Wednesday, December 28, 2022

Pinpointing responsibility for Russian atrocities in Bucha


In November I wrote a blog post asking the question, "What organization and what commanders have directed the campaign of atrocity, murder, rape, mutilation, torture, and abduction in Ukraine? Is there good investigative reporting on where orders for these unspeakable atrocities and crimes against humanity are coming from?" Now, thanks to some stupendous reporting by the New York Times, we know part of the answer. In Bucha, the Times has established "a mountain of evidence" based on painstaking analysis of digital and phone evidence that major atrocities and murder were committed by one elite Russian regiment, the 234th Regiment (link).

The Times identified the 234th Regiment, a paratrooper unit based in the city of Pskov in western Russia, as the main culprit in the Yablunska Street killings. Airborne units like this are considered among the best trained and equipped in the Russian military. Evidence of the 234th's involvement includes military equipment, uniform badges, radio chatter and packing slips on munitions crates. (New York Times, December 28, A6)

The reporting is remarkably detailed, providing names and photos of members of the 234th who used cell phones to call home to Russia that had been taken from murdered residents of Bucha. "We found the soldiers. One of them is Vladimir Vasilyev, posing here in a paratrooper uniform. He used the phones of two victims: Vitalii Karpenko; and Ivan Skyba, who survived."

Here are four incidents the Times was able to document.

March 4, 2022 When Russian forces arrived in Bucha on Yablunska Street, a group of Ukrainian men who had been guarding a checkpoint decided to hide inside a nearby home. But Russian soldiers carrying out a house-to-house clearing operation found them. Neighbors Tetiana and Serhii Chmut watched as Russian soldiers marched the guards, and the resident who housed them, to a Russian base and forced them onto their knees with their hands behind their heads. Russian soldiers executed seven of them. Another man was already lying there dead. Drone footage filmed the same day of the killings captures the men's bodies lying in the courtyard of the base.

March 5 When Iryna Filkina, a 52-year-old mother, rounded the corner onto Yablunska Street with her bike, the gunner in a Russian armored vehicle aimed his cannon at her and fired, killing her. A commanding officer was overseeing the operation just 75 yards away. Sheltering in an adjacent home were Iryna Abramova (above left), her father and her husband, Oleh. When Russian soldiers barded into their home, searching for men of military age, Iryna pleaded with them, explaining that Oleh was not in the military. They dragged him into the street and executed him. Oleh was among at least eight people killed by Russian soldiers in around three hours on March 5.

March 5 Russian soldiers moved farther down Yablunska Street, toward an intersection that was a pathway to Kyiv. Armored vehicles and machine gunners took up positions to protect the rest of the convoy. Anyone who crossed their path became a target. Drone footage of the scene shows Russian soldiers, and the bodies of their victims piling up on Yablunska Street. Meanwhile, Viktor Shatylo was documenting the killings from his nearby home. His videos and photographs reveal some of the victims killed by those Russian soldiers: 68-year-old Volodymyr Brovchenko and, in a van, Zhanna Kameneva, who was trying to escape Bucha with her neighbors Maria, Tamila, and 14-year-old Anna.

March 18 As they moved into homes along Yablunska Street, soldiers from the same Russian military unit continued to kill residents and neighbors weeks into the occupation of Bucha. Volodymyr Lisovskyi was living next door to Russian soldiers and filmed them as they executed at least three men on March 18. In his video, two of the men, Dmytro Shkirenkov and Oleksandr Chumak, can be seen on their knees, surrounded by Russian soldiers. The third victim, Maksym Kireev, is already lying dead on the ground. Drone footage captured three hours after Volodymyr filmed the scene shows the three men lying motionless on the ground in the same location.

This is a truly amazing effort of forensic journalism, and a huge contribution to the question of how to hold Russia responsible for its war crimes and atrocities in Ukraine.

The Times has produced a series of documentary videos based on this research that are available on Youtube (link). The video includes this horrific and honest assessment at 3:10:

These killings were not random acts of violence, but part of a methodical, planned, and lethal operation that may amount to crimes against humanity.

It is inescapable from the evidence provided in this investigation that these atrocities were indeed planned and ordered by commanding officers. The world needs to know: whose orders led to the methodical killings and other atrocities in Bucha? These are crimes of war, and the commanders must be called to account. That much is obvious. What the Times investigative report demonstrates is that there is a very broad range of evidence on the basis of which war crimes investigators can assess responsibility.

It is interesting to learn that the 234th Regiment is already subject to sanctions by the United States Department of State, based on this list of crimes.

The Department of State 28.06.2022 is designating three Russian Federation military units, the 76th Guards Air Assault Division and its subordinate 234th Guards Airborne Assault Regiment, as well as the 64th Separate Motorized Rifle Brigade, pursuant to E.O. 14024 Section 1(a)(i) because these entities operate or have operated in the defense and related materiel sector of the Russian Federation economy. Multiple, credible reports have documented summary executions and other unlawful killings of civilians, beatings of detained persons, and destruction of civilian property by Russia’s forces in Bucha, Ukraine this year. In March 2022, Russia’s 76th Guards Air Assault Division and its 234th Guards Airborne Assault Regiment encamped on Bucha, Ukraine’s Yablunska Street, which became an epicenter of violence against civilians and other human rights abuses in Bucha. According to credible reports, the 76th Guards Air Assault Division has been directly implicated in violence against unarmed civilians in Bucha, as well as beating detained persons. Credible reports also indicate that next to a wall of the 234th Guards Airborne Assault Regiment’s base on Yablunska Street in Bucha, Russia’s forces executed numerous detained Ukrainian citizens. According to credible reports, the 234th Guards Airborne Assault Regiment has also been directly implicated in the destruction of civilian property such as homes in Bucha. The 64th Separate Motorized Rifle Brigade also operated in the vicinity of Yablunska Street and other locations in Bucha. The 64th Separate Motorized Rifle Brigade has been described as the “butchers of Bucha.” According to credible reports, while operating in Bucha, this unit killed numerous civilians, detained civilians, beat detained civilians, seized and damaged civilian homes and property. (link)

Tuesday, December 27, 2022

Sherwood Eddy’s treatment of Marx


Sherwood Eddy was an American Protestant activist and missionary in the early twentieth century. (Here is a brief biography and bibliography of Eddy; link.) He was educated in elite American institutions but acquired a deep empathy for the less-well-off members of society, both in the US and Asia. He was drawn to Communism, though never a member of the CP. Eddy explicitly identified himself as a Christian socialist. In 1926 he engaged in a debate in Moscow on the subject, "wherein lies the essence of the present religion and is it compatible with communism?". In 1934 he was invited to participate in an important symposium, “The meaning of Marx”, with Bertrand Russell, John Dewey, Morris Raphael Cohen, and Sidney Hook (link). In 1936 he co-founded a cooperative-based reform of farming for sharecroppers in the US south, with strong commitment to racial equality. 

What is striking in Eddy's contribution to the Marx symposium is the depth and detail of his knowledge of Marx’s economic theories. Eddy summarizes Marx's substantive social and economic theories under three topics: his dialectical method of analysis of history; his labor theory of value and surplus-value; and his theory of class conflict as the fundamental driver of historical change (6). Under exposition of the second point Eddy offers a reasonable summary of Marx's main ideas of accumulation and exploitation. He ends this section with a denunciation of capitalism, and he writes favorably of revolution and the "dictatorship of the proletariat". 

Eddy's interpretation of social change remains "religious" in a sense; he understands Communism as a unifying belief system capable of motivating the masses of the population.

Russia has achieved what has hitherto been known only at rare periods in history, the experience of almost a whole people living under a unified philosophy of life. All life is focused in a central purpose. It is directed to a single high end and energized by such powerful and glowing motivation that life seems to have supreme significance. It releases a flood of joyous and strenuous activity. The new philosophy has the advantage of seeming to be simple, clear, understandable, all-embracing and practical. (2)

Further, he contrasts the ideological unity and purity of Soviet society with the degeneration of values in western capitalist society:

As surely as Soviet Russia has become united, we of the West have witnessed a philosophic decadence and disintegration. Where feudalism once united the world, capitalism has divided it by the competitive anarchy of a loose individualism. Not organized society but the insecure individual is now the unit where every man is for himself. The economics of profit conflict with the aims of culture. The gain of the few is pitted against the welfare of the many. This whole laissez-faire philosophy of life breeds competitive strife between individuals, classes, races and nations. (4)

Also striking is Eddy’s own inclination towards the need for thorough-going class revolution. In 1934 Eddy’s intellectual support for Communism was evident.

