Monday, May 25, 2015

The similarity space of actor-centered research frameworks




There are a number of approaches to the study of the social world that give special priority to individuals in social settings. Rational choice theory and game theory (Becker, Harsanyi) attempt to understand social outcomes as the result of the strategies and calculations of rational actors. Actor-centered sociology and pragmatist theory attempt to uncover a deep understanding of the actor’s frameworks and modes of action (Goffman, Gross). Analytical sociology attempts to work out the logic of Coleman’s boat by showing how macro-level social factors influence the behavior of individuals and how macro factors result from the interactions of individuals at the micro level (Hedstrom, Ylikoski). And agent-based models provide computational systems for representing the complex forms of interaction that occur among individuals leading to social outcomes (Axelrod, Manzo).

All four approaches appear to pursue much the same basic strategy: derive social outcomes from what we know about the action models and composition of the individuals who make up a social setting. It is tempting to see these as four different formulations to the same basic approach. But this would be a mistake. The scientific distance between Hedstrom and Goffman, or Goffman and Becker, is great. RCT, AS, and ACS bring different assumptions to the study of actors and different assumptions about what a social explanation requires. They are different research paradigms and give rise to qualitatively different kinds of research products. And ABM is a tool that can be deployed in each of these frameworks but is most suited to AS and RCT.

This picture implies that the agent-centered approaches have more in common with each other than any of them do with other important strands of social science research methodologies. Can we codify these intuitions in some way? And can we sort out the logical and pragmatic relations that exist among these approaches?

Here is a table that represents some of the central methodological and ontological assumptions of each of these research frameworks.


Actor-centered sociology
Analytical sociology
Rational choice theory
Social outcomes derive from the actions of socially constituted actors in relations with each other
Explain outcomes as the aggregate result of the actions and interactions of purposive individuals
Individuals behave as economically rational agents. Explain outcomes as the aggregate result of these actions
Attention to “thick” theories of the actor
Desire-belief-opportunity framework for actors (DBO)
Narrow economic rationality: consistent preferences and maximization of utilities
Actors are formed and shaped by the social relations in which they develop
Causal models; commitment to the causal mechanisms approach
Equilibrium models; commitment to mathematical solutions for well-defined problems of choice.
Narrative accounts of the development of social outcomes give actions of the actors
Primacy of Coleman’s boat: explanation occurs from micro to macro and macro to micro
Game theory is used to represent interactions among rational agents

Agnostic about microfoundations
Commitment to requirement of microfoundations
Commitment to requirement of microfoundations

How can we think about the relations that exist across these research approaches? Several possibilities exist. The first diagram above represents the space of research approaches to sociological topics in terms of a Venn diagram. U is the universe of research approaches. A, B, C, and D are the research approaches that fall within the rubrics of "analytical sociology", "rational choice theory", "actor-centered sociology", and "agent-based models". Each of these families of research approaches has been discussed in earlier posts, linked above. The overlaps in the sets are intended to represent the intersection between the selected groups: actor-centered approaches that use the assumptions of rational-choice theory; analytical sociology approaches that make use of actor-centered assumptions; research efforts in the three sets that make use of agent-based models; etc.

The second diagram provides an initial effort to identify the distinguishing features of the several approaches as a dichotomous tree structure. AS and RCT share the microfoundations characteristic, whereas the phenomenological approach does not. The phenomenological approach emphasizes the need for a "thick" theory of the actor, whereas AS and RCT favor a thin theory. AS distinguishes the DBO assumption from the even more restrictive assumption of narrow economic rationality. And AS is more interested in identifying causal mechanisms than either alternative, whereas the phenomenological approach favors narratives and the RCT approach favors the creation of equilibrium models. The final row of this diagram provides instances of explanatory paradigms for the various approaches -- Goffman's account of the social behaviors in a restaurant, Coleman's boat, the formal analysis of the prisoner's dilemma, and Skocpol's table of revolutionary outcomes.

Here is another possible approach, which might be described as the "ecological" view of methodologies. In a recent post I argued that we might think of a research framework as consisting of a small set of “genes” (methodological and ontological assumptions), which then give rise to the “phenotype” of research products in the hands of groups of researchers (link).

On this way of thinking, AS and RCT share a number of genes in common, and they are open to borrowing additional elements in the future through research collaboration (inter-species contact). Each shares some of the core commitments of actor-centered sociology, even as they postulate theoretical and explanatory strategies fairly distant from the key practitioners of ACS. The two “species” of research frameworks are closely related, and show promise of becoming more so in the future. But likewise, AS can become a more robust genotype for sociological research by sharing genetic components with its ecological partner, actor-based sociology. Finally, by this measure all three of these actor-based approaches are some distance from other main research approaches within sociology: survey science, quantitative research, comparative research, and organizational studies.

I would like to argue that analytical sociology has the intellectual breadth to encompass the core insights and methods of RCT and ACS as distinct theories of the actor, and that ABM is a formal methodology that is well suited to one component of the AS model of explanation, the aggregative component (the rising strut of Coleman’s boat). ABM is not limited to economic models of the actor and can incorporate as much detail about the actor as the modeler chooses; so ACS and pragmatist findings can be incorporated into ABM models at the possible cost of a loss of determinacy of outcome.

