Thursday, October 8, 2015

Social conflict and group mobilization

source: Du Shiyu and Qi Jiayan, "Multi-agent Modeling and Simulation on Group Polarization Behavior in Web 2.0"

An earlier post drew attention to the fact that there are sometimes powerful forces leading to the disintegration of previously peaceful populations of people into violent opposition across groups (link). A population concentrated in a geographical space (city, region) almost always represents a variety of sources of differentiation across groups: racial differences, economic differences, and cultural and religious differences, to mention several important ones. And virtually any sources of group identity and group wellbeing can potentially be a source of conflict and opposition within the population. So the earlier post asked the question, what are the factors that lead these latent conflicts to break out into active conflict? What leads individuals within a group to begin to mobilize together with the goal of resisting or attacking members of other groups?

Several factors are evident. First, there are multiple kinds of agents in play, both individual and collective. The cohesion-fission results are the complex consequence of the agency and strategies of these many agents and their strategic interactions. And there are agents working to secure cohesion at the same time as other agents work to bring about conflict across groups. Second, there are multiple sources of collective grievance that may serve to provide the raw materials for mobilization -- fields over which groups have different levels of access to outcomes that they want to control. And third, there are a variety of structural factors that appear to be relevant to the dynamic processes of mobilization that may occur. Let's look at each of these.


Leaders. Leaders sometimes have an interest in using inter-group conflict as a basis for mobilization of supporters around them, for the purpose of extending their power and the resources they control. (This is often referred to as "political entrepreneurship.") Political leaders can provoke polarization by giving particular salience to one set of group characteristics over another. Lies, distortions, and emotional exhortation can provoke rank-and-file followers to increase their emotional level of commitment to the program of this group or that. The history of BJP in India as a provoker of Hindu-Muslim antagonism is a case in point (Atul Kohli, Democracy and Discontent: India's Growing Crisis of Governability). (A good illustration is Sam Popkin's "Political entrepreneurs and peasant movements in Vietnam" in Michael Taylor, Rationality and Revolution.) Here is Popkin's description:
This chapter examines the mobilization of peasants during the Vietnamese revolution. It shows how, out of the rational choices of myriad individual, peasant society can be restructured and new institutions constructed. It shows in particular how peasant organizers, starting with limited material resources and using only their organizational skills, can "bootstrap" their organizations into existence and so "build something from nothing". Through small interventions in the patterns of daily life these political and religious organizers, here called political entrepreneurs, build institutions which generate a "revolutionary surplus" or profit, and financed by this surplus they then use their local bases to recruit people to a national struggle. (9) 
Organizations. Organizations have the ability to communicate with their members; they can supply resources to support mobilization (lease buses to transport demonstrators to the capital city); and they can educate and indoctrinate followers into a particular social world view. There is a wide range of organizations that are relevant to mobilization in a social environment:
  • Community-based organizations
  • Youth and student organizations
  • Gangs and criminal organizations
  • Business and industry
  • Religious organizations and leaders
Organizations also have the opportunity of building a high degree of emotional adherence in their members. Michael Mann emphasizes each of these avenues of influence in his analysis of fascist paramilitary organizations in the 1930s (link). 

Ordinary rank-and-file actors. Most people at any given time are not actively engaged in protest or militant activity. So the success or failure of efforts to polarize a population depend on the ability of leaders and organizations to activate these ordinary actors.


Now turn to the grievances that may lead actors to mobilize for action against another group. The primary source of conflict among groups within Marxist theory is property. Class conflict is the primary social conflict. But much social conflict seems to arise from non-material factors --
  • Material conflict of interest across communities (property, wealth, income, jobs)
  • Cultural and religious conflict of practice
  • Conflict over political power within the state over resources
  • Kinship relations and conflicts across kinship groups
So there is a wide range of potential causes for polarization. However, at most times and places these potential grievances remain latent rather than expressed. Leaders and organizations can extend efforts towards mobilizing the emotions and adherence of members of society for solidarity around one or another set of grievances.

Influences on the spread of conflictual mobilization

Proximity. The spatial distribution of people across a region influences the ease with which they communicate with each other. Neighbors are more likely to be influenced in their beliefs and motives for action than are strangers from widely separated parts of the city. C. K. Lee points out the impact that dormitory-style living arrangements had for workers in "sunset" industries in China; rumors and calls to action flowed easily through the residential buildings (Against the Law: Labor Protests in China's Rustbelt and Sunbelt).

Social networks of affiliation. Social networks create communications pathways; they also create differentiated networks of trust. The fact that Suneel's brother-in-law Atul attends the same temple as Suneel gives Suneel elevated grounds for trusting and relying upon Atul when it comes to learning current information and in responding to calls for action conveyed by Atul.

Incidents. Mobilization within a subcommunity is often triggered by an instigating incident -- a traffic accident, an incidence of police brutality, an ethnic slur, a rumor of bad behavior by a member of another subcommunity. The police raid on the blind pig in Detroit in 1967 unleashed a cycle of mobilization and counter-mobilization within Detroit's population and the state and federal governments.


Broadcast media. As was evident in the Rwanda genocide (link), control of radio or television stations is a major advantage for organizations and leaders who are seeking to mobilize their followers for a given kind of action.

Direct face-to-face mobilization. Organizations like labor unions, community-based organizations, and industry associations often have substantial personnel on the ground -- cadres -- who serve to communicate with and motivate the rank-and-file members and potential adherents. One important example is the GOTV efforts that various organizations are able to mount in times of elections. Another is the visibility and influence in urban neighborhoods that the Black Panthers created in the 1960s through their food programs.

Social media. It is widely believed, especially since the rapid mobilizations associated with the Arab Spring, that social media like Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram can serve as effective pathways of mobilization and activization. (link)

We still haven't gotten to a clear answer to the question: under what conditions does a community begin to fission into conflicting components? But this analysis of the elements of the situation sheds some light on the facilitating or inhibiting factors that are relevant to such a process of fissioning. When leaders and organizations emerge who have a political interest in creating division (not an uncommon situation); when genuine underlying tensions exist (pertaining to resources or identity markers); and when features of proximity, interrelatedness, and weakness of policing permit the spread of divisive messages of faction; then fissioning is increasingly like.

Thursday, October 1, 2015

What is a morphogenic society?

diagram: Erik Olin Wright, The Value Controversy and Social Research (link)

Margaret Archer's research collaboration on topics concerning the theory of morphogenesis continues with the publication of the third volume in the Social Morphogenesis series, Generative Mechanisms Transforming the Social Order. (The first two volumes have been treated in earlier posts; link, link.) Like the earlier volumes, this volume offers a highly stimulating treatment of issues that are prominent in the branch of the critical realism research community that Archer has defined. The focus here is upon the idea of "generative mechanisms," which allows for a very interesting set of connections to other segments of the philosophy of social science field. Contributors to this volume include Phil Gorski, Colin Wight, Pierpaolo Donati, Wolfgang Hofkirchner, Emmanuel Lazega, Andrea Maccarini, Doug Porpora, Tony Lawson, and Ismael Al-Amoudi and John Latsis, as well as Archer herself.

