Wednesday, November 22, 2017

China today


There are a lot of opinions about China today in the United States -- authoritarian, farsighted, effective at economic progress, overly committed to Party authority, challenged by the environmental effects of rapid economic growth, burdened by a corrupt and aging party elite. Some believe China is on the path to becoming a dominant super power, while others think that the suppression of individual freedom and thought is a fatal weakness that will eventually spell serious problems for Chinese stability and progress.

Several specific impressions from a recent trip to China leave me with more nuanced versions of several of those thoughts. Here is one: whenever you drive into a parking garage in virtually any major city in China your license plate is immediately scanned and stored. This makes it very convenient for parking -- you don't need a ticket and the parking charge is automatically added to your form of payment when you leave. But it also means the state has the tools necessary to create a vast and up-to-the-moment database of the current locations of millions of citizens. This is part of a surveillance system on a truly massive scale. We know how important this kind of meta-data is in the case of phone and email records -- think how much more of a reduction of privacy it creates when your vehicle is tracked from highway to parking garage to surveillance camera on the street. And why does the parking lot scanning system exist? Surely for the purpose of social monitoring and control. Patterns of movement as well as current locations can be analyzed and inferences can be drawn about one's private life, social connections, or current plans. (Is there a concentration of vehicles around a certain address corresponding to membership in an environmental action organization? Is more intensive investigation needed to head off a possible demonstration or protest?) So this small detail -- ubiquitous license plate scanners -- points to a more basic feature of the vision China's leaders have for the relation between state and individual. It is the panopticon.

Here is a related observation. Take a look at these photos of classrooms at different universities.


Notice the video surveillance system at the rear of the room in each photo. Why is it there? How does it affect the behavior and speech of students and professors? The answer is fairly obvious. The video device has a chilling effect on the content of a professor's lecture and the comments that students make, whether or not it is currently functioning. It permits direct monitoring of the content of classroom discussion. There are a handful of large subjects that cannot be discussed in the classroom. Everyone knows what those topics are, and where the sensitivities of the political officials lie. The seven forbidden subjects include universal values, freedom of speech, civil society, civil rights, historical errors of the CCP, crony capitalism, and judicial independence (link). And a recent program of disciplinary inspections of universities ordered by the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection (CCDI) demonstrate the seriousness of the central government's resolve on the points (link). So the mere fact of the presence of the video device is a reminder to students and faculty that their words and thoughts can have large consequences in their future careers. And we can predict that this fact will change the way students and faculty think and express themselves. Once again -- surveillance and control. This environment is bad for students and faculty; but more fundamentally, it is bad for China's longterm ability to foster creativity and independence of mind among its future leaders.


Here is a third observation, in an entirely different key. It is the sudden appearance of the yellow bicycle in many cities in China, almost overnight. This is a bike-sharing system that uses a phone app so the user can find a bike nearby, rent it for a short trip, and leave it wherever he or she wishes. Ofo and its similar competitor Mobike are funded by some of China's biggest and most innovative companies -- Tencent, Foxconn, and Alibaba. This is very convenient for the "last mile" problem of how to get a commuter from the bus or subway stop to the final destination. This innovation too has a major surveillance aspect -- as soon as I pick up a yellow bike I'm on the radar thanks to the connected GPS device on the bike. But mostly it's an interesting example of the kind of innovation and entrepreneurship that is underway in China today. Is it a viable business model? That isn't yet clear. Does it solve a persistent problem in cities with hundreds of thousands of commuters underway everyday? That too is uncertain, given the challenge of scaling such a system in a city the size of Shanghai. Does it have the potential for creating brand new problems of urban behavior? Certainly so, given the unmanageable piles of yellow bikes you now see in many locations in Chinese cities. Does it give a basis for optimism about local initiative in China as a solution to its problems? Yes, for sure. The very speed of this onslaught of the yellow bicycle gives amazing evidence of China ability to quickly try out novel systems and solutions. (The bikes have shown up in a big way in Seattle as well, along with their orange and lime cousins.)

It's hard to miss important signs of social change in ordinary consumer behavior as well. In 24 hours in Shanghai I saw several Porsches, two Maseratis and a Bentley -- more super-luxury cars than I've ever seen in Michigan. In a city of 40-50 million maybe that's not exceptional, but that's part of the point: the scale of China's population and economy means that there is a class of super-rich, affluent, and middle class people that may be larger than many European countries. This implies a rapid upward shift in the income distribution. It also demonstrates the increasing purchasing power that China brings to the world economy.

A final observation is familiar but important -- China's success in rapidly creating an extensive network of bullet trains. It is now possible to travel by train from Shanghai to Beijing in 4.5 hours -- compared to twelve hours just ten years ago. This is roughly the distance between New York and Chicago. This too has been an impressively rapid development, and it has the potential for changing the social and urban networks of China. This contrasts painfully with the inability of the United States to effectively address its infrastructure problems, let alone creating new transportation options. The Chinese state's consistency and perseverence on an infrastructure plan have paid off with major benefits to the economy and society.

These snippets seem to point to some very important facts about China today. One is the confidence and stability created by several decades of sustained, real economic growth and infrastructure improvement. The lives of vast numbers of Chinese people are substantially better off, in almost all sectors. Second, the weight of surveillance and control has visibly and disturbingly increased in the past ten years. The central government and party are very serious about maintaining ideological control, and they have increasingly effective tools for doing so. Moreover, this level of control seems to be largely accepted by young people and university leaders alike. And third, China is demonstrating its ability to compete at a global level in the areas of business innovation and scientific and technological research. University research centers are increasingly able to deliver on the promise of offering world-class research progress on a wide range of scientific and technological problems.

So in some ways the assumptions made in the United States about China's current realities seem to be a bit off. The speed and quality of China's economic growth is greater than most American commentators believe, and this record of success seems to have created a deeper reservoir of legitimacy and acceptance by the Chinese citizenry than is often believed. Second, the power and security of the central state seems greater than often imagined, and the determination of China's leaders to maintain power and ideological control seems more likely to succeed than many American commentators believe. President Xi and his political apparatus show every indication of an ability to carry out their agenda of continuing economic growth and strict ideological control.

So the current really looks something like this: an authoritarian state apparatus that succeeds in managing economic strategies and individual behavior surprisingly effectively. An authoritarian party state with continuing economic progress seems to be in the cards for China's future for at least the next few decades.