It appears to me that agent-based models represent something different from the three frameworks considered here. ABM approaches do not inherently privilege any specific model of the actor. Most current models make use of actors who are economically rational; but it would be equally consistent to assign formal interpretations to the premises of pragmatist theories of the actor and then embody those premises within an ABM model. So ABM is a formal technique for aggregating assumptions about the actions and interactions of actors, not a substantive theory of what makes the actor tick. This observation is recorded in the Venn diagram above, with the circle representing ABM approaches overlapping will all three substantive frameworks.

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

An evolutionary view of research frameworks



It was noted in prior posts that there is a great diversity of research frameworks in the social sciences, and that there is much to be gained by attempting to understand the social processes through which these frameworks change and develop over time (link, link).

Is it possible to get more specific about how the various research frameworks are related to each other, how similar or different they are, and how far apart they are in the space of the total universe of scientific research frameworks?

Here is an intriguing idea. We might think of a research framework as the compound of a set of "genes" in the form of a collection of ideas and practices through which scientists approach their studies of the world. And we might define the similarity or difference between two research frameworks in the way that geneticists define the similarity of two mammalian species, in terms of the degree of shared genetic material they possess.

On this approach, the research framework (methodology) constitutes a "code" which the young scientist learns through advanced training in the discipline. The resulting body of theory and research findings is the phenotype that results from the expression of the genotype through the activities of individuals and groups of scientists within the social and political environment of the research community.

The genotype of a methodology might consist of items like these:
  • ontological assumptions
  • investigatory strategies
  • practices of scientific collaboration
  • experimental designs
  • ideas about good explanation
  • procedures for evaluating evidence
On this view, scientific innovation takes place when researchers modify one or more elements of the code -- background ontological beliefs, investigative practices, modes of confirmation, regulative ideas about theory and explanation. A given innovation may confer greater efficacy on the research framework by leading to more discoveries, more publications, or more funding.

By invoking the ideas of genotypes, phenotypes, and ecologies into the domain of research methodologies it is tempting to consider whether other aspects of the evolutionary paradigm are applicable as well, including the idea of evolution through selection.

Key here is the question of the mechanisms of fitness and selection that might be at work in the field of science. Do methodologies compete for survival and reproduction? Are there selection pressures at work in the domain of epistemology? Do scientific research frameworks "evolve" through small adjustments at the "gene" level (components of methodology at the level of theory and practice)? If so, do those selection processes lead to the evolution of methodologies better suited to discovering truth, or do they lead instead to methods that better serve the proximate interests of researchers and micro research communities?

One might argue that the two possibilities -- selection pressure and veridicality -- converge. Researchers use and refine methodologies based on their effort to generate publications, influence, and funding. One methodology is more "fit" than another insofar as it contributes to comparative advantage in these related outcomes. But methodologies generate influence, publication, and funding in proportion to the collective judgment of the expert community that they are creating new insight and more truthful representations of the world. So selection processes lead to greater veridicality.

This would be an agreeable outcome -- the concrete practice of science leads generally to greater levels of truthful representation of the natural and social world. But is it plausible? Or does the history and sociology of science suggest that the factors that select for research methodologies are less epistemic and more situational or political? Does the process of science favor innovations that align with received views? Do scientific careers depend more on non epistemic factors than epistemic qualities? Does the process of science favor politically acceptable findings ("fracking is harmless" rather than "fracking causes micro-seismic activity")? Are there contrarian "predator" practices at foot that actively contrive to push scientific findings away from truth (climate deniers, smoking industry advocates; Naomi Oreskes, Merchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming)?

There are visible differences between biological evolution and the evolution of complexes of ideas and methods, of course. Biological evolution takes place through random variation at the genetic level, whereas theories and methods are subject to design by the scientists who develop them. Functional adaptation is the result of a blind process of selection in the biological world, whereas it is an intended consequence in the realm of theories and methods. And it is possible to define ecological fitness more precisely and mathematically in the biological realm than it is in the realm of science and culture.

It will be noted that this approach has a lot in common with the evolutionary approach to economics and the evolution of firms. A key text in this approach is Richard Nelson and Sidney Winter, An Evolutionary Theory of Economic Change. Richard Dawkins explored a similar view in The Selfish Gene when he considered "memes" as cultural counterparts to genes in the biological world.

Friday, May 15, 2015

The French Left since 1945

Bertolt Brecht

Ferdinand Lasalle

John Maclean

Jean Jaures

Rene Marx Dormoy


Salvador Allende

In an earlier post I suggested rethinking some of Lucien Goldmann's contributions to Marxist theory.

In order to put Goldmann's ideas into context it is worthwhile turning to Tony Judt's excellent book, Marxism and the French Left: Studies on Labour and Politics in France, 1830-1981. Judt addresses the relevant time period in chapter 4, “French Marxism 1945-1975.” The chief thinkers to whom he refers in this chapter include Althusser, Merleau-Ponty, Castriadis, Lefebvre, Goldmann, and Gorz. It is clear that this was an important part of French intellectual life and politics during this period, whether we are thinking of the electoral strength of the French Communist Party or the whirlwind of activism in the streets in 1968. Were there elements of French Marxist theory in those years that can make an important contribution to contemporary issues?

