Thursday, July 18, 2019

Safety and accident analysis: Longford


Andrew Hopkins has written a number of fascinating case studies of industrial accidents, usually in the field of petrochemicals. These books are crucial reading for anyone interested in arriving at a better understanding of technological safety in the context of complex systems involving high-energy and tightly-coupled processes. Especially interesting is his Lessons from Longford: The ESSO Gas Plant Explosion. The Longford refining plant suffered an explosion and fire in 1998 that killed two workers, badly injured others, and interrupted the supply of natural gas to the state of Victoria for two weeks. Hopkins is a sociologist, but has developed substantial expertise in the technical details of petrochemical refining plants. He served as an expert witness in the Royal Commission hearings that investigated the accident. The accounts he offers of these disasters are genuinely fascinating to read.

Hopkins makes the now-familiar point that companies often seek to lay responsibility for a major industrial accident on operator error or malfeasance. This was Esso's defense concerning its corporate liability in the Longford disaster. But, as Hopkins points out, the larger causes of failure go far beyond the individual operators whose decisions and actions were proximate to the event. Training, operating plans, hazard analysis, availability of appropriate onsite technical expertise -- these are all the responsibility of the owners and managers of the enterprise. And regulation and oversight of safety practices are the responsibility of stage agencies. So it is critical to examine the operations of a complex and dangerous technology system at all these levels.

A crucial part of management's responsibility is to engage in formal "hazard and operability" (HAZOP) analysis. "A HAZOP involves systematically imagining everything that might go wrong in a processing plant and developing procedures or engineering solutions to avoid these potential problems" (26). This kind of analysis is especially critical in high-risk industries including chemical plants, petrochemical refineries, and nuclear reactors. It emerged during the Longford accident investigation that HAZOP analyses had been conducted for some aspects of risk but not for all -- even in areas where the parent company Exxon was itself already fully engaged in analysis of those risky scenarios. The risk of embrittlement of processing equipment when exposed to super-chilled conditions was one that Exxon had already drawn attention to at the corporate level because of prior incidents.

A factor that Hopkins judges to be crucial to the occurrence of the Longford Esso disaster is the decision made by management to remove engineering staff from the plant to a central location where they could serve a larger number of facilities "more efficiently".
A second relevant change was the relocation to Melbourne in 1992 of all the engineering staff who had previously worked at Longford, leaving the Longford operators without the engineering backup to which they were accustomed. Following their removal from Longford, engineers were expected to monitor the plant from a distance and operators were expected to telephone the engineers when they felt a need to. Perhaps predictably, these arrangements did not work effectively, and I shall argue in the next chapter that the absence of engineering expertise had certain long-term consequences which contributed to the accident. (34)
One result of this decision is the fact that when the Longford incident began there were no engineering experts on site who could correctly identify the risks created by the incident. Technicians therefore restarted the process by reintroducing warm oil into the super-chilled heat exchanger. The metal had become brittle as a result of the extremely low temperatures and cracked, leading to the release of fuel and subsequent explosion and fire. As Hopkins points out, Exxon experts had long been aware of the hazards of embrittlement. However, it appears that the operating procedures developed by Esso at Longford ignored this risk, and operators and supervisors lacked the technical/scientific knowledge to recognize the hazard when it arose.

The topic of "tight coupling" (the tight interconnection across different parts of a complex technological system) comes up frequently in discussions of technology accidents. Hopkins shows that the Longford case gives a new spin to this idea. In the case of the explosion and fire at Longford it turned out to be very important that plant 1 was interconnected by numerous plumbing connections to plants 2 and 3. This meant that fuel from plants 2 and 3 continued to flow into plant 1 and greatly extended the length of time it took to extinguish the fire. Plant 1 had to be fully isolated from plants 2 and 3 before the fire could be extinguished (or plants 2 and 3 could be restarted), and there were enough plumbing connections among them, poorly understood at the time of the fire, that took a great deal of time to disconnect (32).

Hopkins addresses the issue of government regulation of high-risk industries in connection with the Longford disaster. Written in 1999 or so, he recognizes the trend towards "self-regulation" in place of government rules stipulating the operating of various industries. He contrasts this approach with deregulation -- the effort to allow the issue of safe operation to be governed by the market rather than by law.
Whereas the old-style legislation required employers to comply with precise, often quite technical rules, the new style imposes an overarching requirement on employers that they provide a safe and healthy workplace for their employees, as far as practicable. (92)
He notes that this approach does not necessarily reduce the need for government inspections; but the goal of regulatory inspection will be different. Inspectors will seek to satisfy themselves that the industry has done a responsible job of identify hazards and planning accordingly, rather than looking for violations of specific rules. (This parallels to some extent his discussion of two different philosophies of audit, one of which is much more conducive to increasing the systems-safety of high-risk industries; chapter 7.) But his preferred regulatory approach is what he describes as "safety case regulation". (Hopkins provides more detail about the workings of a safety case regime in Disastrous Decisions: The Human and Organisational Causes of the Gulf of Mexico Blowout, chapter 10.)
The essence of the new approach is that the operator of a major hazard installation is required to make a case or demonstrate to the relevant authority that safety is being or will be effectively managed at the installation. Whereas under the self-regulatory approach, the facility operator is normally left to its own devices in deciding how to manage safety, under the safety case approach it must lay out its procedures for examination by the regulatory authority. (96)
The preparation of a safety case would presumably include a comprehensive HAZOP analysis, along with procedures for preventing or responding to the occurrence of possible hazards. Hopkins reports that the safety case approach to regulation is being adopted by the EU, Australia, and the UK with respect to a number of high-risk industries. This discussion is highly relevant to the current debate over aircraft manufacturing safety and the role of the FAA in overseeing manufacturers.

It is interesting to realize that Hopkins is implicitly critical of another of my favorite authors on the topic of accidents and technology safety, Charles Perrow. Perrow's central idea of "normal accidents" brings along with it a certain pessimism about the ability to increase safety in complex industrial and technological systems; accidents are inevitable and normal (Normal Accidents: Living with High-Risk Technologies). Hopkins takes a more pragmatic approach and argues that there are engineering and management methodologies that can significantly reduce the likelihood and harm of accidents like the Esso gas plant explosion. His central point is that we don't need to be able to anticipate a long chain of unlikely events in order to identify the hazard in which these chains may eventuate -- for example, loss of coolant in a nuclear reactor or loss of warm oil in a refinery process. These final events of numerous different possible accident scenarios all require procedures in place that will guide the responses of engineers and technicians when "normal accidents" occur (33).

Hopkins highlights the challenge to safety created by the ongoing modification of a power plant or chemical plant; later modifications may create hazards not anticipated by the rigorous accident analysis performed on the original design.
Processing plants evolve and grow over time. A study of petroleum refineries in the US has shown that "the largest and most complex refineries in the sample are also the oldest ... Their complexity emerged as a result of historical accretion. Processes were modified, added, linked, enhanced and replaced over a history that greatly exceeded the memories of those who worked in the refinery. (33)
This is one of the chief reasons why Perrow believes technological accidents are inevitable. However, Hopkins draws a different conclusion:
However, those who are committed to accident prevention draw a different conclusion, namely, that it is important that every time physical changes are made to plant these changes be subjected to a systematic hazard identification process. ...  Esso's own management of change philosophy recognises this. It notes that "changes potentially invalidate prior risk assessments and can create new risks, if not managed diligently." (33)
(I believe this recommendation conforms to Nancy Leveson's theories of system safety engineering as well; link.)

Here is the causal diagram that Hopkins offers for the occurrence of the explosion at Longford (122).