There is a better and more inspiring vision of the future for China. It is a future in which citizens and leaders alike have confidence in the capability of everyone to contribute to China's progress. It is a future in which discussion, criticism, and alternative ideas are expressed freely. It is a future where no one has the power to unilaterally decide China's future, no matter how well intentioned. It is a world in which the Chinese people decide their own priorities and plans, and one in which progress and harmony continue.

This is a pluralist and democratic vision of China's future. And most fundamentally, it is a vision that is hard for the CCP to embrace, because it seems inconsistent with single party rule. So it is hard to see how this future can emerge from the current configuration of power, authority, and ideology.

(Andrew Nathan's recent piece in the New York Review of Books provides useful insights into these topics; link. Nathan sheds more doubt on the "soothing scenario" -- the idea that China will soon evolve towards a more open-minded form of democratic society because of its involvement in the liberal framework of global trading relations. China is not "evolving" towards a more democratic form of socialism; and it is not showing signs of collapse under its own economic inadequacies either.)

Saturday, November 11, 2017

Europe after World War II


Europe faces major challenges today, from the rise of the extreme right to Brexit to the ongoing threat of ISIS terror. But these challenges pale against those faced across the map of Europe in 1945 and for the next twenty years or so. Tony Judt makes the depth and power of those challenges and changes very clear in his 2005 book, Postwar: A History of Europe Since 1945. Here is a good statement of his vision of the period from early in the book. 
An era was over and a new Europe was being born. This much was obvious. But with the passing of the old order many longstanding assumptions would be called into question. What had once seemed permanent and somehow inevitable would take on a more transient air. The Cold-War confrontation; the schism separating East from West; the contest between ‘Communism’ and ‘capitalism’; the separate and non-communicating stories of prosperous western Europe and the Soviet bloc satellites to its east: all these could no longer be understood as the products of ideological necessity or the iron logic of politics. They were the accidental outcomes of history—and history was thrusting them aside. (kl 250)
Since 1989—with the overcoming of long-established inhibitions—it has proven possible to acknowledge (sometimes in the teeth of virulent opposition and denial) the moral price that was paid for Europe’s rebirth. Poles, French, Swiss, Italians, Romanians and others are now better placed to know—if they wish to know—what really happened in their country just a few short decades ago. Even Germans, too, are revisiting the received history of their country—with paradoxical consequences. Now—for the first time in many decades—it is German suffering and German victimhood, whether at the hands of British bombers, Russian soldiers or Czech expellers—that are receiving attention. The Jews, it is once again being tentatively suggested in certain respectable quarters, were not the only victims . . . (kl 439)
And in this 900-page masterpiece Judt lays it all out.

The book has a fantastic level of texture, allowing the reader to gain a powerful sense of experiencing the deprivations, crimes, and successes of the period. Judt makes significant use of economic statistics to give a scaled impression of the devastation of the immediate post-war years and the rapid growth that occurred in many countries. From the number of cars on Italy's roads in 1960 to the plummeting numbers of cinema tickets purchased in Britain in the same year, Judt manages to use the economic statistics to give a powerful impression of the ways in which life was changing across the continent. But equally Judt is at home with the culture, cinema, and literary currents of these countries and times. He is particularly adept in using film to illustrate the themes and patterns of experience that characterized change in these countries and decades.

A more somber thread of the narrative is Judt's telling of the horrendous experience of the Stalinist and post-Stalin states in Eastern Europe. Show trials every bit as horrifying as those in the USSR itself, murderous crackdowns by the Soviet military in Hungary, Czechoslovakia, and Poland, the resurgence of official anti-semitism in Poland, and the establishment of a regime of repression and violence throughout Eastern Europe -- Judt provides fine detail for stories that often get just a sentence or two in recollections of the Cold War. The separate histories of Romania, Bulgaria, Albania, and Yugoslavia during these years all warrant close attention.

Perhaps more than in most histories, Judt's narrative makes it clear that there are large moral realities interwoven with the facts and events he conveys. Individuals commit actions that are deplorable or admirable. But more profoundly, whole nations were confronted with choices and actions in these decades that were formative for generations to come. This is nowhere more apparent than in the ways different European countries dealt with their own responsibility for the extermination of the Jews during the Holocaust. Judt deals with this issue in the epilogue to the book, and it is an important piece of historical writing all by itself. (A version was published in the New York Review of Books (link).) He demonstrates that almost none of the involved nations -- especially the Netherlands, Poland, Italy, France -- lived up to the duty of confronting honestly the behavior of its citizens and officials during the Shoah. France's mendacity in particular on the subject of its willing deportation of 65,000 Jews created a permanent stain on French culture -- and it laid the basis for the continuation of denial of French responsibility by the FN up to the present day.

Judt's grasp of the details of the separate threads of history that he weaves together is truly impressive. Individuals, ideas, events, and interconnections across countries flood off the pages in a depth and precision that is hard to fathom. I find myself wondering what his work process was -- vast numbers of note cards? Stacks of annotated reference books? A prodigious memory? Every work of historical writing involves a large volume of factual material. But this book stands out for the fact that it provides expert and detailed discussion of several dozen countries in their political histories, economic transformations, and cultural and literary scenes. And there isn't one story line but several -- the intricacies of the Cold War, the shifting facets of youth culture, the fate of anti-semitism, the struggles in many countries to create effective social democracies. 

This is a book that everyone should read who wants to make humane sense of the past seventy years, and it helps greatly in underlining how important the project of creating a durable set of European political, social, and cultural institutions is.

Thursday, November 9, 2017

A localist approach to Chinese politics


How do the domestic politics of China work, from 1949 to the present?

This question covers many issues: Why does the Chinese state act as it does? Why does it choose the policies it has pursued over time? How does the Chinese Communist Party work? What are the mechanisms of policy formulation and adoption in China? How do ordinary people and groups express their needs and wishes? What kinds of issues lead to mobilization and protest? How does the state respond?

One thing apparent in these questions is the polarity they presuppose: state and civil society, central government and the people. But in fact, of course, this polarity obscures a crucial stratification of levels of political power and authority. There is an extensive central government, of course, with substantial power. But there are also units of government at lower levels -- province, county, city, town, and village. Officials at each of these levels have powers, authority, and responsibility; and there are powerful stakeholders at each level who have the ability to pressure and influence their actions. Moreover, central government often wants to control and lead the actions of lower-level units of government. But this is a loosely connected system, and actors at various levels have significant freedom of action with respect to the mandates of higher levels. So there are deep principal-agent problems that are manifest throughout the Chinese political system.

