonable substantive models for the processes being investigated, as in the case of research on schools effects.

There are several reasons for why statistical models came to dominate. I have argued elsewhere that the increase in computing power allowed sociologists to estimate what with less computing power had to be modeled (Sørensen 1998). So instead of formulating stochastic process models for the mechanisms of what we are interested in, we proceed directly to estimate how parameters of these processes depend on independent variables in hazard rate analysis. (396-397)

These are talented sociologists, searching for some new ways of approaching the task of understanding social change, social variation, and social stability. Further, like the larger universe of sociology today, there are important tensions among the approaches highlighted here -- from historical and comparative research to causal mechanisms to statistical inference and causal modeling. And yet, in spite of the range of approaches offered in the volume, sociological methods and sociological theorizing would benefit from an even greater range of pluralism and innovation. Understanding the contemporary social world requires new appreciation of the complexity and heterogeneity of the social processes in which we live, and new tools for investigating and theorizing those processes. (Here is a post from 2008 that makes the case for theoretical and methodological pluralism in sociology -- ironically, from the same year in which the Hedstrom and Wittrock volume appeared.)