Judt is an absorbing observer of intellectual and political currents. One aspect of his insight derives from his attention to context:
They [Sartre and Althusser] are users of a certain sort of political language at a certain moment in a very particular society, and our concern must be to learn just what that language meant at the moment of its appearance, for user and hearer alike. My contention in this essay will be that the theory and practices of marxism in France were unusually bound up with the political struggles and allegiances of the protagonists, and more generally with the terms of political argument in modern France. (kl 2957)
So it isn't enough to identify big ideas and themes within the Left generally; rather, we need to pay close attention to the nuances of language and reference that were current at specific points in time in the French culture sphere.

Here is how Judt summarizes the primary issues of French post-war Marxism:
The concerns of marxist intellectuals in France since 1945, while varying in emphasis, have been concentrated steadily upon five discrete areas of ideological and political interest. These are the theory of a proletariat, the role of a revolutionary party, the interpretation of Stalinism, the status of the individual in marxist thought, and marxism itself as an object of study. The shifts in emphasis within and between these themes have never amounted to an unconcern with any one of them, but the varying degrees of interest have undoubtedly reflected changing circumstances. The order in which I have listed these themes, then, is consonant with the chronology just presented, and it therefore does little violence to the material, and reflects a certain historical symmetry, to take them in turn. (kl 3445)
Judt devotes the rest of the chapter to these issues and the ways in which they developed through the polemics of the 1960s.

A key intellectual factor that Judt emphasizes in this period is the injection of Hegel into French intellectual life. Kojeve in particular introduced a reading of Hegel’s Phenomenology (Introduction to the Reading of Hegel: Lectures on the Phenomenology of Spirit) that had large impact in France, and the writings of the early Marx (most influenced by Hegel) came to have a substantial appeal to some French intellectuals.
The essence of marxism was now its theory of human alienation, the conditions of that alienation and the necessity of overcoming this condition. All else, being secondary, could therefore be taken on trust. (kl 3152)
Judt points out an important paradoxical consequence of this Hegelian turn in French post-war marxism: an increasingly wide separation between theory (the views of the philosophers) and practice (the rigid economic and political doctrines of the French Communist Party, the PCF). And the latter in turn was increasingly entwined with the crimes of Stalinism and the USSR:
Stalinism made it difficult to be ‘with’ the PCF, but history made it impossible to be against it. Above everything, intellectuals in these years strove to define themselves with reference to the Communists, to share their myths and move on their terrain. (kl 3191)
Althusser made part of his reputation by insisting on a fundamental break between the early Marx and the “mature” Marx of Capital. Judt understands this intellectual swerve on Althusser’s part in political terms — as a way of separating Marxism from the crimes of Stalinism. By denigrating the “humanist” Marx and favoring the impersonal “structuralist” Marx, Althusser appeared to leave little room for moral criticism of Stalinism and the behavior of the Communist Party of the USSR or other countries.
The Althusserian approach rejected all interest in the ‘humanist’ Marx at about the time when humanism had run its course as an intellectual fashion in Paris. By focusing on structures, both in society and in the argument itself, Althusser diverted attention from human acts (and thus human errors) and thereby swept away ten years of guilt over the ‘mistakes’ and ‘deviations’ of Stalin. (kl 3337)
Regrettably, reading Judt on this period makes me less inclined to think that this is a good place to turn if we are interested in re-discovering insights in the Marxist tradition that may be pertinent to the issues we face today. The debates over the role of the proletariat that he rehearses seem arcane today, and Althusser's philosophical arguments about structure and theory seem even less relevant to today's issues.

Maybe the reason for this lack of relevance derives from an old Marxian trope -- the relation of theory to praxis. The problems we face today are not chiefly problems of theory. These are problems of substantial, enduring, and entrenched inequalities of power, opportunity, and wealth. And the challenge in front of attacking these inequalities is not a deficiency of theory, it is the pervasiveness of those inequalities themselves. Was Althusser grappling with the real and pressing social problems of post-war France? Or was he grappling in a typically philosophical way with conceptual problems raised by a particularly dense body of texts? The latter seems to be closer to the mark -- a point Judt seems to endorse:
With Althusser we are seeing the belated revenge of the French idealist heritage, asserting its primacy in the very act of justifying the most materialist of marxisms. (kl 4049)
And Judt offers a small theory based on historical circumstances to account for this turn to philosophy within Marxism:
The years 1945–75 do seem to confirm Karl Korsch’s insight, to the effect that Marx the philosopher surfaces in moments of revolutionary optimism, but that in what Merleau-Ponty was to call ‘des périodes d’affaissement’ subject and object disassociate and flexible relations become, for marxist observers, immutable structures. (kl 4102)
So if not Althusser and Goldmann, then to whom might we turn for some fresh thinking and new insights about contemporary society from a Marxian point of view? Still on the horizon are Lukács, Horkheimer, and Adorno -- the subjects of several posts in the past as well as some upcoming entries.

(Above I've assembled a stamp album of leaders of the international Left. Anyone have a Gramsci?)

Thursday, May 7, 2015

Lucien Goldmann on dialectics and history


Lucien Goldmann made important contributions to French Marxist theory and philosophy in the 1960s. Unlike other luminaries like Althusser and Poulantzas, Goldmann took a cautious stance on the strongest claims of scientific certainty for the theses of historical materialism and Marx’s theory of capitalism. Instead, he placed more emphasis on the dialectical core of Marx’s theories — without assuming that Marxism provides a key to understanding the necessary unfolding of history and society. He interprets Marx's thought in terms of the ideas of Hegel's dialectics.