The lowest level of the diagram represents the sequence of physical events and operator actions leading to the explosion, fatalities, and loss of gas supply. The next level represents the organizational factors identified in Longford's analysis of the event and its background. Central among these factors are the decision to withdraw engineers from the plant; a safety philosophy that focused on lost-time injuries rather than system hazards and processes; failures in the incident reporting system; failure to perform a HAZOP for plant 1; poor maintenance practices; inadequate audit practices; inadequate training for operators and supervisors; and a failure to identify the hazard created by interconnections with plants 2 and 3. The next level identifies the causes of the management failures -- Esso's overriding focus on cost-cutting and a failure by Exxon as the parent company to adequately oversee safety planning and share information from accidents at other plants. The final two levels of causation concern governmental and societal factors that contributed to the corporate behavior leading to the accident.

(Here is a list of major industrial disasters; link.)


Wednesday, July 17, 2019

Thai politics and Thai perspectives


One of the benefits of attending international conferences is meeting interesting scholars from different countries and traditions. I had that pleasure while participating in the Asian Conference on Philosophy of the Social Sciences at Nankai University in June, where I met Chaiyan Rajchagool. Chaiyan is a Thai academic in the social sciences. He earned his undergraduate degree in Thailand and received a PhD in sociology from the University of Manchester (UK). He has served as a senior academic administrator in Thailand and is now an associate professor of political science at the University of Phayao in northern Thailand. He is an experienced observer and analyst of Thai society, and he is one of dozens of Thai academics summoned by the military following the military coup in 2014 (link). I had numerous conversations with Chaiyan in Tianjin, which I enjoyed very much. He was generous to share with me his 1994 book, The rise and fall of the Thai absolute monarchy: Foundations of the modern Thai state from feudalism to peripheral capitalism, and the book is interesting in many different ways. Fundamentally it provides a detailed account of the political and economic transition that Siam / Thailand underwent in the nineteenth century, and it makes innovative use of the best parts of the political sociology of the 1970s and 1980s to account for these processes.

The book places the expansion of European colonialism in Southeast Asia at the center of the story of the emergence of the modern Thai state from mid nineteenth-century to the end of the absolute monarchy in the 1930s. Chaiyan seeks to understand the emergence of the modern Siamese and Thai state as a transition from "feudal" state formation to "peripheral capitalist" state formation. He puts this development from the 1850s to the end of the nineteenth century succinctly in the preface:
In the mid-nineteenth century Siam was a conglomerate of petty states and principalities and did not exist as a single political entity.... Economically Siam was transformed into what may be termed, in accordance with our theoretical framework, peripheral capitalism. Accompanying this development was the transformation of old classes and the rise of new classes.... At the political level a struggle took place within the ruling class in Bangkok, and new institutional structures of power began to emerge. As a result the previously fragmented systems of power and administration were brought under unified centralized command in the form of the absolute monarchy. (xiii-xiv)
This is a subtle, substantive, and rigorous account of the politics and economy of modern Siam / Thailand from the high point of western imperialism and colonialism in Asia to the twentieth century. The narrative is never dogmatic, and it offers an original and compelling account of the processes and causes leading to the formation of the Thai state and the absolutist monarchy. Chaiyan demonstrates a deep knowledge of the economic and political realities that existed on the ground in this region in the nineteenth century, and equally he shows expert knowledge about the institutions and strategies of the colonial powers in the region (Britain, France, Germany). I would compare the book to the theoretical insights about state formation of Michael Mann, Charles Tilly, and Fernand Braudel.

Chaiyan's account of the development of the Thai state emphasizes the role of economic and political interests, both domestic and international. Fundamentally he argues that British interests in teak (and later tin) prompted a British strategy that would today be called "neo-colonial": using its influence in the mid-nineteenth-century to create a regime and state that was favorable to its interests, without directly annexing these territories into its colonial empire. But there were internal determinants of political change as well, deriving from the conflicts between powerful families and townships over the control of taxes.
The year 1873-4 marks the beginning of a period in which the royalty attempted to take political control at the expense of the Bunnag nobility and its royal/noble allies. I have already noted that the Finance Office, founded in 1873, was to unify the collection f tax money from the various tax farmers under different ministries into a single office. To attain this goal, political enforcement and systematic administration were required. The Privy Council and the Council of State, established in June and August 1874, were the first high level state organizations. ... With the creation of a professional military force of 15,000 troops and 3,000 marines ... the decline of the nobility's power was irreversible, whereas the rise of the monarchy had never before had so promising a prospect. (85, 86)
Part of the development of the monarchy involved a transition from the personal politics of the feudal politics of the earlier period to a more bureaucratic-administrative system of governance:
Of interest in this regard was the fact that the state was moving away from the direct exercise of personal authority by members of the ruling class. this raises questions about the manner of articulation between the crown and the state. If direct personal control of the state characterizes a feudal state, the ruling class control of the state in a peripheral capitalist society takes the form of a more impersonal rule of law and administrative practice through which are mediated the influences of the politico-economic system and class interests. (88)
Chaiyan makes superb use of some of the conceptual tools of materialist social science and non-doctrinaire Marxism, framing his account in terms of the changes that were underway in Southeast Asian with respect to the economic structure of everyday life (property, labor, class) as well as the imperatives of British imperialism. The references include some of the very best sources in social and historical theory and non-doctrinaire Marxism that were available in the 1980s: for example, Ben Anderson, Perry Anderson, Norberto Bobbio, Fernand Braudel, Gene Genovese, Michael Mann, Ralph Miliband, Nicos Poulantzas, James Scott, Theda Skocpol, Charles Tilly, and Immanuel Wallerstein, to name a few out of the hundreds of authors cited in the bibliography. Chaiyan offers a relevant quotation from Fernand Braudel that I hadn't seen before but that is more profound than any of Marx's own pronouncements about "base and superstructure":
Any highly developed society can be broken down into several "ensembles": the economy, politics, culture, and the social hierarchy. The economy can only be understood in terms of the other "ensembles", for it both spreads itself about and opens its own doors to its neighbours. There is action and interaction. That rather special and partial form of the economy that is capitalism can only e fully explained in light of these contiguous "ensembles" and their encroachments; only then will it reveal its true face. 
This, the modern state, which did not create capitalism but only inherited it, sometimes acts in its favor and at other times acts against it; it sometimes allows capitalism to expand and at other times destroys its mainspring. Capitalism only triumphs when it becomes identified with the state, when it is the state.... 
So the state was either favorable or hostile to the financial world according to its own equilibrium and its own ability to stand firm. (Braudel Afterthoughts on Material Civilization and Capitalism, 64-65)
It is interesting to me that Chaiyan's treatment of the formation of a unified Thai state is attentive to the spatial and geophysical realities that were crucial to the expansion of central state power in the late nineteenth century.
A geophysical map, not a political one, would serve us better, for such a map reveals the mainly geophysical barriers that imposed constraints on the extension of Bangkok power. The natural waterways, mountains, forests and so on all helped determine how effectively Bangkok could claim and exert its power over townships. (2)
In actual fact, owing to geographical barriers and the consequent difficulty of communication, Bangkok exercised direct rule only over an area within a radius of two days travelling (by boat, cart, horse, or on foot). (3) 
Here is a map that shows the geophysical features of the region that eventually became unified Thailand, demonstrating stark delineation between lowlands and highlands:


This is a topic that received much prominence in the more recent writings of James Scott on the politics of southeast Asia, and his concept of "Zomia" as a way of singling out the particular challenges of exercising central state power in the highlands of southeast Asia (link, link). Here is a map created by Martin Lewis (link) intended to indicate the scope of the highland population (Zomia). The map is discussed in an earlier post.


