Sunday, October 8, 2017

Social consciousness and critical realism

Critical realism proposes an approach to the social world that pays particular attention to objective and material features of the social realm -- property relations, impersonal institutional arrangements, supra-individual social structures. Between structure and agent, CR seems most often to lean towards structures rather than consciously feeling and thinking agents. And so one might doubt whether CR has anything useful to offer when it comes to studying the subjective side of social life.

Take for example the idea of a social identity. A social identity seems inherently subjective. It is the bundle of ideas and frameworks through which one places himself or herself in the social world, the framework through which a person conceptualizes his/her relations with others, and an ensemble of the motivations and commitments that lead to important forms of social and political action. All of this sounds subjective in the technical sense -- a part of the subjective and personal experience of a single individual. It is part of consciousness, not the material world.

So it is reasonable to ask whether there is anything in a social identity that is available for investigation through the lens of critical realism.

The answer, however, seems to be fairly clear. Ideas and mental frameworks have social antecedents and causal influences. Individuals take shape through concrete social development that is conducted through stable social arrangements and institutions. Consciousness has material foundations. And therefore, it is perfectly appropriate to pursue a realist materialist investigation of social consciousness. This was in fact one important focus of the Annales school of historiography.

This is particularly evident in the example of a social identity. No one is born with a Presbyterian or a Sufi religious identity. Instead, children, adolescents, and young adults acquire their religious and moral ideas through interaction with other individuals, and many of those interactions are determined by enduring social structures and institutional arrangements. So it is a valid subject of research to attempt to uncover the pathways of interaction and influence through which individuals come to have the ideas and values they currently have. This is a perfectly objective topic for social research.

But equally, the particular configuration of beliefs and values possessed by a given individual and a community of individuals is an objective fact as well, and it is amenable to empirical investigation. The research currently being done on the subcultures of right wing extremism illustrates this point precisely. It is an interesting and important fact to uncover (if it is a fact) that the ideologies and symbols of hate that seem to motivate right wing youth are commonly associated with patriarchal views of gender as well.

So ideas and identities are objective in at least two senses, and are therefore amenable to treatment from a realist perspective. They have objective social determinants that can be rigorously investigated; and they have a particular grammar and semiotics that need to be rigorously investigated as well. Both kinds of inquiry are amenable to realist interpretation: we can be realist about the mechanisms through which a given body of social beliefs and values are promulgated through a population, and we can be realist about the particular content of those belief systems themselves.

Ironically, this position seems to converge in an unexpected way with two streams of classical social theory. This approach to social consciousness resonates with some of the holistic ideas that Durkheim brought to his interpretation of religion and morality. But likewise it brings to mind Marx's views of the determinants of social consciousness through objective material circumstances. We don't generally think of Marx and Durkheim as having much in common. But on the topic of the material reality of ideas and their origins in material features of social life, they seem to agree.

These considerations seem to lead to a strong conclusion: critical realism can be as insightful in its treatment of objective social structures as it is in study of "subjective" features of social consciousness and identities.

Wednesday, October 4, 2017

Community resilience

We know what is meant by saying that a physical system is resilient: for a given range of shocks, the system has the ability to recover its structural integrity. This does not mean that a resilient system is impervious to shocks, but rather that it is capable of recovery from a given range of shocks at a given level of severity (through redundancy, decentralized systems, or repair mechanisms). (Here is a discussion of urban resilience and fragility in face of natural disaster by Kathleen Tierney in The Social Roots of Risk: Producing Disasters, Promoting Resiliencelink.)

We also think we know something about individual resilience. It is a complex capacity of personality and character that permits the individual to regain equanimity after some of life's common hazards -- loss of a job, onset of a serious illness, death of a loved one. Here is how the American Psychological Association defines resilience (link):
Resilience is the process of adapting well in the face of adversity, trauma, tragedy, threats or significant sources of stress — such as family and relationship problems, serious health problems or workplace and financial stressors. It means "bouncing back" from difficult experiences. 
Research has shown that resilience is ordinary, not extraordinary. People commonly demonstrate resilience. One example is the response of many Americans to the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks and individuals' efforts to rebuild their lives. 
Being resilient does not mean that a person doesn't experience difficulty or distress. Emotional pain and sadness are common in people who have suffered major adversity or trauma in their lives. In fact, the road to resilience is likely to involve considerable emotional distress. 
Resilience is not a trait that people either have or do not have. It involves behaviors, thoughts and actions that can be learned and developed in anyone.
How does the idea of resilience work in application to communities -- in particular, multi-ethnic, multi-racial, and multi-religious communities? Shocks occur in all communities -- a violent crime is committed, a fiery speech is issued, a labor crisis occurs, a harvest fails. All of these incidents have the capacity to initiate a cycle of inter-group recrimination and separation. What features of community life and organization permit a multi-group community to regain its stability and inter-group harmony? What features exist that can stop the slide into escalation and eventual antagonism and violence across groups?

Historical experience in many parts of the world shows that communities of mixed populations sometimes degenerate into antagonism and violence across groups. The histories of ethnic and religious violence in India and the current tragedy of the Rohingya in Myanmar provide clear examples. Mixed communities that have lived peacefully and harmoniously are suddenly riven by mistrust, antagonism, and hate that lead to inter-group violence. (An earlier post dissected some of the pathways through which this process takes place; link.)

Here is how Paul Brass describes the emergence of violent collective action in India in The Production of Hindu-Muslim Violence in Contemporary India.
Most commonly, the rhetoric is laced with words that encourage its members not to put up any longer with the attacks of the other but to retaliate against their aggression. There are also specific forms of action that are designed to provoke the other community into aggressive action, which is then met with a stronger retaliatory response. (24)
Here Brass describes a dynamic process of provocation, escalation, and inter-group competition that leads quickly to antagonism and violence. And, as he makes clear throughout his book, this process is often stimulated and prodded by political entrepreneurs who have an interest in inter-group antagonism.

So the question here is this: what features of community life can be developed and cultivated that can serve as "shock absorbers" working to damp down the slide towards antagonism? What social features can make a multi-group community more resilient in face of provocations towards separation and mistrust?

Without pretending to offer a full theory of inter-group community stability, there are a few measures that seem to be conducive to stability.

First, the existence of cross-group organizations and partnerships among organizations originating in the separate groups, seems to be a strongly stabilizing feature of a multi-group society. The presence of a group of leaders who are committed to enhancing trust and cooperation across group lines provides an important "fire break" when conflicts arise, because these leaders and organizations already have a basis of trust with each other, and a willingness to work together to reduce tensions and suspicions across groups.

Second, person-to-person relationships across groups (through neighborhoods, places of work, or family relations) provide a basis for resisting the slide towards suspicion and fear across groups. If Chandar and Ismael are friends at work, they are perhaps less likely to be swayed by Hindu nationalist rhetoric or Islamic separatist rhetoric, and less likely to join in a violent mob attacking the other's home and community. Neighborhood and workplace integration ought to be retardants to the spread of inter-group hostility.

Third, policing and law enforcement can be an important buffer against the escalation of ethnic or religious tensions. If a Muslim shop is burned and the police act swiftly to find and arrest the arsonist, there will be a greater level of trust in the Muslim community that their security interests are being protected by the system of law.

Intergroup violence is the extreme case. But the separation of communities into mutually fearful and mistrustful groups defined by religion, race, or ethnicity is inherently bad, and it has the prospect of facilitating intergroup violence in the future. So discovering practical mechanisms of resilience is an enormously important task in these times of division and antagonism presented by our national political leaders.