Particularly interesting is his 1970 book, Marxisme et sciences humaines. (Here is a digital edition of the book; link.) Key parts of the epistemological and metaphysical ideas in Goldmann's philosophy of Marxism are also expressed in his essay "Is There a Marxist Sociology?" (link). This piece appeared first in 1957 in French and in an English translation in International Socialism in 1968. In this piece Goldmann considers the debates of the early twentieth century between orthodox Marxists and "ethical" reformist socialists -- between those who believed that socialism was a scientific necessity and those who believed socialism would come about because the masses would come to see that it was the most just social order. Here is Goldmann's summary of his assessment of these debates:

To sum up, what characterises these three fundamental positions (despite their differences, we are classing together Kautsky and Plekhanov) is that they all hold that Marxism implies an objective science distinct and separable from any value judgment, what might be called, to use Poincaré’s terminology, a ‘science in the indicative mood.’ On this point, the different trends of Marxist philosophy merely follow the scientism which characterised academic thought at the end of the nineteenth and the beginning of the twentieth century, by that very fact diverging from the dialectical tradition of the classical German thought of Kant, Hegel and Marx. The differences between these three positions consist in the fact that Vorländer, and with him a large number of thinkers who are partisans of explicit reformism, affirm correctly with Poincaré, that from a science in the indicative mood one can never derive any conclusion in die imperative mood, and thus there could be no ‘scientific socialism,’ since any taking up of a socialist position necessarily has an ethical basis. This position very rapidly became the ideology of a certain explicit reformist trend consisting primarily of some bourgeois democrats brought to socialism by taking seriously the demand for individual freedom for all men.

Goldmann's own position favors the dialectical style of thinking often attributed to Marx's thought, and he rejects the scientistic interpretation associated with orthodox Marxism. In this aspect he affiliates his thinking with that of Georg Lukács. Here is the intellectual swerve that Goldmann most appreciates in Lukács's theories in History and Class Consciousness: Studies in Marxist Dialectics:

Lukács showed that if one accepted the idea of an objective science in the indicative mood, action could no longer be conceived except in terms of ethics or social technology; inversely, if one began with a conception of historical action as individual action, one could conceive it only in ethical or technical terms, and sooner or later, if one developed one’s thought consistently, one would arrive at the idea of an objective science of society. But it is precisely all these complementary concepts – sociology, objective science of social life, technical or ethical action – which seemed to him questionable and above all undialectical.

For him, what characterises historical action, is precisely the fact that it is not carried out by isolated individuals, but by groups who simultaneously know and constitute history. Therefore neither the group nor the individual who is part of it can consider social and historical life from the outside, in an objective fashion. The knowledge of historical and social life is not science but consciousness although it must obviously strive towards the attainment of a rigour and precision comparable to those achieved in an objective fashion by the natural sciences. Any separation of judgments of fact and judgments of value, and, similarly, any separation of theory and practice is impossible in the process of understanding history; the very affirmation of such a separation will have an ideological and distorting effect. Historical knowledge is not a contemplative science; historical action is neither social technique (Machiavelli) nor ethical action (Kant); the two constitute an indivisible whole which is a progressive awareness and the march of humanity towards freedom.

In my own treatment of Marx's ideas in The Scientific Marx (1986) I argued that Marx did not make use of a dialectical method when it came to his social theories.


Here is my summary of my thinking about dialectics in Marx:

It is no doubt true that Marx's mature works contain a certain amount of admittedly Hegelian language and concepts. Marx writes in Capital, "I openly avowed myself the pupil of that mighty thinker [Hegel], and even, here and there in the chapter on the theory of value, coquetted with the mode of expression peculiar to him" (Capital II, pp. 102-3). And in the same passage he speaks with approval of the dialectical method: "The mystification which the dialectic suffers in Hegel's hands by no means prevents him from being the first to present its general forms of motion in a comprehensive and conscious manner. With him it is standing on its head. It must be inverted, in order to discover the rational kernel within the mystical shell." There is thus some fuel for the argument that Capital is not an empirical work but rather a work of materialist philosophy in the Hegelian mode. If these dialectical ideas ran deeply the charge would be compelling. In the following, however, I will argue that Marx is irreconcilably opposed to the use of dialectical logic as a method of inquiry in history or social science. At most the dialectical method represents a highly abstract empirical hypothesis about the nature of social change. I hope therefore to leave the way clear for an interpretation of Marx's scientific method that is in basic agreement with orthodox empirical social science. When Marx goes to work on his detailed treatment of the empirical data of capitalism, he leaves his Hegelian baggage behind. (TSM 113)

Moreover, I note that Marx is sharply critical of Proudhon, in large part because of the appeal that Proudhon makes to the logic of the dialectical method:

Consider finally Marx's critique of Proudhon's political economy in The Poverty of Philosophy. This discussion is particularly important in the present context because Proudhon does attempt to base political economy on a dialectical method of inquiry and explanation, and Marx sharply rejects the possibility of such a science. "What Hegel has done for religion, law, etc., M. Proudhon seeks to do for political economy" (PP, p. 107). Marx describes Proudhon's method in these terms: "If one finds in logical categories the substance of all things, one imagines one has found in the logical formula of movement the absolute method, which not only explains all things, but also implies the movement of things" (PP, p. 107). Thus Proudhon's project is defined as an attempt to assimilate the categories of political economy to an abstract logical system derived from Hegel's Logic, and then to derive the economic laws that can be deduced from this system. Marx's commentary on this approach makes it plain that he thinks it entirely spurious as a technique of scientific inquiry. Here again Marx's critique of dialectics as a speculative, a priori analytic tool is sharp and unforgiving. "The moment we cease to pursue the historical movement of production relations, of which the categories are but the theoretical expression, the moment we want to see in these categories no more than ideas, spontaneous thoughts, independent of real relations, we are forced to attribute the origin of these thoughts to the movement of pure reason. . . . Or, to speak Greek—we have thesis, antithesis and synthesis" (PP, p. 105). "Apply this method to the categories of political economy, and you have the logic and metaphysics of political economy" (PP, p. 108). (TSM 117-118)

So I argue that Marx does not embrace a philosophical method of knowledge discovery, but is instead highly attentive to the constraints of empirical and historical investigation. We need to discover how the social world is rather than how philosophy predicts it should be. And in fact, these commitments allow us to understand Marx's famous comment about "standing Hegel's method on its head":

We are now able to interpret Marx's celebrated remark that with Hegel the dialectic is "standing on its head. It must be inverted, in order to discover the rational kernel within the mystical shell" (Capital II, p. 103). What is the rational kernel, and what is the mystical shell, of the dialectic? And in what sense does Marx "invert" Hegel's method? It is Marx's endorsement of Hegel's view of the historicity of social institutions and their internal dynamics of change that leads him to speak with favor of the dialectical method. "In its rational form . . . [the dialectical method] regards every historically developed form as being in a fluid state, in motion, and therefore grasps its transient aspect as well" (Capital II, p. 103). On my view of Marx's meaning, the rational kernel of Hegel's method is the empirical hypothesis that historical and social processes develop according to an internal dynamic, and that it is possible to provide a rigorous analysis and explanation of historical change based on knowledge of that dynamic. Moreover, Marx plainly accepts Hegel's view that change in history proceeds through substantive contradictions. These theses characterize history as a law-governed process, and one whose changes develop as the result of internal contradictions. Thus the kernel of Hegel's dialectic, on Marx's view, is not methodological at all, but rather a revealing insight into the character of social reality. These theses are empirical hypotheses (albeit formulated at an extremely high-level).

The mystical shell of Hegel's method, by contrast, is methodological—and perniciously so. It is Hegel's belief that pure a priori analysis can allow him to discover the key to this internal dynamic. This assumption is the "logical mysticism" identified by Marx in the Critique of Hegel's "Philosophy of Right," and he emphatically rejects this philosophical method. Finally, the inversion Marx proposes requires that instead of beginning with ideas and attempting to reproduce the material world in thought, we must begin with the material world and attempt to arrive at ideas that adequately describe its real characteristics. "With me the reverse is true: The ideal is nothing but the material world reflected in the mind of man, and translated into forms of thought" (Capital II, p. 102). Thus Marx's inversion of Hegel's method is materialism; more exactly, it is a form of empiricism because it stipulates that knowledge of the material world may be acquired only through detailed, rigorous investigation of concrete empirical and historical circumstances. And what are the methods appropriate to this sort of investigation? They are the methods of empirical science. (119-120)

In 1986, then, I was of the opinion that the matter was open and shut: Marx was not a dialectical thinker. But I now see that there is another way of looking at these issues. If we take the ideas of change, contingency, historical conjunction, and dynamic social processes to be crucial for understanding the social world -- as I do -- then perhaps there is a version of "dialectical thinking" that does not bring along the apriorism that Marx clearly rejects, while at the same time capturing something important about history and social process. The determinism of "historical laws of motion" sounds suspiciously positivistic; whereas the idea of a set of social processes that interact conjuncturally and produce change in often unpredictable ways is more convincing as a description of real history.

So I'll end with an interesting passage from Marxisme et sciences humaines that seems to bear on this question. This is a passage in which Goldmann refers to his own conception of "genetic structuralism", an idea which in turn seems to capture his own view of dialectics:

Du point de vue historique, le structuralisme génétique est apparu, me semble-t-il, pour la premiere fois comm idée fondamentale dans la philosophie, avec Hegel et Marx bien que ni l'un ni l'autre n'aient employé explicitement ce terms. Il n'en reste pas moins que les pensées hégélienne et marxiste sont, pour la premiere fois dans l'histoire de la philosophie, des positions rigoureusement monistes, structuralistes et génétiques. A un niveau immédiat ce phénomene peut etre lié en partie au fait qu'avec Hegel et surtout avec Marx la philosophie moderne se detache progressivement des sciences mathématiques et physiques pour s'orienter en tout premier lieu vers la reflexion sur les fait historiques; il me parait important de constater que, loin d'etre une découverte tardive en sciences historiques et sociales, le structuralisme génétique est au contraire une des premieres positions elaborees par les penseurs qui se sont orientes sérieusement vers un essai de compréhension positive de ces faits. (21-22)

Or, in my poor translation:

Genetic structuralism is one of the first positions created for thinkers who are oriented towards an effort at a positive comprehension of these facts.

This seems to lie at the core of Goldmann's view of how to resolve the debate between orthodox and reform interpretations of Marx: neither positivist science nor ethical pieties, but rather a view of history that envelopes individuals and groups creating their own histories, in circumstances not of their own choosing. And that process seems to be what Goldmann wants to identify as "genetic structuralism" and the outcome of dialectical historical concretization.