And here is a map of the distribution of ethnic and language groups in Thailand (link), another important element in Chaiyan's account of the consolidation of the Thai monarchy:


It is an interesting commentary on the privilege, priorities, and limitations of the global academic world that Chaiyan's very interesting book has almost no visibility in western scholarship. In its own way it is the equal of some of Charles Tilly's writings about the origins of the French state; and yet Tilly is on all reading lists on comparative politics and Chaiyan is not. The book is not cited in one of the main English language sources on the history of Thailand, A History of Thailand by Chris Baker and Pasuk Phongpaichit, published by Cambridge University Press, even though that book covers exactly the same period in chapter 3. Online academic citation databases permitted me to find only one academic article that provided substantive discussion or use of the book ("Autonomy and subordination in Thai history: the case for semicolonial analysis", Inter‐Asia Cultural Studies, 2007 8:3, 329-348; link). The author of this article, Peter Jackson, is an emeritus professor of Thai history and culture at the Australian National University. The book itself is on the shelves at the University of Michigan library, and I would expect it is available in many research libraries in the United States as well.

So the very interesting theoretical and historical treatment that Chaiyan provides of state formation in Thailand seems not to have received much notice in western academic circles. Why is this? It is hard to avoid the inference that academic prestige and impact follow nations, languages, universities, and publishing houses. A history of a small developing nation, authored by a Thai intellectual at a small university, published by a somewhat obscure Thai publishing company, is not destined to make a large splash in elite European and North American academic worlds. But this is to the great disadvantage to precisely those worlds of thought and knowledge: if we are unlikely to be exposed to the writings of insightful scholars like Chaiyan Rajchagool, we are unlikely as well to understand the large historical changes our world has undergone over the past two centuries.

Amazon comes in for a lot of criticism these days; but one thing it has contributed in a very positive way is the easy availability of books like this one for readers who would otherwise never be exposed to it. How many other intellectuals with the insights of a Tilly or a Braudel are there in India, Côte d'Ivoire, Thailand, Bolivia, or Barbados whom we will never interact with in a serious way because of the status barriers that exist in the academic world?

*   *   *

(It is fascinating to me that one of the influences on Chaiyan at the University of Manchester was Teodor Shanin. Shanin is a scholar whom I came to admire greatly at roughly the same time when I was engaged in research in peasant studies in connection with Understanding Peasant China: Case Studies in the Philosophy of Social Science.)

Saturday, July 13, 2019

How things seem and why


The idea that there is a stark separation between many of our ideas of the social world, on the one hand, and the realities of the social world in which we live is an old one. We think "fairness and equality", but what we get is exploitation, domination, and opportunity-capture. And there is a reasonable suspicion that this gap is in some sense intentional: interested parties have deceived us. In some sense it was the lesson of Plato's allegory of the cave; it is the view that Marx expresses in his ideas of ideology and false consciousness; Gramsci's theory of hegemony expresses the view; Nietzsche seems to have this separation in mind in much of his writing; and the Frankfurt School made much of it as well. The antidote to these forms of illusion, according to many of these theorists, is critique: careful, penetrating analysis and criticism of the presuppositions and claims of the ideological theory. (Here are several efforts within Understanding Society to engage in this kind of work; link, link, link.)

Peter Baehr's recent book The Unmasking Style in Social Theory takes on this intellectual attitude of "unmasking" with a critical and generally skeptical eye. Baehr is an expert on the history of sociological theory who has written extensively on Hannah Arendt, Max Weber, and other fundamental contributors to contemporary social theory, and the book shows a deep knowledge of the history and intellectual traditions of social thought.

 The book picks out one particular aspect of the sociological tradition, the "style" of unmasking that he finds to be common in that history (and current practice). So what does Baehr mean by a style?
A style, in the sense used here, is a distinctive way of talking and writing. It is epitomized by characteristic words, images, metaphors, concepts and, especially, techniques. I refer to these collectively as elements or ingredients. (2)
The elements of the unmasking style that he identifies include rhetorical tools including weaponization, reduction and positioning, inversion, deflation, hyperbole and excess, and exclusive claims of emancipation (chapter 1).

The idea of an intellectual style is innocuous enough -- we can recognize the styles of analytic philosophy, contemporary literary criticism, and right-wing political commentary when we read or hear them. But there is a hidden question here: is there more than style to these traditions of thought? Are there methods of inquiry and reasoning, traditions of assessment of belief, and habits of scholarly interaction that underlie these various traditions? In much of Baehr's book he ignores these questions when it comes to the content of Marxist analysis, feminist theory, or the sociology of race in America. The impression he gives is that it is all style and rhetoric, with no rigorous research and analysis to support the claims.

In fact the overarching impression given by the book is that Baehr believes that much "unmasking" is itself biased, unfair, and dogmatic. He writes:
Unmasking aspires to create this roused awareness. The kind of analysis it requires is never conveyed to the reader as an interpretation of events, hypothetical and contestable. Nor does it allow scientific refutation or principled disagreement. True as fiat, unmasking statements brook no contradiction. (3)
Such an approach to theory and politics is problematic for several reasons. Its authoritarianism is obvious. So is its exclusivity: I am right, you can shut up. Yet ongoing discord, unlike slapdash accusation, is a good thing. (131)
Part of Baehr's suspicion of the "style" of unmasking seems to derive from an allergy to the language of post-modernism in the humanities and some areas of social theory:
To be sure, unmask is a common term in social theory and political and cultural criticism. Find it consorting with illusion, disguise, fiction, hieroglyph, critique, mystification, fantasy, reversal, hegemony, myth, real interest, objective interest, semantic violence, symbolic violence, alienation, domination, revolution and emancipation. The denser this cluster, the more unmasking obtrudes from it. (5)
And he also associates the unmasking "style" with a culture of political correctness and a demand for compliance with a "progressive" agenda of political culture:
Rarely a day passes on Twitter without someone, somewhere, being upbraided for wickedness. When even a gesture or an intonation is potentially offensive to an aggrieved constituency on high alert, the opportunities for unmasking are endless. Some targets of censure are cowed. They apologize for an offense they were not conscious of committing. Publicly chastened, they resolve to be better behaved henceforth. (7)
A third salient difference between unmasking in popular culture and in academic social theory is that in the academy unmasking is considered progressive. Detecting concealed racism, white privilege, patriarchy, trans-gender phobia and colonial exploitation is the stock in trade of several disciplines, sub-disciplines and pseudo-disciplines across the humanities and social sciences. The common thread is the ubiquity of domination. (8)
Marxism lives on in sociology, in the humanities and social sciences, and in pockets of the wider culture. And wherever one finds Marxism, typically combined today to race and gender politics, and to postcolonial critique, one finds aspects of the unmasking template. (91)
These are currents of thought -- memes, theoretical frameworks, apperceptions of the true nature of contemporary society -- with which Baehr appears to have little patience.

But here are a few considerations in favor of unmasking in the world of politics, economics, and culture in which we now live.

First, Baehr's aversion to active efforts to reveal the pernicious assumptions and motives of specific voices in social media is misplaced. When the language of hate, white supremacy, denigration of Muslims, gays, and audacious women, and memes that seem to derive directly from the fascist and neo-Nazi toolbox, is it not entirely appropriate to call those voices to task? Is it not important, even vital, to unmask the voices of hate that challenge the basis of a liberal and inclusive democracy (link)? Is it the unmaskers or the trolls conveying aggressive hate and division who most warrant our disapproval?

