Sunday, July 20, 2014

Tyler Cowen on global inequality

Tyler Cowen sounds a bit like Voltaire's Pangloss when he argues, as the New York Times headline puts it, that we are living "all in all, [in] a more egalitarian world" (link). Cowen acknowledges what most people concerned about inequalities believe: "the problem [of inequality] has become more acute within most individual nations"; but he shrugs this off by saying that "income inequality for the world as a whole has been falling for most of the last 20 years." The implication is that we should not be concerned about the first fact because of the encouraging trend in the second fact.

Cowen bases his case on what seems on its face paradoxical but is in fact correct: it is possible for a set of 100 countries to each experience increasing income inequality and yet the aggregate of those populations to experience falling inequality. And this is precisely what he thinks is happening. Incomes in (some of) the poorest countries are rising, and the gap between the top and the bottom has fallen. So the gap between the richest and the poorest citizens of planet Earth has declined. The economic growth in developing countries in the past twenty years, principally China, has led to rapid per capita growth in several of those countries. This helps the distribution of income globally -- even as it worsens China's income distribution.

But this isn't what most people are concerned about when they express criticisms of rising inequalities, either nationally or internationally. They are concerned about the fact that our economies have very systematically increased the percentage of income and wealth flowing to the top 1, 5, and 10 percent, while allowing the bottom 40% to stagnate. And this concentration of wealth and income is widespread across the globe. (Branko Milanovic does a nice job of analyzing the different meanings we might attach to "global inequality" in this World Bank working paper; link.)

This rising income inequality is a profound problem for many reasons. First, it means that the quality of life for the poorest 40% of each economy's population is significantly lower than it could and should be, given the level of wealth of the societies in which they live. That is a bad thing in and of itself. Second, the relative poverty of this sizable portion of society places a burden on future economic growth. If the poorest 40% are poorly educated, poorly housed, and poorly served by healthcare, then they will be less productive than they have the capacity to be, and future society will be the poorer for it. Third, this rising inequality is further a problem because it undermines the perceived legitimacy of our economic system. Widening inequalities have given rise to a widespread perception that these growing inequalities are unfair and unjustified. This is a political problem of the first magnitude. Our democracy depends on a shared conviction of the basic fairness of our institutions. (Kate Pickett and Richard Wilkinson also argue that inequality has negative effects on the social wellbeing of whole societies; link.)

The seeming paradox raised here can be easily clarified by separating two distinct issues. One is the issue of income distribution within an integrated national economy -- the United States, Denmark, Brazil, China. And the second is the issue of extreme inequalities of per capita GDP across national economies -- the poverty of nations like Nigeria, Honduras, and Bangladesh compared to rich countries like Sweden, Germany, or Canada. Both are important issues; but they are different issues that should not be conflated. It is misleading to judge that global inequality is falling by looking only at the rank-ordered distribution of income across the world's 7 billion citizens. This decline follows from the moderate success achieved in the past fifteen years in ameliorating global poverty -- a Millenium Development Goal (link). But it is at least as relevant to base our answer to the question about the trend of global inequalities by looking at the average trend across the world's domestic economies; and this trend is unambiguously upward.

Here is a pair of graphs from The Economist that address both topics (reproduced at the XrayDelta blog here). The left panel demonstrates the trend that Cowen is highlighting. The global Gini coefficient has indeed leveled off in the past 40 years. The right panel indicates rising inequalities in US, Britain, Germany, France, and Sweden. As the second panel documents, the distribution of income within a sample set of national economies has dramatically worsened since 1980. So global inequalities are both improving and worsening -- depending on how we disaggregate the question.

The global Gini approach is intended to capture income inequalities across the world's citizens, not across the world's countries. Essentially this means estimating a rank-order of the incomes of all the world's citizens, and estimating the Lorenz distribution this creates.

We get a very different picture if we consider what has happened with inequalities across the world's national economies. Here is a graph compiled by Branko Milanovic that represents the Gini coefficient for GDP per capita for a large set countries over time (link):

This graph makes the crucial point: inequalities across nations have increased dramatically across the globe since 1980, from a Gini coefficient of about .45 to an average of .54 in 2000 (and apparently still rising).

Finally, what about inequalities within nations? This OECD report provides comparative data for 27 countries during the period 1975 and 2010 (link). They find that income inequalities increased in most of the countries studied. This report does not cover all countries, of course; but the findings are suggestive. Here is their summary finding:

And this is the most important point: most of these countries are suffering the social disadvantages that go along with the fact of rising inequalities. So we could use the OECD report to reach exactly the opposite conclusion from the one that Cowen reaches: in fact, global inequalities have worsened since 1980.

Thomas Piketty's name does not occur once in Cowen's short piece; and yet his economic arguments about capitalism and inequality in Capital in the Twenty-First Century are surely part of Cowen's impetus in writing this piece. Ironically, Piketty's findings corroborate one part of Cowen's point -- the global convergence of inequalities. Two French economists, Fran├žois Bourguignon and Christian Morrisson, made a substantial effort to measure historical Gini coefficients for the world's population as a whole (link). Their work is incorporated into Piketty's own conclusions and is included on Piketty's website. Here is Piketty's summary graph of global inequalities since 1700 -- which makes the point of convergence between developed countries and developing countries more clearly than Cowen himself:

So what about China? What role does the world's largest economy (by population) play in the topic of global economic inequalities? China's per capita income has increased by roughly 10% annually during that period; as a population it is no longer a low-income economy. But most development economists who study China would agree that China's rapid growth since 1980 has sharply increased inequalities in that country (linklink). Urban and coastal populations have gained much more rapidly than the 45% or so of the population (500 million people) still living in backward rural areas. A recent estimate found that the Gini coefficient for China has increased from .30 to .45 since 1980 (link). So China's rapid economic growth has been a major component of the trend Cowen highlights: the rising level of incomes in previously poor countries. At the same time, this process of growth has been accompanied by rising levels of inequalities within China that are a source of serious concern for Chinese policy makers.

Here are charts documenting the rise of income inequalities in China from the 2005 China Human Development Report (link):

So rising global income inequality is not a minor issue to be brushed aside with a change of topic. Rather, it is a key issue for the economic and political futures of countries throughout the world, including Canada, Great Britain, the United States, Germany, Egypt, China, India, and Brazil. And if you don't think that economic inequalities have the potential for creating political unrest, you haven't paid attention to recent events in Egypt, Brazil, the UK, France, Sweden, and Tunisia.

[revised 4:00 pm 7/21/14 to correct interpretation of Milanovic graph. Thanks to Graham Webster for catching the mistake.]

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Entropic social mechanisms

Many of the examples of mechanisms that we turn to in the social sciences are purposive, agental, and designed. But there is a fundamental feature of the natural world that seems to have relevance to the social world as well that is distinctly non-purposive -- the workings of entropy. The second law of thermodynamics holds that the overall entropy (disorder) of the universe increases, and it requires an input of energy to maintain local structure against disorder. The discovery of Brownian motion was the impetus to this fundamental insight into the natural world: random, stochastic forces constantly interact with all levels of physical systems, leading to unpredictable disturbances and gradual decay of orderly structures (link).