This limited ability of the central state to enforce its will throughout the system of political action is what Vivienne Shue refers to as the "limited reach of the state" in The Reach of the State: Sketches of the Chinese Body Politic. Philip Kuhn documented similar weakness during the late Imperial period in Rebellion and its Enemies in Late Imperial China: Militarization and Social Structure, 1796-1864. He demonstrates the importance of local militias led by local elites in the response to the Taiping rebellion. And Elizabeth Perry describes the local politics of mobilization, unrest, and repression in the late Imperial period in Rebels and Revolutionaries in North China, 1845-1945. So it is apparent that political power exercised at lower levels of Chinese society has been important for several centuries. (I discuss most of these authors in Understanding Peasant China: Case Studies in the Philosophy of Social Science.)

Given this segmentation of political power in China, both historically and in the current time, it is important to understand the dynamics of government at lower levels as well if we are to understand the overall behavior of the system.

This is the task that Juan Wang sets for herself in her excellent recent book, The Sinews of State Power: The Rise and Demise of the Cohesive Local State in Rural China. She has chosen the title deliberately; she wants to demonstrate that China's overall political behavior is the result of a complex interplay among multiple levels of political organization. In particular, she finds that the particulars of the relationships that exist between three levels of local government have important consequences for the actions of the central government.

There are numerous strengths of Wang's treatment. One is her emphasis on disaggregation: don't consider political power as an undifferentiated whole, but instead as an interlocking system including both central authority and local political institutions and actors. Second, Wang's approach is admirably actor-centered. She attempts to understand the political situation of local officials and cadres from their own points of view, identifying the risks they are eager to avoid, the motivations they are pursuing, and sometimes the individual rewards that lie behind their decisions and actions. As she points out, their behaviors often look quite different from the idealized expectations of officials and cadres in specific roles.
This book focuses on intergovernmental relations among the county, township, and village levels of administration for the following reasons. First, in terms of central-local relations, these three levels, which constitute the CCP's local and grassroots reach, are the most remote from the national power center. Their actions reflect the capacity of the regime for agency control. Second, in terms of state-society relations, governments at the county level and below have the most immediate interaction with rural residents. Everyday interactions between farmers and government officials can reach the county level but rarely farther up. Third, historically the CCP's unprecedented success in bringing the party-state to the countryside was realized by building the county-township-village state apparatus and a cadre corps to staff them. This study is an account of how that came to be and, more recently, how it then unraveled. (5)
Wang believes that one of the greatest concerns of the central state is the frequency of occurrences of popular unrest -- demonstrations, appeals against corrupt officials, protests against land seizures and environmental problems. Local officials have an interest in containing these kinds of protests. But significantly, Wang finds that sometimes local cadres align themselves with protesters rather than officials, and even serve as instigators and leaders of local protests.

One of her central theoretical tools is the idea of "elite coherence"; her core thesis is that the coherence of interests and identity among officials and cadres at the local level is showing signs of breaking down. And this, she believes, has important consequences for social stability.
The formation and maintenance of intrastate alliances therefore require certain conditions to be present. Inspired by the literature on collective action and contentious politics ..., I focus on the following causes that facilitate the formation of collective action: common interests, selective interests (such as distributive benefits), networks (i.e., interpersonal interactions), and emotions among state agents across the three types of actors. (9)
The switching of allegiance of the village cadres is a factor that Wang believes to be of great importance for China's future stability.
Based on my fieldwork, an increasing percentage of collective action in the countryside after 2000 was mobilized, supported, or joined by village cadres.... The decline in administrative functions for brigade and commune cadres led to an excess of government personnel. Later, administrative reforms aimed at streamlining the communes and village brigades took place. Losing their power, grassroots cadres increased their loyalty toward the local community. Together with the revival of kinship groups, grassroots cadres spearheaded numerous illegal actions and riots. (31)
Key to changes in the alignment of the governmental system from central state to township or village is the issue of revenue extraction. If a given level of government lacks the ability to extract revenues from its area of jurisdiction, it will be unable to carry out policies and projects whether locally conceived or centrally mandated. Wang finds that there were crucial changes in revenue policies that fundamentally altered the political relations among levels of local government.
Important structural changes in the tripartite relationship occurred after 2000, which ultimately disrupted local state alliances. On the one hand, the central policy changes in the early 2000s recentralized fiscal and political autonomy and authority to the county level. The creation of a county leviathan reduced previous mutual reliance between counties and townships. On the other hand, sources of government revenue and personal benefits at township and village levels began to subside. The competitiveness of collectively owned TVEs against state-owned enterprises (SOEs) helped facilitate central policy toward further liberalization. The privatization of small and medium SOEs and TVEs finally bypassed collectively owned TVEs in market competition. (91)
One important topic that Wang does not consider in depth is the means through which the central state attempts to solve its problems of limited control over local officials. Contrary to Tip O'Neill, it is not the case that "all politics is local." What Wang describes in the book is a series of principal-agent problems that impede the effective control of the central government over local officials; but the central state has exercised itself to gain more complete compliance by its local agents through a variety of means (accommodation, threat and intimidation, anti-corruption campaigns, ...). The central state is by no means powerless in the face of contrarian local officials and cadres. The example of the village of Wukan is instructive (link). At the time of its organized resistance to corruption and bad officials, it appeared that villagers had won important victories. Now, six years later, it is apparent that the central state was able to prevail, and the protest movement was crushed. More generally, the central state has prevailed in the implementation of numerous large policies over the opposition of local people, including the dislocations created by the Three Gorges Dam project.

Wang's study is a good example of the dynamics of social power arrangements theorized by Fligstein and McAdam in their theory of strategic action fields (link). The interplay among different levels of officials and cadres that Wang describes appears to be precisely the kind of fluid, network- and relationship-based set of alliances through which power and influence are wielded within organizations, according to Fligstein and McAdam.

The Sinews of State Power is an excellent contribution to our understanding of how political decisions and compromises are reached in China in the current period. It will be very interesting to see whether the current efforts by Xi Jinping will succeed in resetting the balance of power between the center and provincial and local authorities, as appears to be his goal.

(Readers may also be interested in Guobin Yang's analysis of Internet activism in China in The Power of the Internet in China: Citizen Activism Online. Yang's book is an excellent exploration of several important causes of popular dissent in contemporary China -- exactly the kinds of issues that lead to protest and petition in Wang's account as well; link. Also of interest is a recent collection edited by Kevin O'Brien and Rachel Stern, Popular Protest in China; link.)

Wednesday, November 8, 2017

Ten years of Understanding Society


This month marks the tenth anniversary of Understanding Society. The blog now includes 1,176 posts on topics in the philosophy of social science, the heterogeneity of the social world, current thinking about social problems, and occasional contributions on how we can envision a better future. Thanks to all of the readers who have visited during the past twelve months!