Archer puts the guiding question of the research collaboration in these terms:
We are seeking a causal explanation of what could ... lead the social formation of late modernity to change into a one that is very different in kind precisely in terms of its relational organization. (1-2)
In other words, it is change in the relational structure of modern society that is the object here; and the search for generative mechanisms is a search for the processes internal to late modernity that bring this structural change about. Put in these terms, the objective is reminiscent of Marx's goal in Capital: to discover the internal dynamics within the capitalist mode of production that were likely to lead to fundamental structural change within the mode of production and the birth of a successor mode of production. Here is a typical formulation, offered in the preface to the first edition of Capital: "Intrinsically, it is not a question of the higher or lower degree of development of the social antagonisms that result from the natural laws of capitalist production. It is a question of these laws themselves, of these tendencies working with iron necessity towards inevitable results. The country that is more developed industrially only shows, to the less developed, the image of its own future." Marx believes the key mechanism driving change within capitalism is the "social antagonisms" of the defining property system. And he believes that this mechanism will lead ultimately to fundamental change in the structure of the mode of production. Where Archer refers to a system of social relations, Marx refers to the system of relations of property and power. But both seem to be asking the same kind of question: what are the causes of fundamental structural change in a society?

Archer and her collaborators continue to employ what they call the "S-A-C" framework: structure-action-culture. The fundamental idea here is that social processes and the mechanisms of social transformation almost always involve each of the axes of this framework. So it is important to pay attention to the structured environments in which social action takes place; the embodied schemata of action in which actors act and interact; and the elements of culture and value that refract action within contingent structures. This way of framing the social world and its dynamics has the consequence of discouraging reductionist and single-factor accounts of change. Rather, morphogenetic mechanisms are heterogeneous.

A key question for this programme of research is that of the meaning of "morphogenic" society. What precisely is a morphogenic society? The contrast between morphogenesis and morphostasis is a reasonably clear one.  Borrowing from Walter Buckley, Archer defines morphogenesis as "those processes which tend to elaborate or change a system's given form, structure or state" (1). Analogously, morphostasis can be defined as "those processes which tend to stabilize and recreate a system's given form, structure or state". As Archer and many of her collaborators emphasize, both dynamic processes of change and corrective processes of stability require social explanation, and both kinds of processes are underway in virtually any social order. Moreover, it is possible to identify concrete social mechanisms that contribute to both higher-level characteristics: mechanisms that bring about systemic change and mechanisms that tend to reinforce existing structures.

So morphogenesis and morphostasis are reasonably clear as analytical concepts. But what is a morphogenic society? One possible reading is that a morphogenic society is one in which the change-driving (morphogenetic) characteristics of the society are substantially more dominant than the stability-enhancing (morphostatic) characteristics; so a morphogenic society is one that tends to undergo rapid and non-convergent change. Archer doesn't give a definition of the meaning of this concept in this volume (though the second volume of this series is also primarily focused on the idea of a morphogenic society). But Andrea Maccarini provides a brief and useable definition in his contribution to the current volume.
I will use the word ‘morphogenetic’ to refer to the intrinsic tendency of all human societies to generate and change (social) forms, while I call ‘morphogenic’ the specific societal syndrome characterized by the situational logic of opportunity, stemming from ‘unbound morphogenesis’ (signifying one unfettered from morphostasis) and leading to a wholly novel societal formation. (159)
This definition is consistent with the reading offered here. A morphogenic society is one that is largely characterized by morphogenetic mechanisms with a relative lack of morphostatic mechanisms, with the result that this society experiences large structural change and does not converge upon a subsequent stable (morphostatic) eqilibrium.

What is the medium-term result of a complex system like society which undergoes constant and non-convergent change? This is a critical and difficult question. Once again, Maccarini is the researcher who addresses it most directly:
The issue concerning the social quality of a morphogenic societal formation – the crucial question about what social life will be like if the MS finally becomes our social universe – must remain as uncertain as all statements about the future do. But the practical answer is already unfolding before our eyes. (172)
He hypothesizes a process of social change that leads to heterogeneity and change but also permits of a degree of local stability:
The march toward a societal formation we can call ‘morphogenic’ can be conceived of as a stepwise process, whereby mechanisms produce emergent properties and entities, and these gradually coalesce to generate new ‘environments’, i.e. ‘parts’ or ‘islands’ of society (organizational sectors, inter-institutional complexes, regions, etc.) that are in tune with the morphogenic logic. The scale of such innovations tends to increase, as well as do further links among them, and the eventual outcome would be a whole ‘society’ in which all the main processes finally work according to that logic. The argument I am presenting builds a gradual path to the characterization of a whole societal formation, and could be outlined as follows. (165)
I'm not sure this description is coherent, however, with the idea of a morphogenic society. The problem is that it envisions an eventual equilibrium -- a new set of social arrangements that maintain their characteristics over time. These are new "environments ... that are in tune with the morphogenic logic." But this implies a new form of stasis -- structural stability over time -- and therefore a society that is no longer "morphogenic". There is a suggestion in Maccarini's argument that she is aware of this tension, and she highlights the idea that the new emergent formations are not exactly forms of "morphostasis". Instead, to capture the idea that these new stabilities are contingent and subject to future change she refers to them as enclaves and vortices (167) -- temporary and local forms of stability within a larger process of change. Vortices may persist even under environments that embody a great deal of turbulence.

This implies a worldview that is indeed different from both Heraclitean flux (or liquid modernity; link) and Platonic stability -- a view of the social world in which persistence is bounded and embedded within larger fields of change. She writes:
Such studies allow us to model morphogenetic / morphostatic cycles, comprising gradual change, catastrophes and sudden collapses, social de-generation and re-generation. In other words, they describe and model the possible ‘rhythm’ of social morphogenesis within particular time spans, characterized by given conditions and structures, in concrete case studies. The pivotal concept of the whole argument is that of turbulence. (167)
These topics just scratch the surface of Generative Mechanisms Transforming the Social Order, and a subsequent post will pick up several other important threads of the research presented here.

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Marx on peasant consciousness

One of Marx's more important pieces of political writing is the The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte (1851) (pdf). Here is his analysis of the causes of the specific nature of peasant political consciousness leading to the election of Napoleon III:
The small-holding peasants form an enormous mass whose members live in similar conditions but without entering into manifold relations with each other. Their mode of production isolates them from one another instead of bringing them into mutual intercourse. The isolation is furthered by France‘s poor means of communication and the poverty of the peasants. Their field of production, the small holding, permits no division of labor in its cultivation, no application of science, and therefore no multifariousness of development, no diversity of talent, no wealth of social relationships. Each individual peasant family is almost self-sufficient, directly produces most of its consumer needs, and thus acquires its means of life more through an exchange with nature than in intercourse with society. A small holding, the peasant and his family; beside it another small holding, another peasant and another family. A few score of these constitute a village, and a few score villages constitute a department. Thus the great mass of the French nation is formed by the simple addition of homologous magnitudes, much as potatoes in a sack form a sack of potatoes. Insofar as millions of families live under conditions of existence that separate their mode of life, their interests, and their culture from those of the other classes, and put them in hostile opposition to the latter, they form a class. Insofar as there is merely a local interconnection among these small-holding peasants, and the identity of their interests forms no community, no national bond, and no political organization among them, they do not constitute a class. They are therefore incapable of asserting their class interest in their own name, whether through a parliament or a convention. They cannot represent themselves, they must be represented. Their representative must at the same time appear as their master, as an authority over them, an unlimited governmental power which protects them from the other classes and sends them rain and sunshine from above. The political influence of the small-holding peasants, therefore, finds its final expression in the executive power which subordinates society to itself.
This a particularly interesting analysis of the social psychology of group solidarity, and one that has contemporary significance as well. It sheds a lot of light on how Marx thinks about the formation of class consciousness -- even as it significantly misunderstands the agency of rural people.