Is the system just? Must it continue? No! Marx shows the masses a way out. It is a way, he tells them, grounded in science and in natural law. It is bound to win, for the very stars in their courses are fighting for them. By some mystic and incomprehensible "dialectic process," by a supposedly scientific theory of value and of surplus value it is all being worked out for them. They do not need to understand it. They must believe that they are being exploited and join in the crusade for their own emancipation. (12)

Revolutions are almost inevitably destructive. They occur only when evolutionary progress to justice is blocked by the class in possession and power, when the hard crust of the status quo restrains the molten lava of discontent until the volcano of revolution bursts into eruption. Nearly always the possessing class is blinded by its own self-interest and class ethics of property "rights," so that it cannot see in time the injustice of the system which seems hallowed by custom and tradition. (16)

According to the Marxian formula, as the advance guard of the working class, a Communist Party must be organized with centralized power, under iron discipline, with a single mind and will. The sole purpose of this party must be to prepare for and direct the coming revolution which Marx sees as the only solution of the class struggle. No class has ever been known to surrender its special privileges and share them equally with the dispossessed, unless it was forced to do so.... Once the state has been seized the workers are bidden to establish a dictatorship of the proletariat under the direction of the vanguard of the Communist Party. The party then seeks to make the revolution permanent and continuing until all the members of the ruling and possessing classes are deprived of power. (17)

At the end of the essay Eddy summarizes points of agreement and disagreement with Marx. Most important is this point:

I. I do not believe that violent revolution is inevitable, nor do I believe that it is desirable in itself as Marx almost makes it. When once violence is adopted as a method in an inevitable and "continuing revolution," when to Marx's philosophy is added Lenin's false dictum that "great problems in the lives of nations are solved only by force," most serious consequences follow wherever communism is installed under a dictatorship or prepared for by violent methods. This shuts the gates of mercy on mankind. In Soviet Russia all prosperous farmers are counted kulaks, and the kulak becomes the personal devil or scapegoat of the system, as does the Jew in Nazi Germany. Intellectuals and engineers are all too easily accused of deliberate sabotage, of being "wreckers," class enemies, etc. When this philosophy--that great problems are solved "only by violence"--is applied, then trials, shootings and imprisonment follow in rapid succession. Hatred and violence mean wide destructive and incalculable human suffering. (27)

Thus, though I acknowledge my real debt to Marx, I do not count myself a Marxist. I have stated elsewhere: the reasons which would make impossible my acceptance of the system as practised in Soviet Russia under the dictatorship: Its denial of political liberty, the violence and compulsion of a continuing revolution, and the dogmatic atheism and anti-religious zeal required of every member of the Communist Party. (29)


Here he draws out precisely the implication of totalitarianism contained in Stalin's version of the "dictatorship of the proletariat". The war on the kulaks -- the Holodomor -- was going on as this symposium took place (1933-34) (link).

It is useful to distinguish between  the content of Marx's political economy and his sociology of capitalism, on the one hand, and the political manifestos, slogans, and party politics of Marxism and communism, on the other. Marx's theory of capitalism as a class-based system of exploitation is compatible with multiple possible remedies, including democratic socialism. Both sets of issues come up in the 1934 symposium. Eddy's essay here makes plain the urgency with which intellectuals committed to social justice were searching for answers, and Marx (and Lenin) represented persuasive and compelling ideas about a blueprint for comprehensive change. But strikingly, Eddy — unlike his contemporaries in the English democratic socialist movement — had not yet moved as far as his English contemporaries in attempting to imagine a democratic socialist solution (link).

(George Novack's lecture on American radical intellectuals in the 1930s, delivered in 1967, provides some context for Eddy's political orientation, though Eddy's name does not appear in Novack's lecture; link. Novack was a longtime leader of the Socialist Workers Party, the Trotskyist alternative to the American Communist Party.)


Saturday, December 24, 2022

Lies and myths in the social world


An earlier post mentioned the topic of folk psychology and its relation to cognitive science. Scholars like Paul Churchland question whether there is a realistic correspondence between the properties identified by our folk-psychological understanding of each other and the real underlying cognitive processes on the basis of which we operate.

My interest here is a parallel question for social knowledge: is there a similar situation at work in our ordinary representations of the social world? Are the concepts and causal hypotheses through which we describe and experience the social world reasonable approximations to the way the social world actually works, or do they lead to distortions and falsifications of the nature of the social world? (Here is an earlier post that raises this question; link.)

Here is one way we might approach the idea of folk sociology. We might raise the question of the realism of the social concepts that we use in understanding the larger social world. In particular, do our ordinary notions of power, class, race, political interest, exploitation, charisma, or capitalism serve a valuable scientific function; do they help us analyze the social world in a way which is conducive to scientific theorizing? Or are they simply convenient fictions, best dispensed with when we seek to understand social phenomena in a rigorous way? Or even worse -- are they deliberate forms of deceit, imposed by powerful unseen actors who want citizens to see the social world in these terms rather than those terms, as the slave owner wants the slave to see the master as a benevolent provider?

It is clear that there are many constructs that some people use in order to represent and understand the social world that are the opposite of veridical (link, link). The idea of mystification that Marx offered in Capital in his account of the fetishism of commodities captures this view.

A commodity is therefore a mysterious thing, simply because in it the social character of men's labour appears to them as an objective character stamped upon the product of that labour; because the relation of the producers to the sum total of their own labour is presented to them as a social relation, existing not between themselves, but between the products of their labour. This is the reason why the products of labour become commodities, social things whose qualities are at the same time perceptible and imperceptible by the senses. In the same way the light from an object is perceived by us not as the subjective excitation of our optic nerve, but as the objective form of something outside the eye itself. But, in the act of seeing, there is at all events, an actual passage of light from one thing to another, from the external object to the eye. There is a physical relation between physical things. But it is different with commodities. There, the existence of the things qua commodities, and the value-relation between the products of labour which stamps them as commodities, have absolutely no connexion with their physical properties and with the material relations arising therefrom. There it is a definite social relation between men, that assumes, in their eyes, the fantastic form of a relation between things. In order, therefore, to find an analogy, we must have recourse to the mist-enveloped regions of the religious world. In that world the productions of the human brain appear as independent beings endowed with life, and entering into relation both with one another and the human race. So it is in the world of commodities with the products of men's hands. This I call the Fetishism which attaches itself to the products of labour, so soon as they are produced as commodities, and which is therefore inseparable from the production of commodities.

In a nutshell, the social nature of commodities disappears in the common understanding of toothpaste and running shoes. So Marx's view seems to be that many of the concepts that we ordinary social participants have of the world around us -- our "folk sociology" and "folk political economy" -- are misleading and false. And in fact, his idea of "critique" was precisely aimed at uncovering these misconceptions -- criticizing the superficial views that ordinary people and political economists alike have of how the modern social and economic system works, and replacing their key concepts with constructs that do a better job of identifying the "real" workings of the social system. In Marx's view, this set of concepts has to do with the specifics of the forces and relations of production and the conflicts of interest that these social realities create -- class conflict.

False and misleading conceptions of the social world are found everywhere -- in the present and in the historical past. The old idea of the "American dream" falls in this category -- the idea that anyone can achieve success and affluence through talent and effort. But we know that there are systemic obstacles that confront the majority of young people, so that their life prospects are dim. The conspiracy theories of the far right are riddled with ideas about how the social world works that no rational person would accept. Vladimir Putin's myths of Ukraine's "Russian" identity and the founding myths of Russian nationalism fall in the category of useful lies, deliberately conveyed to create a perception of history for the Russian public that is fundamentally false and misleading. Putin's propaganda is designed to create an alternative worldview for Russian citizens, far removed from the historical realities. Stalin's efforts during and after World War II to erase Jewish victims from Nazi extermination actions in Kiev and elsewhere fall in the same category. And Trump-world's view of "election lies" and supposedly corrupt election processes is likewise a deliberate myth, designed to motivate followers. And yet each of these framing ideas about the workings of the social world have been profound and foundational for some people at some points in history.

Upon reflection, it seems clear enough that the social world is not fully transparent, and our ordinary beliefs and concepts about how the social world works are sometimes highly misleading. This is why the ideas of ideology and mystification are so relevant for social knowledge. So it seems as though we have no choice but to exercise our critical intelligence to seek to uncover the real mechanisms and processes that lead to change and stability in the world. We are forced to reflect on our own "folk" beliefs about our social world and critically adjust our concepts and hypotheses in such a way that we have better insight into underlying social processes and mechanisms. We are forced, in short, to "demystify" social knowledge (link). We need theories and hypotheses about the social world in order to understand the dynamics that surround us; and yet we must reaffirm the particular importance of critical and truthful investigation in assessing the theories and hypotheses that are presented to us.