The blog continues to serve as a simulating outlet for intellectual work for me. Each post is roughly a thousand words, and my aim is to develop one idea or address one problem in the post. I've never tried for consistency or thematic coherence over time; the blog is more of a research notebook for me, allowing me to capture ideas and topics as they come up. Since the beginning I've looked at it as a kind of "open source philosophy," allowing for the development of ideas and arguments in a piecemeal way. At the same time, it serves as a kind of seismograph for me, letting me recall the kind of topics that have come to the fore over time.

And, as I had hoped, the blog has created a platform for moving ideas from conception to academic publication for new ideas. My book New Directions in the Philosophy of Social Science appeared about a year ago, and it was wholly developed through the blog.


In the past year there have been a number of posts on familiar topics -- critical realism, social mechanisms, and social inequality, for example. These are enduring topics in my research and writing. But a few new topics have arisen as well. One is the question of the dynamics and extent of hate-driven political movements, such as the populist-nationalist extremism of the Trump campaign and presidency (link). Another is completely unrelated -- the fascinating history of fundamental physics during the early decades is the twentieth century, culminating in the development of the atomic bomb (link). And a third is an emerging area of interest for me -- the nature and causes of organizational dysfunction in contemporary institutions (link). I've even had occasion to reflect on cephalopod intelligence (link).

The blog continues to enjoy increasing numbers of visitors. Google recorded over 140,000 page views on the blog in the past month, resulting in over 1.5 million page views over the past year. Part of that traffic comes from followers on Twitter (2,106), Facebook (7,786), Google+ (1,621), and Flipboard, and a great number of the visits are directed by Google searches on relevant topics.

So thank you, readers and visitors, and I hope you will keep reading and commenting!

Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Social science and policy

One of the important reasons that we value scientific knowledge is the possibility that it will allow us to intervene in the world to solve problems that we care about. Good climate science allows us to have high confidence in the causes of global climate change; and it also provides a sound basis for policy interventions to help to mitigate the pace of climate change. Good cellular biology permits a better understanding of autoimmune disease; and it also suggests avenues for prevention and treatment. There is thus an important component of pragmatism in our esteem for scientific knowledge.

In the social sciences we would like to assume that something similar is possible. If we have good sociological understanding of the causes of teen pregnancy or gang violence, perhaps that understanding will also provide a basis for designing effective interventions that reduce the incidence of the social problems we study. In other words, perhaps we can count on social science to provide a valuable and effective basis for the design of social policy.

The philosophy of social science that I've developed in this blog and in New Directions in the Philosophy of Social Science raises some challenges to that hope. It is argued here that the social world is contingent, heterogeneous, plastic, and conjunctural. In the words of Roy Bhaskar, social causation takes place in an open system in which we cannot arrive at confident predictions of particular social outcomes. In place of general theories and comprehensive social laws, it is argued here that we are best advised to seek out particular causal mechanisms that underlie various social outcomes of interest. And it is emphasized that it is difficult to make predictions in particular circumstances even when we have an idea of some of the operative social mechanisms, because of the perennial possibility of contingent interventions by additional factors.

So the hard question is this: to what extent is it at all possible for social science research to provide a confident basis for the design and implementation of social policies to address important social problems?

One approach that does not seem promising is the methodology of random controlled trials (RCT). The logical shortcomings of this approach when applied to social phenomena have been highlighted by Nancy Cartwright and Jeremy Hardie in Evidence-Based Policy: A Practical Guide to Doing It Better, and I discuss these problems In an earlier post (link). So it does not seem promising to expect that we will be able to isolate causal mechanisms (for example, "provide after-school tutoring") and use the method of RCT to demonstrate the efficacy of this mechanism in reducing a given social harm (say, "high school absenteeism").

The problem of establishing a strong relationship between theory and policy has been considered in several areas of social research. One such study is in the field of international relations. Stephen Walt's 2005 article, "The relationship between theory and policy in international relations", is an extended treatment of the topic (link). Here is the abstract to Walt's paper:
Policy makers pay relatively little attention to the vast theoretical literature in IR, and many scholars seem uninterested in doing policy-relevant work. These tendencies are unfortunate because theory is an essential tool of statecraft. Many policy debates ultimately rest on competing theoretical visions, and relying on a false or flawed theory can lead to major foreign policy disasters. Theory remains essential for diagnosing events, explaining their causes, prescribing responses, and evaluating the impact of different policies. Unfortunately, the norms and incentives that currently dominate academia discourage many scholars from doing useful theoretical work in IR. The gap between theory and policy can be narrowed only if the academic community begins to place greater value on policy-relevant theoretical work.
Fundamentally the article raises the question of whether there is a useful relationship between international relations theories and the practice of diplomacy and foreign policy. Can IR theory guide the construction of a successful foreign policy?

Here are some of the ways that Walt believes theory can be used to support policy analysis. Walt believes that theory can assist policy analysis in four important ways, including diagnosis, prediction, prescription, and evaluation. Unfortunately, none of the examples that he offers provide much confidence in any of these capabilities in a significant way. Diagnosis comes down to classification; but given that the idea of a social kind is suspect, we do not add much to our knowledge by classifying a given regime as "fascist", because we know that there is substantial variation across the group of fascist states. Prediction (as Gandhi said about Western civilization) would be nice; but it is almost never attainable in real social situations. Prescription requires a sound knowledge of the likely causal dynamics of a situation; but the open nature of social reality implies that we cannot have such knowledge in any comprehensive way. And evaluation is subject to similar issues. Walt assumes we can evaluate the success of a policy in a quasi-experimental way -- observe the cases where the intervention took place and measure the frequency of the desired outcome. But unfortunately this quasi-experimental method is also suspect.

An important drawback of Walt's treatment is the fairly traditional view that Walt takes with regard to the content of scientific knowledge. There is an underlying preposition of a fairly Humean view of cause and effect.
Policy makers can also rely on empirical laws. An empirical law is an observed correspondence between two or more phenomena that systematic inquiry has shown to be reliable. (25)
But in fact, there are very few useful "empirical laws" in the social realm that might serve as a basis for simple cause-and-effect policy design.

At present, then, there is a still a significant gap between an empirically supported social theory and a well designed social intervention. Unfortunately social causation is rarely as simple and regular as the empiricist framework presupposes. This is indeed disappointing, because it is certainly true that we most urgently need guidance in designing strategies for solving important social problems. (Here is an earlier post that offers a somewhat more positive assessment of the relevance of theory to policy; link.)