And likewise in the area of the thought-frameworks surrounding the facts of modern market society. In some sense the claim that class interest (corporate interest, business interest, elite interest) strives hard to create public understandings of the world that are at odds with the real power relations that govern us is too obviously true to debate. This is the purpose of much corporate public relations and advertising, self-serving think-tanking, and other concrete mechanisms of shifting the terms of public understanding in a direction more favorable to the interests of the powerful. (Here is an article in the New York Times describing research documenting sustained efforts by ExxonMobil to cast doubt in  public opinion about the reality of global warming and climate change; link.) And there is no barrier to conducting careful, rigorous, and intellectually responsible "decoding" of these corporate efforts at composing a fantasy; this is precisely what Conway and Oreskes do with such force in Merchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming in the case of corporate efforts to distort scientific reality concerning their products and their effects (link).

Baehr's statements about the unavoidable dogmatism of "unmasking" analysis and criticism are also surprisingly categorical. "The kind of analysis it requires is never conveyed to the reader as an interpretation of events, hypothetical and contestable." Really? Are there no honest scholars in the field of critical race theory, or in feminist epistemology and philosophy of science, or in the sociology of science and technology? What is this statement other than precisely the kind of wholesale rejection of the intellectual honesty of one's opponents that otherwise seems to animate Baehr's critique?

The Unmasking Style is a bit of a paradox, in my view. It denounces the "style" of unmasking, and yet it reads as its own kind of wholesale discrediting of an intellectual orientation for which Baehr plainly has no patience. This is the orientation that takes seriously the facts of power, privilege, wealth, and racial and gender domination that continue to constitute the skeleton of our world. It is fine, of course, to disagree with this fundamental diagnosis of the dynamics of power, domination, and exploitation in the current world. But Baehr's book has many of the features of tone and rhetoric that the author vigorously criticizes in others. It is perplexing to find that this book offers so little of what the author seems to be calling for -- an intellectually open effort to discern the legitimate foundations of one's opponent's positions. For my view, readers of The Unmasking Style would be well advised to read as well one or two books by scholars like Frédéric Vandenberghe, including A Philosophical History of German Sociology, to gain a more sympathetic view of critical sociological theory and its efforts to discern the underlying power relations of the modern world (link).

In general, I find that there is much more intellectual substance to efforts to uncover the interest-bias of various depictions of the capitalist world than Baehr is willing to recognize. How do energy companies shape the debate over climate change? How did Cold War ideologies influence the development of the social sciences in the 1950s? How has pro-business, anti-regulation propaganda made the roll-back of protections of the health and safety of the public possible? What is the meaning of the current administration's persistent language about "dangerous immigrants" in terms of racial prejudice? These are questions that invoke some kind of "demystifying" analysis that would seem to fall in the category of what Baehr classifies as "unmasking"; and yet it is urgent that we undertake those inquiries.

A companion essay by Baehr, "The image of the veil in social theory", appears in Theory and Society this month (link), and takes a nuanced approach to the question of "mask" and "veil". The essay has little of the marks of polemical excess that seem to permeate the book itself. Here is the abstract to the essay:
Social theory draws energy not just from the concepts it articulates but also from the images it invokes. This article explores the image of the veil in social theory. Unlike the mask, which suggests a binary account of human conduct (what is covered can be uncovered), the veil summons a wide range of human experiences. Of special importance is the veil’s association with religion. In radical social thought, some writers ironize this association by “unveiling” religion as fraudulent (a move indistinguishable from unmasking it.) Baron d’Holbach and Marx offer classic examples of this stratagem. But other writers, notably Du Bois and Fanon, take a more nuanced and more theoretically productive approach to both religion and the veil. Refusing to debunk religion, these authors treat the veil—symbol and material culture—as a resource to theorize about social conflict. Proceeding in three stages, I, first, contrast the meanings of mask and unmasking with more supple veil imagery; second, identify anti-religious unveiling that is tantamount to unmasking; and, third, examine social theories of the veil that clarify the stakes of social adversity and political struggle. Du Bois’s and Fanon’s contributions to veil imagery receive special attention.
The Unmasking Style is erudite and interesting, and plainly designed to provoke debate. I only wish that it gave more consideration to the very real need we have to confront the lies and misrepresentations that currently pervade our contemporary world.

Tuesday, July 9, 2019

ABM fundamentalism


I've just had the singular opportunity of participating in the habilitation examination of Gianluca Manzo at the Sorbonne, based on his excellent manuscript on the relevance of agent-based models for justifying causal claims in the social sciences. Manzo is currently a research fellow in sociology at CNRS in Paris (Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique), and is a prolific contributor to analytical sociology and computational social science. The habilitation essay is an excellent piece of work and I trust it will be published as an influential monograph. Manzo has the distinction of being expert both on the philosophical and theoretical debates that are underway about social causation and an active researcher in the field of ABM simulations. Pierre Demeulenaere served as a generous and sympathetic mentor. The committee consisted of Anouk Barberousse, Ivan Ermakoff, Andreas Flache, Olivier Godechot, and myself, and reviewer comments and observations were of the highest quality and rigor. It was a highly stimulating session.

One element of our conversation was especially enlightening to me. I have written a number of times in Understanding Society and elsewhere about the utility of ABM models, and one line of thought I have developed is a critique of what I have labeled "ABM fundamentalism" -- the view that ABM models are the best possible technique for constructing social explanations for every possible subject in the social sciences (link). This view is expressed in Joshua Epstein's slogan, "If you didn't grow it, you didn't explain it." I maintain that ABM is a useful technique, but only one of many methods appropriate to the problem of constructing explanations of interesting sociological outcomes (link). So I advocate for theoretical and methodological pluralism when it comes to the ABM program.

I asked Gianluca whether he would agree that ABM fundamentalism is incorrect, and was surprised to find that he defends the universal applicability of ABM as a tool to implement any sociological theory. According to him, it is a perfectly general and universal modeling platform that can in principle be applied to any sociological problem. He also made it clear that he does not maintain that the use of ABM methods is optimal for every sociological problem of explanation. His defense of the universal applicability of ABM simulation techniques therefore does not imply that Manzo privileges these techniques as best for every sociological problem. But as a formal matter, he holds that ABM technology possesses the resources necessary to represent any fully specified social theory within a simulation.

The subsequent conversation succeeded in clarifying the underlying source of disagreement for me. What I realized in the discussion that ensued is that I was conflating two things in my label of ABM fundamentalism: the simulation technology and the substantive doctrine of generative social science. Epstein is a generativist, in the sense that he believes that social outcomes need in principle to be generated from a representation of facts about the individuals who make it up (Generative Social Science: Studies in Agent-Based Computational Modeling). Epstein is also an advocate of ABM techniques because they represent a particularly direct way of implementing a generativist explanation. But what Gianluca showed me is that ABM is not formally committed to the generativist dogma, and that an ABM simulation can perhaps incorporate factors at any social level. The insight that I gained, then, is that I should separate the substantive view of generativism from the formal mathematical tools of ABM simulations techniques.

I am still unclear how this would work -- that is, how an ABM simulation might be created that did an adequate job of representing features at a wide range of levels -- actors, organizations, states, structures, and ideologies. For example, how could an ABM simulation be designed that could capture a complex sociological analysis such as Tilly's treatment of the Vendée, with peasants, protests, and merchants, the church, winegrowers' associations, and the strategies of the state? Tilly's historical narrative seems inherently multi-stranded and irreducible to a simulation. Similar points could be made about Michael Mann's comparative historical account of fascisms or Theda Skocpol's analysis of social revolutions.