Saturday, December 17, 2022

Frameworks and stereotypes


It is evident that we approach the social world, and specific social settings, with a body of "framework" assumptions about what is going on, and how we should behave. Here is how I put the point in an earlier post:

It seems clear that human beings bring specific frameworks of thought, ideas, emotions, and valuations to their social lives, and these frameworks affect both how they interpret the social realities they confront and the ways that they respond to what they experience. Human beings have "frames" of cognition and valuation that guide their experiences and actions. The idea of a practical-mental frame is therefore a compelling one, and it should be a possible subject for empirical sociological investigation. (link)

Erving Goffman is the sociologist who is best known for exploring this view of social action (link, link, link). We might describe frameworks like these as providing stylized ways of interpreting situations -- stereotypes; and as providing heuristics for how one should behave in such situations.

Such frameworks are especially visible in social settings that invoke race, gender, and power (link). Individual participants have schemata or stereotypes through which they construe the behavior of others, and they have scripts on the basis of which they behave in these kinds of situations. The racial code of the Jim Crow south prescribed frameworks of interpretation and action for all actors -- black and white men, black and white women. And, of course, often both schemata and scripts are incorrect and misleading. For example, the person who perceives the approaching group of loud teenagers as "menacing" may also fall into his or her own script of aggression or flight -- rather than permitting a pleasant and constructive social encounter to unfold. 

Examples of false construal are common in mundane situations as well. The professor who sees the student who is constantly playing with her phone in class may interpret her behavior as boredom and disrespect; whereas a trained observer may see signs of insecurity and anxiety in the behavior instead. And the two different construals may lead to very different behaviors on the part of the instructor and the clinically trained observer -- punitive on the part of the professor and supportive on the part of the clinical observer.

This feature of social action is probably relevant to the question of police-civilian interactions that lead all too often to aggression and excessive use of force by police officers. When assumptions about race and potential for violence frame the officer's perception of a situation, the likelihood of excessive force is amplified. And this suggests an avenue for addressing excess force: find ways of disrupting the received frameworks on the basis of which the police officer perceives and interprets situations involving young men of color. (This is the purpose of "hidden bias" training.)

What is interesting about social-cognitive frameworks like those mentioned here is that they are causally powerful. When a group of people have internalized a particular set of attitudes and beliefs about other people, their behavior is likely to lead to specific kinds of future interactions. And this tendency produces important social dynamics -- in the workplace, in universities, and in domestic settings. Racially charged frameworks give rise to racially charged behavior -- which creates a cycle of toxic social relations among individuals in the group.

To what extent is the individual actor a prisoner of his or her social-cognitive framework? Is social creativity possible? Can individuals arrive at new interpretations of social scenes, or are they constrained by their existing cognitive framework to see only what they expect to see? 

If this line of thought were correct, then it would be impossible to overcome racial, gender, or class expectations. Individuals would be "algorithmic", living out the implications of their ways of interpreting the behavior of others. But in fact, human beings have an ability to think reflectively and critically about the frameworks on the basis of which they interpret the social world and the behavior of others. This is the most fundamental value of a tolerant and inclusive social environment: it encourages each individual to try to see the world through the experience of others -- and thereby to alter one's own framework assumptions about how the world works and how to behave. (Here is a recent post on the importance of cultivating a genuinely inclusive social environment; link.)

Thursday, December 8, 2022

Journal of Critical Realism CFP on Judgemental Rationality


Roy Bhaskar is best known for his ideas about social ontology. However, he also had a substantial interest in "the epistemology of social science" -- the means through which social scientists provide their theories with rational credibility. The Journal of Critical Realism is planning a special issue on the key concept that Bhaskar introduced in this area, "judgemental rationality". Readers can find the full Call for Proposals here.

Here is how Robert Isaksen, on behalf of the editorial committee of JCR, introduces and defines the concept of judgemental rationality:

Judgemental rationality is the critical realist concept that deals with issues relating to the possibility to make claims to knowledge and truth, and to claims about false beliefs. As such, it is relevant to empirical researchers and philosophers of knowledge alike. 

Isaksen continues:

Judgemental rationality has a central place in critical realism, being one part of what has been termed the Holy Trinity of Critical Realism (Bhaskar 2016). Though judgemental rationality was an implicit part of critical realism from the start, a more complete explication is made in Bhaskar’s third book, Scientific Realism and Human Emancipation ([1986] 2009), in particular sections 1.3, 1.5, 1.6, 1.8, and 2.4. The argument, in short, is that the necessity of ontological realism implies the actuality of epistemic relativity (and which in turn mutually implies ontological realism), and together these make for the possibility of judgemental rationality (24), i.e. of rational theory choice, even between theories from competing paradigms (92). Such rational choice of one theory over another is predicated upon choosing the theory which has comparatively greater explanatory power, using specific criteria (73, 82), and that there is an agent able to make such a comparison (e.g. 87). In critical realist research this would come in addition to searching for underlying causal mechanisms, and indeed can be seen as central to this very process.

Here is an earlier post on the need for an epistemology for the theory of critical realism (link). There I suggest that CR's historical allergic response to "positivism" is a barrier to formulating an evidence-based epistemology for this approach to thinking about the social sciences.

Like a left handed quarterback, CR has a disadvantage in formulating an epistemology because of its blind side. In the case of CR, the blind side is the movement's visceral rejection of positivism. CR theorists are so strongly motivated to reject all elements of positivism that they are disposed to avoid positions they actually need to take.

I conclude with an affirmation of the centrality of empirical standards:

Critical realism seeks to significantly influence the practice and content of social science theory and research. In order to do this it will need to be able to state with confidence the commitments made by CR researchers to empirical standards and evidence-based findings. This will help CR to fulfill the promise of discovering some of the real structures and processes of the social world based on publicly accessible standards of theory discovery and acceptance.

Given the centrality of good thinking about scientific rationality for pursuing the program of critical realism in the social sciences, I encourage readers to consider submitting an article to the JCR special volume on judgemental rationality. This is an important and strategic subject within the philosophy of the social sciences, and will help to bridge between "philosophical theory" and "scientific practice". Here is the link for the CFP.

Sunday, December 4, 2022

Reforming policing


The persistent fact of racial disparities in the use of deadly force by police officers in US cities is an intolerable injustice. The Washington Post has maintained a database of police shootings since 2015 which includes shootings but not other causes of death; link. This database shows a glaring level of disparity between black, Hispanic, and white persons shot by police officers. The rates provided in the report indicate 42 deaths per million for the Black population, 30 deaths per million for Hispanics, and 17 deaths per million for Whites. And yet efforts at police reform have been largely disappointing. Why is that the case? 

One component of the problem appears to be organizational. Police departments are complex organizations, with articulated authority relations from the street police officer to the sergeant to the lieutenants and captains. And, as we have seen in other instances of organizational dysfunction (link, link), there is the omnipresent possibility of principal-agent problems arising in a police organization. But second, police departments exist within a broader system of political authority -- mayors, city managers, city councils, state regulatory agencies, and even the Federal Department of Justice. Here again, there is only imperfect ability for political authorities to enforce their policies within the workings of the sub-agency, the police department. 

Compounding this ramified problem of principal-agent deviance, there are two other organizational features that work against the possibility of effective reform: conflicting priorities about police functioning at various levels (mayor, city council, police chief, sergeant, patrol officer); and the likelihood of a pervasive "culture of policing" that runs against the grain of effective efforts at operational reform.

In order to map out the complexity of police reform processes, let's first examine the actors and levers of change that are involved in the process. The actors include at least these: the public, legislators, DOJ, mayor, chief, mid-rank supervisors, rank-and-file officers. And, crucially, none of these actors are robots; they all have their own priorities, values, assumptions, biases, and plans, and they constitute a loosely-connected system of interaction with major social consequences.

It is crucial to take account of the specifics of the culture of work that exists in a police department. It is well understood in organizational studies that "culture" is an important determinant of functioning (link). The daily workings of an organization depend on the activities and behavior of the people who make it up; workers have habits, expectations, ways of perceiving social situations, and behavioral dispositions in a range of stylized circumstances. So, for example, the specifics of the safety culture on an oil rig in the North Sea have a great deal of impact on the likelihood of disaster on the rig. This general fact is especially relevant in the context of policing. And many examples of organizational culture suggest that culture is more enduring than policy and regulation as a determinant of behavior within the organization.

The organizational tools that exist for influencing the behavior of police officers include training programs, supervision, policy enforcement mechanisms, and efforts to understand and change the culture of policing at the street level.

So a police commander or political leader who wants to reform the style of policing in his or her city is faced with a difficult problem: changing policing means changing behavior of individual police on the street, but the tools available to the commander to bring about these changes are very limited. So the habits of interaction with the public -- aggressivity, readiness to resort to force, racial bias --  persist in spite of orders, regulations, briefings, and seminars.