What are the limitations of the French peasantry, according to Marx here? They are isolated, burdened, unsophisticated, primitive, apolitical, and ignorant of the larger forces around them. Therefore, Marx says, they cannot constitute a unified and purposive political force. (The photo of a battalion of Vietnam Minh troops in Indochina just a century later refutes this conception.)

From this description we can draw several positive ideas about the foundations of collective solidarity. Here are the elements that Marx takes to be crucial in the formation of collective consciousness in this passage:
  1. The group needs to possess "manifold relations" to each other.
  2. There needs to be effective communication and transportation across space, not just local interaction.
  3. There needs to be a degree of economic interdependence.
  4. There need to be shared material conditions in the system of production.
  5. There needs to be an astute appreciation of the social and economic environment.
  6. There needs to be organization and leadership to help articulate a shared political consciousness and agenda. 
And Marx seems to have something like a necessary and sufficient relation in mind between these conditions and the emergence of collective consciousness: these conditions are jointly sufficient and individually necessary for collective consciousness in an extended group.

There are several crucial ideas here that survive into current thinking about solidarity and mobilization. So Marx's thinking about collective consciousness was prescient. It is interesting to consider where his thoughts about collective solidarity came from. How did he come to have insightful ideas about the social psychology of mobilization and solidarity in the first place? This isn't a topic that had a history of advanced theory and thinking in 1851.

Two sources seem likely. First is the tradition of French socialist thought in which Marx was immersed in the 1840s. French socialist thinkers were in fact interested in the question of how a revolutionary spirit came to be among a group of people. And second is Marx's own experience of working people in Paris in 1843-45. He writes of his own observations of working people in the Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts in 1844:
When communist artisans associate with one another, theory, propaganda, etc., is their first end. But at the same time, as a result of this association, they acquire a new need – the need for society – and what appears as a means becomes an end. In this practical process the most splendid results are to be observed whenever French socialist workers are seen together. Such things as smoking, drinking, eating, etc., are no longer means of contact or means that bring them together. Association, society and conversation, which again has association as its end, are enough for them; the brotherhood of man is no mere phrase with them, but a fact of life, and the nobility of man shines upon us from their work-hardened bodies.
Here Marx gives as much importance to the substantive relations of friendship and everyday association as he does to shared material interests in the formation of the class consciousness of French workers.

Marx's misunderstanding of the political capacity and consciousness of peasant communities has been noted by many scholars of rural revolutions. James Scott once opened a public lecture on the revolutions of the twentieth century by saying that his lecture would only treat the peasant revolutions of the century. But he then paused and laughed, and said, this isn't much of a limitation, because they were all peasant revolutions! Marx's assumption that only urban workers were capable of revolutionary consciousness was a serious misreading of the coming century of anti-capitalist and anti-colonial struggles. (Here is an earlier post on Scott's studies of peasant politics. Scott's accounts can be found in Weapons of the Weak: Everyday Forms of Peasant Resistance and The Moral Economy of the Peasant: Rebellion and Subsistence in Southeast Asia. Eric Wolf's Peasant Wars of the Twentieth Century picks up similar themes.)

Also interesting in the Eighteenth Brumaire is Engels' statement on the law of history as class struggle in his preface to the third edition of the book:
In addition, however, there was still another circumstance. It was precisely Marx who had first discovered the great law of motion of history, the law according to which all historical struggles, whether they proceed in the political, religious, philosophical or some other ideological domain, are in fact only the more or less clear expression of struggles of social classes, and that the existence and thereby the collisions, too, between these classes are in turn conditioned by the degree of development of their economic position, by the mode of their production and of their exchange determined by it. This law, which has the same significance for history as the law of the transformation of energy has for natural science -- this law gave him here, too, the key to an understanding of the history of the Second French Republic. He put his law to the test on these historical events, and even after thirty-three years we must still say that it has stood the test brilliantly.
Engels plainly endorses the idea of laws of motion of society and the idea of class conflict as the primary motor of historical change. "History is a history of class struggle." There is not much room for contingency or conjunctural causation here! But this is a dimension of Marxist theory that is plainly incorrect. Far better is to understand history in a more multi-factoral way in which contingency, conjunction, and agency all play a role.

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Durkheim's nightmare

So here is Paris today ... thousands of anonymous strangers on Boulevard Saint-Germain at 5 pm, no sense of common bond or shared identity, a void of powerful values, lives of bleak consumerism. Anomie writ large. No friends, no community, no ceremony, no shared rituals. No eye contact on the street, no presumption of common cause. A Tom Waits world. It is Durkheim's nightmare about modernity.

Or is it? It is a city, to be sure, unlike a village. So the anonymity quotient is very high. But is it really a place of rampant anomie and hermetic individual dissatisfaction? Or is it instead a location for many thousands of micro-communities--religious, civic, ethnic, occupational? Is it a place with dense networks of friends, associates, and family, more intimately connected by cell phones than the village ever was through chance meetings at the market or the church? Is it in fact a powerful environment for human flourishing and social deepening?

In fact, it appears that the latter is the case for a large number of Parisians.

This may seem like a point that Durkheim anticipated through his distinction between mechanical and organic solidarity. But Durkheim's emphasis with the latter concept was on economic interdependency -- the division of labor -- rather than a recognition of the possibility of manifold micro-social relationships constituting a patchwork social world.

We might say that rather than anomie, the key shortcoming of modern cities like Paris -- or New York, Chicago, or London -- is social inequality and dramatically reduced opportunities for the bottom half of the income ladder. The people captured in the photo above have something in common beyond their cell phones -- they are mostly employed and affluent. But that profile of affluence is representative only of a fraction of the city's residents -- as documented by the excellent Observatoire des inégalités ( Just take the RER or Metro to the banlieue that surround the city to see the sharp separation of social worlds that Paris encompasses (

So it seems that the conception of the modern city implicit in Durkheim's thought is seriously wrong. The city is a different kind of locus for social interaction and individual life than the traditional town or village. But it is not inherently toxic for that reason. What is toxic is rather the dimension brought out by Marx -- the tendency of modern capitalist society to sharpen the separation between have's and have-nots.

It is not entirely an accident that I'm brought to think of Durkheim, since he spent much of his career less than a kilometer up Boule St.-Germain from this intersection. Ironically, Marx was here too in 1843.

Thursday, September 17, 2015

Microfoundations and mechanisms

The topics of microfoundations and causal mechanisms have come up frequently in this work. The microfoundations thesis maintains that social attributions and explanations based on macro-level entities and structures depend upon pathways at the level of the individual actors through which the entities and processes are maintained. The causal mechanisms thesis maintains that the best way of understanding causal assertions linking A to B is to identify the concrete causal mechanisms through which the powers of A bring about the properties of B.