Sunday, October 29, 2017

Small farmers in Indian agriculture


Agriculture remains the primary source of income for India's population, and the majority of India's farmers subsist on small farms, less than two hectares (five acres). It is all but self evident that these facts imply continuing poverty and low quality of life for rural Indians. And yet the basic facts and economics of the small farm sector are poorly understood. 

The most recent product of the Project on Agrarian Relations in India (PARI) focuses on exactly this question (link). Madhura Swaminathan and Sandipan Baksi's recent volume, How Do Small Farmers Fare?: Evidence from Village Studies in India, attempts to provide a multidimensional appraisal of the complex realities of the small farm economy in India, including labor, crop productivity, incomes, costs, fertilizer use, credit, climate change, education, living standards, and an overall assessment of how small farmers fare. The book draws upon largescale statistical data collected by the Indian government, but the fundamental insights offered in each chapter are drawn from the intensive village studies conducted by PARI researchers over the past dozen years (link). And, as the resolution and quality of the essays in this volume attest, the PARI village studies constitute an enormously valuable source of information on the rural economy in India in spite of the small number of villages included.

T. Sivamurugan and Madhura Swaminathan provide an excellent survey of the methodology and scope of the PARI project in their chapter on this subject. Their chapter provides detailed information about the methodology pursued in designing and carrying out these village studies in a range of regions in the country.
The Project on Agrarian Relations in India (PARI) began in 2006. One of the objectives of the Project is to analyse village-level production, production systems and livelihoods, and the socio-economic characteristics of different strata of the rural population. As of 2016, 25 villages from 11 States of the country, covering a wide range of agro-ecological regions in the country, have been studied under PARI. In this volume, we have used data on 17 villages from 9 States. (25)
It is apparent that the PARI project considers only a small percentage of India’s villages and farming regions. However, the locations chosen have been selected to provide a useful indication of the economic status of villages and farm households in a variety of locations.


The summary data provided by this research are striking: 
According to the Agricultural Census of 2010–11, there were a total of 138.35 million operational holdings in India. The total area operated was 159.59 million hectares and the average size of an operational holding was 1.15 hectares. The average size of all holdings of size 2 hectares or less – which constituted small and marginal holdings as per the official definition – was 0.60 hectare. Holdings of size 2 hectares or less accounted for around 85 per cent of all holdings and 45 per cent of the total area operated. The number of persons who were part of small farmer households was close to half a billion. (2)
Almost 50% of India's total population consists of small farmers and their families, and 85% of all farms are less than two hectares. Plainly the situation of small farms is of enormous importance to the overall social wellbeing of India.

A particularly important topic in this volume is the assessment of small farmers' incomes that the studies permit. The summary conclusion is that India's hundreds of millions of small farmers earn incomes only slightly higher than subsistence. Rural manual workers earn even lower income.
The levels of income received by small farmer households were low, in both absolute and relative terms. The average incomes received by small farmers were not much higher than the minimum wages in agriculture stipulated by State governments. Minimum wage in India is defined as subsistence wage; hence incomes received by small farmer households were inadequate to meet investments or any requirements other than daily consumption needs. (162)
An important measure of quality of life of poor people is number of years of schooling. The PARI studies show that children in small farmer households have extremely low levels of schooling, and that there are significant difference between boys and girls. Chapter 11 finds similar evidence of deprivation with regard to other material features of quality of life: access to clean drinking water, toilets, electricity, and living space and housing.
Moreover, the studies demonstrate that these kinds of deprivation are further exacerbated by facts of caste and religion.
While small farmer households are the worst off among the peasantry, there exist disparities and differences within the class of small farmers on the basis of social identity. The analysis presented in this chapter shows that SC, ST, and Muslim households among small farmers are far more deprived in terms of housing and access to basic household amenities than households belonging to other social groups. This points to the fact that in Indian society, and more so in rural society, deprivation is not merely economic but social as well. Even though a uniform criterion was used to define small farmer households, we find that higher levels of deprivation among SC, ST, and Muslim households are an outcome of the historical exclusion and accumulated disadvantages faced and inherited by these social groups. Continued practices of untouchability, physical and residential segregation, and isolation shape current outcomes for these groups. (327)
It has sometimes been maintained that small farming is potentially as productive as largescale commercial farming. It is maintained that intensive family labor has the potential for producing crops as efficiently as mechanized capital intensive farming -- presumably because of the lack of efficiencies of scale in farming. The research reported here by Venkatesh Athreya and colleagues rebuts this longstanding assumption about small-scale farming:
At the core of the argument in favour of small-scale farming in terms of its efficiency is the alleged inverse relationship between land productivity and size. It states that small farms are more efficient, de ned in terms of yield per acre, than large farms. It is argued that this relationship holds true more or less universally. This assertion was also the basis of the debate in India on farm size and productivity based on findings from the Farm Management Studies. This argument, which continued through the 1960s, has seen a recent revival. Apart from the empirical challenge posed to this formulation (especially by the green revolution), it has also been theoretically rebutted by Terence Byres…. The body of empirical evidence from FAS surveys too does not support the hypothesis of an inverse relationship between farm size and output per unit of land.
One thing that is noteworthy in this collection is the significant use that the authors make of classical Marxist analysis of agricultural development and the peasantry. Unlike other national traditions in the social sciences, Indian researchers continue to find insights and valuable frameworks in the writings of Marx, Lenin, Kautsky, and other Marxist writers on these topics. And, as the many texts cited in the introductory chapter illustrate, these figures were in fact careful observers of the agrarian systems of Europe. Here is how Athreya et al summarize the Marxist perspective in the Indian context:
The attitude towards the peasantry in the context of India’s development, especially after the country won political independence, has been a matter of much discussion in Indian Marxist literature. Comprehensive land reform is essential to the completion of the democratic revolution in India. Achievement of the democratic revolution under a working class leadership in alliance with the peasantry, especially poor peasants and agricultural labourers as key rural classes in this process, is necessary for further democratic advance. Such a view envisages the continued presence of a large population of small and middle peasants for a long time. We need public policy that supports the peasantry, especially focusing on developing the productive forces among them. (14)
This volume is a very important contribution to development studies in India and other parts of South and Southeast Asia. The dynamics of agriculture remain a critical factor in the social progress of these countries, and this careful and detailed research will provide a basis for constructing more effective development policies in India and elsewhere. And the data suggest that the situation of the rural sector in India is in crisis: incomes for small farmers and landless workers are extremely low with few indications of improvement, and measures of quality of life mirror these findings.