Within a traditional understanding of organizations, these conflicts between habits of behavior and the official expectations of the organization can be resolved through supervision: non-conformist behavior can be identified and penalized. Violent officers can be punished or dismissed; line workers who break the rules can be fined; call center workers can be disciplined when they deviate from their scripts. But this avenue poses at least two huge problems: first, the cost of close supervision is very high, and second, the cultural norms found at the street level may well obtain at the level of supervisors as well. 

The hard question is this: How is it possible to effect change policing practices and behavior if various of the actors mentioned here do not sincerely want to initiate and sustain change? The possibility exists that officers have embodied practices, prejudices, routines, and attitudes that guide their activity, and that these practices and prejudices themselves are a crucial ingredient in the incidence of excessive force and racial disparities in the use of force. Journalists and policy experts have observed that biases and assumptions about people of color permeate ranks of police officers. Further, it is likely that there is often a pervasive lack of buy-in for reform by rank-and-file officers. Under these circumstances, it seems likely that reform efforts will lose effectiveness as soon as intensive scrutiny is lessened (for example, when DOJ oversight comes to an end in a particular city or department).

Several ongoing efforts at understanding the obstacles that impede police reform are currently available. The Brookings-AEI Working Group on Criminal Justice Reform has provided a series of careful and insightful working papers on the subject (link). Here is a summary of the working group's primary recommendations: 

Short-Term Reforms

  Reform Qualified Immunity

•  Create National Standards for Training and De-escalation

Medium-Term Reforms

  Restructure Civilian Payouts for Police Misconduct

•  Address Officer Wellness

Long-Term Reforms

•  Restructure Regulations for Fraternal Order of Police Contracts

•  Change Police Culture to Protect Civilians and Police

Another ongoing research and policy effort is the SPARQ working group at Stanford University (link). The SPARQ group has undertaken to assess the availability of results in the social sciences that can help better understand the challenge of ending racial bias in policing. Here are the topics that this group has considered: 

1. What do we have to offer in the current moment as social psychologists?

2. Why is it so hard to end racism?

3. What’s the connection between people having implicit biases and the racial disparities we see across society?

4. Why might the “bad apples” theory of police misconduct fall short?

5. What is the organizational structure of a municipal police department? Could restructuring a police department shift its culture?

6. What does it really mean when people call out the culture of policing?

7. What does policing look like in other places? How might we reimagine it?

8. Who sets standards for the police? How does law enforcement fit into the larger system of governance and where are possible levers for change? 9. Can’t we just train police officers to do better? What’s the evidence on implicit bias and use-of-force trainings?

10. Do police body-worn cameras help or hurt?

11. Are there successful strategies out there to help bridge police-community divides? 

12. What other groups or organizations are using social science to drive change?

These are crucial questions that must be addressed if the US is to successfully solve the large and messy problems of policing in our society (Here is a discussion of "messy" problems in the social sciences; link).

Sociologist Stephen Mastrofski has devoted a great deal of attention to organizational issues within policing. Mastrofski and Willis provide a survey of findings in this field in a useful article in Crime and Justice (39:1 2010; link).

Finally, Human Rights Watch produced a major report on this issue as well (link). This report gives less attention to the organizational challenges of police reform and more attention to the societal causes of systemic patterns of excessive use of force by US police.


Sunday, November 27, 2022

Koestler's observations of Soviet totalitarianism


In honor of the remembrance of the ninetieth anniversary of the Holodomor, it is worth recalling Arthur Koestler's first-hand observations of the devastation of 1932-33 in Ukraine.

In 1932 Koestler undertook a tour of the Soviet Union as a journalist, under the sponsorship of the Comintern. What he witnessed during these months of travel led to a lifetime rejection of Soviet Communism, and an honest recognition of the crimes committed by the Soviet state. Among the most horrific of those crimes was Stalin's war of starvation against the people of Ukraine, the Holodomor (link). Today is the day of remembrance marking the ninetieth anniversary of the Holodomor, so it is relevant to begin there in his recollections in his autobiography of the period, The Invisible Writing.

Here is how Koestler's travels begin:

My first destination was not Moscow but Kharkov, then capital of the Soviet Ukraine. I had friends living in that town, who had invited me to stay with them until I found my feet in the new world.... My idea of Russia had been formed entirely by Soviet propaganda. It was the image of a super-America, engaged in the most gigantic enterprise in history, buzzing with activity, efficiency, enthusiasm.... Only slowly does the newcomer learn to think in contradictions; to distinguish, underneath a chaotic surface, the shape of things to come; to realise that in Sovietland the present is a fiction, a quivering membrane stretched between the past and the future. . . . (Part Two, section IV)

Holodomor

Here is Koestler's first exposure to the Ukraine famine, the Holodomor:

The train puffed slowly across the Ukrainian steppe. It stopped frequently. At every station there was a crowd of peasants in rags, offering ikons and linen in exchange against a loaf of bread. The women were lifting up their infants to the compartment windows — infants pitiful and terrifying with limbs like sticks, puffed bellies, big cadaverous heads lolling on thin necks. I had arrived, unsuspecting, at the peak of the famine of 1932-33 which had depopulated entire districts and claimed several million victims. Its ravages are now officially admitted, but at the time they were kept secret from the world. The scenes at the railway-stations all along our journey gave me an inkling of the disaster, but no understanding of its causes and extent. My Russian travelling companions took pains to explain to me that these wretched crowds were kulaks -- rich peasants who had resisted the collectivisation of the land and whom it had therefore been necessary to evict from their farms.

Another incident was so slight that I only registered it half-consciously. As our train was approaching a river across which a bridge was being built, the conductor came walking down the corridor with an armful of square pieces of cardboard and blocked up all the windows. When I asked why this was done, my travelling companions explained with smiles that bridges were military objectives, and that this precaution was necessary to prevent anybody from photographing them. It was the first of a series of equally grotesque experiences which I put down as examples of revolutionary vigilance. (Part Two, section IV)

And the signs of famine and horrendous suffering were evident in the Kharkov bazaar:

The goods ranged from a handful of rusty nails to a tattered quilt, or a pot of sour milk sold by the spoon, flies included. You could see an old woman sitting for hours with one painted Easter egg or one small piece of dried-up goat’s cheese before her. Or an old man, his bare feet covered with sores, trying to barter his tom boots for a kilo of black bread and a packet of mahorka tobacco. Hemp slippers, and even soles and heels torn off from boots and replaced by a bandage of rags, were frequent items for barter. Some old men had nothing to sell; they sang Ukrainian ballads and were rewarded by an occasional kopeck. Some of the women had babies lying beside them on the pavement or in their laps, feeding; the fly-ridden infant’s lips were fastened to the leathery udder from which it seemed to suck bile instead of milk. A surprising number of men had something wrong with their eyes: a squint, or one pupil gone opaque and milky, or one entire eyeball missing. Most of them had swollen hands and feet; their faces, too, were puffed rather than emaciated, and of that peculiar colour which Tolstoy, talking of a prisoner, describes as ‘the hue of shoots sprouting from potatoes in a cellar’. ... Officially, these men and women were all kulaks who had been expropriated as a punitive measure. In reality, as I was gradually to find out, they were ordinary peasants who had been forced to abandon their villages in the famine-stricken regions. In last year’s harvest-collecting campaign the local Party officials, anxious to deliver their quota, had confiscated not only the harvest but also the seed reserves, and the newly established collective farms had nothing to sow with. ... Officially the famine did not exist. (Part Two, section IV)

Police state

Koestler was able to visit a number of friends in Kharkov and various other cities, and through them he gained a fairly direct perception of the conditions of repression under which Soviet citizens lived in the 1930s: bureaucracy, censorship, fear, arrest, and imprisonment.

When conditions become insupportable, men react according to their temperament in roughly three ways: -- by rebellion, apathy or self-deception. The Soviet citizen knows that rebellion against the largest and most perfect police machinery in history amounts to suicide. So the majority lives in a state of outward apathy and inner cynicism; while the minority lives by self-deception. (Part Two, section IV)

And he makes an important point about the role of the GPU, the omnipresent security police:

It is not the Terror, but the existence of this ubiquitous organisation without which nothing can be done, and which alone is capable of getting things done, that defines the structure of the totalitarian police state.

A Communist writer — a woman whom I greatly admired — once made an unguarded remark that has stuck in my memory. She was telling us, a small circle of Party members, about a clandestine meeting of her with a comrade in a forest in Austria. It had been spring, and despite the circumstances she greatly enjoyed her walk in the woods. When she met the other person, a Party official, he had launched at once into an ‘analysis of the difficulties confronting the movement and the means of overcoming them’. From that moment it had seemed to her that the birds had become silent, and the air had lost its fragrance. She was and is a devoted Communist, and this experience greatly disturbed her. ‘Why,’ she asked pathetically, ‘why is it that the leaves die wherever we go?’ (Part Two, section V)

Travels past the Caucasus

Koestler's account of his travels through the Caucasus and the Asian expanses of the Soviet Union are equally absorbing. He encounters Langston Hughes in a wretched GPU billet in Ashkhabad, Turkmenistan.