Is there a relation between these two bodies of philosophical theory about the social world? There is, in a fairly obvious way. When we ask for the microfoundations of a hypothesized social process, we are really asking about the lower-level social mechanisms that bring the process about.

For example: What is it about an extended population that creates the observed features of the spread of rumor or panic? Or in other words, what are the social mechanisms through which socially interacting actors spread rumors or contribute to a broader occurrence of panic and fear? When we provide an account of the ways in which individuals communicate with each other and then demonstrate how messages diffuse through the given network structure, we have identified one of the social mechanisms of the social process in question.

Asking for the microfoundations of X is asking for an answer to two related questions: What is X (at the micro level)? And how does X work (also at the micro level)? The latter question can be paraphrased as: what are the sub-level mechanisms through which the X-level processes work? The first question is not so clearly a question about mechanisms; it is rather a question about composition. What is it about the substrate that gives rise to (constitutes) the observed macro-level properties of X? But in their book In Search of Mechanisms: Discoveries across the Life Sciences Craver and Darden argue that mechanisms play both roles. Mechanisms can be invoked to account for both process and structure (link). Here is their diagram illustrating the role that mechanisms can play with respect to higher-level structures and processes:

So here is a preliminary answer to the question of whether microfoundations and mechanisms are related. In the most immediate sense, we might say that the search for microfoundations is a search for a group of lower-level social mechanisms, to account for both the constitution and the causal dynamics of the higher-level structure. Searching for microfoundations involves learning more about the substrate of a given level of structure and process, and the causal mechanisms that occur at that lower level. Microfoundations is the question and mechanisms is the answer.

This response is not fully satisfactory, however, for several reasons.

First, there is an implication in this analysis that mechanisms live at the substrate level -- in the case of the social world, at the level of individual social actors. This is clearly assumed in the analytical sociology literature (Hedstrom, Dissecting the Social: On the Principles of Analytical Sociology). But this is an unnecessary and narrow stipulation about causal mechanisms. It is plausible to maintain that there are causal mechanisms at a range of levels (link); for example, at the cognitive level, the motivational level, the organizational level, or the system level (link).

Second, we might also observe that various social mechanisms themselves possess microfoundations. There are processes in the causal substrate that constitute the causal necessity of a specified mechanism. A spark in the presence of methane and oxygen brings about an explosion. This is a mechanism of combustion. The substrate is the chemical composition of methane and oxygen and the chemical processes that occur when an electrical spark is introduced into the environment. So the question of "level" is a relative one. A given set of objects and causal processes has its own substrate at a lower level, and simultaneously may serve as the substrate for objects and processes at higher levels.

We might also consider the idea that the two concepts have a different grammar. They play different roles in the language of science. The microfoundations conceptual scheme immediately invokes the idea of level and substrate. It brings along with it an ontological principle (the higher level is constituted by the properties of the substrate), and a partial methodological principle (the generative strategy of showing how higher-level processes come about as a consequence of the workings of the substrate). The mechanisms conceptual scheme does not inherently presuppose higher-level and lower-level structures; instead, a mechanism is something like a unit of causation, and it may be found at any level from molecular biology to organizational change.

(In an earlier post I considered a similar question, the relation between powers and mechanisms. There I argued that these two concepts are symmetrical: mechanisms lead us to powers, and powers lead us to mechanisms.)

Saturday, September 12, 2015

A survey of agent-based models

Federico Bianchi and Flaminio Squazzoni have published a very useful survey of the development and uses of agent-based models in the social sciences over the past twenty-five years in WIREs Comput Stat 2015 (link). The article is a very useful reference and discussion for anyone interested in the applicability of ABM within sociology.

Here is their general definition of an ABM:
Agent-based models (ABMs) are computer simulations of social interaction between heterogeneous agents (e.g., individuals, firms, or states), embedded in social structures (e.g., social networks, spatial neighborhoods, or institutional scaffolds). These are built to observe and analyze the emergence of aggregate outcomes. By manipulating behavioral or interaction model parameters, whether guided by empirical evidence or theory, micro-generative mechanisms can be explored that can account for macro-scale system behavior, that is, an existing time series of aggregate data or certain stylized facts. (284)
This definition highlights several important features of the ABM approach:
  • unlike traditional rational choice theory and microeconomics, it considers heterogeneous agents
  • it explicitly attempts to represent concrete particulars of the social environment within which agents act
  • it is a micro to macro strategy, deriving macro outcomes from micro activities
  • it permits a substantial degree of "experimentation" in the form of modification of base assumptions
  • it is possible to provide empirical evidence to validate or invalidate the ABM simulation of a given aggregate outcome 
Bianchi and Squazzoni note that the primary areas of application of agent-based models in social-science research include a relatively limited range of topics. The first of these topics included uncoordinated cooperation, reciprocity, and altruism. Robert Axelrod's work on repeated prisoners' dilemmas represents a key example of modeling efforts in this area (link).

A peculiar form of altruism is punishment: imposition of a cost on non-cooperators by other actors. Without punishment the exploitation strategy generally extinguishes the cooperation strategy in a range of situations. A "reciprocator" is an actor who is open to cooperation but who punishes previous non-cooperators on the next interaction. Bianchi and Squazzoni spend time describing an ABM developed by Bowles and Gintis (link) to evaluate the three strategies of Selfish, Reciprocator, and Cooperator, and a derived Shirking rate in a hypothetical and heterogeneous population of hunter-gatherers. Here is Bowles and Gintis' hypothesis:
The hypothesis we explore is that cooperation is maintained because many humans have a predisposition to punish those who violate group-beneficial norms, even when this reduces their fitness relative to other group members. Compelling evidence for the existence and importance of such altruistic punishment comes from controlled laboratory experiments, particularly the study of public goods, common pool resource, ultimatum, and other games.
And here is their central finding, according to Bianchi and Squazzoni:
They found that the robustness of cooperation depended on the coexistence of these behaviors at a group level and that strong reciprocators were functional in keeping the level of cheating under control in each group (see the shirking rate as a measure of resources lost by the group due to cheating in Figure 1). This was due to the fact that the higher the number of cooperators in a group without reciprocators, the higher the chance that the group disbanded due to high payoffs for shirking. (288)
Here is the graph of the incidence of the three strategies over the first 3000 periods of the simulation published in the Bowles and Gintis article:
This graph represents the relative frequency of the three types of hunter-gatherers in the population, along with a calculated shirking rate for each period. The Selfish profile remains the most frequent (between 40% and 50%, but Reciprocators and Cooperators reach relatively stable levels of frequency as well (between 30% and 40%, and between 20% and 30%). As Bowles and Gintis argue, it is the robust presence of Reciprocators that keeps the Selfish group in check; the willingness of Reciprocators to punish Selfish actors keeps the latter group from rising to full domination.

In this simulation the frequencies of Selfish and Shirking begin high (>85%) and quickly decline to a relatively stable rate. After 1000 iterations the three strategies attain relatively stable frequencies, with Selfish at about 38%, Reciprocator at 37%, Cooperator at 25%, and a shirking rate at about 11%.