So there is still an open question for me in this topic. But I think I am persuaded that the fundamentalism to which I object is the substantive premise of generativism, not the formal computational methods of ABM simulations themselves. And if Gianluca is correct in saying that ABM is a universal simulation platform (as a Turing machine is a universal computational device) then the objection is misplaced.

So this habilitation examination in Paris had exactly the effect for me that we would hope for in an academic interaction -- it led me to look at an important issue in a somewhat different way. Thank you, Gianluca!

Wednesday, June 19, 2019

Herbert Simon's theories of organizations

Image: detail from Family Portrait 2 1965 
(Creative Commons license, Richard Rappaport)

Herbert Simon made paradigm-changing contributions to the theory of rational behavior, including particularly his treatment of "satisficing" as an alternative to "maximizing" economic rationality (link). It is therefore worthwhile examining his views of organizations and organizational decision-making and action -- especially given how relevant those theories are to my current research interest in organizational dysfunction. His highly successful book Administrative Behavior went through four editions between 1947 and 1997 -- more than fifty years of thinking about organizations and organizational behavior. The more recent editions consist of the original text and "commentary" chapters that Simon wrote to incorporate more recent thinking about the content of each of the chapters.

Here I will pull out some of the highlights of Simon's approach to organizations. There are many features of his analysis of organizational behavior that are worth noting. But my summary assessment is that the book is surprisingly positive about the rationality of organizations and the processes through which they collect information and reach decisions. In the contemporary environment where we have all too many examples of organizational failure in decision-making -- from Boeing to Purdue Pharma to the Federal Emergency Management Agency -- this confidence seems to be fundamentally misplaced. The theorist who invented the idea of imperfect rationality and satisficing at the individual level perhaps should have offered a somewhat more critical analysis of organizational thinking.

The first thing that the reader will observe is that Simon thinks about organizations as systems of decision-making and execution. His working definition of organization highlights this view:
In this book, the term organization refers to the pattern of communications and relations among a group of human beings, including the processes for making and implementing decisions. This pattern provides to organization members much of the information and many of the assumptions, goals, and attitudes that enter into their decisions, and provides also a set of stable and comprehensible expectations as to what the other members of the group are doing and how they will react to what one says and does. (18-19).
What is a scientifically relevant description of an organization? It is a description that, so far as possible, designates for each person in the organization what decisions that person makes, and the influences to which he is subject in making each of these decisions. (43)
The central theme around which the analysis has been developed is that organization behavior is a complex network of decisional processes, all pointed toward their influence upon the behaviors of the operatives -- those who do the action 'physical' work of the organization. (305)
The task of decision-making breaks down into the assimilation of relevant facts and values -- a distinction that Simon attributes to logical positivism in the original text but makes more general in the commentary. Answering the question, "what should we do?", requires a clear answer to two kinds of questions: what values are we attempting to achieve? And how does the world work such that interventions will bring about those values?

It is refreshing to see Simon's skepticism about the "rules of administration" that various generations of organizational theorists have advanced -- "specialization," "unity of command," "span of control," and so forth. Simon describes these as proverbs rather than as useful empirical discoveries about effective administration. And he finds the idea of "schools of management theory" to be entirely unhelpful (26). Likewise, he is entirely skeptical about the value of the economic theory of the firm, which abstracts from all of the arrangements among participants that are crucial to the internal processes of the organization in Simon's view. He recommends an approach to the study of organizations (and the design of organizations) that focuses on the specific arrangements needed to bring factual and value claims into a process of deliberation leading to decision -- incorporating the kinds of specialization and control that make sense for a particular set of business and organizational tasks.

An organization has only two fundamental tasks: decision-making and "making things happen". The decision-making process involves intelligently gathering facts and values and designing a plan. Simon generally approaches this process as a reasonably rational one. He identifies three kinds of limits on rational decision-making:
  • The individual is limited by those skills, habits, and reflexes which are no longer in the realm of the conscious...
  • The individual is limited by his values and those conceptions of purpose which influence him in making his decision...
  • The individual is limited by the extent of his knowledge of things relevant to his job. (46)
And he explicitly regards these points as being part of a theory of administrative rationality:
Perhaps this triangle of limits does not completely bound the area of rationality, and other sides need to be added to the figure. In any case, the enumeration will serve to indicate the kinds of considerations that must go into the construction of valid and noncontradictory principles of administration. (47)
The "making it happen" part is more complicated. This has to do with the problem the executive faces of bringing about the efficient, effective, and loyal performance of assigned tasks by operatives. Simon's theory essentially comes down to training, loyalty, and authority.
If this is a correct description of the administrative process, then the construction of an efficient administrative organization is a problem in social psychology. It is a task of setting up an operative staff and superimposing on that staff a supervisory staff capable of influencing the operative group toward a pattern of coordinated and effective behavior. (2)
To understand how the behavior of the individual becomes a part of the system of behavior of the organization, it is necessary to study the relation between the personal motivation of the individual and the objectives toward which the activity of the organization is oriented. (13-14) 
Simon refers to three kinds of influence that executives and supervisors can have over "operatives": formal authority (enforced by the power to hire and fire), organizational loyalty (cultivated through specific means within the organization), and training. Simon holds that a crucial role of administrative leadership is the task of motivating the employees of the organization to carry out the plan efficiently and effectively.

Later he refers to five "mechanisms of organization influence" (112): specialization and division of task; the creation of standard practices; transmission of decisions downwards through authority and influence; channels of communication in all directions; and training and indoctrination. Through these mechanisms the executive seeks to ensure a high level of conformance and efficient performance of tasks.

What about the actors within an organization? How do they behave as individual actors? Simon treats them as "boundedly rational":
To anyone who has observed organizations, it seems obvious enough that human behavior in them is, if not wholly rational, at least in good part intendedly so. Much behavior in organizations is, or seems to be, task-oriented--and often efficacious in attaining its goals. (88)
But this description leaves out altogether the possibility and likelihood of mixed motives, conflicts of interest, and intra-organizational disagreement. When Simon considers the fact of multiple agents within an organization, he acknowledges that this poses a challenge for rationalistic organizational theory:
Complications are introduced into the picture if more than one individual is involved, for in this case the decisions of the other individuals will be included among the conditions which each individual must consider in reaching his decisions. (80)
This acknowledges the essential feature of organizations -- the multiplicity of actors -- but fails to treat it with the seriousness it demands. He attempts to resolve the issue by invoking cooperation and the language of strategic rationality: "administrative organizations are systems of cooperative behavior. The members of the organization are expected to orient their behavior with respect to certain goals that are taken as 'organization objectives'" (81). But this simply presupposes the result we might want to occur, without providing a basis for expecting it to take place.

With the hindsight of half a century, I am inclined to think that Simon attributes too much rationality and hierarchical purpose to organizations.
The rational administrator is concerned with the selection of these effective means. For the construction of an administrative theory it is necessary to examine further the notion of rationality and, in particular, to achieve perfect clarity as to what is meant by "the selection of effective means." (72)  
These sentences, and many others like them, present the task as one of defining the conditions of rationality of an organization or firm; this takes for granted the notion that the relations of communication, planning, and authority can result in a coherent implementation of a plan of action. His model of an organization involves high-level executives who pull together factual information (making use of specialized experts in this task) and integrating the purposes and goals of the organization (profits, maintaining the health and safety of the public, reducing poverty) into an actionable set of plans to be implemented by subordinates. He refers to a "hierarchy of decisions," in which higher-level goals are broken down into intermediate-level goals and tasks, with a coherent relationship between intermediate and higher-level goals. "Behavior is purposive in so far as it is guided by general goals or objectives; it is rational in so far as it selects alternatives which are conducive to the achievement of the previously selected goals" (4).  And the suggestion is that a well-designed organization succeeds in establishing this kind of coherence of decision and action.