This basic fact about the natural world seems applicable to the social world as well. In place of the heat-induced motions of particles in a solution we have the fact of multitudes of individuals choosing to act in a variety of ways, impinging on the social structures and rules that surround them. These "bumps" lead to local changes, and sometimes these changes accumulate to a process of drift in the structures upon which they impinge. A small group of racists begin demonstrating their beliefs in a small Kansas town, and somehow they manage to disrupt the prior racial harmony. This is an example of path dependency. And it is an example of how small random events can have large outcomes.

So are there features of social process that we might refer to as entropic mechanisms?

It would seem that there are. Take the idea of "the fog of war." The basic idea here is that generals like to think of the conduct of war as a purposive, intelligent marshaling of forces to secure clear goals against the adversary. But those who highlight the fog of war emphasize two fundamental facts: it is difficult to collect information during war, and it is difficult to mount coherent focused action in these circumstances. Warfare is a complex activity involving hundreds of leaders, thousands of combatants, scores of unforeseen circumstances, and a practical inability to gather accurate information rapidly enough to control one's forces effectively. The fog of war impedes control in both directions. It makes intelligence gathering difficult, but it also makes the direction of force and tactics difficult as well. By the time French generals in the Franco-Prussian War realized they needed to concentrate forces in Sedan, the disorder in the rail system made it impossible to do so (link).

Or take another basic idea of thermodynamics, the fact of friction. Friction is the interaction between an object and its environment that causes it to lose energy, momentum, and direction. The hockey puck on ice follows the course predicted by classical mechanics from stick to goal. But the same puck when slapped on asphalt or grass pursues a dramatically different course. It slows rapidly to a stop.

Friction can be thought of as a countervailing force. But more generally, it is an expression of the world's stickiness in response to change. Systems rarely perform exactly as pure theory would predict (classical mechanics or rational choice theory). And this is true in the social world as well. Take a large agency like the Veterans Administration. Top executives may declare that long waiting lists for seriously ill veterans are no longer acceptable, and they may put in place a set of institutional reforms designed to reduce the average wait. Six months later we may examine the system as a whole and find that some hospitals have quickly implemented the reforms; others have attempted to do so but have failed; and yet others have not taken any action. How can we explain this mix of outcomes? The facts of friction and delay in the system are key factors. Transmission of commands and reforms through an institutional system is always a partial affair, and an unavoidable interference with intention that is a combination of organizational rigidity, resistance, and imperfect communication is the result.

Or take the decline of a religious or ideological movement as a third example. Maintaining a high level of passionate commitment to the movement's ideas and values takes the expenditure of organizational resources. Individual followers have a range of other motivations that compete with their ideological fervor. And this is particularly true when there is a cost associated with activism. So we should expect a gradual decay of activist mobilization unless there is a powerful countervailing force -- effective grassroots mobilization efforts that keeps the faithful fired up.

Each of these seem to be recognizable social tendencies or processes that have a lot in common with entropy in physical systems. Stochastic events, friction, and loss of focused energy are all familiar in the social world. And these factors have a distinct flavor of thermodynamics.

(I've really posed two questions here: is there such a thing as social entropy? And are some features of entropy reasonably classified as mechanisms? It is possible that the examples I've mentioned here do in fact succeed in identifying entropic features of the social world but do not identify entropic mechanisms.)

Friday, July 11, 2014

Kathleen Tierney on disaster and resilience

The fact of large-scale technology failure has come up fairly often in Understanding Society (link, link, link). There are a couple of reasons for this. One is that our society is highly technology-dependent, relying on more and more densely interlinked and concentrated systems of production and delivery that are subject to unexpected but damaging forms of failure. So it is a pressingly important problem for us to have a better understanding of technology failure than we do today. The other reason that examples of technology failure are frequent here is that it seems pretty clear that failures of this kind are generally social and organizational failures (in part), not simply technological failures. So the study of technology failure is a good way of examining the weaknesses and strengths of various organizational forms -- from the firm or plant to the vast regulatory agency. I have highlighted the work of Charles Perrow as being especially useful in this context, especially Normal Accidents: Living with High-Risk Technologies and The Next Catastrophe: Reducing Our Vulnerabilities to Natural, Industrial, and Terrorist Disasters.

Kathleen Tierney has studied disasters very extensively, and her recent The Social Roots of Risk: Producing Disasters, Promoting Resilience is an important contribution. Tierney is both an academic and a practitioner; she is an expert on earthquake science and preparedness and serves as director of the Natural Hazards Center at the University of Colorado. The topics of disaster and technology failure are linked; natural disasters (earthquakes, tsunami, hurricanes) are often the cause of ensuing technology failures of enormous magnitude. Here is Tierney's over-riding framework of analysis:
The general answer is that disasters of all types occur as a consequence of common sets of social activities and processes that are well understood on the basis of both social science theory and empirical data. Put simply, the organizing idea for this books is that disasters and their impacts are socially produced, and that the forces driving the production of disaster are embedded in the social order itself. As the case studies and research findings discussed throughout the book will show, this is equally true whether the culprit in question is a hurricane, flood, earthquake, or a bursting speculative bubble. The origins of disaster lie not in nature, and not in technology, but rather in the ordinary everyday workings of society itself. (4-5)
This is one of Tierney's key premises -- that disasters are socially produced and socially constituted. Her other major theme is the notion of resilience -- the idea that social characteristics exist that make one set of social arrangements more resilient  than another to harm in the face of natural catastrophe. Features of resilience involve --
preexisting, planned, and naturally emerging activities that make societies and communities better able to cope, adapt, and sustain themselves when disasters occur, and also to develop ways of recovering following such events. (5)
Tierney is often drawn to the alliteration of "risk and resilience". "Risk" is the possibility of serious disturbance to the integrity of a system. "Risk" is a compound of likelihood of a type of disturbance and the damage created by that eventuality. Here is Tierney's capsule definition:
Risk is commonly conceptualized as the answer to three questions: What can go wrong? How likely is it? And what are the consequences? (11)
"Resilience", by contrast, is a feature of the system in response to such a disturbance. So the concepts of risk and resilience do not operate on the same level. A more apt opposition is fragility and resilience. (Tierney sometimes refers to brittle institutions.)  Some institutional arrangements are like glass -- a sharp tap and they fall into a mound of shards. Others are more like a starfish -- able to recover form and function following even very damaging encounters with the world. Both kinds of systems are subject to risk, and the probability of a given disturbance may be the same in the two instances. The difference between them is how well they recover from the realization of risk. But the damage that results from the same disturbance is much greater in a fragile system than a resilient system. And Tierney makes a crucial point for all of us in the twenty-first century: we need to be exerting ourselves to create social systems and communities that are substantially more resilient than they currently are.