It is tempting to read the study as representing a population that reaches a rough equilibrium. However, it is possible that the appearance of equilibrium conveyed by the graph above is deceptive. Other areas of complex phenomena raise the possibility that this is not a longterm equilibrium, but rather that some future combination of percentages of the three strategies may set off a chaotic redistribution of success rates. This is the key characteristic of a chaotic system: small fluctuations in parameters can lead to major deviations in outcomes.

Also interesting in Bianchi and Squazzoni's review is their treatment of efforts to use ABMs to model the diffusion of cultural and normative attitudes (293ff.). Attitudes are treated as local "contagion" factors, and the goal of the simulation is to model how different adjacencies influence the pattern of spread of the cultural features.
Agents interacted with neighbors with a probability dependent on the number of identical cultural features they shared. A mechanism of interpersonal influence was added to align one randomly selected dissimilar cultural feature of an agent to that of the partner, after interaction. (294ff.)
Social network characteristics have been incorporated into ABMs in this area.

Bianchi and Squazzoni also consider ABMs in the topic areas of collective behavior and social inequality. They draw a number of useful conclusions about the potential role that ABMs can play in sociology, including especially the importance of considering heterogeneous agents:
At a substantive level, these examples show that exploring the fundamental heterogeneity of individual behavior is of paramount importance to understand the emergence of social patterns. Cross-fertilization between experimental and computational research is a useful process. It shows us that by conflating the concept of rationality with that of self-interest, as in standard game theory and economics, we cannot account for the subtle social nuances that characterize individual behavior in social contexts. (298)
And they believe -- perhaps unexpectedly -- that the experience of building ABMs in a range of sociological contexts underlines the importance of institutions, norms, and social context:
Moreover, these ABM studies can help us to understand the importance of social contexts even when looking at individual behavior in a more micro-oriented perspective. The role of social influence and the fact that we are embedded in complex social networks have implications for the type of information we access and the types of behavior we are exposed to. (301)
This is a useful contribution for sociologists, as a foundation for a third alternative between statistical studies of sociological phenomena and high-level deductive theories of those phenomena. ABMs have the potential of allowing us to derive large social patterns from well chosen and empirically validated behavioral assumptions about actors.

I mentioned the common finding in complexity studies that even fairly simple systems possess the capacity for sudden instability. Here is a simulation of a three-body gravitational system which illustrates periods of relative stability and then abrupt destabilization.

ABMs permit us to model populations of interactive adaptive agents, and often the simulation produces important and representative patterns at the aggregate level. Here is an interesting predator-prey simulation on YouTube using an ABM approach by SSmithy87:

The author makes a key point at 2:15: the pattern of variation of predator and prey presented in the simulation is a well-known characteristic of predator-prey populations. (Red is predator and blue is prey.)

But the equations representing this relationship were not built into the model; instead, this characteristic pattern is generated by the model based on the simple behavioral assumptions made about prey and predators. This is a vivid demonstration of the novelty and importance of ABM simulations.

Friday, September 4, 2015

Range of reactions to realism about the social world

My recent post on realism in the social realm generated quite a bit of commentary, which I'd like to address here.

Brad Delong offered an incredulous response -- he seems to think that any form of scientific realism is ridiculous (link). He refers to the predictive success of Ptolemy's epicycles, and then says, "But just because your theory is good does not mean that the entities in your theory are "really there", whatever that might mean...." I responded on Twitter: "Delong doesn't like scientific realism -- really? Electrons, photons, curvature of space - all convenient fictions?" The position of instrumentalism is intellectually untenable, in my opinion -- the idea that scientific theories are just convenient computational devices for summarizing a range of observations. It is hard to see why we would have confidence in any complex technology depending on electricity, light, gravity, the properties of metals and semiconductors, if we didn't think that our scientific theories of these things were approximately true of real things in the world. So general rejection of scientific realism seems irrational to me. But the whole point of the post was that this reasoning doesn't extend over to the social sciences very easily; if we are to be realists about social entities, it needs to be on a different basis than the overall success of theories like Keynsianism, Marxism, or Parsonian sociology. They just aren't that successful!

There were quite a few comments (71) when Mark Thoma reposted this piece on economistsview. A number of the commentators were particularly interested in the question of the realism of economic knowledge. Daniel Hausman addresses the question of realism in economics in his article on the philosophy of economics in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (link):
Economic methodologists have paid little attention to debates within philosophy of science between realists and anti-realists (van Fraassen 1980, Boyd 1984), because economic theories rarely postulate the existence of unobservable entities or properties, apart from variants of “everyday unobservables,” such as beliefs and desires. Methodologists have, on the other hand, vigorously debated the goals of economics, but those who argue that the ultimate goals are predictive (such as Milton Friedman) do so because of their interest in policy, not because they seek to avoid or resolve epistemological and semantic puzzles concerning references to unobservables.
Examples of economic concepts that commentators seemed to think could be interpreted realistically include concepts such as "economic disparity".  But this isn't a particularly arcane or unobservable theoretical concept. There is a lot of back-and-forth on the meaning of investment in Keynes's theory -- is it a well-defined concept? Is it a concept that can be understood realistically? The question of whether economics consists of a body of theory that might be interpreted realistically is a complicated one. Many technical economic concepts seem not to be referential; instead, they seem to be abstract concepts summarizing the results of large numbers of interactions by economic agents.

The most famous discussion of realism in economics is that offered by Milton Friedman in relation to the idea of economic rationality (Essays in Positive Economics); he doubts that economists need to assume that real economic actors do so on the basis of economic rationality. Rather, according to Friedman this is just a simplifying assumption to allow us to summarize a vast range of behavior. This is a hard position to accept, though; if agents are not making calculating choices about costs and benefits, then why should we expect a market to work in the ways our theories say it should? (Here is a good critique by Bruce Caldwell of Friedman's instrumentalism; link.)

And what about the concept of a market itself? Can we understand this concept realistically? Do markets really exist? Maybe the most we can say is something like this: there are many social settings where stuff is produced and exchanged. When exchange is solely or primarily governed by the individual self-interest of the buyers and sellers, we can say that a market exists. But we must also be careful to add that there are many different institutional and social settings where this condition is satisfied, so there is great variation across the particular "market settings" of different societies and communities. As a result, we need to be careful not to reify the concept of a market across all settings.