[Hughes] offered me some vodka and camel sausage (which, together with sweet Turkestan melon, was to replace in Asia my former staple diet of red caviar), and over these delicatessen he told me the tragi-comic story of how he had come to be stranded in Ashkhabad. He had arrived in the Soviet Union several months before, together with a troupe of some forty American Negro actors and singers. They had been invited by MESHRABPOM, the leading Soviet film trust, to make a film on the persecution of the Negroes. Hughes was to write the script. But by the time they arrived in Moscow a political rapprochement had begun between the U.S.S.R. and the U.S.A. which was eventually to lead to the official recognition of the Soviet regime by America in 1933. One of the American conditions for resuming normal diplomatic relations was that Russia should renounce its propaganda campaign among the American Negroes. Accordingly, MESHRABPOM overnight dropped the project of the film. ... Stranded in Ashkhabad, Hughes had kept sending wires to MESHRABPOM which were never answered. For the last three weeks he had lived as a kind of pensionnaire of the Ashkhabad G.P.U. in the dom sovietov getting what food was available in the G.P.U.’s canteen and co-operative stores on tick. He told me all this as a kind of shaggy-dog story— one of those funny things that inevitably happen in a country which has embarked on a great revolution. Later in the evening, more people arrived in Hughes’s room, and I discovered that we were not the only intellectuals in Ashkhabad. First to arrive was a timid little mouse of a man with a wizened Tartar face, who hardly ever spoke but listened to everything that was said with an immutably admiring smile. He was Shaarieh Kikiloff, the President of the Turkoman Writers’ Federation. What he wrote, neither Hughes nor I were ever able to find out, though we travelled together for about a fortnight. Nor did we ever discover whether he was married, where he lived and how he lived. (Part Two, section X)

Eventually Koestler and Hughes traveled on to Uzbekistan together. But while still in Ashkhabad Koestler witnessed a premonition of Stalinist terror to come, in the form of an extended political trial:

By a strange hazard I stumbled on the first great show trial in Central Asia — a foretaste of things to come.

The only sizeable building in Ashkhabad was the City Soviet, the equivalent of a Town Hall. I had walked past it several times with Kikiloff and wanted to have a look inside, but the smiling little man had each time side-tracked me with a vague ‘They are very busy there’ or It is not a good time’. Puzzled by his manner, I at last insisted and simply walked into the building with the anxious Kikiloff in tow. Inside, there was a courtyard from which a staircase led to the offices; and opposite the gate there was a large door, with red draperies over it, leading into the City Hall. People were drifting in and out of that hall; it looked as if a meeting were in progress there. I walked in and sat down in the last row, Kikiloff unhappily huddled beside me.

The charges were political -- sabotage and counter-revolutionary conspiracy -- and the trial went on for weeks.

Gradually, through Changildi’s testimony, and through the reports in the local newspaper during the following days, I got the hang of the affair. The trial had been on for several weeks. It was expected that it would last for another number of weeks. The City Hall was the only large public meeting place in Ashkhabad; whenever it was needed for a meeting or a theatre performance, the trial was adjourned. The twenty-nine defendants were accused of Sabotage and Counter-revolutionary Conspiracy.
Attakurdov had been the leading personality in the young Turkmen Soviet Republic. He had been chairman of the Ashkhabad Soviet; his brother-in-law, Ovez Kouhev, chairman of the District R.D.I.; another of his in-laws had been editor of the official Party paper. They were now all in the dock. It looked as if Attakurdov and his clan had been running the Republic, and were responsible for all the troubles that had befallen it.

Changildi’s testimony provided a revealing glimpse into the nature of these troubles. An entire kolkhoz had been disbanded because of a hundred and fifty melons. Moreover, private property of the collectivised land had been restored to its former owners, against the policy and law of the Government. Neither the Judge nor the Public Prosecutor had commented on this unheard-of event. When I asked Kikiloff about it, he shrugged and smiled: ‘There are difficulties’. But if such an event was possible, and accepted as a matter of course, the collectivisation programme in Turkmenistan must be in a state of chaos. I did not draw these conclusions; but I vaguely guessed them. I did not doubt that Attakurdov and his people were bad, guilty men; but the eerie unreality pervading the courtroom made me at the same time feel that they were being used as scapegoats. (Part Two, section X)

As a distinguished international visitor, Koestler was asked to sit with the officials on the stage, and Koestler drew an important conclusion from this experience:

The German Communist Party had a motto which used to appear every day on the top right corner of the official Party paper: 'Wo es Stdrkere gibt, immer auf der Seite der Schto decker en — ‘Where there is Power we are on the side of the Powerless’. On that platform I was obviously on the wrong side. It gave me the same guilty feeling that I had experienced towards the Ukrainian peasant girl in the sleeping-car to Erivan. And again, on a different level, towards Nadeshda. And again in my daily contacts with the common people who had no access to privileged co-operative stores, no priorities for food, housing, clothing and living. They were the powerless and I was on the side of the Power, and so it went on wherever I turned in Russia. A revolutionary can identify himself with Power, a rebel cannot; but I was a rebel, not a revolutionary. (Part Two, section X)

What is striking about Koestler's writings is his willingness to be honest about a political system to which he had been ideologically committed, and to describe in detail the social and political circumstances that he observed. Like his Spanish civil war prison memoir, Dialogue with Death, The Invisible Writing provides the reader with a very direct and vivid glimpse of the terrible events of the twentieth century that he witnessed.

Ninety years after Stalin's deliberate war of starvation against the Ukrainian people, another dictator is waging merciless war against Ukraine's civilian population. Putin's aggressive war against Ukraine, and the means of civilian terror he has turned to after the complete military failure of Russian conventional forces, are crimes against humanity, and they must end.


Friday, November 18, 2022

Who is ordering torture and execution in Ukraine?


With the retreat of Russian forces from Kherson this month, new evidence of gruesome atrocities against civilians has become visible (link). A very important question arises: What organization and what commanders have directed this campaign of atrocity, murder, rape, mutilation, torture, and abduction? Is there good investigative reporting on where orders for these unspeakable atrocities and crimes against humanity are coming from? 

Any list of possible suspects in ordering and committing systemic and horrific atrocities in Kherson and other Ukraine locations will certainly include these potential actors: rogue low-level occupation units, mid- to high-level military commanders, the Wagner Group and its presumed commander, Dmitri Utkin, forces commanded by Chechen militia leader Ramzan Kadyrov, and Putin's secret security serve, the FSB. It goes without saying that Vladimir Putin bears ultimate responsibility for these atrocities, since he knows full well that Russian forces are committing these horrendous acts, and we can therefore infer either explicit or implicit consent on his part. But we still need to know more about the organizations and commanders who are directing this campaign of deliberate atrocity against civilians in Ukraine.

A leading candidate is the Russian security service, the FSB, which is the successor to Stalin's NKVD and has been enormously empowered under Putin's rule. Andrei Soldatov and Irina Borogan provide a detailed and highly concerning analysis of Putin's FSB in their 2011 book, The New Nobility: The Restoration of Russia's Security State and the Enduring Legacy of the KGB. The book provides detailed information about the organization and functions of the FSB, as well as informed estimates of its overall size (more than 200,000; p. 2). The book also provides a detailed historical chronology of the evolution of the FSB since Gorbachev's dissolution of the KGB in 1991. 

Soldatov and Borogan document the wide extent of extra-judicial killing in the war in Chechnya and Dagestan by the security services.

Neighboring Dagestan has seen twenty-five kidnappings since February 2009 by Memorial’s count, twelve of which resulted in the murder of victims. A week after the press conference, Sirazhudin Umarov, 32, a construction worker, was kidnapped from Qala, a Derbent district of Dagestan. On September 9 he was called to a meeting by an acquaintance named Azer, a police officer. There Umarov was captured by unidentified masked men. The following day his badly mutilated body was discovered. The security forces confirmed that he had been killed by the authorities, though they claimed he had died during an antiterrorism operation. “His face was so badly smashed from beating that I had difficulty recognizing him,” said Gulbenis Badurova, 33, his wife. “His eye was missing, and both hands had been broken.” (184)

(Soldatov's account of his own interrogation at Lefortovo Prison is chilling, and expresses the nature of the Russian police state.) 