A very important example of non-resilient trends in twenty-first century life is the spread of ultra-tall buildings in global cities. There are a variety of reasons why developers and urban leaders like ultra-tall structures -- reasons that largely have to do with prestige. But Tierney points out in expert detail the degree to which these buildings are unreasonably fragile in face of disaster: they shed vast quantities of glass, they concentrate people and business in a way that invites terrorist attack, they exist in vulnerable systems of electricity and water that are crucial to their hour-to-hour functioning. A major earthquake in San Francisco has the potential to leave the buildings standing but the populations living within them stranded without light or elevators, and the emergency responders one hundred flights of stairs away from the emergencies they need to confront (63ff.).

The most fundamental and intractable source of hazard for our society that Tierney highlights is the likelihood of failure of government regulatory and safety organizations to carry out their stated missions of protecting the safety and health of the public. Like Perrow in The Next Catastrophe, she finds instance after instance of cases where the public's interest would be best served by a regulation or prohibition of a certain kind of risky activity (residential and commercial development in flood or earthquake zones, for example) but where powerful economic interests (corporations, local developers) have the overwhelming ability to block sensible and prudent regulations in this space. "Economic power on this scale is easily translated into political power, with important consequences for risk buildup" (91). Tierney offers the case of the Japanese nuclear industry as an example of a concentrated and powerful set of organizations that were able to succeed in creating siting decisions and safety regulations that served their interests rather than the interests of the general public.
As nuclear power emerged as a major source of energy in Japan, communities were essentially bribed into accepting nuclear plants, with the promise of jobs for young workers and support for schools and community projects; also, extensive propaganda efforts were launched.... Then, once government and industry succeeded in getting communities to accept the presence of nuclear plants, the natural tendency was to locate multiple reactors at nuclear sites to achieve economies of scale and to avoid having to repeat costly charm offensives in large numbers of communities. (92)
In Tierney's view, the problem of regulatory capture by the economically powerful is perhaps the largest obstacle to our ability to create a rational and prudent plan for managing risks in the future (94). (Here is an earlier post on the quiet use of economic power; link.)

The Social Roots of Risk is rich in detail and deeply insightful into the sociology of risk in a large democratic corporation-centered society. The hazards she identifies concerning the failure of our institutions to devise genuinely prudent policies around foreseeable risks (earthquake, hurricane, flood, terrorism, nuclear or chemical plant malfunction, train disaster, ...) are deeply alarming. The public and our governments need to absorb these lessons and design for more resilient societies and communities, exactly as Tierney and Perrow argue.

Sunday, July 6, 2014

Mechanisms thinking in international relations theory

source: Alex Cooley, "America and Empire" (link)

One of the most fundamental ideas underlying the philosophy of social science expressed here and elsewhere is the view that social explanations should seek out the causal mechanisms that underly the social phenomena of interest. So now we need to be able to say a lot more about what social mechanisms are, and how they relate to each other. Quite a bit of my own thinking has been devoted to this subject, and in a recent post I proposed that it would be useful to begin to compile an inventory of social mechanisms currently in use in the social sciences (link). There I suggested that it would be useful to find a motivated way of classifying the mechanisms that we discover.

Interest in mechanisms is taking hold in some sub-disciplines of political science. An especially clear statement of the appeal of the mechanisms theory of explanation for political science is offered by Andrew Bennett in "The Mother of All Isms: Causal Mechanisms and Structured Pluralism in International Relations Theory" (link). (Bennett is also co-author with Alexander George of the excellent book on case-study methodology, Case Studies and Theory Development in the Social Sciences.) In the current article Bennett reviews the progression that has occurred in IR theory from positivism and the covering law model, to the idea of high-level "paradigms" of explanation, to the idea of a diverse set of causal mechanisms as the foundation of explanation in the field. He calls the latter position "analytic eclecticism", and he argues that it is a powerful and flexible way of thinking about the processes and research questions that make up the subject matter of IR theory.

In order to advance the value of mechanisms theory for working political scientists, Bennett argues that it will be helpful to attempt to classify the large number of mechanisms currently in use in IR theory in terms of a small number of dimensions. He proposes two dimensions in terms of which to analyze social mechanisms, which can be summarized as content and structure. The content dimension asks the question, what substantive social entities or properties are invoked by the mechanism? And the structure dimension asks the question, what is the nature of the relationship invoked by the mechanism? He proposes three large types of content: material power, functional efficiency, and legitimacy. And he suggests that there are four basic structures that can be formed: agent to agent, structure to agent, agent to structure, and structure to structure. (Notice that this corresponds exactly to the four arrows in Coleman's boat, including the Type 4 "structure to structure" connection.) Here is how Bennett motivates this classification scheme:
This tripartite division of categories of mechanisms usefully mirrors the three leading ‘isms’ in the IR subfield: (neo)realism (with a focus on material power); (neo)liberalism (institutional efficiency); and constructivism (legitimacy). It thereby provides a bridge to the vast literature couched in terms of the isms, preserving this literature’s genuine contributions toward better theories on mechanisms of power, institutions, and social roles. (472)
Here is the resulting classification of social mechanisms that Bennett offers:

Others have found this approach to be promising. Here is an elaboration on Bennett's classification by Mikko Huotari at the Mercator Institute for China Studies in Berlin:

(Thanks for sharing this classification, Mikko.)

I agree with Andrew in thinking that it is useful to find a non-arbitrary way of classifying mechanisms. It is quite worthwhile to make a start at this project. I'm not yet fully persuaded, however, by either of the axes that he proposes.

First, the content axis seems arbitrary -- legitimacy, material power, functional efficiency. Why choose these substantive characteristics rather than a dozen other possible content features? Is it simply that these correspond to the three primary "isms" of IR theory -- neorealism, neoliberalism, and constructivism (as he suggests earlier; 472)? But the thrust of the first part of the paper is that the "isms" are an unsatisfactory basis for guiding explanation in international relations theory; so why should we imagine that they serve to identify the crucial distinctions in content among social mechanisms? Would the content categories look different if we were taking our examples from feminist sociology, the sociology of organizations, or theories of legislatures? Bennett doesn't assert that these content categories are exhaustive; but if they are not, then somehow the tabulation needs to indicate that there is an extensible list on the left. And are these categories exclusive? Can a given mechanism fall both into the legitimacy group and the functional efficiency group? It would appear that this is possible; but in that case classification is difficult to carry out.

Second, the structure axis. Why is it crucial to differentiate mechanisms according to their place within an agent-structure grid? Why is this an illuminating or fundamental feature of the mechanisms that are enumerated? Would this dimension explode if we thought of social organization as a continuum from macro to meso to micro (along the lines of Jepperson and Meyer (link), as well as several earlier posts here (link))?

An early question that needs answer here is this: What do we want from a scheme of classification of social mechanisms? Should we be looking for a strict classification with exhaustive and mutually exclusive groupings? Or should we be looking for something looser -- perhaps more like a cluster diagram in which some mechanisms are closer to each other than they are to others?

We do have several other examples to think about when it comes to classifying mechanisms. In an earlier post I discussed Craver and Darden's account of mechanisms in biology, and highlighted the table of mechanisms that they provide (link). It is evident that the Craver-Darden table is much less ambitious when it comes to classification. They have loosely grouped mechanisms into higher-level types -- adaptation, repair, synthesis, for example; but they have not tried to further classify mechanisms in terms of the levels of the entities that are linked by the mechanism. So they offer one dimension of classification rather than two, and they leave it entirely open that there may be additional types to be added in the future. This is a fairly unexacting understanding of what is needed for a tabulation of mechanisms.

