Thursday, February 2, 2017

Ideologies, policies, and social complexity

The approach to social and historical research that I favor is one that pays attention to the heterogeneity and contingency of social processes. It advises that social and historical researchers should disaggregate the large patterns they start with and try to identify the multiple underlying mechanisms, causes, motivations, movements, and contingencies that came together to create higher-level outcomes. Social research needs to focus on the micro- or meso-level processes that combined to create the macro world that interests us. The theory of assemblages fits this intellectual standpoint very well, since it emphasizes contingency and heterogeneity all the way down. The diagram above was chosen to give a visual impression of the complexity and interconnectedness of factors and causes that are associated with this approach to the social world.

According to the premises of this approach, we are not well served by imagining that there are simple, largescale forces that drive the outcomes in history. Examples of efforts at overly simplified explanations like these include:
  • Onerous conditions of the Treaty of Versailles caused the collapse of the Weimar Republic.
  • The Chinese Revolution succeeded because of post-Qing exploitation of the peasants.
  • The Industrial Revolution occurred in England because of the vitality of English science.
Instead, each of these large outcomes is the result of a large number of underlying processes, motivations, social movements, and contingencies that defy simple summary. To understand the Mediterranean world over the sweep of time, we need the detailed and granular research of a Fernand Braudel rather than the simplified ideas of Johann Heinrich von Thunen in the economic geography of central place theory.

In situations of this degree of underlying complexity, it is pointless to ask for a simple answer to the question, "what caused outcome X?" So the Great Depression wasn't the outcome of capital's search for profits; it was instead the complex product of interacting forms of private business activity, financial institutions, government action, legislation, war, and multiple other forces that conjoined to create a massive and persistent economic depression.

This approach has solid intellectual and ontological foundations. This is pretty much how the social world works. But this ontological vision about the nature of the social world is hard to reconcile with the large intellectual frameworks on the left and on the right that are used to diagnose our times and sometimes to prescribe solutions to the problems identified.

An ideologue is a thinker who seeks to subsume the sweep of history or current events under an overarching narrative with simple explanatory premises and interpretive schemes. The ideologue wants to portray history as the unfolding of a simple set of forces or drivers -- whether markets, classes, divine purposes, or philosophies. And the ideologue is eager to force the facts into the terms of the narrative, and to erase inconvenient facts that appear to conflict with the narrative.

Consider Lenin, von Hayek, and Ronald Reagan. Each had a simplified mental framework that postulated a set of ideas about how the world worked. For Lenin it was expressed in a few paragraphs about class, the economic structure of capitalism, and the direction of history. For von Hayek it was the idea that free economic activity within idealized markets lead to the best possible outcomes for the whole of society. For Reagan it was a combination of von Hayek and the simplified notions of realpolitik associated with Kennan, Morgenthau, or Kissinger.

There are two problems for these kinds of approaches to understanding the social world. First is the indifference ideologues express to the role of facts and empirical validation in their thinking. This is an epistemic shortcoming. But second, and equally problematic, is their insistence on representing the social world as a fundamentally simple process, with a few driving forces whose impact can be forecast. This is an ontological shortcoming. The social world is not simple, and there are not a small number of dominant forces whose effects overshadow the myriad of other socially relevant processes and events that make up a given situation.

Ideologues are insidious for serious historians, since they denigrate careful efforts to discover how various events actually unfolded, in favor of the demands of a particular interpretation of history. It is not possible to gain adequate or insightful historical knowledge from within the framework of a rigid and dogmatic ideology. But even more harmful are policy makers driven by ideologies. An ideological policy maker is an actor who takes the simplistic assumptions of an ideology and attempts to formulate policy interventions based on those assumptions. Ideology-based policies are harmful, of course, because the world has its own properties independent from our theories, and interventions based on false hypotheses about how the world works are unlikely to bring about their intended results. Policies need to be driven by theories that are fact-based and approximately true. And policy makers and officials need to be rejected when they flout science and fact-based inquiry in favor of pet theories and ideologies.

A hard question that this line of thought poses and that I have not addressed here is whether policies can be formulated at all within the context of a fundamentally heterogeneous and contingent world. It might be argued that policy formation requires fairly simple cause-and-effect relationships in order to justify the idea of an intervention; and complexity makes it unlikely that such relationships exist. I believe policies can be formulated within this ontological framework; but I agree that the case must be made. A few earlier posts are relevant to this topic (link, linklink, link, link).


jlounsbury59 said...

Can you supply a larger image for the link to the loop diagram? The larger image you have now is difficult to read.


Thornton Hall said...

This strikes me as the battle between those who recognize that Darwin has superseded Newton as the science of human affairs and those who have not.

One of the most difficult features of this is that the Newtonians (Reaganist Republicans or Marxist BernieBros) read "Newton" as synonymous with "science." Attempts to update the science are therefore rejected as anti-science. The ideologues really are products of Enlightenment Newtonianism, so, to them, all their enemies are enemies of the Enlightenment.

"Don't you think that science can help us understand the world?" they ask, demonstrating that we are talking past each other.

Dan Little said...

Sorry, unfortunately this is the only version I have. Its only use here is illustrative.

jlounsbury59 said...

Too bad. It is a neat diagram.

Unknown said...

Thanks for writing this nice post. Historical and analytical sociology has contributed to specifying the way in which social phenomena can be analytically illustrated, paying much attention to causal mechanism. I have worked on applying the concept of causal mechanism to the welfare reforms in Korea. Looking forward to reading your future posts too!

Unknown said...

Fascinating post - while I agree with your assertion that figures like Hayek and Lenin produced an ideological and overly simplified version of the past, the do so to the extreme. Talking about large time-frames requires broad structures or theories of history to function. I have found micro-level practices especially interesting and integral to the story at all times; to my mind however, the overall story exists, and describing it is perhaps one of the most important functions of the practice.

JPL said...

"...the world has its own properties independent from our theories ..."

To make use of what we might call the "Kant- Putnam critical view", we understand the world in terms of the categories belonging to the language that we use to refer to it; and as theorists, we refer to the world with theoretical terms belonging to a theoretical system. A problem that social science has that is more of an issue than in the natural sciences is that the objects social scientists talk about and try to understand are not concrete, but abstract and constructed through language and social interaction; for example, 'polity', 'civil institution', 'regime', 'conservative', and so forth. It seems that one always needs to keep in mind the distinction between the reality of "pretheoretical objects", for example the concrete actions of actual people; and on the other hand the projection onto that reality of the theoretical terms, which may be crude or inappropriate with relation to that reality and thus hinder understanding. One needs the ability to describe reality in terms that are independent of the terms of the theoretical system, in particular to use a language that makes more distinctions than the theory considers relevant. This is especially necessary where the definition of the theoretical term is in question; e.g., the term 'conservative'. Linguistics makes use of the distinction between an -etic and an -emic description, where the -etic terminology allows for all possible acoustic distinctions, while the -emic focuses only on those distinctions relevant for describing the sound system of the given language; I'm saying social science in general needs an ability to give alternative -etic descriptions. One needs to be able to describe one and the same real object or social interaction with (at least) the two alternative descriptive languages.

The question wrt policy is one of practical evaluation of a finite number of particular proposals; that is a different activity from the process of causal analysis and explanation, an open-ended endeavour governed by slightly different logical structures. So yes, policy solutions should be founded on the best available causal understanding.