There is a direct lineage connecting Stalin's NKVD (the primary agent of Stalin's terror and repression) and the contemporary FSB, and Soldatov makes the case that the parallels are even more striking today than they were twenty years ago. The lineage from the NKVD to the FSB is important, because the NKVD carried out horrific atrocities and massacres throughout the Stalin period: in 1940 it carried out the Katyn Forest massacre of at least 20,000 Polish army officers (prisoners of war), and in 1941 it carried out a series of massacres of political prisoners in Kiev and other locations in Ukraine (link). (Here is some background on NKVD atrocities in Ukraine in1941; link.) There is no basis for doubting that the NKVD was the author of great atrocity and evil in the 1930s through 1950s and was the primary instrument of Stalin's will throughout those decades.

It is reasonable to ask, therefore, what role FSB directors and special forces agents have played in the atrocities of torture, rape, kidnapping, and murder that have become evident in multiple locations in Ukraine recovered from Russian occupation in recent months.

In a recent article in Foreign Affairs (link) Andrei Soldatov documents the increasing role of repression that has been assigned to the FSB during Putin's rule -- including in the occupation of territory seized from Ukraine since February 2022. The conclusion that Soldatov draws is stark: the FSB is moving closer and closer to the repressive omnipresent arm of a police state that the NKVD was for Stalin:

Since the war in began, Putin’s rapidly growing security state seems to be inching closer to its Stalinist predecessor. The militarization of the FSB, its new recruitment camps, its increasingly open and brutal tactics all suggest that Putin is looking more closely at the approach of the NKVD—an agency that was forged by a totalitarian state in wartime. And the long war is what the Kremlin is priming the country for.

Here is how Soldatov describes the new focus of the FSB, both in Russia and in its war aims in Ukraine:

As Russian President Vladimir Putin’s war in enters its sixth month, a dramatic shift has occurred in the Kremlin’s security bureaucracy, and it has centered on the agency closest to Putin himself: the Federal Security Service, or FSB. When the war began, the Kremlin planned to use the FSB mainly in Ukraine, as a special operations force that would consolidate a rapid Russian conquest. According to the plan, the Russian tanks rolling into Ukraine would trigger regime change in Kyiv, and a new pro-Moscow leadership, sponsored by FSB spymasters, would take control of the country. At the time, it was the FSB’s foreign intelligence branch—the Fifth Service—that was to carry out this task. It was the only major FSB department, out of a dozen, that was directly involved in preparing for the war.

As those plans, however, Putin crafted a different, far more comprehensive mission for the FSB: it would be at the forefront of Russia’s total war effort at home as well as its intelligence operations in Ukraine. And every branch of the service would now be involved. Running the new crackdowns in are the FSB’s counterterrorism unit, its counterintelligence service, and its investigative department. Meanwhile, FSB special forces and the military counterintelligence branch are running operations targeting Ukrainian service people in occupied territories and beyond, recruiting Ukrainian agents, and processing those whom the FSB hopes to see prosecuted in show trials.

Notice that Soldatov's description in the paragraphs quoted here specifically outlines a substantial role for the FSB in occupied Ukraine, according to Putin's pre-war planning. 

My question here is a simple one: how extensive is the involvement of the FSB in the widespread and horrific atrocities that have come to light in Kherson, Bucha, and many other locations in previously occupied Ukraine? These acts of rape, murder, and torture against innocent civilians are generally attributed to "troops" in news stories, which perhaps leads the reader to imagine "rogue low-level army units"; but this is implausible. The atrocities are too widespread to reflect a few sadistic killers among the Russian army of occupation. Therefore we need to know more about the command and control of this horrific way of waging a war of terror and atrocity against civilians in Ukraine. And the world must hold Russia and its bureaucrats of atrocity accountable for their actions during this war.

Wednesday, November 16, 2022

Reasoning for sociological theory


What is involved in providing a compelling and justified formulation of an abstract theoretical concept in sociological theory?

When we engage in theorizing about human action and the social world, we would like our statements to be rationally grounded in some specifiable sense; we would like to be able to offer evidence and reasons for believing that these statements are likely to be true -- or are at least more likely than available alternatives. What counts as evidence and reasons in the field of sociological theory?

Take Zygmunt Bauman's concept of "liquid modernity". This seems like an insightful way of thinking about the modern world. But is it more than a metaphor? Does it have more grip on the world, or on the investigations of empirical sociologists, than Carlyle's notion of "sartor resartus" in Sartor Resartus? Is there empirical content in the concept of liquid modernity?

Or consider Pierre Bourdieu's concept of a "field" of cultural and intellectual activity (link) in The Field of Cultural Production. The heart of Bourdieu's concept of "field" is "relationality" -- the idea that cultural production and its products are situated and constituted in terms of a number of processes and social realities. Cultural products and producers are located within "a space of positions and position-takings" (30) that constitute a set of objective relations.

The space of literary or artistic position-takings, i.e. the structured set of the manifestations of the social agents involved in' the field -- literary or artistic works, of course, but also political acts or pronouncements, manifestos or polemics, etc. -- is inseparable from the space of literary or artistic positions defined by possession of a determinate quantity of specific capital (recognition) and, at the same time, by occupation of a determinate position in the structure of the distribution of this specific capital. The literary or artistic field is a field of forces, but it is also a field of struggles tending to transform or conserve this field of forces. (30)

Is "cultural field" a concept that can be observationally evaluated, analogously to a magnetic field or a gravitational field? No, and no. The logic of "field" for Bourdieu is not the same as the logic of a gravitational field; it does not specify a single, simple mathematical relationship between several variables. Testing the hypothesis of a gravitational field is straightforward: the theory postulates a force between two objects proportional to the product of their masses and inversely proportional to the square of the distance between them. Having specified this simple relationship, it is simple to test the gravitation-field hypothesis. We can set up an experimental situation with objects of known masses and measure the force exerted between them at various distances; we can evaluate the accuracy of the gravitational constant; we can evaluate whether the relationship of distances is an inverse square relationship or possibly non-integer exponent: 1/r^2.001, for example. So the physical theory of a gravitational field is very simple from the point of view of empirical or experimental evaluation.

So what about sociological theories like liquid modernity or cultural field? Can these theories be supported with empirical evidence? The most direct answer seems not to be available in these cases: the idea that scientific statements are ultimately justified by their direct empirical implications. The question of whether Bourdieu's theory of the field is a true description of some aspects of human reality is not one that can be directly decided by experimentation or observation. Rather, the value of the theoretical concept derives from our assessment of how well it serves to organize and explain the behavior of actors within systems -- novelists, colonial administrators, scientists. It is a theoretical concept, valuable in its capacity to organize a range of more observational facts. And this assessment depends ultimately on the empirical adequacy and fecundity of the research communities that make use of these concepts.

These sociological concepts (field, liquid modernity) are more akin to ideal types along the lines of Weber's concept (link) than to single-dimensional statements about a domain of entities and forces in the sense of physical theory. An ideal-type concept is a complex amalgam of properties, meanings, and causal dispositions defining the supposed behavior of its referent. Here is a statement from Weber's Methodology of the Social Sciences in his explication of "commodity-market": 

This conceptual pattern brings together certain relationships and events of historical life into a complex, which is conceived as an internally consistent system.  Substantively, this construct is itself like a utopia which has been arrived at by the analytical accentuation of certain elements of reality.  Its relationship to the empirical data consists solely in the fact that where market-conditioned relationships of the type referred to by the abstract construct are discovered or suspected to exist in reality to some extent, we can make the characteristic features of this relationship pragmatically clear and understandable by reference to an ideal-type. (90)

Bourdieu's construct of cultural field and Bauman's conception of liquid modernity have many of the features of an ideal type: they are offered to "bring together certain relationships ... into a complex". 

There is also a range of theoretical constructs in sociology that have a closer relationship to sociological observation -- what we might call "mid-range" theoretical constructs. The questions of whether people have ideologies that influence their actions; whether there are concrete material social mechanisms that recur across social settings; or whether pragmatism offers a better theory of the actor than does the theory of economic rationality -- each of these issues can be linked to observation in direct and indirect ways. Claims about ideology can be linked to various methodologies of social psychology, public opinion research, and qualitative interviews. Claims about specific causal social mechanisms can be evaluated through research methods found in comparative historical sociology. And the realism of pragmatist theories of agent intentionality are amendable to the kinds of investigations offered by researchers in experimental economics. 

It is the range of highly abstract sociological constructs that are most distant from direct application to the empirical and historical worlds we investigate. And, unlike the most abstract theoretical constructs of physics, they do not have precise quantitative or predictive consequences. Instead, they are more like the organizing mental frameworks through which a sociologist or a historian makes sense of a wide range of human activity and historical changes. And we might say that these frameworks acquire credibility to the extent to which they give rise to productive sociological research at the meso level. In this way they function less as empirical concepts and more as ontological hypotheses or frameworks: "This is how the social world is structured; causation and meanings flow along these lines." Advocates for one theoretical framework or another offer diverse arguments designed to make their positions plausible and compelling to the reader. But the rational credibility of the construct depends ultimately on the empirical reach and credibility of the research and theories to which it gives rise. We will be justified in believing in cultural fields or liquid modernity to the extent that a robust body of empirical sociological research has been created that makes use substantial of these ideas.