Friday, October 27, 2017

How to think about social identities


What is involved in having a national or racial or sexual identity? What do we mean when we say that a person has a Canadian or a Haitian identity? How can we best think about the mental frameworks and models that serve as lenses through which people understand themselves and their places in history?

Most basically, an identity is a set of beliefs and stories about one's home and one's people. These ideas often involve answers to questions like these: Who am I? What groups do I belong to? How did my group get to the current situation? Where did we come from? And perhaps, who are my enemies? So an identity often involves a narrative, a creation story, or perhaps a remembrance of a long chain of disasters and crimes. Identity and collective memory are intertwined; monuments, icons, and flags help to set the way points in the history of a people and the collective emotions that this group experiences.

Identities are interwoven with narratives and folk histories. They have to do with the stories we tell each other about who we are; how our histories brought us to this place; and what large events shaped us as a "people". And, as Benedict Anderson so eloquently demonstrated in Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism, these stories are more often than not fictions of various kinds, promulgated by individuals and groups who have an interest in shaping collective consciousness in one way or another.

Identities are also often closely linked with performances of various kinds -- holidays, commemorations, funerals and weddings, marches and demonstrations. It is not surprising that historians like Michael Kammen (Mystic Chords of Memory: The Transformation of Tradition in American Culture) give great attention to monuments and celebrations; these are the tangible items that contribute to the formation of an identity as an American, a Black Panther, a Serb, or a Holocaust survivor.

There is an interesting corollary question: are there requirements of consistency that appear to govern the contents of a national or racial identity? If a person's identity involves adherence to the idea of gender equality, does this imply that the person will also value racial equality? If a person values loyalty to his friends, will he or she also be likely to value promise-keeping or truth-telling to strangers?

We might expect consistency among the elements of an identity if we assumed that individuals are reflective agents, weighing and comparing the various components of their identity against each other. This kind of mental process might be expected to lead individuals to notice a similarity between "equality between men and women" and "equality between Christians and Muslims", and might adjust his bigoted beliefs about Muslims in order to make them more compatible with his beliefs about gender equality. If, on the other hand, we think of individuals as unreflective and dogmatic, then there may be less ground for expecting a gradual adjustment of beliefs into a more consistent whole. On that scenario, the components of a person's identity are more similar to the likes and aversions of the palate than the considered judgments of morality.

Finally, it is also clear -- as the theorists of intersectionality have demonstrated (for example, Patricia Hill Collins; link) -- that most of us possess multiple identities at the same time. We are Irish, European, lesbian, working class, anti-fascist, and Green, all at the same time. And the imperatives of the several identities we wear are often different in the political actions that they call for. Here again the question of consistency arises: how are we to reconcile these different calls to action? Is there an underlying consistency of values, or are the orienting values of one's anti-fascism largely independent from one's commitments to a pro-environmentalist agenda?

It is clear that various kinds of identities are highly relevant to politics and collective action. Appeals to identity solidarities have powerful effects on mobilization and political activization. But given that identities are not primeval, it is also clear that identities are themselves the subject of political struggle. Leaders, activists, and organizations have powerful interests in shaping the content and focus of the identities that are realized in the groups and individuals around them.

Monday, October 23, 2017

Intergenerational social mobility


A crucial part of social cohesion is the prospect of social mobility across generations. A social order in which individuals are stuck in their social position as a result of the lack of social assets of their parents is one which lacks legitimacy for an important part of its population. (Here are a few earlier posts on social mobility in the United States; link, link.) This observation raises several crucial questions. How do we measure social mobility? What obstacles stand in the way of social mobility for some segments of a given population? And what mechanisms exist to increase the pace of social mobility for a given society?

Raj Chetty and his colleagues have profoundly changed the terrain for social scientists interested in these questions through a striking new approach. Their work is presented on the Equality of Mobility website (link). The map above shows that there are very sizable regional differences in social mobility rates, from the deep south to the plains states and upper midwest.

Of particular interest is the light their research sheds on the role that post-secondary education plays in social mobility. A summary of their findings is presented in an NBER research paper, "Mobility Report Cards: The Role of Colleges in Intergenerational Mobility" (link). Here is a statement of their approach:
We take a step toward answering these questions by using administrative data covering all college students from 1999-2013 to construct publicly available mobility report cards – statistics on students’ earnings outcomes and their parents’ incomes – for each college in America.1 We use de-identified data from federal income tax returns and the Department of Education to obtain information on college attendance, students’ earnings in their early thirties, and their parents’ household incomes.2 In our baseline analysis, we focus on children born between 1980 and 1982 – the oldest children whom we can reliably link to parents – and assign children to colleges based on the college they attend most between the ages of 19 and 22. We then show that our results are robust to a range of alternative specifications, such as measuring children’s incomes at the household instead of individual level, using alternative definitions of college attendance, and adjusting for differences in local costs of living.
Their research involves linking federal tax returns for two generations of individuals in order to establish the relationship between the parents' income group and the child's income group after college. (The tax data are de-identified so that the privacy of the individuals is protected.) The Equality of Mobility website includes downloadable datasets for the report cards for several thousand post-secondary institutions.

A highlight of this analysis is the very substantial impact on social mobility created by regional public universities.
The colleges that have the highest bottom-to-top-quintile mobility rates – i.e., those that offer both high success rates and low-income access – are typically mid-tier public institutions. For instance, many campuses of the City University of New York (CUNY), certain California State colleges, and several campuses in the University of Texas system have mobility rates above 6%. Certain community colleges, such as Glendale Community College in Los Angeles, also have very high mobility rates; however, a number of other community colleges have very low mobility rates because they have low success rates. Elite private (Ivy-Plus) colleges have an average mobility rate of 2.2%, slightly above the national median: these colleges have the best outcomes but, as discussed above, also have very few students from low-income families. Flagship public institutions have fairly low mobility rates on average (1.7%), as many of them have relatively low rates of access. Mobility rates are not strongly correlated with differences in the distribution of college majors, endowments, instructional expenditures, or other institutional characteristics. This is because the characteristics that correlate positively with children’s earnings outcomes (e.g., selectivity or expenditures) correlate negatively with access, leading to little or no correlation with mobility rates. The lack of observable predictors of mobility rates underscores the value of directly examining students’ earnings outcomes by college as we do here, but leaves the question of understanding the production and selection technologies used by high-mobility-rate colleges open for future work. (3-4)
These are by and large the institutions that constitute the membership of the American Association of State Colleges and Universities (link). AASCU institutions are distinguished by the commitment that they commonly share to enhancing access for under-serviced members of society, and to contributing to social mobility in the regions and states that they serve. These values are expressed in the American Democracy Project (link). The evidence of the Chetty project appears to validate the achievement of that mission.