Michiel van Ingen made a different sort of point about my observations about social realism in his comment offered on Facebook. He thinks I am too easy on the natural sciences.
This piece strikes me as problematic. First, because physics is by no means as successful at prediction as it seems to suggest. A lot of physics is explanatorily quite powerful, but - like any other scientific discipline - can only predict in systemically closed systems. Contrasting physics with sociology and political science because the latter 'do not consist of unified deductive systems whose empirical success depends upon a derivation of distant observational consequences' is therefore unnecessarily dualistic. In addition, I'm not sure why the 'inference to the best explanation' element should be tied to predictive success as closely as it is in this piece. Inference to the best explanation is, by its very definition, perfectly applicable to EXPLANATION. And this applies across the sciences, whether 'natural' or 'social', though of course there is a significant difference between those sciences in which experimentation is plausible and helpful, and those in which it is not. This is not, by the way, the same as saying that natural sciences are experimental and social ones aren't. There are plenty of natural sciences which are largely non-experimental as well. And lest we forget, the hypothetico-deductive form of explanation DOES NOT WORK IN THE NATURAL SCIENCES EITHER!
This critique comes from the general idea that the natural sciences need a bit of debunking, in that various areas of natural science fail to live up to the positivist ideal of a precise predictive system of laws. That is fair enough; there are areas of imprecision and uncertainty in the natural sciences. But, as I responded to Delong above, the fact remains that we have a very good understanding of much of the physical realities and mechanisms that generate the phenomena we live with. Here is the response I offered Michiel:
Thank you, Michiel, for responding so thoughtfully. Your comments and qualifications about the natural sciences are correct, of course, in a number of ways. But really, I think we post-positivists need to recognize that the core areas of fundamental and classical physics, electromagnetic theory, gravitation theory, and chemistry including molecular biology, are remarkably successful in unifying, predicting, and explaining the phenomena within these domains. They are successful because extensive and mathematicized theories have been developed and extended, empirically tested, refined, and deployed to help account for new phenomena. And these theories, as big chunks, make assertions about the way nature works. This is where realism comes in: the chunks of theories about the nature of the atom, electromagnetic forces, gravitation, etc., can be understood to be approximately true of nature because otherwise we would have no way to account for the remarkable ability of these theories to handle new phenomena.
So I haven't been persuaded to change my mind about social realism as a result of these various comments. The grounds for realism about social processes, structures, and powers are different for many social sciences than for many natural sciences. We can probe quite a bit of the social world through mid-level and piecemeal research methods -- which means that we can learn quite a bit about the nature of the social world through these methods. Here is the key finding:
So it seems that we can justify being realists about class, field, habitus, market, coalition, ideology, organization, value system, ethnic identity, institution, and charisma, without relying at all on the hypothetico-deductive model of scientific knowledge upon which the "inference to the best explanation" argument depends. We can look at sociology and political science as loose ensembles of empirically informed theories and models of meso-level social processes and mechanisms, each of which is to a large degree independently verifiable. And this implies that social realism should be focused on mid-level social mechanisms and processes that can be identified in the domains of social phenomena that we have studied rather than sweeping concepts of social structures and entities.
(Sometimes social media debates give the impression of a nineteenth-century parliamentary shouting match -- which is why the Daumier drawing came to mind!)

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

M I Finley on the dynamics of the Roman Empire

One of the books I found influential in graduate school in philosophy was M. I. Finley's The Ancient Economy, which appeared in 1973. Finley's book sought to explain important parts of the Roman world by piecing together the best knowledge available about the economic relations that defined its socioeconomic foundation. And the book proposes to consider economic history in a new way:
There is a fundamental question of method. The economic language and concepts we are all familiar with, even the laymen among us, the "principles", whether they are Alfred Marshall's or Paul Samuelson's, the models we employ, tend to draw us into a false account. For example, wage rates and interest rates in the Greek and Roman worlds were both fairly stable locally over long periods ... , so that to speak of a "labour market" or a "money market" is immediately to falsify the situation. (23)
Finley's point here is that we need to conceptualize the ancient economy in terms that are not drawn from current understandings of capitalist market economies; these economic concepts do not adequately capture the socioeconomic realities of the ancient world. Finley argues that the concepts and categories of modern market society fit the socioeconomic realities of the ancient world very poorly. (In this his approach resembles that of Karl Polanyi, who was indeed an important influence on Finley.) One thing that is interesting in this approach is that it is neither neo-classical nor Marxist.

Finley addresses a question that is particularly important in the human sciences, the problem of how to handle heterogeneity within a social whole.
Is it legitimate, then, to speak of the "ancient economy"? Must it not be broken down by further eliminations...? Walbank, following in the steps of Rostovtzeff, has recently called the Empire of the first century "a single economic unit", one that was "knit together by the intensive exchange of all types of primary commodities and manufactured articles, including the four fundamental articles of trade -- grain, wine, oil, and slaves". (33)
This is to take a regionalist perspective on defining an economic region: we emphasize not homogeneity and self-similarity, but rather systemic interconnections among the parts. But to conclude a set of places fall in a single "economic region", Finley argues something else is needed:
To be meaningful, "world market", "a single economic unit" must embrace something considerably more than the exchange of some goods over long distances.... One must show the existence of interlocking behaviour and responses over wide areas. (34)
So what distinguishes the "interlocking behaviour and responses" of the ancient world? Finley's view is that the dominant ethos of the ancient world is not one of producing for accumulation, but rather maintaining status and the social order. And these imply a society sharply divided between haves and have-nots -- nobility and the poor. Finley takes issue with the "individualist" view (43) as applied to the ancient world, according to which each person is equally able to strive for success based on his/her own merits. What he calls the prevailing ideology is one of the moral legitimacy of inequalities, social and economic. Hierarchy is normal in the order of things, in the world view of the ancients. Even the heterodox insistence in the modern world on the concepts of class and exploitation, according to Finley, have little grip on the ideologies and values of the ancients. The idea of the working class fails to illuminate social realities of the ancient world because it necessarily conflates free and bonded labor (49). (Finley quotes Lukács on this point: "status-consciousness ... masks class consciousness" (50).)

There are only a few "structural" factors in Finley's account of the ancient economy. The structure and social reality of property is one -- the ownership of land and labor in the form of estates, small farms, and slaves conditions much of productive activity. Another is the availability of roads and water transport. Production largely took place within one day's transport from the consumers of that production. "Towns could not safely outgrow the food production of their own immediate hinterlands unless they had direct access to waterways" (126). Finley summarizes the "balance of payments" through which towns and cities supported themselves under four categories: local agricultural production, the availability of special resources like silver; the availability of trade and tourism; and income from land ownership and empire (139).

It is interesting to compare Finley's intellectual style in The Ancient Economy with his writing in an earlier book, Aspects of Antiquity: Discoveries and Controversies, published in 1968. Here Finley takes up many topics in a broadly chronological order. And he is more declaratory in his analysis of the broad dynamics of social development. One chapter in particular is an interesting counterpoint to The Ancient Economy, "Manpower and the Fall of Rome". The time is the late fourth century, and the circumstances are the impending military collapse of Rome. Finley estimates the population of the empire at about 60 million, noting that it is impossible to provide anything like a precise estimate. This population supported an army of about 300,000 in the time of Marcus Aurelius (d. 180), and rising to perhaps 600,000 in in the coming century. But increasingly this army was incapable of protecting the Empire from the encroaching Germanic tribes.
Roman armies still fought well most of the time. In any straight fight they could, and they usually did, defeat superior numbers of Germans, because they were better trained, better equipped, better led. What they could not do was cope indefinitely with this kind of enemy [migratory tribes]. (150)
Finley offers what is essentially a demographic and technological explanation for Rome's failure to defend itself: it simply could not sustain the substantially greater manpower needs that the Germanic warfare required, given the nature of the agrarian economy.
With the stabilization of the empire and the establishment of the pax Romana under Augustus, a sort of social equilibrium was created. Most of the population, free or unfree, produced just enough for themselves to exist on, at a minimum standard of living, and enough to maintain a very rich and high-living aristocracy and urban upper class, the courts with its palace and administrative staffs, and the modest army of some 300,000. Any change in any of the elements making up the equilibrium -- for example, an increase in the army or other non-producing sectors of the population, or an increase in the bite taken out of the producers through increased rents and taxes -- had to be balanced elsewhere if the equilibrium were to be maintained. Otherwise something was bound to break. (151)
And this leads to a general causal conclusion:
In the later Roman Empire manpower was part of an interrelated complex of social conditions, which, together with the barbarian invasions, brought an end to the empire in the west.... It was the inflexible institutional underpinning, in the end, which failed: it could not support the perpetual strains of an empire of such magnitude within a hostile world. (152,153)
This is perhaps a sober reminder of the limits of imperial power for the contemporary world.