Monday, May 4, 2015

Positive organizational behavior



source: Rob Cross, Wayne Baker, Andrew Parker, "What creates energy in organizations?" (link)

Organizations need study for several important reasons. One is their ubiquity in modern life -- almost nothing that we need in daily life is created by solo producers. Rather, activity among a number of individuals is coordinated and directed through organizations that produce the goods and services we need -- grocery chains, trucking companies, police departments, universities, small groups of cooperating chimpanzees.

A second reason for studying organizations is that existing theories of human behavior don't do a very good job of explaining organizational behavior. The theory of rational self interest -- the premise of the market -- doesn't work very well as a sole theory of behavior within an organization. But neither does the normative theory of a Durkheim or a Weber. We need better theories of the forms of agency that are at work within organizations -- the motives individuals have, the ways in which the rules and incentives of the organization affect behavior, the ways the culture of the workplace influences behavior, and the role that local level practices have in influencing individual behavior that makes a difference to the functioning of the organization.

Here are a few complications from current work in sociology and economics.

Economist Amartya Sen observes that the premises of market rationality make social cooperation all but impossible. This is Sen's central conclusion in “Rational Fools" (link), and it is surely correct: "The purely rational economic man is indeed close to being a social moron”. Sen's work demonstrates that social behavior -- even conceding the point that it derives from the thought processes of individuals -- is substantially more layered and multi-factored than neoclassical economics postulates. Sen's own addition to the mix is his theory of commitments -- the idea that individuals have priorities that don't map conveniently onto utility schemes -- and that lots of ordinary collective behavior depends on these behavioral characteristics.

Sociologist Michele Lamont argues that a major difference between upper-middle class French and American men is their attitudes towards their own work in the office or factory. In Money, Morals, and Manners: The Culture of the French and the American Upper-Middle Class she finds that professional-class French men express a certain amount of contempt for their hard-working American counterparts. Her findings suggest substantial differences in the "culture of work and profession" in different national and regional settings. (Here is an earlier post on Lamont's work; link.)

Experimental economist Ernst Fehr finds that workplaces create substantial behavioral predispositions that are triggered by the frame of the workplace (link). In unpublished work he finds that individuals in the banking industry are slightly more honest than the general population when they think in the frame of their personal lives, but that they are substantially less honest when they think in the frame of the banking office. Fehr and his colleagues demonstrate the power of cultural cues in the workplace (and presumably other well-defined social environments) in influencing the way that individuals make decisions in that environment.

Fehr has also made a major contribution through his research in experimental economics on the subject of altruism. He finds -- context-independently -- that decision makers are generally not rationally self interested maximizers. And using some results from the neurosciences he argues that there is a biological basis for this "pro-social" element of behavior.  Here is an example of Fehr's approach:
If we randomly pick two human strangers from a modern society and give them the chance to engage in repeated anonymous exchanges in a laboratory experiment, reciprocally altruistic behaviour emerges spontaneously with a high probability.... However, human altruism even extends far beyond reciprocal altruism and reputation-based cooperation taking the form of strong reciprocity. (Fehr and Fischbacher 2005:7; link)
(Here is an article by Jon Elster on Fehr's experimental research on altruism; link.)

So what can we discover about common features of behavior that can be observed in different kinds of organizations? There is a degree of convergence between the theoretical and experimental results that have come out of this research in sociology and economics and the organizational theories of what is now referred to as positive organizational studies. Here is a brilliant collection of research in this area edited by Kim Cameron and Gretchen Spreitzer, The Oxford Handbook of Positive Organizational Scholarship. Cameron and Spreitzer define the field in their introduction in these terms:
Positive organizational scholarship is an umbrella concept used to unify a variety of approaches in organizational studies, each of which incorporates the notion of 'the positive.' ... "organizational research occurring at the micro, meso, and macro levels which points to unanswered questions about what processes, states, and conditions are important in explaining individual and collective flourishing. Flourishing refers to being in an optimal range of human functioning" [quoting Jane Dutton] (2).
The POS research community places a great deal of importance on the impact that positive social behavior has on the effectiveness of an organization. And these scholars believe that specific institutional arrangements and actions by leaders can increase the levels of positive social behavior in a work environment.
Studies have shown that organizations in several industries (including financial services, health care, manufacturing, and government) that implemented and improved their positive practices over time also increased their performance in desired outcomes such as profitability, productivity, quality, customer satisfaction, and employee retention. That is, positive practices that were institutionalized in organizations, including providing compassionate support for employees, forgiving mistakes and avoiding blame, fostering the meaningfulness of work, expressing frequent gratitude, showing kindness, and caring for colleagues, led organizations to perform at significantly higher levels on desired outcomes. (6)
In a sense they point to the possibility of high level and low level equilibria within roughly the same set of rules. And organizations that succeed in promoting positive behavioral motivations will be more successful in achieving their goals. Adam Grant and Justin Berg analyze these positive motives in their contribution to the Handbook, "Prosocial Motivation at Work".
What motivates employees to care about making a positive difference in the lives of others, and what actions and experiences does this motivation fuel? (29)
It is both a theoretical premise of the POS research community and an empirical subject of inquiry for these researchers that it is possible to elicit "prosocial" motivations through suitable institutional arrangements and leadership. Interestingly, this seems to be an implication of the work by Ernst Fehr mentioned above as well.