There are additional questions that one would like to be able to answer using the kinds of data that Chetty and his colleagues have considered. Central among these have to do with other measures of social mobility. The definition of social mobility in use here is transition from the bottom quintile of income to the top quintile of income in one generation. But it would be illuminating to consider less dramatic social movement as well -- for example, from the bottom quintile to the middle quintile. It is also interesting to consider whether the variable measuring the likelihood of the child achieving the first quintile of income given parents in the bottom quintile might not be an alternative measure of the social-mobility efficacy of a given institution. This differs from their definition in that it is not weighted by the percentage of students from the lowest quintile.

This research underlines the critical importance of public higher education in the United States. We need to do a better job of supporting public universities so that the cost of higher education is not so heavily skewed towards tuition revenues. The benefits of public universities are certainly of value to the individual graduates and their families. But the increased social mobility enabled by many public universities also enhances democratic legitimacy at a time when many institutions are under attack.

Sunday, October 8, 2017

Social consciousness and critical realism


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Wednesday, October 4, 2017

Community resilience


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, September 30, 2017

Refinements of social functionalism


Robert Merton is one of the most sophisticated exponents of a qualified functionalism in sociology (Social Theory and Social Structure). He finds that earlier versions of sociological functionalism were conceptually flawed. Here is how he characterizes the classic theory of functionalism:
We should attend first to the list of terms ostensibly referring to the same concept: purpose, function, motive, designed, secondary consideration, primary concern, aim. Through inspection, it becomes clear that these terms group into quite distinct conceptual frames of reference. At times, some of these terms — move, design, aim and purpose — clearly refer to the explicit ends-in-view of the representatives of the state. Others motive, secondary consideration — refer to the ends -in-view of the victim of the crime. And both of these sets of terms are alike in referring to the subjective anticipations of the results of punishment. But the concept of function involves the standpoint of the observer, not necessarily that of the participant. Social function refers to observable objective consequences, not to subjective dispositions (aims, motives, purposes). And the failure to distinguish between the objective sociological consequences and the subjective dispositions inevitably leads to confusion of functional analysis. (78)
And here is a fairly clear statement of the logic of functional analysis as practiced by social anthropologists like Evans-Pritchard and Malinowski, according to Merton:
Substantially, these postulates hold first, that standardized social activities or cultural items are functional for the entire social or cultural system; second, that all such social and cultural items fulfill sociological functions; and third, that these items are consequently indispensable. Although these three articles of faith are ordinarily seen only in one another’s company, they had best be examined separately, since each gives rise to its own distinctive difficulties. (79)
Merton offers careful critique of all three postulates.
In scrutinizing first, the postulate of functional unity, we found that one cannot assume full integration of all societies, but that this is an empirical question of fact in which we should be prepared to find a range of degrees of integration… 
Review of the second postulate of universal functionalism, which holds that all persisting forms of culture are inevitably functional, resulted in other considerations which must be met by a codified approach to functional interpretation. It appeared not only that we must be prepared to find dysfunctional as well as functional consequences of these forms but that the theorist will ultimately be confronted with the difficult problem of developing an organon for assessing the net balance of consequences if his research is to have bearing on social technology…. 
The postulate of indispensability, we found entailed two distinct propositions: the one alleging the indispensability of certain functions, and this gives rise to the concept of functional necessity or functional pre-requisites; the other alleging the indispensability of existing social institutions, culture forms, or the like, and this when suitably questioned, gives rise to the concept of functional alternatives, equivalents or substitutes. (90)
Merton draws an important distinction between manifest and latent functions -- between the directly observable beneficial consequences of a given social arrangement and the indirect and unobservable consequences that the arrangement may have.
But armed with the concept of latent function, the sociologist extends his inquiry in those very directions which promise most for the theoretic development of the discipline. He examines the familiar (or planned) social practice to ascertain the latent, and hence generally unrecognized, functions (as well, of course, as the manifest functions). He considers, for example, the consequences of the new wage plan for, say, the trade union in which the workers are organized.... There is some evidence that it is precisely at the point where the research attention of sociologists has shifted from the plane of manifest to the plane of latent functions that they have made their distinctive and major contributions. (120)
In the “organon” that Merton sketches for sociological functionalism in this book, he emphasizes the crucial role played by the search for mechanisms. We need to understand how functional properties of a feature are conveyed to the social arrangements that they affect. (Note that this is not the same as searching for the mechanisms through which the functional properties are brought about. Merton addresses this latter question under the topic of structural dynamics and change.)
Concepts of the mechanisms through which functions are fulfilled.. Functional analysis in sociology, as in other disciplines like physiology and psychology, calls for a “concrete and detailed” account of the mechanisms which operate to perform a designated function. This refers, not to psychological, but to social, mechanisms (e.g., role-segmentation, insulation f institutional demands, hierarchic ordering of values, social division of labor, ritual and ceremonial enactments, etc.). (106)
These passages demonstrate that Merton’s relationship to functionalism is complex, and the functionalism that he endorses is not the a priori methodology advocated by earlier theorists. However, he accepts the basic idea that we can explain (some) social features based on the positive consequences they create for the social system or important parts of the social system.

The idea of sociological functionalism has been substantially discredited in sociology. Functionalism maintains that social features -- institutions, values, laws -- have the characteristics they possess because they serve important needs of the social order. Or to put the point the other way around, a social order comes to have features that are functionally well adapted to serving the needs of society (or powerful groups within society). Marx makes such a statement when he asserts that the state is the managing committee of the bourgeoisie, or that the superstructure of capitalist society exists to stabilize the property relations of the economic structure. Jon Elster offered compelling critiques of functionalism in his discussions of Gerry Cohen's Karl Marx's Theory of History and Marx's theory of historical materialism (link). These criticisms were formulated with respect to historical materialism, but they are equally compelling for other functionalist theories as well.

Fundamentally the critique of sociological functionalism depends on discrediting an analogy between biology and sociology. The language of functional adaptation of organs to system finds its origin in biology; the heart serves to sustain the organism by pumping blood. But, as Elster and others point out, there is a crucial disanalogy between biology and sociology. This is the fact of natural selection and evolution in the biological case, which has no close analog in the social case. We have a very good understanding of the mechanism that leads the physiology of a species to be well adapted to serving the reproductive and survival needs of the organism; this is the mechanism of natural selection. But social entities are not subject to analogous selection pressures.