(For readers interested in the ancient world, here is a related post on agrarian history in Weber's scholarship. And here is a video interview of M. I. Finley that touches on the key influences in his development as an historian.)

Saturday, August 29, 2015

The case for realism in the social realm

Image. Orderly chaos in flight path of ocean-foraging albatross

The case for scientific realism in the case of physics, microbiology, and chemistry is a strong one. The theories of physics, biology, and chemistry postulate unobservable entities, forces, and properties. These hypotheses are specified in a fair degree of precision. They are not individually testable, because we cannot directly observe or measure the properties of the hypothetical entities. But the theories as wholes have a great deal of predictive and descriptive power, and they permit us to explain and predict a wide range of physical phenomena. And the best explanation of the success of these theories is that they are true: that the world consists of entities and forces approximately similar to those hypothesized in physical theory. So realism is an inference to the best explanation, based on the engineering and observational successes of physics, chemistry, and biology. (In the diagram above we might hypothesize that the foraging strategies of the albatross have evolved towards a combination of random walk and orderly search pattern through a process of natural selection; this hypothesis can be empirically investigated in a variety of ways.)

If we lived in a more chaotic physical world, with a larger number of more variable forces at work, our physical theories would be greatly less successful at representing the behavior of observable physical systems, and we would have much less confidence in the idea that various snippets of our physical theories are "true" of the world. If space were more like a pudding with abrupt variations in curvature and gravitational force, and were in addition subject to a numerous other factors and forces, our confidence in the science of mechanics would be greatly undermined. We would never know even approximately where the fly ball will go.

The situation in political science and sociology is quite different from astronomy, atomic theory, and mechanics. First, there are no theories in the social sciences that have the predictive and explanatory success of the physical sciences. Second, the social world is more like the fantastic and chaotic scenario just mentioned than it is an ice rink with frictionless surfaces and predictable mechanics. The social world embodies multiple heterogeneous causal and structural influences that aggregate in contingent and surprising ways. Third, sociologists and political scientists sometimes make hypotheses about unobservable or hypothetical social entities. But these hypotheses do not assume the logical role of that played by hypotheses in the natural sciences. Hypothetical social entities may be unobservable in a fairly ordinary sense -- no one can directly observe or measure a social class. But in fact, these concepts do not depend on holistic confirmation in the way that hypotheses in the natural sciences do. Rather, it is perfectly possible to further refine our ideas about "social class", "prisoners' dilemma", or "bipolar security field" and then investigate the manifold aspects of these concepts through direct social research. Sociology and political science do not consist of unified deductive systems whose empirical success depends upon a derivation of distant observational consequences; instead, it is possible to investigate essentially every sociological or political concept through various direct methods of research and inquiry. (This ability is not unique to the social sciences. The study of animal behavior likewise admits of a variety of hypotheses at various levels that can be independently studied.)

In short, the social sciences do not possess the remarkable coherence and predictive accuracy of physics, so confidence in realism is not grounded in the high level of success of the enterprise. Sociology is not like physics.

But equally, the concepts of the social sciences are not "hypothetical constructs" that depend upon their role in a developed theoretical system for application. It is therefore possible to be piecemeal realists. Again, sociology is not like physics.

So it seems that two specific ideas follow. First, the inference to the best explanation argument for realism doesn't work at all in sociology or political science. We simply don't have the extraordinary predictive successes of a theoretical system that would constitute the ground of such an argument. Social science theories and models remain heuristic and suggestive, but rarely strongly indicative of the reality of the social factors they highlight.

But second, there is a very different kind of argument for social realism that is not available in the natural sciences: the piecemeal investigation of claims and theories about social entities, properties, and forces. If we believe that class conflict is a key factor in explaining political outcomes, we can do sociological research to further articulate what we mean by class and class conflict, and we can investigate specific social and political processes to piece together the presence or absence of these kinds of factors.

So it seems that we can justify being realists about class, field, habitus, market, coalition, ideology, organization, value system, ethnic identity, institution, and charisma, without relying at all on the hypothetico-deductive model of scientific knowledge upon which the "inference to the best explanation" argument depends. We can look at sociology and political science as loose ensembles of empirically informed theories and models of meso-level social processes and mechanisms, each of which is to a large degree independently verifiable. And this implies that social realism should be focused on mid-level social mechanisms and processes that can be identified in the domains of social phenomena that we have studied rather than sweeping concepts of social structures and entities.

This perspective converges unexpectedly with some of the thinking that Peter Manicas put forward in his book on social-science realism, A Realist Philosophy of Social Science: Explanation and Understanding. What is realism, in the natural sciences, he asks? It is not a general claim to have discovered the universal laws of everything.
Rather, more modestly, theory (at least in one of its clear senses) aims to provide an understanding of the processes which jointly produce the contingent outcomes of experience. We understand why the planets move in ellipses, why materials burn, and why salt dissolves in water (if and when it does) when we have a physical theory that provides a causal mechanism. By providing the principles detailing the nature of molecules, the atomic structure of salt and water, the principles of their action, and so on, we can understand combustion and solubility – and other chemical processes. (1)
So what are the generative mechanisms in the social world? Manicas argues that these mechanisms proceed from the actions and relations of social agents:
The foregoing has also argued that persons are the dominant causal agents in society – even while, of course, they work with materials at hand. It follows, accordingly, that in the social sciences, the generative mechanisms of social outcomes are the actions of persons and no further reduction is either plausible or demanded. (75)
So his most general idea about the social world is "social mechanisms as agent-generated causal mechanisms" (2).

If this is the approach we take, then our claims about what is "real" in the social realm will be more modest that some have thought. We will understand that there are real social processes, mechanisms, and powers; that they derive from the actions and agency of actors; and that these processes can be traced out through fairly direct sociological and historical research. And we will understand too that claims about the reality of "capitalism", the world financial system, or fascism are to be understood less weightily than they first appear. Capitalism exists in a time and place; but it is understood to be an ensemble of relations and actions by the people of the time. It is not a "thing" in the way that deoxyribonucleic acid is a thing.

These thoughts should perhaps lead us to consider that the topic of realism is less important in sociology, political science, and economics than it might appear to be. Social scientists have every reason to be realist about the actions, relations, and interactions of individuals. They are justified in thinking that the practices of education and socialization that bring children to adulthood are "real" and can be empirically investigated. And they are justified in observing that there are higher-order configurations of action, power, and social relationship that are "real", insofar as they are present in the activities of the individuals who constitute them and they possess some stable characteristics over time. In other words, social scientists are justified in postulating the social reality of the social processes and institutions that they postulate and investigate. But this is a very weak and qualified conception of realism, and it suggests a fairly weak social ontology.

It will be noted that this conclusion is somewhat in tension with the argument I offered in the prior post on "flat social ontology". That's the virtue and the challenge of open-source philosophy: conclusions and arguments shift over time.