Positive organizational scholarship is a timely contribution to the social sciences because it stands on the cusp between the need for better theories of the actor and the imperative to improve the performance of organizations. Hospitals, manufacturing companies, universities, and non-profit organizations all want to improve their performance in a variety of ways: improve patient safety, reduce costs, improve product quality, improve student retention, improve the delivery of effective social services, and the like. And POS is an empirically grounded approach to arriving at a better understanding of the range of social behaviors that can potentially motivate participants and lead to better collective performance. And the category of "prosocial motivation" that underlies the POS approach is an important dimension of behavior for further research and investigation.

Friday, May 1, 2015

Youth service and America's progress


Several hundred leaders from around the country convened this week in Washington, D.C. to participate in the 2015 City Year National Leadership Summit. City Year is a national youth service organization with a focused and ambitious mission: to harness the talents of young people in service towards the goal of solving the nation's dropout crisis. Currently there are more than 2,800 young people serving on teams of 8-10 in some of our country's most difficult schools, focused on helping disadvantaged students stay in school and on track.

Making use of educational research conducted by scholars like Robert Balfanz at Johns Hopkins Center for the Social Organization of Schools, the City Year strategy is designed around a simple concept: using near-peers to help students overcome deficiencies of attendance, behavior, and course work so they have a high probability of graduating from high school. There is good quasi-experimental data to show that the intervention works. Some results of the signature "Diplomas Now" program are provided in the graphic below.


So the challenge is scale: is it possible to expand the scope of City Year's activities around the country so that the majority of our country's "dropout factories" have been addressed? The scale goals City Year has adopted are challenging but attainable: 80% of students in City Year schools will reach 10th grade on track for graduation; City Year will reach 50% of at-risk students in its communities; and City Year will expand nationally to serve the cities that account for 67% of the nation's urban dropouts.

In order to reach the scale goal it is estimated that the national City Year corps needs to increase to 10,000 young people in roughly fifty cities -- an ambitious goal substantially beyond the current level of 2,800 members in 26 cities. So the number of cities served by the organization needs to grow, and the number of schools served in each city needs to expand. And the key obstacle to reaching this goal is money. The "all-in" cost of supporting one corps member is roughly $40,000 per year. So to support a corps of 100 in a city like San Antonio or Cleveland, the local organization needs to raise about $4 million per year. Ideally there are four sources of support, roughly equal in magnitude: Americorps funds, local school funds, corporate sponsorships, and private gifts. This means the local organization needs to raise about three million dollars a year in local funds (schools, corporations, and individuals), with one million dollars in support from Americorps. And to get to scale, this goes up to about nine million dollars for cities like Detroit.

Dropout prevention through programs like City Year has a large return on investment. Throughout the summit City Year leaders and Federal and local education officials estimated that the return on keeping a student in school through graduation is roughly four times the cost of the programs that do it. So dropout prevention is a fantastic investment for society. But it requires public and private will to allocate the dollars necessary to achieve the goal.

This is a movement and a national organization that is making serious, meaningful progress towards solving one of America's most pressing problems, the failure of high-poverty schools. This situation creates one of the most enduring forms of inequality of opportunity our country faces, and it disproportionately impacts low income young people of color.

The City Year organization continues to expand the impact and scope of its program of national service for young people. City Year announced the startup of its 27th city in the United States, Dallas. Corps members in Dallas will begin having the impact on children in poverty in Dallas that their counterparts have in cities around the country.

What is genuinely appealing about the City Year effort over the past twenty-six years is its pragmatic idealism. This is the best example I know of where a grassroots organization has transformed itself into a powerful force for progress nation-wide. And the values that hold the organization together, from the national staff in Boston to the site leaders to the 2,800 corps members, are positive, democratic, and inclusive. This is the foundation for a better America.


Or as City Year says to the young people of America, "Give a year, change the world!"

Here are a couple of thoughtful books on national service and Americorps as vectors of social progress:

(Policy Studies Association is a research and consulting organization that has done a good deal of program assessment for City Year; link.)

Sunday, April 26, 2015

Gorski on critical realism


Earlier posts have considered the reception of critical realism by two major historical sociologists, Peggy Somers and George Steinmetz (link, link). These researchers believe that the philosophical issues and positions raised by Roy Bhaskar in his evolving theory of critical realism are insightful and useful for the conduct of post-positivist sociology. Philip Gorski is a third contemporary sociologist who has weighed in on the relevance of critical realism for the practice of sociology. Gorski's primary research divides between sociological theory and comparative historical sociology, and he is the most explicit of the three in his advocacy for the philosophy of science associated with critical realism. Several articles are particularly direct in this regard, including What is critical realism? (2013) in Contemporary Sociology, The poverty of deductivism (2004) in Sociological Methodology, and the concluding chapter in his recently edited and very interesting volume, Bourdieu and Historical Analysis (2013) (discussed earlier here).

The 2013 article offers both exposition and polemic. Gorski wants to make the case that sociologists benefit from the philosophy of science because it serves as an intellectual support for research and theory -- there is a reason for sociologists to be concerned about debates in the philosophy of science; and that the alternatives on offer are woefully inadequate (positivism, interpretivism, constructivism).