So the functionalist view of society is suspect because it depends on a fundamental mystery: how can the effects of a social features be thought to explain its emergence and structure? How can the fact that XYZ system of norms about marriage has the effect of creating a docile workforce explain the existence of that set of norms in society? Doesn't this get the temporal order of causation backwards? It is not impossible to provide answers to this question; but we cannot take it as a dogmatic assumption that society will unavoidably be organized in such a way that its needs are satisfied by well tuned institutions.

There is one answer to this question that makes perfect sense: the mechanism of purposive design. There is no mystery in the fact that a rudder exists to steer the ship; it was designed by the ship builder to do exactly that. And perhaps it is no less straightforward to assert that the audit function in a corporation exists to prevent dishonest behavior within the organization. Intelligent managers, foreseeing the temptation to fiddle accounts, designed a system for detecting and punishing fiddling.

What is more difficult to interpret is a claim about the social function of a feature where the postulated consequences of the workings of the features are obscure (latent, in Merton's terms), and where the feature took shape as the result of the independent actions of numerous actors over time. The first point makes intelligent design difficult to carry out, and the second makes it implausible to assume the existence of the intelligent designer at all.

It is not impossible to imagine social mechanisms that might bring about a functional adaptation of a social arrangement to the needs of the system. Here is a mechanism that complements the intelligent design mechanism. Call it the "slow accumulation of interested adjustments" mechanism. Suppose that a social arrangement is introduced through legislation -- a policy governing regulation of private activities to protect health and safety. And suppose that the details of the policy are open to modification over time by a legislative process. At any given time there will be groups and individuals whose interests are affected by the policy. When modifications are considered, groups can advocate for improvements that favor their interests. And if there are groups within society that world disproportionate power and influence, we can expect that the modifications that are selected will more often than not be ones favored by this group. This mechanism implies that the policy will be "tuned" over time to work in such a way as to serve the interests of the influential group.

This mechanism is different from the intelligent design mechanism because it assumes only local modifications over time -- not a unitary optimal planning and design process. It looks more like an evolutionary process -- myopic but directional. But the mechanism of innovation and selection is different from the biological case. Innovations survive because they are preferred by influential stakeholders. And the medium- and long-term result is a drift in the direction of fit between the working characteristics of the policy and the needs and interests of the influential groups.

This gives us a different and more sociologically credible way of defending the idea that important social arrangements will be "functionally adapted" to satisfying the needs of the powerful groups in society -- not because those groups directly designed the arrangements, but because they had influence on the process of refinement and adjustment that led to the present configuration.

This suggests that sociological functionalism is not fundamentally impossible. Instead, it shows that a functional claim must be complemented with an account of how the postulated correspondence between the characteristics of the arrangement and the needs of the system came to be -- how the arrangement was developed in ways that led it towards a higher degree of fittedness to the needs of some important social-systemic characteristic.

Thursday, September 28, 2017

Sustaining a philosophy research community


The European Network for Philosophy of Social Science (ENPOSS) completed its annual conference in Krakow last week. It was a stimulating and productive success, with scholars from many countries and at every level of seniority. ENPOSS is one of the most dynamic networks where genuinely excellent work in philosophy of social science is taking place (link). Philosophers from Germany, Poland, Norway, Spain, France, the Netherlands, the UK, and other countries came together for three intensive days of panels and discussions. The discussions made it clear that this is an integrated research community with a common understanding of a number of research problems and a common vocabulary. There is a sense of continuing progress on key issues -- micro-macro ontology, social mechanisms, naturalism, intentionality, institutional imperatives, fact-value issues, computational social science, and intersections of disciplinary perspectives, to name several.

Particular highlights were keynote addresses by Dan Hausman ("Social scientific naturalism revisited"), Anne Alexandrova ("Are social scientists experts on values?"), and Bartosz Brozek ("The architecture of the legal mind"). There were also lively book discussions on several current books in the philosophy of social science -- Chris Mantzavinos's Explanatory Pluralism, Lukasz Hardt's Economics Without Laws: Towards a New Philosophy of Economics, and my own New Directions in the Philosophy of Social Science. Thanks to Eleonora Montuschi, Gianluca Manzo, and Federica Russo for excellent and stimulating discussion of my book.

It is interesting to observe that the supposed divide between analytic and Continental philosophy is not in evidence in this network of scholars. These are philosophers whose Ph.D. training took place all over Europe -- Italy, Belgium, Finland, Germany, France, Spain, the UK ... They are European philosophers. But their philosophical ideas do not fall within the stereotyped boundaries of "Continental philosophy." The philosophical vocabulary in evidence is familiar from analytic philosophy. At the same time, this is not simply an extension of Anglo-American philosophy. The style of reasoning and analysis is not narrowly restricted to the paradigms reflected by Russell, Dummett, or Parfit. It is, perhaps, a new style of European philosophy. There is a broad commitment to engaging with the logic and content of particular social sciences at a level that would also make sense to the practitioners of sociology, political science, or economics. And there is a striking breadth to the substantive problems of social life that these philosophers are attempting to better understand. The overall impression is of a research community that has the features of what Imre Lakatos referred to as a "progressive research programme" in Criticism and the Growth of Knowledge -- one in which problems are being addressed and treated in ways that sheds genuinely new light on the problem. Progress is taking place.

There were two large topic areas that perhaps surprisingly did not find expression in the ENPOSS program. One is the field of critical realism and the ideas about social explanation advanced by Roy Bhaskar and Margaret Archer. And the second is the theory of assemblages put forward by Deleuze and subsequently elaborated by DeLanda and Latour. These topic areas have drawn a fair amount of attention by social theorists and philosophers in other parts of the philosophy of social science research community. So it is interesting to realize that they were largely invisible in Krakow. This leads one to think that this particular network of scholars is simply not very much influenced by these ideas.

Part of the dynamism of the ENPOSS conference, both in Krakow and in prior years, is the broad sense that these issues matter a great deal. There was a sense of the underlying importance of the philosophy of social science. Participants seem to share the idea that the processes of social change and periodic crisis that we face in the contemporary world are both novel and potentially harmful to human flourishing, and that the social sciences need to develop better methods, ontologies, and theories if they are to help us to understand and improve the social world in which we live. So the philosophy of social science is not just a contribution to a minor area within the grand discipline of philosophy; more importantly, it is a substantial and valuable contribution to our collective ability to bring a scientific perspective to social problems and social progress.

Next year's meeting will take place in early September at the University of Hannover and will be a joint meeting with the US-based Philosophy of Social Science Roundtable. The call for papers will be posted on the ENPOSS website.