Gary Ebbs captures much of the thrust of this naturalistic view of theoretical assertions in his book, Carnap, Quine, and Putnam on Methods of Inquiry:

In our pursuit of truth, we can do no better than to start in the middle, relying on already established beliefs and inferences and applying our best methods for reevaluating particular beliefs and inferences and arriving at new ones. No part of our supposed knowledge, no matter how clear it seems to us or how firmly we now hold it, is unrevisable or guaranteed to be true. Insofar as traditional philosophical conceptions of reason, justification, and apriority conflict with the first two principles, they should be abandoned. In particular, the traditional philosophical method of conceptual analysis should be abandoned in favor of the method of explication, whereby a term we find useful in some ways, but problematic in others, is replaced by another term that serves the useful purposes of the old term but does not have its problems. A central task of philosophy is to clarify and facilitate our rational inquiries by replacing terms and theories that we find useful in some ways, but problematic in others, with new terms and theories that are as clear and unproblematic to us as the terms and methods of our best scientific theories. (Ebbs, introduction)

This is a coherentist view of scientific knowledge, and it provides a surprisingly compelling approach to the question of how to evaluate abstract sociological theories.

Wednesday, November 9, 2022

Twitter's unacceptable hidden defect

image: github analysis of Twitter follower network (link)

Twitter's paroxysms in the past two weeks have been unsettling. But suddenly, I am coming to believe that many of us have misunderstood what we were getting into when we got involved in Twitter in the first place. We had made assumptions about the advantages that Twitter could bring to us and maybe to our academic and cultural communities -- unfettered ability to hear what a fairly lengthy list of "people to follow" and "people who follow" have to say about subjects that the individual user is interested in. We users thought the platform would offer a stimulating sharing of ideas, with a bit of synergy -- new perspectives on old issues and topics. Stuff comes in, we think about it, and stuff goes out. The platform doesn't "make" the message.

But let's look at the situation more closely. Our initial assumptions about Twitter presupposed a process: Person A follows {F1, F2, F3, ..., Fn} and is followed by {G1, G2, G3, ..., Gm}. The platform is simply a conveyor: it serves up messages from source to followers, all through the network of initiators and followers. Whenever any of the Fi people tweet, person A gets a chance to read the message and interact with it. And anything that A tweets is seen by everyone in the follower list Gi. There is usually some overlap between the F's and G's, but they aren't usually exactly the same sets of people.

But notice that this summary of the Twitter process makes an assumption: that the platform is an automatic, neutral, and mechanical server; it simply delivers messages from A to all of Gi, and it delivers all the messages created by the Fi crowd to A. (Whether A is overwhelmed by the volume of messages is a different matter; that's why it makes sense to have a reasonably small set of F's, so that it is possible to pay attention to the messages originating from the people one follows.)

What we are now learning, however, is that the platform (Twitter) is not neutral and automatic. Here I'm focusing on the personalized feed that each Twitter user receives through the app. There are two settings on the HOME / WHAT'S HAPPENING? tab. The user can stick with the default, the curated list, the "top Tweets first" list; or the user can select "Latest Tweets". The implication is that the second choice gives the user an unprocessed feed from all the accounts he/she follows, in reverse chronological order. But my own experience in the past week or so indicates that this is not the case today, if it ever was. Today, for example, 23 of the first 25 tweets in my feed are from "blue-check" accounts; whereas fewer than 10% of the people I follow have blue-check accounts. So blue-check items are vastly over-represented in my news feed, even on the "Latest Tweets" option. Twitter made a trial-balloon announcement last week that "premium accounts" will receive priority in the news feed, and it appears unavoidable that this has been implemented. And that is flatly unacceptable to me.

It is unacceptable for two reasons. First, Twitter is a communications system for me; and the system should not decide which messages I get to see -- anymore than the phone company should decide which phone calls to put through. I want to have routine, unbiased access to the tweets published by the people I follow; I don't want those messages to be buried at the end of a stream of several hundred messages that have been given priority. The whole value of having a Twitter account is having direct access to the ideas, observations, and messages of these people whose opinions I respect, and I want to have an unbiased access to those messages.

But second, the implications of a "curated" feed are quite horrible when you think them through. Any sort of bias can be built into the curation algorithm, emphasizing one kind of message over another, and building a "thought world" for the individual user that is the construction of the algorithm. Like counting votes, the only way to avoid that bias is to mechanically serve up the messages in the order in which they are published. I had long presupposed that this was the way that the feed worked. But plainly it does not work that way today -- even on the seemingly "automatic" setting of "most recent".

This is a deficiency that we probably recognized more readily in the case of Facebook, where the Facebook news feed is plainly a selective "curated" list of items drawn from the agents one has "friended" and other news sources. But on Twitter, this curation bias wasn't evident to me until this week. The reality of how the system works is important: by subscribing to Twitter and reading or scanning the news feed, we are giving the platform an incredible amount of discretion in deciding what we see and what we don't see. Right now the selection algorithm seems to be centered on Twitter's effort to incentivize users to select a paid plan (Twitter Blue, blue check, verified), by offering the advantage that the paid plan messages will get priority in the feed. That all by itself is unacceptable to me as a user, because it opens up the possibility that a disproportion of the messages that I receive are boring and irrelevant. I don't want more messages from Elon simply because he's a blue check user. But the selectivity can be even more harmful than that, since an algorithmic feed can be tuned to political purposes as well. For example, we could imagine an algorithm that gives priority to messages casting doubt on the value of US support for Ukraine and low priority to messages that emphasize the importance of US support for Ukraine.

Consider a fairly dystopian fantasy that sheds light on what I'm getting at. What if a new mass email provider offered a new service. "We will deliver your email in nano-seconds; but even better, we will automatically correct the spelling and grammar, and we will screen incoming and outgoing messages for statements you might later regret." This would be algorithmic "processing" of email communications. And it would be nightmarish. I say nightmarish, because when I send a message, I formulate it in the way that best expresses my meaning and intentions; it is the job of the email carrier to blindly and neutrally deliver the message without algorithmic review and without editing. In a small way, Twitter is messing with my social communications -- both incoming and outgoing -- by imposing an algorithmic "prioritizing" weight on different messages that means that some messages sent in my direction have a much greater probability of being read by me than others. That is a kind of soft censorship. In the present case it is censorship based on "membership status"; but the same routine could prioritize messages according to a measure of their place on the political spectrum. Not good.

I began this post by saying we didn't really understand what we were getting into when we joined Twitter -- thirteen years ago in my case. We thought, without reflection, that it was simply a cool communications platform, a basis for communicating with individuals and groups in many parts of the world and in many different disciplines. But upon reflection, it is something different than that. It is a system in which we have given up control of who sees our messages -- and when -- and which messages from our interest group we are able to see. Those determinations are being made by the algorithm, not by a simple "first-in, first-out" process that guarantees that every message will be delivered. And the algorithm is tweaked according to the business and political interests of the corporation. And Elon Musk has made it plain this week that he is entirely OK with using Twitter's system for his own political purposes. That is not acceptable.

Tuesday, November 8, 2022

Election Day 2022

image: Timothy Snyder, On Tyranny

Here we are in November 2022, and the House, Senate, governors, and state houses are all up for grabs. An appalling number of GOP candidates have continued to spread lies about voter fraud in 2020 and have refused to commit to accepting the results of today’s election. (Remember that Donald Trump took exactly that position in a presidential debate with Hillary Clinton in 2016.) An untethered Christian Nationalist Supreme Court is in the middle of rewriting “settled law” in many key areas of our rights, including reproductive rights. And a visibly immature and narcissistic “richest man in the world” has taken ownership of one important piece of the public square and overnight imposed his loony conspiracy musings on the rest of us, as well as dismantling the moderation and verification tools the forum has used until now. It is not hyperbole to fear that our democracy is at terrible risk today and in the coming years.

It is worth reflecting on Timothy Snyder’s prescient and alarming 2017 book, On Tyranny, and its 2021 revised graphic edition. Snyder structures his book around twenty pieces of advice to us as citizens in an imperiled democracy — a kind of “what to do when catastrophe comes” for all of us. And many of the items are highly relevant in today’s United States. The illustration provided above is taken from the graphic edition. 

Take the first three items together. “Defend institutions” is hugely important for us today, and it is hard. So many signs of erosion of democratic institutions are now visible — determined efforts at voter exclusion, subversion of the offices of secretary of state in numerous states, data-science weaponized gerrymandering, and deliberate discrediting of elections. And one-party rule is a growing risk, in large part because of these assaults on democratic institutions and practices. “Illiberal democracy” with a strongman,  a lapdog dominant party, and pro-forma elections seem like very real possibilities on our horizon (link). So "Do not obey in advance" seems like a good note of caution. But so does item #6 -- "Be wary of paramilitaries".