In Dynamics of Contention McAdam, Tarrow and Tilly offer a sort of classification of their own for the kinds of mechanisms they identify. They propose three types of mechanisms -- environmental, cognitive, and relational (kl 375):
  • Environmental mechanisms mean externally generated influences on conditions affecting social life. Such mechanisms can operate directly: For example, resource depletion or enhancement affects people's capacity to engage in contentious politics (McCarthy and Zald, ed. 1987).
  • Cognitive mechanisms operate through alterations of individual and collective perception; words like recognize, understand, reinterpret, and classify characterize such mechanisms. Our vignettes from Paris and Greenwood show people shifting in awareness of what could happen through collective action; when we look more closely, we will observe multiple cognitive mechanisms at work, individual by individual. For example, commitment is a widely recurrent individual mechanism in which persons who individually would prefer not to take the risks of collective action find themselves unable to withdraw without hurting others whose solidarity they value - sometimes at the cost of suffering serious loss.
  • Relational mechanisms alter connections among people, groups, and interpersonal networks. Brokerage, a mechanism that recurs throughout Parts II and III of the book, we define as the linking of two or more previously unconnected social sites by a unit that mediates their relations with one another and/or with yet other sites. Most analysts see brokerage as a mechanism relating groups and individuals to one another in stable sites, but it can also become a relational mechanism for mobilization during periods of contentious politics, as new groups are thrown together by increased interaction and uncertainty, thus discovering their common interests.
This too is a one-dimensional classification. And it appears to be intended to be exhaustive and mutually exclusive. But it isn't clear to me that it succeeds in classifying all the mechanisms we might want to bring forward. Once again, this strikes me as a good beginning but not an exhaustive grouping of all social mechanisms.

My own preliminary grouping of mechanisms has even less structure (link). It groups mechanisms according to the subject matter or discipline from which they have emerged. But this does not serve to shed light on how these examples are similar or different from each other -- one of the key purposes of a classification.

I think this is a very useful research activity, and Andrew Bennett has done a service to the theory of social mechanisms in putting forward this effort at classification. Let's see what other schemes may be possible as well. A good scheme of classification may tell us something very important about the nature of how causation works in the social world.

Friday, July 4, 2014

What drives organizational performance?

We have a pretty good idea of the characteristics that support very high individual performance in a variety of fields, from jazz to track to physics to business. An earlier post discussed some of the different combinations of features that characterize leaders in several different professions (link). And it isn’t difficult to sketch out qualities of personality, character, and style that make for a great teacher, researcher, entrepreneur, a great soccer player, or an exceptional police investigator. So we might imagine that a high-performing organization is one that has succeeded in assembling a group of high-performing individuals. But this is plainly untrue — witness the New York Yankees during much of the 2000s, the dot-com company WebVan during the late 1990s, and the XYZ Orchestra today. (Here is a thoughtful Mellon Foundation study of quality factors in symphony orchestras; link.) In each case the organization consisted of high-performing stars in their various disciplines, but somehow the ensemble performed poorly. The lesson from these examples is an obvious one: the performance of an organization is more than the sum of the abilities of its component members.

In fact, it seems apparent that organizational performance, like physical health, is a function of a number of separate parameters:
  • clarity about mission
  • appropriateness of internal functional specialization
  • quality of internal communication and collaboration across units and individuals
  • quality and intensity of individuals  
  • quality of internal motivation
  • quality of leadership
We might say that an organization is like a physical mechanism in the sense that its overall performance depends on the quality of the design, the appropriate interconnections among the parts, and the quality of the individual components.

So what else goes into determining great organizational performance besides the quality of the individuals who make it up? A few things are obvious. Of course it is true that having individual participants who have the right kinds of talents is crucial. A technology company needs excellent engineers and designers. But it also needs highly talented marketing professionals, financial experts, and strategic planners. And it needs these talented specialists in a number of critical areas. Why did Xerox PARC fail in spite of the excellence of its scientists and engineers, and the innovativeness of the products that they created? Because the organization lacked the ability — and the individuals — to turn those ideas and innovations into products that the public wanted to buy. (Here is Malcolm Gladwell's take on Xerox PARC in the New Yorker; link.)

A key aspect of the problem of designing and tuning an organization’s features to ensure high performance is being able to determine with precision what the mission of the organization is. What is the organization fundamentally established to bring about? If the Red Cross is an organization that is intended to deliver resources and assistance to communities that have suffered extensive disasters, that implies one set of functional needs to be satisfied by divisions and specialists within the organization. If it is primarily a fund-raising and marketing organization aimed at raising public awareness and generating large amounts of public donations to be used for disaster relief, that implies a different set of internal specialists. So being clear about the overall mission of the organization is crucial for the designers, so they can skillfully design a set of divisions, specialists, and work processes that can work together effectively to carry out the tasks necessary to succeed in achieving the mission.

This point highlights the fact that an organization needs to have a functional structure in which the activities of individuals or departments carry out specialized tasks. These sub-units depend upon the high-level work of other departments or individuals, and the functional structure of the organization can be more or less appropriate to the task. The organization succeeds to the extent that its component parts succeed in identifying the needs and opportunities facing the organization and in carrying out their roles in responding to those needs and opportunities. Poor performance in one department can have the effect of ruining the overall success of the organization to carry out its mission — even if other departments are highly successful in carrying out their tasks. Charles Perrow highlights this kind of organizational deficiency in Normal Accidents: Living with High-Risk Technologies.

Here is another important variable in bringing about organizational effectiveness: the procedures within the organization that are designed to encourage high-quality effort and results on the parts of the individuals who occupy roles throughout the organization. One line of response to this issue flows through a system of supervision and assessment. This approach emphasizes measurement of performance and positive and negative incentives to motivate satisfactory performance. Supervisors are tasked to ensure that employees are exerting themselves and that their work product is of satisfactory quality.

But a different response proceeds through a theory of internal motivation. Leaders and supervisors encourage high-quality effort and achievement by expressing the valuable goals that the organization is pursuing and by offering the reward of participation in effective work that one cares about to employees. This positive motivational feature is strengthened if the organization visibly maintains its commitment to treat its employees fairly and decently. If an employee is proud to work for Ben and Jerry’s, he or she is strongly motivated to make the best contribution possible to the work of the company. In a nutshell this is the theory that underlies the very interesting literature of positive organizational scholarship (Kim Cameron and Gretchen Spreitzer, The Oxford Handbook of Positive Organizational Scholarship).