Gorski makes the important point that sociological research needs to be pluralistic when it comes to methodology. Interpretation requires contextualization (662); causal hypotheses are often supported by statistical evidence; it is reasonable for realists about structures to look for the constitutive actions of lower-level powers that make them up. There isn't a primary method of inquiry or empirical reasoning that works best for all social research; instead, sociologists need to define significant research topics and then craft methods of inquiry and inference that are best suited to those topics. Quantitative, interpretive, comparative, deductive, inductive, abductive, descriptive, and explanatory approaches are all appropriate methods for some problems of social research. So it is important for sociologists to "unlearn" some of the dogmas of positivist methodology that have often thought to be constitutive of the scientific warrant of sociology.

Against the dominant philosophies of social science of positivism, interpretivism, and constructivism, Gorski argues that there is only one credible alternative, the philosophical theory of critical realism. And this means, largely, the writings of Roy Bhaskar. So the bulk of this piece is an exposition of Bhaskar's central ideas. Gorski provides a precis of Bhaskar's thoughts in three stages of his work, A Realist Theory of Science, The Possibility of Naturalism: A philosophical critique of the contemporary human sciences, and Scientific Realism and Human Emancipation. And he argues that the ontological framework embodied in these aspects of a specific philosophy of science -- realism about underlying structures, powers, and processes -- is the best available as a general starting point for the sciences.

Other philosophies of social science place epistemology or methodology at the center of what a philosophy of the sciences should resolve. Gorski, on the other hand, emphasizes the importance of the ontology of critical realism -- what CR conveys about the nature and stratification of the social world.

Crucial within that ontology is the notion of the reality of social structures and the idea that social properties are emergent. Here are a few comments about emergence:
[CR] does not deny that reduction can sometimes be illuminating, but it insists that the social is an emergent reality with its own specific powers and properties. (659) 
The genesis of the social sciences hinged on the discovery of emergence, and major advances in them have typically involved the discovery of emergent proper- ties (e.g., of economic markets, social classes, collective conscience, value spheres, social fields, and so on). (662) 
But they invariably fall short of their epistemic goals: to explain one strata of reality in terms of a lower-order one. Why? Because of ‘‘emergence.’’ The combination and inter- action of entities and properties at one level of reality generates ‘‘emergent’’ entities and properties at others. (664)
As I've observed elsewhere here (link, link, link), the concept of emergence is elusive, and it seems to shift back and forth between "fundamentally independent of lower level phenomena" and "dependent upon but autonomous from lower level phenomena". The latter is the version that I favor with the concept of "relative explanatory autonomy"; link). Like Tuukka Kaidesoja, I'm not yet satisfied with the treatment of emergence that is associated with critical realism (link).

A related and more novel idea about social ontology employed by Gorski is the concept of "lamination" first introduced in Bhaskar's Dialectic: The Pulse of Freedom to describe the nature of the social world and the relations among levels of social action and structure:
Because there are multiple layers of agents and powers, moreover, observable events will have a "laminated" character; they are simultaneously governed by normic laws at various levels. This has important consequences for causal inference.... It is simultaneously and jointly determined by all of them. It is a "laminated" process. (665)
This is a vivid metaphor to use in conveying the idea of the "levels" of the social. But it has implications that may be unintended. For example, the idea of lamination suggests a sharp separation between layers; whereas many social domains seem to be better described as a continuous flow from lower to higher levels (and from higher to lower levels).

I find Gorski's exposition of critical realism to be useful and clear. However, there is a large omission in Gorski's account of the philosophical grounds of realism: Gorski assumes that there is no other serious tradition of post-positivist realism that serves as an alternative to critical realism. He dismisses what he calls the "conventional" realism of analytical sociology (659). He faults this version for its commitment to a form of individualism, structural individualism. Gorski insists on the "emergent" character of social structures and properties. And he presumes that there is no other viable form of realism available to the philosophy of science.

This binary and exclusive opposition between empiricism and critical realism as the only possibilities is misleading. There is a very substantial literature in the philosophy of science that rejects positivism; that maintains that theories are potentially good guides to the real "ontological" properties of the world; and that does not share the particular philosophical assumptions that Bhaskar brings into critical realism. I am thinking of Hilary Putnam, Dick Boyd, and Jarrett Leplin in particular. But there are dozens of other examples that could be considered.

A particularly clear exposition of this other tradition of post-positivist realism can be found in Richard Boyd's 1990 contribution in Wade Savage's Scientific Theories, "Realism, Approximate Truth, and Philosophical Method" (link). Here is how Boyd opens this piece:
Scientific realists hold that the characteristic product of successful scientific research is knowledge of largely theory-independent phenomena and that such knowledge is possible (indeed actual) even in those cases in which the relevant phenomena are not, in any non-question-begging sense, observable. The characteristic philosophical arguments for scientific realism embody the claim that certain central principles of scientific methodology require a realist explication. In its most completely developed form, this sort of abductive argument embodies the claim that a realist conception of scientific inquiry is required in order to justify, or to explain the reliability with respect to instrumental knowledge of, all of the basic methodological principles of mature scientific inquiry. (355)
This is a form of realism that reaches similar conclusions to those advocated by Bhaskar, but derives from an independent path of philosophical investigation following the collapse of positivist philosophy of science in the 1960s and 1970s. And this version of realism makes substantially fewer philosophical assumptions than Bhaskar's system puts forward.

(See also Jarrett Leplin, A Novel Defense of Scientific Realism.)