It is true that he also asserts that decisions are "composite" --
It should be perfectly apparent that almost no decision made in an organization is the task of a single individual. Even though the final responsibility for taking a particular action rests with some definite person, we shall always find, in studying the manner in which this decision was reached, that its various components can be traced through the formal and informal channels of communication to many individuals ... (305)
But even here he fails to consider the possibility that this compositional process may involve systematic dysfunctions that require study. Rather, he seems to presuppose that this composite process itself proceeds logically and coherently. In commenting on a case study by Oswyn Murray (1923) on the design of a post-WWI battleship, he writes: "The point which is so clearly illustrated here is that the planning procedure permits expertise of every kind to be drawn into the decision without any difficulties being imposed by the lines of authority in the organization" (314). This conclusion is strikingly at odds with most accounts of science-military relations during World War II in Britain -- for example, the pernicious interference of Frederick Alexander Lindemann with Patrick Blackett over Blackett's struggles to create an operations-research basis for anti-submarine warfare (Blackett's War: The Men Who Defeated the Nazi U-Boats and Brought Science to the Art of Warfare). His comments about the processes of review that can be implemented within organizations (314 ff.) are similarly excessively optimistic -- contrary to the literature on principal-agent problems in many areas of complex collaboration.

This is surprising, given Simon's contributions to the theory of imperfect rationality in the case of individual decision-making. Against this confidence, the sources of organizational dysfunction that are now apparent in several literatures on organization make it more difficult to imagine that organizations can have a high success rate in rational decision-making. If we were seeking for a Simon-like phrase for organizational thinking to parallel the idea of satisficing, we might come up with the notion of "bounded localistic organizational rationality": "locally rational, frequently influenced by extraneous forces, incomplete information, incomplete communication across divisions, rarely coherent over the whole organization".

Simon makes the point emphatically in the opening chapters of the book that administrative science is an incremental and evolving field. And in fact, it seems apparent that his own thinking continued to evolve. There are occasional threads of argument in Simon's work that seem to point towards a more contingent view of organizational behavior and rationality, along the lines of Fligstein and McAdam's theories of strategic action fields. For example, when discussing organizational loyalty Simon raises the kind of issue that is central to the strategic action field model of organizations: the conflicts of interest that can arise across units (11). And in the commentary on Chapter I he points forward to the theories of strategic action fields and complex adaptive systems:
The concepts of systems, multiple constituencies, power and politics, and organization culture all flow quite naturally from the concept of organizations as complex interactive structures held together by a balance of the inducements provided to various groups of participants and the contributions received from them. (27)
The book has been a foundational contribution to organizational studies. At the same time, if Herbert Simon were at the beginning of his career and were beginning his study of organizational decision-making today, I suspect he might have taken a different tack. He was plainly committed to empirical study of existing organizations and the mechanisms through which they worked. And he was receptive to the ideas surrounding the notion of imperfect rationality. The current literature on the sources of contention and dysfunction within organizations (Perrow, Fligstein, McAdam, Crozier, ...) might well have led him to write a different book altogether, one that gave more attention to the sources of failures of rational decision-making and implementation alongside the occasional examples of organizations that seem to work at a very high level of rationality and effectiveness.

Friday, June 14, 2019

Gilbert on social facts


I am currently thinking about the topic of "organizational actors", and Margaret Gilbert's arguments about social actors are plainly relevant to this topic. It seems worthwhile therefore to reproduce a review I wrote of Gilbert's book On Social Facts (1989) in 1993. It is a tribute to the power of Gilbert's ideas that the book has much of the same power thirty years later that it had when it was first published. I also find it interesting that the concerns I had in the 1990s about "collective actors" and "plural subjects" expressed in this review have continued in my thinking about the social world through the current date. I continue to believe that constructs like collective actors require microfoundations that establish how they work at the level of individual "socially constituted, socially situated" individual human beings. I refer to this view as "methodological localism"; link.

I also find it interesting that my own views about social action derive, not from philosophy, but from immersion in the literatures of contentious politics and the concrete pathways through which individuals are led to mobilization and collective action. Unlike the methodological individualism associated with rational choice theory and neoclassical economics, and unlike the social holism that all too often derives from purely philosophical considerations, this literature emphasizes the actions and thoughts of individuals without making narrow and singe-dimensional assumptions about the nature of practical rationality. I learned through my study of the millenarian rebellions of late Imperial China that rebels had many motivations and many reasons for mobilization, and that good historical research is needed to disentangle the organizations, actors, and stresses that led to mobilization and rebellion in a particular region of China. The participants in the Eight Trigrams Rebellion or the Nian Rebellion in North China were not a plural subject. (For exposition of these ideas see chapter five of my Understanding Peasant China: Case Studies in the Philosophy of Social Science (1989), "Theories of peasant rebellion".) I have included an excerpt from that chapter on the topic of collective action at the end of this post because it illustrates an "actor-centered" approach to collective action. It presents a clear counter-perspective to Gilbert's views of "plural subjects".

Readers may also be interested in a post written in 2009 on the topic of "Acting as a Group" (link).

***

[1993]

Margaret Gilbert’s On Social Facts is an intelligent, closely argued and extensively analyzed treatment of the problem of social collectivity. What is a social group? What distinguishes a group from a random set of individuals—e.g. the set consisting of W. V. O. Quine, Madonna, and Napoleon? Is a social class—e.g. the English working class in the 1880s—a social group? Gilbert’s primary contention is that the notion of a collectivity—individuals constituting a group—is the central feature of social ontology and the chief focus of empirical social science. And she maintains that this concept can best be analyzed by the idea of a “plural subject”—the referent of the first-person plural pronoun, “we”.

The core of Gilbert’s theory of social groups involves the idea of the mutual recognition by a set of persons that they are engaged in some joint actions or beliefs. “A set of people constitute a social group if and only if they constitute a plural subject”; and a plural subject is “a set of people each of whom shares with oneself in some action, belief, attitude, or similar attribute” (p. 204). Gilbert argues that the pronouns “us” and “we” are the linguistic elements through which we refer to plural subjects in English. And she believes that plural subjects exist; they are not fictions or constructions, but agents which have beliefs, perform actions, and succeed or fail in carrying out their intentions. In later chapters Gilbert extends her conception of collectivities and plural subjects by considering several other important social notions: the idea of a social fact in Durkheim’s sense, the idea of a collective belief, and the idea of a social convention. In each case Gilbert argues that the concept of a plural subject supports a plausible and intuitively convincing analysis of the social concept in question. According to Gilbert, “social groups are plural subjects, collective beliefs are the beliefs of plural subjects, and social conventions are the ‘fiats’ of plural subjects” (p. 408). Gilbert’s account of social conventions is developed through extensive discussion of David Lewis’s influential formulation of this concept.

Gilbert argues against the individualism of Max Weber (and by implication, the premises of rational choice theory), by arguing that collectivities are the central subject of the social sciences, and that collectivities cannot be subsumed under (narrowly) individualist concepts. Thus Gilbert suggests that her theory offers support for holism over individualism (p. 3). Does it? I think not. An individualist is free to acknowledge that individuals have beliefs that refer to other persons and groups of persons; the position permits reference to shared purposes and actions involving a collection of persons deliberately orienting their actions towards a shared purpose. What individualism requires is simply that these are all the aggregate results of individual states of mind, and that the behavior of the ensemble is to be explained by reference to the beliefs and intentions of the participants.