A fifth facet of organizational performance plainly has to do with internal communication, coordination, and collaboration. The eventual success or failure of an organizational initiative will depend on the activities of individuals and units spread out throughout the organization. The work of various of those units can be made more effective or less effective by the ease and seriousness with which they are able to communicate with each other. Suppose a car company is designing a new model. Many units will be involved in bringing the design to fruition. If the body designers, the power train designers, and the manufacturing engineers haven’t talked to each other, there is a likelihood that solutions chosen by one set of specialists will create major problems for the other specialists. (The Saab 900 of the late 1970s was a beautiful and high-performing vehicle; but because the design process had not taken into account the need for convenient servicing, it was necessary to remove the engine to carry out some common kinds of repair.) Thomas Hughes provides an excellent analysis of the organizational deficiencies of the design process used in the United States military aerospace sector in the 1950s and 1960s in Rescuing Prometheus: Four Monumental Projects That Changed the Modern World. Here is his comparison of good and bad organizational forms:

The top diagram is entirely hierarchical, with decision-makers at the top deciding the flow of work below and essentially no communication across sub-units. The bottom diagram, by contrast, involves a great deal of internal communication, allowing for adjustment of design and timing decisions so that the eventual plan has the greatest likelihood for success. The latter permits the implementation of systems engineering rather than component engineering. Here is Hughes's depiction of what happens when an organization lacks good internal communication and coordination:

What this implies is that improving organizational performance is a bit like tuning a piano: we need to continually adjust the factors (motivation, collaboration, mission, leadership, specialization) in such a way as to create a joint system of activity that succeeds at a high level in creating the desired results.

(I used images of musical ensembles to open this topic. But how good is the analogy? Actually, it is not a particularly good analogy. The issue of the quality of the players is obviously relevant, and quality of leadership has an exact parallel in the symphony orchestra. But the task of giving an excellent performance of Dvorak's ninth symphony is much simpler than that of bringing about a successful intervention by FEMA in response to a hurricane. There is a score for the musicians; there is a central conductor who keeps them in step with each other; and most crucially, there is no uncertainty about what to do once the third movement is finished; the musicians turn the page and move on to the fourth movement. Perhaps the jazz ensemble pictured above is a slightly better metaphor for a complex organization in that it leaves room for improvisation by the players. But even here, the activity is orders of magnitude simpler and easier to coordinate than a large organization whose actions take place over months or years, dispersed over thousands of miles and multiple sites of activity. So organizational effectiveness is a more complex process than musical coordination and performance.)

(I emphasize here the importance of collaboration as a variable in organizational effectiveness. This suggests examples drawn from team activities like soccer or a research laboratory. But some experts doubt the idea that teams are always superior to more hierarchical structures. Here is J. Richard Hackman on the positives and negatives of teams (link).)

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Getting inside people's frames

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

The notion of a frame seems to originate (in sociology anyway) in the writings of Erving Goffman. Here is how he formulates the idea in Frame Analysis: An Essay on the Organization of Experience:
When the individual in our Western society recognizes a particular event, he tends, whatever else he does, to imply in this response (and in effect employ) one or more frameworks or schemata of interpretation of a kind that can be called primary. I say primary because application of such a framework or perspective is seen by those who apply it as not depending on or harking back to some prior or 'original' interpretation; indeed a primary framework is one that is seen as rendering what would otherwise be a meaningless aspect of the scene into something that is meaningful.... Whatever the degree of organization, however, each primary framework allows its user to locate, perceive, identify, and label a seemingly infinite number of concrete occurrences defined in its terms. He is likely to be unaware of such organized features as the framework has and unable to describe the framework with any completeness if asked, yet these handicaps are no bar to his easily and fully applying it.... Social frameworks ... provide background understanding for events that incorporate the will, aim, and controlling effort of an intelligence, a live agency, the chief one being the human being.... Taken all together, the primary frameworks of a particular social group constitute a central element of its culture, especially insofar as understandings emerge concerning principal classes of schemata, the relations of these classes to one another, and the sum total of forces and agents that these interpretive designs acknowledge to be loose in the world. (21-22, 27)
The term "cultural sociology" is sometimes used to try to capture those research efforts that try to probe the meanings and mental frameworks that people bring to their social interactions. We can postulate that human beings are processors of meanings and interpretations, and that their frameworks take shape as a result of the range of experiences and interactions they have had to date. This means that their frameworks are deeply social, created and constructed by the social settings and experiences the individuals have had. And we can further postulate that social action is deeply inflected by the specifics of the mental and emotional frameworks through which actors structure and interpret the worlds they confront. At least a part of the disciplinary matrix of cultural sociology might be understood as the field of inquiry that tries to probe those frameworks as they are embodied in specific collectivities -- working class people, women, African Americans, American Muslims, or college professors, for example. (Erving Goffman and Harold Garfinkel might be viewed as progenitors of this aspect of the sociology discipline; linklink.)

Wendy Griswold addresses part of this viewpoint on sociological research in her very good overview of the field in Cultures and Societies in a Changing World.
Most sociologists now view people as meaning makers as well as rational actors, symbol users as well as class representatives, and storytellers as well as points in a demographic trend. Moreover, sociology largely has escaped its former either/or way of thinking. The discipline now seeks to understand how people's meaning making shapes their rational action, how their class position molds their stories—in short, how social structure and culture mutually influence one another. (kl 195)
So how have sociologists attempted to investigate these kinds of subjective realities? Here is how Al Young describes his research goals in The Minds of Marginalized Black Men: Making Sense of Mobility, Opportunity, and Future Life Chances:
I wanted to get a sense of whether poor black men looked beyond their immediate surroundings and circumstances when thinking about the future. Hence, the story told here is about how these men think about themselves as members of a larger social world -- not just their communities and neighborhoods, but American society. (lc 134)
Part 2, "Lifeworlds," explores the men's own accounts of their past and contemporary circumstances. It is here that the experiences and situations that have positioned them as poor, urban-based black men are explored. Chapter 2 provides a vision of the social contexts that circumscribe these men's lives and shape the comments and opinions that they shared with me. (lc 195)
In order to answer these questions Young conducted several dozen interviews with young black men on the south side of Chicago, and his interpretation and analysis of the results is highly illuminating.

Or take as another example the highly interesting work of sociologist Michele Lamont in Money, Morals, and Manners: The Culture of the French and the American Upper-Middle Class. Here Lamont studies the mentalities of high-status white men in the United States and France. Her question is a fairly simple one: how do these men formulate their judgments of success and failure in themselves and others? What features do they admire in others and which do they dislike? She conducts interviews with 160 men in four cities in France and the United States, and makes a sustained effort to discern the profiles of culture and value that she finds among these individuals.
I compare competing definitions of what it means to be a 'worthy person' by analyzing symbolic boundaries, i.e., by looking at implicit definitions of purity present in the labels interviewees use to describe, abstractly and concretely, people with whom they don't want to associate, people to whom they consider themselves to be superior and inferior, and people who arouse hostility, indifference, and sympathy. Hence, the study analyzes the relative importance attached to religion, honesty, low moral standards, cosmopolitanism, high culture, money, power, and the likes, by Hoosiers, New Yorkers, Parisians, and Clermontois. (kl 179)
This kind of research is inherently interesting because of the light it sheds for readers about the lives and experiences of others. Reading Al Young or Michele Lamont offers the reader a window into the experience and meaning frameworks of people whose lives and experiences have been substantially different from our own; it helps us understand the ways in which these various individuals and members of groups understand themselves and their social worlds. All by itself this is a valuable kind of research. (Why did so many African Americans respond differently to the acquittal of OJ Simpson than their white counterparts and peers?)