Now think about several other items on the list that are relevant to our situation today -- #10, #11, and #13. "Believing in truth" is all the more important today after years of lies about election fraud, "stolen elections", idiotic conspiracy theories (e.g. Paul Pelosi), and crazy stuff about Democrats broadcast by wholly unscrupulous demagogues on Fox and other outlets. Respecting the truth and investigating the facts about various important events -- for example, the January 6 insurrection -- are all the more important today than ever. And "corporeal politics" -- what is that? It is a willingness to stand out for one's political convictions, to show up at rallies in support of reproductive rights, and to call out anti-democratic politicians and activists in visible ways. We have a model -- the Civil Rights movement led by Dr. Martin Luther King, jr., and other civil rights leaders.

And what about the final four items -- "dangerous words", "calm in the face of the unthinkable", "patriotism", and "courage"? These are the most reflective of Snyder's snippets of advice. Dangerous words are "weak signals" for dangerous deeds -- threats of violence, neo-Nazi slogans, racist and anti-Semitic memes. So it is crucial for us as citizens to hear those words and resist them. Being calm in the face of the unthinkable -- this is crucial advice, because effective collective action requires good thinking and a calm willingness to work together in the face of adversity. Moreover, it is pretty clear that there is great power in collective action and solidarity, if we can achieve it. And "patriotism" is clearly a part of this picture, if by that we mean a strong commitment to the institutions and values of our constitutional democracy and a multi-cultural society of mutually accepting communities. That is patriotism -- not the flag-waving of the MAGA movement (with an assault rifle over the shoulder), but a reflective commitment to the institutions that ensure liberty, equality, and wellbeing for all of us together.

The final point is humane and crucial: have as much courage as you are able. Defending our democracy does not demand Spartan heroism. Rather, each of us must muster our moral resources and do what we can. Our democracy is worth struggling for.

So let's hope for the best today, and let's hope that the leaders we elect will reflect deeply about their moral and political values and the good of our democracy, rather than the short-term opportunism that is evident on the right. Be a descendant of Lincoln rather than Father Coughlin!


Saturday, November 5, 2022

Fifteen years of Understanding Society


This week represents the fifteenth anniversary of publication of Understanding Society, with a total of 1,484 posts and 13.3 million page views to date. There have been 72 posts and 657K page views in the past twelve months. The blog has remained consistent with the original vision of a "lab notebook for open-source philosophy". And the topics that I've written on have paralleled both the teaching and the academic writing I've done in the past year, reflecting a nice synergy between blogging, teaching, and research. Out of 72 posts during the preceding year, the most frequent topics include "Evil in history" (22), "Democracy and authoritarianism" (16), "Progress and social change" (11), "Philosophy of history" (7), and "Social ontology" (5). Eighteen posts were devoted to specific figures in the history of philosophy and social thought, including Nietzsche, Marx, Carlyle, Machiavelli, Herder, and Herzen.

Blogspot provides cumulative statistics for page views for each post. The top ten posts in the past twelve months include:

  1. The global city -- Saskia Sassen, 12.3K
  2. Lukes on power, 11.1K
  3. Liquid modernity?, 10.0K
  4. Marx's ideas about government, 9.8K
  5. Assemblage theory, 6.7K
  6. Possessive individualism, 6.6K
  7. Power and social class, 4.9K
  8. What is methodology?, 4.7K
  9. Why "philosophy of social science"?, 2.5K
  10. Quantitative and qualitative social science, 1.3K

(For some reason the page providing the text of my talk at the Beijing Forum in 2011, "Justice matters in global economic development", continues to gather a large number of views -- 19.6K in the past twelve months, and 68.6K views since 2011; link.)

From this list it is evident that Sassen, Lukes, Deleuze, Marx, and Macpherson continue to have a good deal of interest for the online public.

The geopolitical distribution of visitors to the blog is interesting as well. Here are maps of about a quarter of the visits on November 3 and November 4, 2022. 

image: sampling of visits to Understanding Society, November 3, 2022

image: sampling of visits to Understanding Society, November 4, 2022

Just about every day there are visitors from six continents, with the preponderance coming from the United States and Western Europe. There are usually a few return visitors from Moscow, Kyiv, and Kharkiv -- surprising to me in the middle of the atrocious war now being waged in Ukraine. On this particular day in early November, visitors from the Russian Federation landed on posts on "Social progress" (Moscow) and "Who was Leon Trotsky?" (Nalchik). A visitor from Kyiv read "Sociology of life expectations", and a return visitor from Zhytomyr Oblast, Ukraine read "Quality of life in China". A visitor from Minsk also visited "Quality of life in China" on the same day, and a visitor from Pinsk browsed a number of posts on "agents and structures". Surprisingly enough, nearly 500 visitors have opened the Ukrainian-language post "Злі наслідки тоталітарних ідеологій" ("Evil consequences of totalitarianism") since it was published in May 2022. (This was as an experiment using Google translations of a relevant post into Ukrainian and Russian.) India and the Philippines always show a substantial number of visitors. Thanks to the Great Firewall, there are no visitors recorded from China, though it is likely that some readers in China come to the blog through a VPN routed through another country.

Since I spend a lot of energy and time writing for the blog, it's worth reflecting on why it's worthwhile for me. The answer is, this is a format of writing and thinking that I find hugely stimulating and satisfying. Something will strike me in my reading or teaching, and I'll try to write up the topic in a reflective way in a thousand words or so. Over time, I find that I've learned a great deal by wrestling with details and ideas from books and articles I would otherwise never have encountered -- for example, Malcolm Muggeridge: A Life, New Jerusalems, or Holocaust in Rovno. And there turns out to be a fair amount of continuity among the topics that show up in the blog over time. Understanding Society has been a very important part of the vitality of my intellectual life in the past fifteen years.

Two topics have proven to be particularly timely in the past year, both in the blog and in my teaching. The first is the topic of honestly confronting the evils of the twentieth century, including the Holocaust and the Holodomor. And the second is the rising threat to liberal democracy created by the anti-democratic impulses of the extreme right in the US and other western democracies. Both of these are important issues to consider at any time. But they are existentially important today, when Russian military forces are committing horrendous atrocities against civilians in Ukraine once again, and when paramilitary organizations and GOP candidates alike are explicitly threatening subversion and violence against democratic institutions in the US. Atrocity and authoritarianism once again threaten our freedom and wellbeing.

It is interesting to me to look back to the beginning, to the contents of the first two months of the blog in 2007. Most striking is the extraordinary number of posts in those two months (58). But the distribution of content is also very interesting. Topics in the philosophy of social science provided the overwhelming majority, including sociological methods, social ontology, and social causation. There were a handful of posts on topics in the philosophy of history, and a comparable number on features of social consciousness (religion, ideology, tacit knowledge, ...). Key parts of the philosophy of social science that I continue to advocate -- the ideas of heterogeneity, plasticity, and contingency of the social world -- were all present in those first two months, and these themes have continued to appear over the intervening years. The language of "actor-centered sociology" did not appear explicitly in these first two months of posts, though the cognate label "microfoundations" was used for several posts during that time. (The first time the phrase "actor-centered" was used is in November 2008, in "Narrative history".) Notably, there are several topics which came to have a substantial presence in later years, including democracy, the Holocaust, totalitarianism, technology failure, analytical sociology, or critical realism, which were entirely absent in 2007.

It is fair to say that the language of the blog remains fairly academic -- though less so than in a published journal article. That said, I appreciate George Orwell's simple rules of good writing from “Politics and the English Language”:

  1. Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
  2. Never use a long word where a short one will do.
  3. If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
  4. Never use the passive where you can use the active.
  5. Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
  6. Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.

This year I have introduced an improved set of tools for navigating the blog to find posts of interest on a particular topic. This proved to be more flexible on the Wordpress platform where the blog is mirrored (https://undsoc.org/). The navigation tool permits the user to select posts by topic or keyword. My hope in creating these tools is that it will be more convenient to "read" the blog on a particular subject through a series of topically related posts.

I have also prepared a four-volume PDF archive of the first fifteen years of blog posts, organized into topics and themes. It runs to 5,500 pages of posts on social ontology, philosophy of social science, philosophy of history, democracy and authoritarianism, social progress, and country studies. The collection will be placed in an online archive to ensure continuing access in the future. Given the current tumult in the world of social platforms, I'd like the past fifteen years of work represented in the blog to remain accessible independently from the blogging platforms on which Understanding Society has appeared.

So thank you, readers, for continuing to follow Understanding Society!