An important test case for Gilbert’s account is the problem of collective action. Rational choice theory places much emphasis on public goods problems and the phenomenon of free-riding. How does Gilbert’s conception of plural subjects treat the problem? It appears to this reader that Gilbert makes collective action too easy. Plural subjects (groups) have purposes; individuals within these groups express quasi-readiness to perform their part of the shared action; and—when circumstances are right—the group acts collectively to bring about its collective goals. “The people concerned would be jointly ready jointly to perform a certain action in certain circumstances” (p. 409). She speaks of group will or communal will (p. 410). But the actions of a group are still the result of the choices made by constituent individuals. And however much the individual may align him- or herself with the collective project, the collective behavior is still no more than the sum of the actions taken by particular individuals. Moreover, it is necessary to acknowledge the endurance of private, individual interests that remain prominent for individual agents—with the result that we should expect individuals’ actions to sometimes involve free-riding, defection, and favoring of private over collective interests. It seems to this reader, then, that Gilbert leans too far in the direction of the Rousseauvian “general will” interpretation of social action.

How important for the social sciences is the notion of a social group or collectivity? Gilbert’s view is that this concept is foundational; it is the basis for a unitary definition of the subject matter of the social sciences. This overstates the importance of collectivities, it seems to this reader: there are important instances of social explanation that do not involve analysis of groups in Gilbert’s sense, and whose explanatory frameworks do not refer to groups, their behavior, their shared beliefs, or their collective intentions and self-understandings. A few examples might include neo-malthusian analysis of the relation between economic change and demographic variables; analysis of the effects of changes of the transport system on patterns of settlement and economic activity; and explanation of patterns of historical processes of urbanization in terms of changing economic and political institutions. These examples explain social phenomena as the aggregate result of large numbers of rational individual actions. They commonly refer to impersonal social structures and circumstances that function as constraints and opportunities for individuals. And they make no inherent reference to the forms of group collectivity to which Gilbert refers.

This is a rich book, and one that repays careful reading. It will be of particular interest to philosophers of social science and social philosophers, and the level of philosophical rigor will interest philosophers in other fields as well.

***

Here is a relevant excerpt from Understanding Peasant China, published in the same year as On Social Facts, on collective action as the composition of individual actors who are mobilized around a shared set of goals.

Rebellion is an example of collective action; but this concept requires some analysis, for not all forms of mass behavior constitute collective action. A collective action involves at least the idea of a collective goal (that is, a goal which participants in the event share as the aim of their actions), and it suggests some degree of coordination among individuals in pursuit of that goal. Thus a mass demonstration against the government is a collective action, whereas the panicked retreat through the streets after troops have dispersed the demonstration is not. Both are forms of mass behavior, but only the demonstration has the features of collective intentionality and coordination that would constitute a collective action. We may define a collective action, then, as the aggregation of a number of individuals performing intentional, coordinated actions that are intended to help attain some shared goal or purpose. This account distinguishes collective action from other forms of mass behavior in which the individuals do not intend to contribute to a group effect—for example, a panicked stampede in a football stadium, a run on a bank, or a cycle of hoarding food during a famine.

Collective actions can be classified according to the kind of shared goals that guide the individuals who participate in them—private interests and group interests. In some cases a collective action is inspired by the immediate gains available to each participant through coordinated action; in others, the action is inspired by the shared belief that the action will lead to an outcome that will benefit the group. An example of a collective action motivated by private interest would be a coordinated attack on a granary during a famine. No individual family has the strength to attack the granary by itself, but through coordinated efforts a group of fifty families may succeed. Each participant has the same goal—to acquire grain for subsistence—but the participants’ aims are private. By contrast, a demonstration by Polish workers in support of the Solidarity movement would appear to be motivated by a perception of group interest—in this case, the interest that Polish workers have as a group in representation by an independent labor union.



As we have seen in other contexts, the prospect of collective action raises the possibility of free riding: if the benefits of collective action are indivisible and undeniable to nonparticipants, it would be rational for the self-interested individual to not participate. To the extent that the potential benefits of a collective action are public rather than private, and to the extent that the action is designed to produce distant rather than immediate benefits, collective action theory predicts that it will be difficult to motivate rational individuals in support of the action.

Another important factor in the success or failure of collective action, besides the character and timing of benefits to members, is the idea of assurance: potential contributors’ confidence in the probability of success of the joint enterprise. As Elster, Hardin, and others show, the level of assurance is critical to the decisions of potential contributors. If success is widely believed to be unlikely, potential contributors will be deterred from joining the collective action. An important dimension of assurance is the likelihood that other potential contributors will act. Each must judge the probability that enough people will support the action and so make success more likely. One central task of leadership and organization is to bolster the assurance of each member of the group in the likely support of other members. (UPC 147-149)

Sunday, June 9, 2019

Asian Conference on the Philosophy of the Social Sciences

photo: Tianjin, China

A group of philosophers of social science convened in Tianjin, China, at Nankai University in June to consider some of the ways that the social sciences can move forward in the twenty-first century. This was the Asian Conference on the Philosophy of the Social Sciences, and there were participants from Asia, Europe, Australia, and the United States. (It was timely for Nankai University to host such a meeting, since it is celebrating the centennial of its founding in 1919 this year.) The conference was highly productive for all participants, and it seems to have the potential of contributing to fruitful future thinking about philosophy and the social sciences in Chinese universities as well.

Organized by Francesco Di Iorio and the School of Philosophy at Nankai University, the meeting was a highly productive international gathering of scholars with interests in all aspects of the philosophy of the social sciences. Topics that came in for discussion included the nature of individual agency, the status of "social kinds", the ways in which organizations "think", current thinking about methodological individualism, and the status of idealizations in the social sciences, among many other topics. It was apparent that participants from many countries gained insights from their colleagues from other countries and other regions when discussing social science theory and specific social challenges.

Along with many others, I believe that the philosophy of social science has the potential for being a high-impact discipline in philosophy. The contemporary world poses complex, messy problems with huge import for the whole of the global population, and virtually all of those challenges involve difficult situations of social and behavioral interaction (link). Migration, poverty, youth disaffection, the cost of higher education, the importance of rising economic and social inequalities, the rise of extremism, and the creation of vast urban centers like Shanghai and Rio de Janeiro all involve a mix of behavior, technology, and environment that will require the very best social-science research to navigate successfully. And if anyone ever thought that the social sciences were simpler or easier than the natural sciences, the perplexities we currently face of nationalism, racism, and rising inequalities should certainly set that thought to rest for good.

Philosophy can help social scientists gain better theoretical and analytical understanding of the social world in which we live. Philosophers can do this by thinking carefully about the nature of causal relationships in the social world (link); by considering the limitations of social-science inquiry that are inherent in the nature of the social world (link); and by assessing the implications of various discoveries in the logic of collective action for social life (link).

When we undertake large technology projects we make use of the theories and methods of analysis about forces and materials that are provided by the natural sciences. This is what gives us confidence that buildings will stand up to earthquakes and bridges will be able to sustain the stresses associated with traffic and wind. We turn to policy and legislation in an effort to solve social problems. Public policy is the counterpart to technology. However, it is clear that public policy is far less amenable to precise scientific and analytical guidance. Cause and effect relationships are more difficult to discern in the social world, contingency and conjunction are vastly more important, and the ability of social-science theories to measure and predict is substantially more limited than the natural sciences. So it is all the more important to have a clear and dynamic understanding of the challenges and resources that confront social scientists as they attempt to understand social processes and behavior.