But this kind of research becomes especially interesting if we find that the mental frameworks and systems of meanings that actors bring with them actually make substantial differences to their social actions and the choices that they make. In this case we can actually begin to create explanations and interpretations of social outcomes that interest us a great deal. (Why are some extremist militants so ready to put on suicide vests in actions that are almost certain to bring about their own deaths?)

A key issue with this kind of inquiry is methodological. How should we investigate and observe the subjective characteristics of thought and feeling that this work entails? What are appropriate standards of validity on the basis of which to assess assertions in this area? Sociologists like Alford Young and Michele Lamont have often chosen a methodology that centers on open-ended unstructured interviews -- very much the kind of thing that Studs Terkel was so good at. What these sociologists add to the approach of a Studs Terkel or an Ira Glass is an effort to analyze and generalize from the interviews they collect in order to arrive at mid-level statements about the mentality and symbolic frameworks of this group or that. And both Young and Lamont succeed in providing portraits of their subjects that are highly insightful and sociologically plausible -- we can understand the mechanisms through which these frameworks take hold and we can see some of the meso-level consequences that follow from them in specific social settings.

In a number of prior posts I've argued for an actor-centered sociology (link). And I've argued that we need to have better and more fully articulated theories of the actor if an actor-centered sociology is to be valuable.  What I am calling cultural sociology here is one way for the discipline of sociology to get down to business in providing more nuanced theories of the actor.

(I should note that the description provided here of cultural sociology makes the field seem highly actor-centered; but this isn't entirely accurate. There are macro and meso zones of research in cultural sociology that are distinctly uninterested in the mental frameworks of the individual actors. Wendy Griswold captures this multi-level division of the field by referring to a "cultural diamond", and the actor-centered aspect that I've described here is probably the smallest in terms of the volume of research conducted in the field. Here is Griswold's description of the diamond:
I use the device of the "cultural diamond" to investigate the connections among four elements: cultural objects -- symbols, beliefs, values, and practices; cultural creators, including the organizations and systems that produce and distribute cultural objects; cultural receivers, the people who experience culture and specific cultural objects; and the social world, the context in which culture is created and experienced. (kl 218)
In fact, the actor-centered dimension of the field gets relatively little spotlight in Griswold's Cultures and Societies in a Changing World. If anything, one might argue that there should be more attention to the interface between frame and actor, so that individuals are not viewed as simply the passive bearers of this cultural icon or that.)

Sunday, June 29, 2014

Saskia Sassen on austerity and social exclusion

The previous post summarized some of Kathleen Thelen's thinking about the prospects for a more egalitarian capitalism in our future. Saskia Sassen offers a more negative view of the direction of the development of European capitalism in her most recent book, Expulsions: Brutality and Complexity in the Global Economy.

Here is a post in Open Democracy in which Sassen summarizes her current thinking. Her view is that there is something new in the political economy of liberalization and austerity -- the systematic exclusion and expulsion of a significant portion of the population from the economy altogether. She writes:
Low growth, unemployment, inequality, and poverty are no longer reliable markers for capturing the 'economic cleansing' afflicting European institutions and societies throughout Europe. This 'works' on the backs of all those who have simply been expelled.
This seems pretty descriptive in the urban environment in which I live in Detroit metro. The factors Sassen highlights -- high unemployment, even higher rates of discouraged workers, and high rates of foreclosure and abandonment fit the Detroit experience very well. The most recent development -- water shutoff notices to tens of thousands of Detroit residents -- only reinforces the point of exclusion.

Thanks, Saskia, for providing the link!

Saturday, June 28, 2014

Thelen on the prospects for egalitarian capitalism

source: Kathleen Thelen, Varieties of Liberalization (kl 3310)

There is a version of economic historical thinking that we might label as "capitalist triumphalism" -- the idea that the institutions of a capitalist economy drive out all other economic forms, and that they tend towards an ever-more pure form of unconstrained market society. "Liberalization," deregulation, and reduction of social rights are seen as economically inevitable. On this view, the various ways in which some countries have tried to ameliorate the harsh consequences of unconstrained capitalism on the least well off in society are doomed -- the welfare state, social democracy, extensive labor rights, or universal basic income (link). Through a race to the bottom, any institutional reforms that impede the freedom and mobility of capital will be forced out by a combination of economic and political pressures.

The graphs above demonstrate the current structural differences among Denmark, Sweden, Germany, Netherlands, and USA when it comes to training and income support for the unemployed and underemployed. It is visible that the four European economies devote substantially greater resources to support for the unemployed than the United States. And on the triumphalist view, the states demonstrating more generous benefits for the less-well-off will inevitably converge towards the profile represented by the fifth panel, the United States.

Kathleen Thelen is a gifted historical sociologist who has studied the institutions of labor education and training throughout the past twenty years. Her book How Institutions Evolve: The Political Economy of Skills in Germany, Britain, the United States, and Japan is an important contribution to our understanding of these basic economic institutions, and it also sheds important light on the meta-issues of stability and change in important social institutions. With James Mahoney she also edited the valuable collection Explaining Institutional Change: Ambiguity, Agency, and Power on this topic.

Thelen's most recent book, Varieties of Liberalization and the New Politics of Social Solidarity addresses the question of capitalist triumphalism. (That isn't a term that she uses, but it seems descriptive.) She locates her analysis within the "varieties of capitalism" field of scholarship, which maintains that there is not a single pathway of development for capitalist systems. "Coordinated" capitalism and neoliberal capitalism represent two poles of the space considered by the VofC literature.
From the beginning, the VofC literature challenged the idea that contemporary market pressures would drive a convergence on a single best or most efficient model of capitalism. (kl 228)
Thelen is interested in assessing the prospects for what she calls "egalitarian" capitalism -- the variants of capitalist political economy that feature redistribution, social welfare, and significant policy support for the less-well-off. She focuses on several key institutions -- industrial relations, vocational education and training, and labor market institutions, and she argues that these are particularly central for the historical issue of the development of capitalism towards harsher or gentler versions.
Different varieties of liberalization occur under the auspices of different social coalitions, and this has huge implications for the distributive outcomes in which many of us are ultimately interested. (kl 243)
This point is key to her view of the plasticity and path-dependency of basic economic institutions: these institutions change as a result of economic imperatives and the strength of various social groups who are in a position to influence the form that change takes. "The conclusions I reach here are based on a view of institutions that emphasizes the political-coalitional basis on which they rest" (kl 259). But there is no simple calculus proceeding from power group to institutional outcome; instead, the results for institutional change are a dynamic consequence of strategy, coalition, and constraint.
I suggest that the institutions of egalitarian capitalism survive best not when they stably reproduce the politics and patterns of the Golden Era, but rather when they are reconfigured -- in both form and function -- on the basis of significantly new political support coalitions. (kl 330)
A key finding in Thelen's analysis is that "coordinated" capitalism and "egalitarian" capitalism are not the same. Coordinated capitalism corresponds to the models associated with social democracies of the 1950s and 1960s, the "Nordic" model. But Thelen holds that egalitarian capitalism can take more innovative and flexible forms and may be a more durable alternative to neoliberal capitalism.

Is a more "egalitarian" capitalism possible? The data on labor markets that Thelen presents shows that there are major differences across OECD economies when it comes to wage inequality. Here is a striking chart:

Source: Thelen, Figure 3.3. Share of Employees in Low-Wage Work, 2010

Fully a quarter of US workers are employed in low-wage work in 2010. This is about double the rate of Denmark and quadruple the rate of low-wage workers in Sweden. Plainly this reflects a US economy that is creating substantially greater numbers of low-income people than any other OECD country. And yet all of these countries are capitalist economies, some with rates of growth that are higher than the United States. This demonstrates that there are institutional and policy choices available that are consistent with the imperatives of a capitalist market economy and yet that give rise to more egalitarian outcomes than we observe in the US, Canada, and the UK.

A key element in common among the more egalitarian labor outcomes that Thelen studies (Netherlands, Denmark, Sweden, Germany) is the expansion of part-time work, mini-jobs, and "flexi-curity". This phenomenon reflects a combination of liberalization (relaxation of work rules and requirements of long labor contracts), with a set of arrangements that allows a smoother allocation of labor to jobs and an improvement in income and security for the lower end of the labor market. This trend is part of what Thelen calls a strategy of "embedded flexibilization", which she regards as the best hope for a pathway towards equitable capitalism.

Thelen closes with a realistic observation about the uncertain coalitional basis that is available in support of the policies of embedded flexibilization. Xenophobic tendencies in countries like the Netherlands and Denmark have the potential for destroying the social consensus that currently exists for this model, and the leaders of nationalistic anti-immigrant parties have made this a key to their efforts at political mobilization (kl 5541). Maintenance of these policies will require strong political efforts on the part of progressive coalitions in those countries, and organized labor is key to those efforts.

This analysis is deeply international and comparative, but it has an important consequence for the political economy of the United States: where are the coalitions that can help steer our economy towards a more egalitarian form of capitalism?

(Readers may be interested in an earlier discussion of the Nordic model; link.)

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Differences in leadership qualities across professions

My university work involves quite a bit of interaction with leaders in different sectors of society — non-profits, elected officials, community organizations, business, law enforcement, and education, for example. Over the years I have noticed some striking differences in profile across sectors in terms of the qualities of mind and character that leaders in these sectors display. We might imagine a small number of traits with scales that are relevant to assessing leadership effectiveness -- perhaps along these lines:
  • Sociability
  • Persistence
  • Strategic ability
  • Ability to motivate a team
  • Problem-solving ability
  • Independence
  • Intellectual focus
  • Integrity
It strikes me that leaders in different sectors have very different mixes of qualities like these. (Within each sector there is also a wide distribution of character traits as well, of course.) A profile for several cohorts of leaders might look something like this:

On this set of assumptions, elected officials are high on sociability and team motivation but low on independence and intellectual focus; accounting CEOs are high on persistence, problem-solving ability, intellectual focus, and integrity, but low on team motivation and independence; police chiefs are high on persistence, motivational ability, and integrity, and low on sociability, intellectual focus, and independence; and community leaders are low on strategic ability, problem-solving ability, and focus, but high on the other attributes of leadership. In other words, each group of leaders shows a very different mix of skills and abilities.

(It should be understood that this graph is purely notional. I've assigned impressionistic values to the eight qualities for the four professions, but there is no real empirical measurement involved here. The graph is just intended to illustrate the idea. I am imagining that data for a graph like this would come from personality studies of randomly selected individuals who serve as leaders in the four professions.)

What explains the distinctiveness of leadership profiles in various sectors? The book I like best on the sociology of the professions is Andrew Abbott's The System of Professions: An Essay on the Division of Expert Labor. But Abbott's treatment doesn't address this specific question -- how are individuals socialized into the various professions? So how can we begin to think about the question?

A priori there seem to be at least three relevant mechanisms: selection, training, and peer emulation.

Selection works at several levels in most occupations, including entry and promotion. Individuals enter the sector with specialized training and a wide range of features of personality. The training that is provided for an accountant or a physician inculcates a fairly specific set of mental habits which the young professional brings with him or her into the professional setting. Young practitioners then begin to move up in their organizations. They advance within the organization according to the judgment of more senior managers about their suitability for higher levels of leadership and management. Those judgments are an important source of the specialization of traits of leaders that occurs within organizations. If senior managers believe that good leaders are quick and decisive, then the individuals they promote will tend to have these characteristics. So the “folk” wisdom within a sector or industry about what makes a good manager is itself an important driver of the composition of the leadership corps.

Sometimes senior leaders are selected through a more complex process involving search consultants and a search committee. This is the model for the selection of most senior university leaders. Here we often find a more complicated mix of selection criteria — committee members who favor academic achievement, others who favor administrative effectiveness, yet others who favor communications skills and vision. So we might expect that such a process would lead to a more heterogeneous leadership corps. And the selection process for elected officials is more complicated yet. The qualities that lead to success are those that allow the candidate to quickly evoke support from a broad range of potential voters. Some of these qualities have to do with the candidate's public priorities and values; but others have to do with communications and skills and sociability.

Take law enforcement agencies as an example. The qualities that make for a particularly effective street officer or sergeant may allow a given individual to rise through the ranks to a certain level. But the qualities that make for an effective police chief or commander may be somewhat different from the mix for the street-level officer. Perhaps these factors include broad vision of the department’s mission, an exceptional ability to communicate with the public and other public officials, and a special ability to inspire commitment from the men and women in service in the organization. An officer who is a great investigator or a great community policing officer may lack these other broader characteristics. And this means that the selection process for a chief may be one that cultivates the very small percentage of individuals who have the plus factor, even though these individuals' performance at the street or sergeant level is no better than that of their peers.

(Or if you watch The Wire and its depiction of the police command structure of Baltimore, you may think that the traits for which leaders are selected are less high-minded: an ability to curry favor from other powerful people, a willingness to act deceitfully, a willingness to bully subordinates, and an ability to look good in a press conference. Who could be a fan of Deputy Commissioner Bill Rawls in The Wire?)

The training associated with profession or industry is another important source of distinctiveness in leaders in a sector. Human resources professionals undergo professional development and training throughout their careers, from first hire to their most senior appointments. And these training processes build a set of mental frameworks and practices that become ingrained in most or all of the professionals in this field -- including those who go on to positions of senior leadership. The same is true of law enforcement, banking, and medicine. The foundational training for professionals in these fields -- police academy, MBA, medical school -- itself promotes particular ways of thinking about the world and one's responsibilities that are quite distinct across professions. Doctors think differently from police officers. And these differences are deepened by the training experiences each of these professionals have within their own organizations. We may speculate that doctors and architects deepen their professional habitus through their working lives in hospitals and architectural firms, and that these experiences make a significant difference when they become CEOs of organizations in their sectors.

Peer emulation seems to be a third important factor influencing the personality and style of leadership and management of the leaders in a sector or industry. Deans and provosts see a few university presidents in action, and they model their own behavior and aspirations accordingly (to some extent). Bankers, from junior to senior, observe the actions and motivations of their peers, and their own behavior adapts to what they observe. At a recent conference in Stockholm Ernst Fehr presented interesting research using the techniques of experimental economics to probe the mores and character traits of professionals in the banking industry. The research suggests a powerful effect from the environment of a financial institution to the character and behavior of its professionals in a fairly brief period of time. It will be interesting to discuss this research here when it is published.

So perhaps it isn't surprising that police chiefs, mayors, foundation heads, and community leaders have quite distinctive styles do thinking and acting, and make leadership decisions that look fairly different across these different professions. They have been selected and trained in widely different ways, they have been exposed to the practice of other professionals in their field over a range of settings, and they have observed the choices and behavior of leaders whom they either admire or dislike. In the terms that Bourdieu introduced, they occupy a field of practice where behaviors and dispositions are shaped by the activities of others in the field and the latent incentives and messages contained in the field.

Readers -- is there an area of personality psychology (or organizational psychology) that has studied this question in detail? Suggestions are invited.

Saturday, June 21, 2014

A catalogue of social mechanisms

In an earlier post I made an effort at providing the beginnings of an inventory of social mechanisms from several areas of social research. Here I’d like to go a little further with that idea in order to see how it plays into good thinking about social-science methodology.

Some Types of Social Mechanisms

Coordinated action
Social appropriation
Boundary activation
Competition for power

Prisoners' dilemma
Free rider behavior
Selective benefits
Selective coercion
Conditional altruism

Audit and accounting
Employee training
Morale building

Altruistic enforcement
Person-to-person transmission
Subliminal transmission
Stereotype threat

Ministry direction
Market for lemons
Democratic decision making
Producers' control
Soft budget constraint

Agenda setting
Cyclical voting
Log rolling
Regulatory organizations
Influence peddling

Secret police files
Spectacular use of force
Control of communications systems

Interpersonal network
Transport networks

Flash trading
Interlocking mobilization
Overlapping systems of authority (Brenner)
Non-linear networks

These mechanisms have been collected from a wide range of social scientists and researchers -- Charles Tilly, Robert Axelrod, Elinor Ostrom, George Akerlof, Robert Bates, Mancur Olson, Mayer Zald, John Ferejohn, Janos Kornai, Claude Steele, and Charles Perrow, to name a few.

There are at least two kinds of questions we need to ask about a collection like this.

First, where do the entries come from? What kinds of scientific inquiry are required in order to establish that things like these are indeed mechanisms found in the social world?

The most general answer to this question concerning discovery is that much research in the various disciplines of the social sciences is specifically directed at working out the contours of mechanisms like these. Political scientists who focus on legislatures and the US Congress have become expert on identifying and validating the institutional and voting mechanisms through which legislative outcomes come to effect. Organizational sociologists study the inner workings of a range of organizations and are able to identify and validate a wide range of mechanisms at work within these organizations. Economic anthropologists and theorists study the ways in which economic transactions are conducted in a range of human settings. Social psychologists identify many of the ways that individuals acquire normative beliefs and transmit them to other individuals. The greatest difficulty in constructing a table like this is not at the level of identifying mechanisms that might be included; it is the problem of limiting the number of mechanisms identified to a more or less manageable number. There is some reason to fear that social scientists have identified thousands of mechanisms in their research, not dozens.

And second, what role does a table like this play in the conduct of research in the social sciences?

In In Search of Mechanisms: Discoveries across the Life Sciences Craver and Darden argue that biologists often approach novel phenomena with something like this table in the backs of their heads -- an inventory of known causal mechanisms in the domain of biology. From there they attempt to solve the puzzle: what combination of known mechanisms might be concatenated in order to reproduce the observed phenomenon?

Strikingly enough, this description of a heuristic for arriving at an explanatory analysis of a situation has a lot in common with the way that McAdam, Tarrow, and Tilly proceed in Dynamics of Contention. (Here is a more developed analysis of their mechanisms-based approach; link.) MT&T argue that there is a relatively manageable list of social mechanisms that can be observed in many cases of social contention. And they approach new instances with the idea that we may be able to understand the dynamics of the case by teasing out the workings of some of those mechanisms. It seems that MT&T are involved in both parts of the inquiry -- discovery and isolation of recurring mechanisms of contention, and application of these discoveries to the explanation of specific episodes of contention.

For example, they introduce their case studies in Part III of the book in these terms:
Part III of the study takes up three distinct literatures regarding contention -- revolution, nationalism, and democratization -- in view of the paths our quest has followed. The goal of that concluding section is to emphasize the commonalities as well as the differences in those forms of contention through an examination of the explanatory mechanisms and political processes we have uncovered in Parts I and II. (kl 511)
And a few paragraphs later:
Let us insist: Our aim is not to construct general models of revolution, democratization, or social movements, much less of all political contention whenever and wherever it occurs. On the contrary, we aim to identify crucial causal mechanisms that recur in a wide variety of contention, but produce different aggregate outcomes depending on the initial conditions, combinations, and sequences in which they occur. (kl 519)
Here is how they summarize their attempt to explain particular episodes of social contention. They focus on a "number of loosely connected mechanisms and processes":
  • A mobilization process triggered by environmental changes and that consists of a combination of attribution of opportunities and threats, social appropriation, construction of frames, situations, identities, and innovative collective action.
  • A family of mechanisms still to be elucidated around the processes of actor and identity constitution and the actions that constitute them.
  • A set of mechanisms often found in trajectories of contention that recurs in protracted episodes of contention, competition, diffusion, repression, and radicalization. (kl 941)
And this body of social mechanisms is taken to provide a basis for historically grounded explanations of the forms of contention observed in specific cases.

This seems to parallel fairly closely the intellectual process that Craver and Darden describe in the case of biology: create an inventory of common causal mechanisms and analyze new cases by trying to see to what extent some of those known mechanisms can be discerned in the new material.

This account of an important type of social science research resonates well with a broad range of social science disciplines. It aligns with Robert Merton's notion of "theories of the middle range" in the social sciences, and the idea of developing a toolbox of patterns of social behavior on the basis of which to explain specific episodes. Rather than looking for general theories on the basis of which to unify wide swaths of the social world under a deductive explanatory system, this mechanisms-based approach suggests coming at social explanation piecemeal: finding the components and sub-processes of observed social ensembles, on the basis of which we can explain some aspects of the behavior of those ensembles.

We might usefully consider two additional questions. First, is there a theoretically useful way of classifying social mechanisms (formation of the individual actor, collective action, communication, repression, collective decision making, ...)? Can our catalogue provide content-relevant "chapters"? We might argue that a good taxonomy of social mechanisms actually provides a way of theorizing the main dimensions of social activity and organization. And second, are there more fundamental things we can say about how some or many of these mechanisms work? Does a good theory of the actor and a good theory of social organizations suffice to account for the workings of a great many of these mechanisms? If we respond affirmatively to this question, then once again we may have made a small degree of progress towards offering a somewhat more general theory of the social world.