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Guest post by Doug Porpora on social structures

Here is a response to my earlier post on social ontology and structure from Doug Porpora, professor of sociology, Drexel University. Doug is the author of Reconstructing Sociology: The Critical Realist Approach. Thanks, Doug, for this thoughtful and considered reflection!


I have four comments in response. First, while I am happy to stand somewhere alongside John Levi Martin, one important difference between us is that I attach reality – and even an emergent mind-independence – to the relations connecting social positions whereas, I believe, he would not.

Second, sticking close to an ordinary language sense of the word, I would confine the word structure to those connecting relations and not to the higher level things you speak of. I would rather call the higher level entities institutions.

Third, as you suggest, I certainly do not deny the existence of families, social movements, clubs and states. But they seem to me to be a nexus of connections among social positions.

My fourth reflection is more uncertain. Do those things – states, etc. – represent some kind of emergent entities and as such a higher level of thing? You are not alone in pushing me in this direction. Most fellow critical realists would do so, and Ruth Groff has recently been trying to get me to do the same.

I certainly believe in emergence rather than reductionism. I believe life is a level emergent from non-life and consciousness a yet higher emergent level, and self-consciousness an even further emergent level.

I believe emergence is more general than just these levels, but let us stay there. In the case of each of these levels, a new kind of causality emerges not found on the level below – replication and natural selection in the case of life, speech acts in the case of linguistic consciousness. The emergence of these new causal powers can be explained by the level below but not their functioning.

Is there anything like that going on with the putative emergent entities of families and states and such? I suppose I would say that something like Durkheimian social cohesion is an example of a new causal property not associated with individual people. So, as you suggest, do new causal properties emerge from people in social life? Yes.

Do these wholes and their properties constitute a level in the same way as does life or consciousness? I would say no for two reasons. First, as new causal kinds, speech acts and natural selection act directly from whole to whole. We can explain the causal logic connecting the holistic behavior without micro-analysis of their parts.

I do not see anything like that going on with social cohesion. Any effect it has on other wholes cannot be explained without manifesting through individual behavior. There is no new causal logic here. I think you would agree, no? Second, any new, putative causal logic is always too penetrated by acts of what Hegel called “world historical individuals” to constitute an autonomous level.

So socially emergent entities, okay. An autonomous level of them as per sociological holism? In my opinion, no. Thanks again for the reflection.


Sunday, August 23, 2015

A flat social reality?

I've been inclined to talk about the social world in terms of levels or layers, with a few provisos -- multiple layers, causation across layers, fuzzy boundaries (link, link). But is this perhaps a misleading ontology? Would we be better served by thinking of the social world as "flat" -- involving processes and relations all at the same level? It sometimes appears that John Levi Martin has such an ontology in mind in Social Structures (link), and Doug Porpora envisions such a possibility in "Four Concepts of Structure" (link). So this is the idea I'd like to explore here.

What would that flat world look like? Here is one effort at formulating a flat social ontology.
The social world exists as the embodiment of sets of individual persons with powers, capacities, and actions and interactions, and who stand in a vast range of concrete social relationships with each other.
Here is a snippet from Porpora's article about structure mentioned above that seems to have this view in mind:
In contrast with the previous conception of social structure, this one is not a version of sociological holism. It does not portray social structure as something that operates over the heads of human actors. Instead, social structure is a nexus of connections among them, causally affecting their actions and in turn causally affected by them. The causal affects of the structure on individuals are manifested in certain structured interests, resources, powers, constraints and predicaments that are built into each position by the web of relationships. These comprise the material circumstances in which people must act and which motivate them to act in certain ways. As they do so, they alter the relationships that bind them in both intended and unintended ways. (200)
What does this description leave out? For starters, it leaves out things we would have said were higher levels of the social reality: families, organizations, social movements, institutions, economies, clubs, and states. And of course these are legitimate social constructs. But are they inherently "higher level"? Or are they compounds and extended aggregates of the lower-level stuff just mentioned -- individuals with powers, actions, and relations?

Playing this idea out, we might consider that a social movement is a partially ordered group of individuals in association with each other. The organizations that call them forward are other groups of individuals, including their deliberative bodies and executives. The repressive organs of the state? -- yet other organized groups of individuals with powers and agency. And in fact the theory of strategic action fields seems to lean in this direction (Fligstein and McAdam, A Theory of Fields; link).

One important consideration that might come forward for rejecting the flat ontology is the idea that there are causal properties at a higher level that don't attach to entities at the base level.

This view corresponds to the idea some sociologists have of emergence. It is sometimes maintained that social structures have properties at the structural level that cannot be reduced to the properties of the components of the structure. These are emergent properties. If this is so, then we will miss important explanations if we decline to recognize the reality of social structures. And yet a social structure is plainly a higher-level social entity than a group of coordinated individuals. Its higher-level standing is a result of this fact: it is composed of objects at level 1; but it has properties that cannot be explained or derived from objects at level 1.

A related reason for rejecting the flat ontology is the idea that structures, institutions, or value systems -- higher level social things -- may have legitimate causal properties that can be adequately discovered through study of these social things without more information about the base level (individuals in relations). This possibility doesn't necessarily imply that these are emergent properties, only that they are relatively autonomous from the base level. Here again, it seems reasonable to call these higher-level social entities -- and therefore the flat ontology isn't quite enough.

Another important consideration is the evident fact that social compounds have compositional structure. A fish is more than a collection of living cells; it has a stable structure and an internal organization that serves the needs of the fish organism. So it is entirely appropriate to refer to fish as well as living cells. And it seems correct to observe that something like this is true of some social entities as well -- government agencies, worship organizations, corporations.

Finally, it is hard to dispute that social things like kinship systems, business firms, and armies have stable and knowable characteristics that can be studied empirically. We shouldn't adopt an ontology that excludes legitimate topics for empirical research.

So it seems that the parsimonious social ontology doesn't work. It forces us to overlook explanatory factors that are important for explaining social outcomes. And it unreasonably asks us to ignore important features of the social world of which we have reasonably good understanding. In fact, the flat ontology is not far removed from the ontology associated with spare versions of methodological individualism.

So how might a bounded conception of higher-level social entities look? A formulation of a minimal multi-layer alternative to the flat ontology might go along these lines:
  • The social world consists of individuals and relations at the base level PLUS stable compounds of items at this level which have quasi-permanent properties and non-reducible causal powers that have effects on items at the base level.
Here the criterion of higher-level standing in use is --
  • possession of causal properties not reducible to [or needing reduction to] properties at the base level.
By analogous reasoning, we might consider whether there are more complex configurations of base and level 1 entities which themselves have properties that are emergent from or autonomous from base and level 1. And so forth iteratively.

Are there level 2 entities by this criterion? For example, might the state be a level-2 entity, in that it encompasses organizations and individuals and and it possesses new causal properties not present at level 1? In principle this seems possible. The state is a complex network of organizations and individuals. And it is logically possible that new causal powers emerge that depend on both base and level 1, but that do not require reduction to those lower-level properties.

So the language of levels of the social appears to be legitimate after all. It gives us a conceptual vocabulary that captures composition and complexity, and it allows us to identify important social causal powers that would not be accessible to us on the flat ontology.