These kinds of "wicked" social problems occur in every country, but they are especially pressing in Asia at present (linklink). As citizens and academics consider their roles in the future of their countries in Japan, Thailand, China, or Russia, Serbia, or France, they will be empowered in their efforts by the best possible thinking about the scope and limits of various disciplines of the social sciences.

This kind of international meeting organized around topics in the philosophy of the social sciences has the potential of stimulating new thinking and substantial progress in our understanding of society. The fact that philosophers in China, Thailand, Finland, Japan, France, and the United States bring very different national and cultural experiences to their philosophical theories creates the possibility of synergy and the challenging of presuppositions. One such example came up in a discussion with Finnish philosopher Uskali Maki over my use of principal-agent problems as a general source of organizational dysfunction. Maki argued that this claim reflects a specific cultural context, and that this kind of dysfunction is substantially less prevalent in Finnish organizations and government agencies. (Maki also argued that my philosophy of social science over-emphasizes plasticity and change, whereas Maki holds that the fact of social order must be explained.) It was also interesting to consider with a Chinese philosopher whether there are aspects of traditional Chinese philosophy that might shed light on current social processes. Does Mencius provide a different way of thinking about the role and legitimacy of government than the social contract tradition in which European philosophers generally operate (link)?

So along with all the other participants, I would like to offer sincere appreciation to Francesco Di Iorio and his colleagues at the School of Philosophy for the superlative inspiration and coordination they provided for this international conference of philosophers.

Saturday, June 8, 2019

Auditing FEMA


Crucial to improving an organization's performance is being able to obtain honest and detailed assessments of its functioning, in normal times and in emergencies. FEMA has had a troubled reputation for faulty performance since the Katrina disaster in 2005, and its performance in response to Hurricane Maria in Louisiana and Puerto Rico was also criticized by observers and victims. So how can FEMA get better? The best avenue is careful, honest review of past performance, identifying specific areas of organizational failure and taking steps to improve in these areas.

It is therefore enormously disturbing to read an investigative report in the Washington Post ((Lisa Rein and Kimberly Kindy, Washington Post, June 6, 2019); link) documenting that investigation and audits by the Inspector General of the Department of Homeland Security were watered down and sanitized at the direction of the audit bureau's acting director, John V. Kelly.
Auditors in the Department of Homeland Security inspector general’s office confirmed problems with the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s performance in Louisiana — and in 11 other states hit over five years by hurricanes, mudslides and other disasters. 
But the auditors’ boss, John V. Kelly, instead directed them to produce what they called “feel-good reports” that airbrushed most problems and portrayed emergency responders as heroes overcoming vast challenges, according to interviews and a new internal review.
...
Investigators determined that Kelly didn’t just direct his staff to remove negative findings. He potentially compromised their objectivity by praising FEMA’s work ethic to the auditors, telling them they would see “FEMA at her best” and instructing supervisors to emphasize what the agency had done right in its disaster response. (Washington Post, June 6, 2019)
"Feel-good" reports are not what quality improvement requires, and they are not what legislators and other public officials need as they consider the adequacy of some of our most important governmental institutions. It is absolutely crucial for the public and for government oversight that we should be able to rely on the honest, professional, and rigorous work of auditors and investigators without political interference in their findings. These are the mechanisms through which the integrity of regulatory agencies and other crucial governmental agencies is maintained.

Legislators and the public are already concerned about the effectiveness of the Federal Aviation Agency's oversight in the certification process of the Boeing 737 MAX. The evidence brought forward by the Washington Post concerning interference with the work of the staff of the Inspector General of DHS simply amplifies that concern. The article correctly observes that independent and rigorous oversight is crucial for improving the functioning of government agencies, including DHS and FEMA:
Across the federal government, agencies depend on inspectors general to provide them with independent, fact-driven analysis of their performance, conducting audits and investigations to ensure that taxpayers’ money is spent wisely. 
Emergency management experts said that oversight, particularly from auditors on the ground as a disaster is unfolding, is crucial to improving the response, especially in ensuring that contracts are properly administered. (Washington Post, June 6, 2019)
Honest government simply requires independent and effective oversight processes. Every agency, public and private, has an incentive to conceal perceived areas of poor performance. Hospitals prefer to keep secret outbreaks of infection and other medical misadventures (link), the Department of Interior has shown an extensive pattern of conflict of interest by some of its senior officials (link), and the Pentagon Papers showed how the Department of Defense sought to conceal evidence of military failure in Vietnam (link). The only protection we have from these efforts at concealment, lies, and spin is vigorous governmental review and oversight, embodied by offices like the Inspectors General of various agencies, and an independent and vigorous press able to seek out these kinds of deception.

Saturday, May 25, 2019

The 737 MAX disaster as an organizational failure


The topic of the organizational causes of technology failure comes up frequently in Understanding Society. The tragic crashes of two Boeing 737 MAX aircraft in the past year present an important case to study. Is this an instance of pilot error (as has occasionally been suggested)? Is it a case of engineering and design failures? Or are there important corporate and regulatory failures that created the environment in which the accidents occurred, as the public record seems to suggest?

The formal accident investigations are not yet complete, and the FAA and other air safety agencies around the world have not yet approved the aircraft for flight following the suspension of certification following the second crash. There will certainly be a detailed and expert case study of this case at some point in the future, and I will be eager to read the resulting book. In the meantime, though, it is  useful to bring the perspectives of Charles Perrow, Diane Vaughan, and Andrew Hopkins to bear on what we can learn about this case from the public media sources that are available. The preliminary sketch of a case study offered below is a first effort and is intended simply to help us learn more about the social and organizational processes that govern the complex technologies upon which we depend. Many of the dysfunctions identified in the safety literature appear to have had a role in this disaster.

I have made every effort to offer an accurate summary based on publicly available sources, but readers should bear in mind that it is a preliminary effort.

The key conclusions I've been led to include these:

The updated flight control system of the aircraft (MCAS) created the conditions for crashes in rare flight conditions and instrument failures.
  • Faults in the AOA sensor and the MCAS flight control system persisted through the design process 
  • pilot training and information about changes in the flight control system were likely inadequate to permit pilots to override the control system when necessary  
There were fairly clear signs of organizational dysfunction in the development and design process for the aircraft:
  • Disempowered mid-level experts (engineers, designers, software experts)
  • Inadequate organizational embodiment of safety oversight
  • Business priorities placing cost savings, timeliness, profits over safety
  • Executives with divided incentives
  • Breakdown of internal management controls leading to faulty manufacturing processes 
Cost-containment and speed trumped safety. It is hard to avoid the conclusion that the corporation put cost-cutting and speed ahead of the professional advice and judgment of the engineers. Management pushed the design and certification process aggressively, leading to implementation of a control system that could fail in foreseeable flight conditions.

The regulatory system seems to have been at fault as well, with the FAA taking a deferential attitude towards the company's assertions of expertise throughout the certification process. The regulatory process was "outsourced" to a company that already has inordinate political clout in Congress and the agencies.
  • Inadequate government regulation
  • FAA lacked direct expertise and oversight sufficient to detect design failures. 
  • Too much influence by the company over regulators and legislators
Here is a video presentation of the case as I currently understand it (link). 

See also this earlier discussion of regulatory failure in the 737 MAX case (link). Here are several experts on the topic of organizational failure whose work is especially relevant to the current case: