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.)

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Gross on the history of analytic philosophy in America


Neil Gross has a remarkably good ear for philosophy. And this extends especially to his occasional treatments of the influences that helped shape the discipline of philosophy in the United States in the second half of the twentieth century. His sociological biography of Richard Rorty is a tour de force (Richard Rorty: The Making of an American Philosopher; link). There he skillfully maps the “field” of American philosophy (in the Bourdieusian sense) and places the evolution of Rorty’s thought within the landmarks of the field. The book is an excellent exemplar of the new sociology of ideas, bringing together material, symbolic, and intellectual forces that influence the direction and shape of an intellectual tradition.

In his contribution to Craig Calhoun’s Sociology in America: A History Gross offers a very short description of the ideological and social forces that helped to determine the directions taken by the philosophy discipline in the post-war years, and this too is very illuminating. In contrast to historians of philosophy who tell the story of the development of a period in terms of the internal intellectual problems and debates that determined it, Gross seeks to identify some of the external factors that made the terrain hospitable to this movement or that. (Consider, by contrast, the internalist story that Michael Beaney tells in The Analytic Turn: Analysis in Early Analytic Philosophy and Phenomenology and in many chapters of The Oxford Handbook of The History of Analytic Philosophy.) Several paragraphs are worth quoting at length, since philosophers are unlikely to browse this collection on the history of American sociology.
Within academic philosophy, pragmatism’s stature was diminished considerably in the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s as a result of the rise of what is called analytic philosophy. Analytic philosophy began with the efforts of G. E. Moore and Bertrand Russell in England to vanquish the idealism that had become popular there after years when empiricism dominated (Delacampagne 1999). Russell, influenced by the efforts of Gottlob Frege to develop a formal system by which logical propositions could be represented, took the view that new light could be shed on long-standing philosophical problems if attention were paid to the language in which they are expressed, and to the logical assumptions underlying that language. Russell made crucial contributions to the philosophy of mathematics, in which he tried, like Frege, to reduce mathematics topologic, but he also sought to develop an alternative metaphysics according to which objects in the world are seen as composed of logical atoms to which more complex entities can be reduced. The young Ludwig Wittgenstein studied under Russell and picked up where he and Frege left off, arguing in the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (1922) that facts, not logical atoms or objects per se, compose the world, and that language — which represents facts — does so by “picturing” them in logically valid propositions. On the basis of this assumption, Wittgenstein claimed that many traditional philosophical problems — particularly those concerning ethics, metaphysics, and aesthetics, which do not meet these criteria for picturing — are nonsensical. (201-202)
Gross goes on to describe the advent of ordinary language philosophy (Ryle, Austin), and the logical positivists. The positivists are particularly important in his story and in the subsequent development of professional academic philosophy in the United States.
The positivists, along with their counterparts at Oxford and Cambridge, had an enormous impact on U.S. philosophy, giving rise to a new style and tradition of philosophical scholarship. (202)
And Gross offers a sociological and political hypothesis for why analytic philosophy prevailed over pragmatism and idealism.
That analytic philosophy, at least in its early stages, downgraded the status of political philosophy may also have helped protect the field from critical scrutiny during the McCarthy era (McCumber 2001). Within the space of a few years, philosophers who saw themselves as working in the analytic tradition came to dominate nearly all the top-ranked U.S. philosophy graduate programs, analytic work became hegemonic in the major academic journals, and analysts came to assume leadership positions in the American Philosophical Association (Wilshire 2002). Pragmatism was marginalized as a consequence. Russell, for his part, had been sharply critical of Dewey, accusing pragmatism of being a philosophy “in harmony with the age of industrialism and collective enterprise” because it involved a “belief in human power and the unwillingness to admit ‘stubborn facts,’” which manifested itself in the view that the truth of a belief is a matter of its effects rather than its causes. Some American philosophers, like Chicago’s Charles Morris, tried to combine pragmatism and logical positivism, while others, like Quine or his Harvard colleague Morton White, brought pragmatism and linguistic analysis together in other ways. Nevertheless, many who worked in an analytic style came to see pragmatism and analytic philosophy as opposed, and pragmatism’s reputation went into decline. (203)
This is a nuanced and plausible precis of the evolution of academic philosophy during these decades, and the material influences that Gross cites (the influx of Vienna-school philosophers caused by the rise of Nazism, the political threat of McCarthyism) seem to be genuine historical causes of the rise of analytic philosophy dominance. And, consistent with the methods and priorities of the new sociology of ideas (link), Gross is very sensitive to the particulars of the institutions, journals, and associations through which a discipline seeks to define itself.

Contrast this narrative with the brief account offered by Michael Beaney in his introduction to The Oxford Handbook of The History of Analytic Philosophy. Beaney too points out the importance of the exodus of positivist philosophers from Europe caused by the Nazi rise to power (kl 636). But the balance of his account works through the substantive ideas and debates that took center stage in academic philosophy in the 1940s and 1950s. To read his account, philosophy moved forward as a consequence of a series of logical debates.
Agreement on the key founders already gives some shape to the analytic tradition -- as a first approximation, we can characterize it as what is inspired by their work. With this in mind, we can then identify two subsequent strands in analytic philosophy that develop the ideas of its four founders [Russell, Moore, Frege, Wittgenstein]. The first is the Cambridge School of Analysis ... and the second is logical empiricism. (kl 826)
The impetus of Gross's interest in the development of analytic philosophy in American universities was the impact this movement had on pragmatism. Essentially Gross argues that pragmatism was pushed into a minor role within academic philosophy by the ascendency of positivism and analytic philosophy, and that the latter occurred because of social factors in the university and society at large. Cheryl Misak is a contemporary expert on pragmatism (The American Pragmatists, New Pragmatists), and she disputes this view from a surprising point of view: she argues that analytical philosophy actually absorbed the greater part of pragmatism, and that one could make the case that pragmatist ideas have great contemporary influence within philosophy. Her argument is summarized in "Rorty, Pragmatism, and Analytic Philosophy" (link).
When the logical empiricists arrived in America, they found a soil in which their position could thrive. They did not arrive in a land that was inhospitable to their view, nor did they need to uproot the view they found already planted there. (373)
She argues that Peirce's pragmatism had much in common with positivism, and she traces a fairly direct lineage from Peirce through Dewey and C.I. Lewis to Quine, Goodman, and Roy Wood Sellars. Here is her conclusion:
The epistemology and the view of truth that dominated analytic philosophy from the 1930s logical empiricism right through to the reign of Quine, Goodman, and Sellars in the 1950s–60s was in fact pragmatism. The stars of modern analytic philosophy were very much in step with pragmatism during the years in which it was supposedly driven out of philosophy departments by analytic philosophers. (380)
It seems to me that it is possible that both Misak and Gross are right, because they are concerned with different aspects of the "field" of academic philosophy. Misak is focusing on the issues of content, logic, and epistemology, and she finds that there is a substantial continuity on these issues across the literature of both analytic philosophy and classical pragmatism. But Gross has taken a broader focus: what are the paradigmatic topics and modes of approach that were characteristic of analytic philosophy and pragmatism? What were the "styles" of thinking that were characteristic of analytic philosophy and pragmatism? And he is right in thinking that, had Peirce, James, and Dewey and their successors prevailed by dominating the chief research departments of philosophy, American academic philosophy would have looked very different.

Monday, April 20, 2015

History of sociology


Sociology is a discipline with a short history and a very dense and complex tree of topics and methods. So writing its history — even limited to the past century and a half — is extremely challenging. And the idea that the discipline has worked itself out as the methodical development of ideas advanced by the "founders" -- e.g. Marx, Durkheim, Tarde, Weber, and Simmel -- is really a non-starter. Each of these thinkers brought important ideas into the mix; but sociology is more than simply an elaboration of their nineteenth-century and early twentieth-century ideas. Rather, sociologists have taken a meandering path as they have reacted to new social problems, innovations in theory and method, and shifting priorities in universities and funding sources.

An earlier post discussed one effort to write a coherent history of one strand of sociology —Frederic Vandenberghe’s critical history of modern European sociology (link). The strength of this kind of sole-author approach is also its weakness. A talented thinker like Vandenberghe can provide a degree of synthetic organization to the history to give the reader an integrated understanding of the main development of the discipline. But this very synthetic strength is also a drawback, in that it depends crucially on the sensibilities of the author. So, for example, Vandenberghe’s inclination towards the critical dimensions of the German tradition makes him less likely to highlight possible influences of Durkheim in Germany.

A more sociological approach is to consider the discipline in terms of the institutions and organizations through which it is exercised. This is the thrust of the controversial book by Stephen Turner and Jonathan Turner, The Impossible Science: An Institutional Analysis of American Sociology. T2 argue that the discipline lacks focus because of the shifting resource base that has fueled its development over the past hundred years, with an associated shifting in the priorities that guided research and the institutions through which sociology existed (departments, journals, associations). And what Tregard as the over-emphasis on statistical methods in the 1950s and 1960s derives precisely from this point about resources: government funding for social science research increased after World War II, and funding agencies insisted on a more "scientific" approach to the study of social phenomena. So statistical studies and survey research received extensive funding. Stephen Turner must be counted as a critic of the intellectual content of contemporary sociology. Here is how he closes his short essay on the history of sociology, "Who's Afraid of the History of Sociology?" (link):
The best of sociology is in its past. The history of sociology is a continuous reproach to the sociology of the present. The past is an embarrassment precisely because it is better: its thinkers are more serious and profound, its concerns deeper, and it is far more worthwhile to study. The formal discipline that was created with such effort over the last century has been a fiasco. The people who have responsibility for its present form have good reason to be afraid of its historians. But they resent the conservators of the past when they should examine their own failings.
Another approach to attempting to sort out the history of sociology that emphasizes the content of the various domains of sociology is for an editor to curate contributions around a supposedly standard set of topics. This approach too depends upon the theoretical judgments of the editor about which topics are most important. Consider several recent handbooks designed to give students an overview of the discipline of sociology. Here are the main topic areas singled out in Appelrouth and Edles, Sociological Theory in the Contemporary Era: Text and Readings:
  1. Introduction
  2. Structural Functionalism (Parsons, Merton)
  3. Critical Theory (Horkheimer, Adorno, Marcuse)
  4. Exchange Theory (Homans, Blau)
  5. Symbolic Interactionism and Dramaturgy (Blumer, Goffman, Hochschild)
  6. Phenomenology and Ethnomethodology (Schutz, Berger, Garfinkel)
  7. Feminist Theory (Beauvoir, Friedan, Dorothy Smith)
  8. Poststructural and Postmodern Theories (Foucault, Baudrillard, Lyotard)
  9. Contemporary Theoretical Syntheses (Bourdieu, Randall Collins, Habermas, Giddens)
  10. The Global Society (Wallerstein, Sklair, Said)
And here is a similar taxonomy from Judith Blau's The Blackwell Companion to Sociology:
  1. Referencing Globalization
  2. Relationships and Meaning
  3. Economic Inequalities
  4. Science, Knowledge, and Ideas
  5. Politics and Political Movements
  6. Structures: Stratification, Networks, and Firms
  7. Individuals and Their Well-Being
  8. Social Action
There is some overlap between the two lists, but they are not homologous. There are topics in each list that do not appear in the other. The new sociology of ideas appears in Blau's list but not Appelrouth and Edles'; and phenomenology and ethnomethodology does not appear on Blau's list. Globalization, inequalities, and relationships and ethnomethodology appear on both lists. The editorial choices by each set of editors are manifest.

A different approach is that taken by Craig Calhoun and more than twenty collaborators in Sociology in America: A History, with essays on twenty topics and periods within the intellectual geography of American sociology since the mid-nineteenth century. Here is an abbreviated table of contents of Calhoun's book:



Each author or set of authors brings his/her own sensibilities to the topic in question, and there is little opportunity for a synthetic overview of the field as a whole. But the overall impression gained by the careful reader of the whole volume is a powerful one — analogous to a serious visit to a rich and diverse art museum, where the visitor gets an exposure to multiple styles, subjects, and media, and comes away with his or her own impressions of the art field represented there.

Neil Gross's article on pragmatism and phenomenology is an excellent case in point. Gross is himself a leading practitioner of a pragmatist approach to sociology. His essay is a thoughtful and illuminating examination of the conceptual and substantive ways in which the philosophy of pragmatism aligned with the needs of an emerging sociology. He argues that there has been a major and often productive interaction between philosophy and sociology. He does a good job of explaining the aspects of the thinking of James, Dewey, Mead, and Peirce that proved insightful for the formulation of sociological concepts and research goals. The essay does more than establish the lines of influence that existed from the point of view of the history of ideas; it demonstrates the fecundity of the pragmatist approach for the study of human society. "Pragmatism postulates the existence of an inherently social self" (192). "The pragmatists held that how people respond to situations is closely bound up with the meanings they interpret them to have" (193). "Chicago sociology may have been shaped by pragmatism's vision of human action more generally ... as an adaptive response to problematic situations" (196). This is a very interesting and detailed history of the development of pragmatist sociology within the Chicago School. (He also offers a fine analysis of the development of analytic philosophy in the United States, and makes a fascinating connection to McCarthyism as an account of why philosophy turned away from political philosophy; 203ff.) And his treatment of the influence of phenomenology in sociology is equally interesting. "Like Schutz, Garfinkel recognized that cognition of the social world is fundamentally an interpretive endeavor and that this interpretation rests on a bed of pre-theoretical assumptions and understandings" (218).

It is possible to map most of the discussions in the Calhoun volume onto the taxonomies offered by Blau and Appelrouth and Edles. But the overall impression of Calhoun's collection is much stronger than the handbooks. The originality of the authors who composed the chapters comes through, and each essay stands by itself. Virtually every chapter is a valuable contribution itself to the discipline of sociology, rather than a survey of the developments in the discipline during a particular period of time. At the same time the chapters constitute an eloquent mosaic of many of the important imperatives, themes, and dimensions of American sociology since mid-nineteenth century.

The topic of how to approach the history of sociology is an important one. In an intriguing sense we don't yet know what sociology is. It will continue to shape-shift as researchers and theorists find new problems and old paradigms engaging. And thinking hard about the history of the many fields of sociology stimulates valuable new thinking about how we may innovate in the future.

Sunday, April 19, 2015

A short course in critical causality


For anyone interested in getting a deep exposure to current thinking about causation within the critical realist tradition, Ruth Groff's 2008 collection Revitalizing Causality: Realism about Causality in Philosophy and Social Science is a very good place to start. It begins with classic essays by Roy Wood Sellars from 1929 and 1943 -- long before the formulations of critical realism in Roy Bhaskar's writings -- and ends with essays by Robert Albritton and Howard Engelskirchen on the role of causal ideas in Marx's Capital. In between are articles by Christopher Norris, Charlotte Witt, Stephen Mumford, Anjan Chakravartty, Alexander Bird, and Rachel Cooper on various Aristotelian questions arising within the theory of causation, as well as articles by Douglas Porpora and Andrew Bennett on the applicability of causal realism to the social sciences.

Groff's introduction does a good job of setting the context for the volume. She defines the unifying thread of the volume as the underlying and somewhat independent efforts to make sense of a neo-Aristotelian understanding of causation that will work for contemporary science. And the emerging theory is a realist theory of causation.

That philosophers engaged in argument about the nature of dispositions, and social scientists trying to determine the causal properties of macro-level phenomena such as value, are working within and upon the same emerging neo-Aristotelian framework may not be readily apparent, given the normal configuration of conferences, journals, and disciplinary associations. Nonetheless it is so. (2)

Here are a few key themes and issues that readers will take away: causes are real; causal relations depend on real causal powers of active particulars; the theory of causation requires new (and old) thinking about metaphysics; things have essences; causal necessity is real; there are emergent causal powers.

Here is Roy Wood Sellars' definition of realism:

As a physical realist I believe in physical systems (ordinarily called things) which exist independently of our knowing them and which have specific characteristics. (13)

And Sellars argues that realism requires a different ontology from that associated with empiricism -- not "object with properties" but a "determinate object":

Now if this basic reality of a determinate object, a that-what, is once granted, we can reject at once the scheme which dominated representative realism of the Lockian type and animated Berkeley's dialectic. 'Support' and 'inhere in' and 'spread under' are clearly totally misleading metaphors for this basic unity. The determinate nature of an object is not something distinct in any fashion from the object. The object and its nature, or characteristics, are intrinsically one. (16)

A key question running through most of the contributions is the status of the idea of causal necessity. The authors share an anti-Humean point of view on causation -- the idea that all there is to causation is constant conjunction -- but they recognize that this creates an obligation to interpret the idea of causal necessity in a comprehensible way.

Harré and Madden offer their theory of natural necessity in "Conceptual and natural necessity", drawn from Causal Powers: Theory of Natural Necessity. They note an intriguing parallel between conceptual and natural necessity and they offer a specific interpretation of the evolution of scientific vocabulary that allows a closer parallel between the two kinds of necessity than either Kant or Quine would countenance:

We have argued that in the two contexts of natural necessity, the inherence of essential properties in a thing or substance and causal production, a posteriori discoveries about the natures of things and the means of causal production are in certain conditions reflected in the establishment of meaning relations between the corresponding predicates. (72)

In their very interesting treatment of the development of the scientific concept of copper, they find that:

There are thus a multiplicity of explications of the concept 'copper': as a red, easily worked metal; a mixture of sulphur, mercury and salt; a collection of atoms each sixty-three and a half times the weight of a hydrogen atom; and finally a collection of atoms each with a definite and identical internal structure. It is our view that these explications disclose substantially different meanings of the concept, limited by a core of identity in the nominal essence, and the changes so disclosed are the product of a posteriori discoveries as to the nature of copper. (75)

And it is the "essential" nature of copper that gives rise to its causal properties.

Another idea, linked to the first, that comes in for a fair amount of attention is the idea of a natural kind (or a social kind). This idea is deployed to support the first issue of natural necessity, in that it invokes the idea that things have essential natures that give rise to their causal properties. A natural kind is a group of things that share an essential nature, and these things can be counted on to display similar causal properties.

Brian Ellis's arguments for this perspective in his The Philosophy of Nature: A Guide to the New Essentialism are represented here.

A natural kind of process that is a display of a given dispositional property has a real essence. In the case of any simple causal process, this real essence will be a dispositional property, and the scientific problem will be to specify precisely what this property is. (90)

And, like Harré and Madden, Ellis regards the description of the essential properties of a natural thing to be the work of aposteriori investigation:

An attractive feature of this analysis is that it leaves dispositional properties to be identified and explicated rather than defined operationally. And the processes of explication is not philosophic, linguistic or lexicographic. It is a posteriori and scientific. (92)

Several other pieces are also noteworthy. Stephen Mumford further develops the ontology of powerful particulars in his contribution, "Powers, dispositions, properties or a causal realist manifesto", with a view that seems to me to be consistent with R. W. Sellars' insistence above on the primacy of the "determinate object". And Alexander Bird takes up the question of emergent properties and their possible causal roles. "Genuinely natural, causally efficacious higher level properties that are not identical nor reducible to lower level properties are emergent properties" (168). He focuses particularly on "evolved" properties, including particularly the functional characteristics of species.

One thing I admire about the volume is that it is focused on the philosophical and substantive issues, not points of doctrine within the literature of critical realism since Bhaskar's original formulations. Groff draws attention to this fact at the end of her introduction.

I have shaped the collection in this way because I believe that as interest in critical realism continues to grow internationally, the approach ought to be brought into closer contact with -- and ideally integrated into -- larger, directly relevant neo-Aristotelian currents within metaphysics and the philosophy of science. (8)

Readers will likely take issue with one or more of these premises; and the value of the volume is precisely that its contributors have made the issues clear enough to support fruitful debate.

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Frédéric Vandenberghe's social theory


Frédéric Vandenberghe is an important contributor to the philosophy of critical realism. His interesting book A Philosophical History of German Sociology appeared in 2008, which started life as his PhD thesis in 1994. Like an earlier tradition of historians of sociology (e.g. Raymond Aron, Main Currents in Sociological Thought: Montesquieu, Comte, Marx, de Tocqueville, Sociologists and the Revolution of 1848 and Robert Nisbet, The Sociological Tradition), Vandenberghe traces the origins of sociology to the origins of modernity -- in his chronology, the mid-nineteenth century and beginnings of the twentieth century.
Despite the quite understandable tendency of historians of ideas to trace the origins of sociology as far back as possible, returning to Plato’s Republic and Aristotle’s Nichomachean Ethics, there is now a general acknowledgement that sociology emerged as a relatively autonomous discipline, distinct from economics and political science, in the nineteenth century. Sociology cannot be separated from the discovery of the relative autonomy of society, which is linked to the advent of modernity: right from the start, the new discipline expressed the self- reflexive attitude of modern societies towards themselves, and to what eludes them. As a sub-system of science, which is a sub-system of society, sociology can be viewed as a kind of large-scale psychoanalysis that seeks to reveal the historicity and facticity of functionally differentiated modern societies. (kl 169)
But unlike Aron and Nisbet, his account highlights the critical aspects of the sociological tradition. His key figures are Marx, Simmel, Weber, Lukács, Horkheimer, Adorno, and Habermas, and a persistent theme is that of criticism and demystification. This leaves him perfectly positioned to interpret and contribute to the philosophical corpus of critical realism.

What does he mean by the "autonomization" of society? It is the emergence in the modern world of a separation between social causation and the individuals who make up society; the development of a social environment in which individuals are "subject" to the constraints of society; a separation between society and the individual. Vandenberghe explicitly draws the connection between this concept and Marx's conception of alienation: "human products are objectified, dehumanized, and eventually turn against their creators" (kl 200). But he also suggests that this concept is inherently linked to the idea of reification -- the mental creation of social entities independent of subjective individuals; the "hypostasis of concepts" (kl 428). "Whether in Marx, Weber, Simmel and Lukacs, or Horkheimer, Adorno and Habermas, in every instance we encounter the dual question of the reification of the world and the alienation of the human being as the central theme that forms and informs their work" (kl 248).

Throughout I've argued for the idea of the need for microfoundations for largescale social structures and forces. Does V's version of social theory contradict that premise? There is a tension, to be sure. But nothing that I read here is inconsistent with the notion that the causal powers of the social world are made up of the actions and states of mind of the individuals who compose society. V's point seems to be a different one: these congealed patterns of action and thought create constraints that are coercive for everyone in society -- even though they are embodied in the actions of individuals. He writes:
In fact, the thesis about the sui generis existence of society is simultaneously an expression of the fundamental experience of modernity and a constitutive a priori of sociology. By definition, a sociologist accepts that “society” exists, distinct from the economy and the polity, and essentially irreducible to the psyche (or biology or chemistry). It does not mean, as Durkheim (1968) claimed, that social facts must always be explained by social facts, but rather that social facts – that is, social entities, relations and representations – exist, and that they cannot be reduced to psychological facts (or biological, chemical, neurological facts). The two fundamental claims that the sociologist should not question are that society is relatively autonomous in regard to individuals and that sociology makes a transcendental presupposition regarding the existence of this sphere. (kl 248)
This passage denies the possibility of reducibility. But it does not deny -- explicitly, anyway -- the ontological premise that social facts are constituted by the actions, thoughts, and dispositions of socially situated actors; and that is fundamentally what is required by the requirement of microfoundations.

The 2014 volume What's Critical About Critical Realism?: Essays in Reconstructive Social Theory is an excellent treatment of contemporary social theory, grounded in critical realism but extending to theorists as diverse as Bourdieu, Habermas, and Boltanski. he describes this book as being "five books in one" -- substantial essays on the pragmatics of internal conversations, the structuration of collective subjectivities, Bourdieu's rationalist social theory, and "post humanism", as well as his own developed concept of metacritical realism.
I understand metacritique as a critique of the metatheoretical foundations of sociology that takes its cues from Talcott Parsons, Jeffrey Alexander and Jurgen Habermas and have used it to systematically reconstruct the theories of alienation, rationalisation and reification in German sociology.
Vandenberghe offers an intellectual geography of Bhaskar's influence:
Bhaskar may be a professional philosopher, but he has mainly been read by social theorists, first in the UK and then all over the world. Apart from a few incursions beyond the Anglo-Saxon world (like in Italy or Québec, for instance), French, German or Latin-American philosophers generally ignore his work, not because they disagree, but simply because it has not reached them. Unlike their colleagues from the philosophy department, sociologists, geographers, political economists and social psychologists with a Marxist background and a keen interest in social theory quickly realised the import of critical realism for the social sciences. By the mid-1980s, the first wave of critical realism had received a very favourable reception. High-quality books with a realist imprint were published by Ted Benton (1977), Russell Keat and John Urry (1982), William Outhwaite (1987), Derek Layder (1990) and Andrew Sayer (1992). At the intersection of philosophy, sociology and politics, social theorists were probing the philosophical foundations of sociology and cognate disciplines, assailing the ‘orthodox consensus’ (evolutionism + functionalism + positivism) of post-war sociology and reassessing the merits of structuration theory. Thanks to the good services of Anthony Giddens, social theory had meanwhile emerged as a relatively autonomous subfield within British sociology, while elsewhere, galvanised by ethnomethodology, structuralism and systems theory, new ambitious theoretical syntheses were published almost simultaneously. By now the story of the ‘new theoretical movement’ (Alexander, 1988) and its attempt to overcome the opposition of agency and structure has become a hackneyed one, but back in the 1980s when Pierre Bourdieu, Anthony Giddens, Jürgen Habermas and Niklas Luhmann were writing their main works, sociology was ebullient. (kl 449)
Vandenberghe analyzes Bhaskar's theories into a series of nested stages: 
  1. Critical realism
    1. transcendental realism
    2. critical realism
    3. explanatory critique
  2. Dialectical critical realism
  3. The philosophy of meta-Reality
And he pays most attention to the first stage, the classical formulation of critical realism. Since this is the most impactful part of Bhaskar's writings within sociological theory, V's analysis is a valuable one.

These are just a few glimpses of Vandenberghe's contributions to a better understanding of critical realism in its intellectual and ontological context. But perhaps they are enough to lead readers to take on both books to find the lucid and broad-ranging interpretations that Vandenberghe offers of the intellectual terrain of contemporary social theory and critical realism.

***
As a side note, Vandenberghe captures the aspect of Bhaskar's writings that troubles some readers the most -- his philosophical obscurity.
His trajectory reminds me somehow of the one of Auguste Comte and Charles Sanders Peirce. Like Comte, he started out with a strong belief in science and ended up in the mystical waters beyond religion. Like Peirce, he is a bit of a genius (he wrote his first book when he was 20), but as he advanced in his reflections and deepened his ideas, his writings and his language became more and more idiosyncratic, obscure and esoteric. He abuses neologisms, TLA’s (three letter acronyms) and semi-formalised arguments with N dimensional graphic representations, which may well constitute, as in the case of Peirce, his ‘natural language of self- communication’ (apud Colapietro, 1989, xiv). Aware of the problem, he has added glossaries to his books, but as they are packed with internal references they are not always very helpful to make full sense of Bhaskarese. (kl 359)

Saturday, April 4, 2015

Debates about field experiments in the social sciences



Questions about the empirical validation of hypotheses about social causation have been of interest in the past several weeks here. Relevant to that question is Dawn Langan Teele's recent volume, Field Experiments and Their Critics: Essays on the Uses and Abuses of Experimentation in the Social Sciences. The essays in the book make for interesting reading for philosophers of the social sciences. But the overall impression that I take away is that the assumptions this research community makes about social causation are excessively empiricist and under-theorized. These are essentially the assumptions that come along with an econometrician's view of social reality. The researchers approach causation consistently as "empirical social arrangement," "intervention," and "net effect". But this is not a satisfactory way of capturing the workings of social causation. Instead, we need to attempt to construct adequate theories of the institutions, norms, and patterns of action through which various social arrangements work, and the causal mechanisms and processes to which these social realities give rise.

The debates considered here surround the relative effectiveness of controlled observation and RCT-style experiments, with Gerber, Green, and Kaplan arguing on Bayesian statistical grounds that the epistemic weight of observation-based research is close to zero.
We find that unless researchers have prior information about the biases associated with observational research, observational findings are accorded zero weight regardless of sample size, and researchers learn about causality exclusively through experimental results. (kl 211)
A field experiment is defined as "randomized controlled trials carried out in a real-world setting" (kl 92). Observational data relevant to causation often derives from what researchers often call "natural experiments", in which otherwise similar groups of subjects are exposed to different influences thought to have causal effect. If we believe that trauma affects students' learning, we might compare a group of first-grade classrooms in a city that experienced a serious tornado with a comparable group of first-grade classrooms in a city without an abrupt and disruptive crisis. If the tornado classrooms showed lower achievement scores than the no-tornado classrooms, we might regard this as a degree of support for the causal hypothesis.

The radical skeptics about observational data draw strong conclusions; if we accept this line of thought, then it would appear that observational evidence about causation is rarely useful. The italicized qualification in the GGK quote is crucial, however, since researchers generally do have prior information about the factors influencing outcomes and the selection of cases in the studies they undertake, as Susan Stokes argues in her response essay:
Do observational researchers "know nothing" about the processes that generate independent variables and are they hence "entirely uncertain" about bias? Is the "strong possibility" of unobserved confounding factors "always omnipresent" in observational research? Are rival hypotheses 'always plausible"? Can one do nothing more than "assume nonconfoundedness"? To the extent that the answers to these questions are no, radical skepticism is undermined. (kl 751)
Stokes provides a clear exposition of how the influence of unrelated other causes Xij and confounders Zik figure in the linear causal equation for outcome ϒ depending on variable Χ (kl 693):


This model is offered as a representation of the "true" causation of ϒ, including both observed and unobserved factors. We might imagine that we have full observational data on ϒ, Χ, observations for some but not all Χij, and no observations for Zik.

The logical advantage of a randomized field experiment is that random assignment of individuals to the treatment and non-treatment classes guarantees that there is no bias in the populations with respect to a hidden characteristic that may be relevant to the causal workings of the treatment. In the hypothetical tornado-and-learning study mentioned above, there will be a spatial difference between the treatment and control groups; but regional and spatial differences among children may be relevant to learning. So the observed difference in learning may be the effect of the trauma of tornado, or it may be the coincidental effect of the regional difference between midwestern and northeastern students.

Andrew Gellman takes a step back and assesses the larger significance of this debate for social-science research. Here is his general characterization of the policy and epistemic interests that motivate social scientists (along the lines of an earlier post on policy and experiment; link):
Policy analysis (and, more generally, social science) proceeds in two ways. From one direction, there are questions whose answers we seek—how can we reduce poverty, fight crime, help people live happier and healthier lives, increase the efficiency of government, better translate public preferences into policy, and so forth? From another direction, we can gather discrete bits of understanding about pieces of the puzzle: estimates of the effects of particular programs as implemented in particular places. (kl 3440)
Gellman concisely captures the assumptions about causality that underlie this paradigm of social-science research: that causal factors can take the form of pretty much any configuration of social intervention and structure, and we can always ask what the effects of a given configuration are. But this is a view of causation that most realists would reject, because it represents causes in a highly untheorized way. On this ontological mindset, anything can be a cause, and its causal significance is simply the net difference it makes in the world in contrast to its absence. But this is a faulty understanding of real social causation.

Consider an example. Some American school systems have K-8 and 9-12 systems of elementary school and high school; other systems have K-6, 7-8, and 9-12 systems. These configurations might be thought of as "causal factors", and we might ask, "what is the net effect of system A or system B on educational performance of students by grade 12" (or "juvenile delinquency rates by grade 10")? But a realist would argue that this is too macular a perspective on causation for a complex social system like education. Instead,we need to identify more granular and more pervasive causes at a more fundamental individual and institutional level, which can then perhaps be aggregated into larger system-level effects. For example, if we thought that the socialization process of children between 11 and 14 is particularly sensitive to bullying and if we thought that high schools create a more welcoming environment for bullying, then we might have reason to expect that the middle school model would be more conducive to the educational socialization of children in these ages. But these two hypotheses can be separately investigated. And the argument that System A produces better educational outcomes than System B will now rest on reasoning about more fundamental causal processes rather than empirical and experimental findings based on examination of the outcomes associated with the two systems. Moreover, it is possible that the causal-mechanism reasoning that I've just described is valid and a good guide to policy choice, even though the observations and experiments at the level of full educational systems do not demonstrate a statistical difference between them.

More generally, arbitrary descriptions of "social factors" do not serve as causal factors whose effects we can investigate purely through experimentation and observation. Rather, as the realists argue, we need to have a theory of the workings of the social factors in which we are interested, and we then need to empirically study the causal characteristics of those underlying features of actors, norms, institutions, and structures. Only then can we have a basis for judging that this or that macro-level empirical arrangement will have specific consequences. Bhaskar is right in this key ontological prescription for the social sciences: we need to work towards finding theories of the underlying mechanisms and structures that give rise to the observable workings of the social world. And crude untheorized empirical descriptions of "factors" do not contribute to a better understanding of the social world. The framework here is "empiricist," not because it gives primacy to empirical validation, but because it elides the necessity of offering realistic accounts of underlying social mechanisms, processes, and structures.

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Realism and empirical reasoning

Guericke Sulfur globe

How should a realist think about confirmation of hypotheses and theories about real social structures and properties?

Here is what the Ur-realist Roy Bhaskar has to say about the object of scientific knowledge in his approach in A Realist Theory of Science:
[CR] regards the objects of knowledge as the structures and mechanisms that generate phenomena; and the knowledge as produced in the social activity of science. These objects are neither phenomena (empiricism) nor human constructs imposed upon the phenomena (idealism), but real structures which endure and operate independently of our knowledge, our experience and the conditions which allow us access to them. (14)
So how would a realist confirm or justify the claims he or she want to make about these real underlying structures and mechanisms? What kinds of evidence and modes of reasoning are available to allow us to conclude that a given statement is true (or false)?

This is an important question, and it poses difficulties for critical realists. The problem arises from the rhetoric of CR and its staunch anti-positivism. The most obvious answer to the question takes us to the logic of observation, experiment, and testing through derivation of indirect implications of hypotheses. We are led to think immediately of Mill's methods and the logic of causal inference as primary modes of scientific reasoning. And this begins to sound a lot like -- the hypothetico-deductive model of confirmation, a key premise of neo-positivism (link). But critical realists are a little allergic to this answer.

So how can we sort out the reasonable and uncontroversial core of our ordinary intuitions about scientific reasoning from the full baggage of logical empiricism? One crucial difference is the neo-positivist presumption that scientific knowledge must take the form of general statements of lawlike regularities. CR focuses instead on singular statements about causal powers and mechanisms. And testing of singular causal statements has important differences from testing comprehensive unified theories. If we believe that vitamin C has the causal capacity to inhibit infection by the rhinovirus, it is fairly straightforward to design an experiment or observational study that helps to evaluate this belief.

Another important difference is the centrality of the observation-theoretic distinction for the neopositivist theory of science. Positivist and neopositivist philosophers of science often accepted the Duhem thesis about the nature of scientific knowledge (The Aim and Structure of Physical Theory) -- the idea that scientific knowledge takes the form of a unified body of theory that can only be evaluated as a whole, and that this system unavoidably includes the use of theoretical concepts that are inherently unobservable. The CR approach, on the other hand, rejects a strict distinction between social reality and social observation. There is nothing in social reality that is in principle unobservable.

Bhaskar places the idea of a scientific experiment at the core of his justification of the theory of transcendental realism. But surprisingly, he does not discuss the epistemic importance of experimentation. What does a successful experiment contribute to knowledge? The intuitive answer is fairly obvious: an experiment allows us to assign particular causal effects to particular interventions. C in the absence of I leads to O; C in the presence of I leads to P. Therefore I causes P. The successful experiment gives us empirical and logical grounds for believing that "I causes P". But perhaps surprisingly, Bhaskar does not pay any attention to the epistemic value of experimentation, or the role this method plays in inferences about real causes of changes in our world. Bhaskar prefers to argue that experimentation contributes to the ontology rather than the epistemology of science.

So, once again -- how should a critical realist offer an empirical justification for a claim like this: structure S has causal powers P and tends to bring about outcomes O?

It seems to me that the answer is not esoteric. There is no better way of establishing the credibility of a social hypothesis than we can find through the familiar modes of causal inquiry, detailed sociological investigation, and an accumulation of knowledge about concrete aspects of the social world. A realist researcher is advised to pursue familiar approaches to the problem of assessing the truth or falsity of hypotheses about causal properties of social entities. Do we believe that a certain kind of industrial organization has the tendency to produce a higher-than-average level of industrial accidents? Then collect observational data about how this organizational form functions; how it is internally regulated; and how its internal composition gives rise to a propensity for industrial accidents. This is the kind of research that Charles Perrow carries out in books such as Normal Accidents: Living with High-Risk Technologies and The Next Catastrophe: Reducing Our Vulnerabilities to Natural, Industrial, and Terrorist Disasters. Hypotheses about social structures and their powers can be investigated piecemeal, and we can tease out the causal properties that they possess through familiar methods along the lines of Mill's methods (link, link).

Take two ideas about social structures in particular: the idea of an economic structure and the idea of a business corporation. Both these ideas can be articulated in reasonable detail and then investigated through piecemeal empirical inquiry. Consider the economic structure: what are the property relations through which labor and other resources are managed and controlled in specific instances of capitalist economies? How do these relations work in concrete detail? What variations exist? What failures do these relations experience? This is the kind of materialist historical research that is conducted by Charles Sabel and his colleagues offer in World of Possibilities: Flexibility and Mass Production in Western Industrialization.

Or take a specific corporation -- the IBM corporation, for example. Here again, it is unproblematic to identify many independent avenues of research through which the relations, properties, norms, and patterns of behavior that make up the corporation. There is nothing occult about the corporation. Do we think that the power of management distorts the decision making of the corporation by favoring executives over shareholders and employees? It is straightforward to think of numerous independent ways of empirically investigating this hypothesis. Do we believe there are significant principal-agent problems among employees and corresponding solutions in the relations and roles embodied in the organization? Likewise these hypotheses can be empirically investigated.

So it seems most reasonable to argue that empirical reasoning looks the same for critical realists as it does for any other empirical scientist. There is no distinctive critical-realist model of empirical reasoning.

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Mechanisms, experiments, and policies


The social mechanisms approach to the social sciences aligns well with two key intellectual practices, experiments and policies. In an experiment we are interesting in testing whether a given factor has the effect it is thought to have. In a policy design we are interested in affecting an outcome of interest by manipulating some of the background conditions and factors. In both instances having a theory of the mechanisms in play in a domain permits us to frame our thinking better when it comes to designing experiments and policies.

Let's say that we are interested in reducing the high school dropout rate in a high-poverty school. We may have a hypothesis that one important causal factor that leads to a higher likelihood of dropping out is that high-poverty students have a much greater burden of family and social problems than students in low-poverty populations. We might describe the mechanism in question in these terms:
H1: (a) high burden of social/familial problems => (b) student has higher likelihood of becoming discouraged => (c) student has higher likelihood of stopping attending => (d) student has a higher likelihood of dropping out of high school
We can evaluate this hypothesis about one of the mechanisms of dropping out of high school in several ways. First, we note that each clause invokes a likelihood. This means that we need to look at sets of students rather than individual students. Single cases or individual pairs of cases will not suffice, since we cannot make any inference from data like these:
A. Individual X has high burden of social/familial problems; Individual X does not become discouraged; Individual X does not drop out of high school.
B. Individual Y has a low burden of social/familial problems; Individual Y does become discouraged; Individual Y does drop out of high school.
Observations A and B are both compatible with the possible truth of the mechanisms hypothesis. Instead, we need to examine groups of individuals with various configurations of the characteristics mentioned in the hypothesis. If H1 is true, it can only be evaluated using population observations.
In theory we might approach H1 experimentally: randomly select two groups G1 and G2 of individuals; expose G1 to a high burden of social/familial problems while G2 is exposed to a low burden of social/familial problems; and observe the incidence of dropping out of high school. This would be to treat the hypothesis through an experiment based on the logic of random controlled trials. The difficulty here is obvious: we are harming the individuals in G1 in order to assess the causal consequences of the harmful treatment. This raises an irresolvable ethical problem. (Here is a discussion of Nancy Cartwright's critique of the logic of RCT methodology in Evidence Based Policy; link.)
A slightly different experimental design would pass the ethics test. Select two schools S1 and S2 with comparable levels of high-poverty students and high burdens of social/familial problems for the individuals at the schools and comparable historical dropout rates. Now expose the students at S1 to a "treatment" that reduces the burden of social/familial problems (provide extensive social work services in the school that students can call upon). This design too conforms to the logic of a random controlled trial. Continue the treatment for four academic years and observe the graduation rates of the two schools. If H1 is true, we should expect that S1 will have a higher graduation rate than S2.
A third approach takes the form of a "quasi-experiment". Identify pairs of schools that are similar in many relevant respects, but differ with respect to the burden of social/familial problems. This is one way of "controlling" for the causal influence of other observable factors -- family income, race, degree of segregation in the school, etc. Now we have N pairs of matched schools and we can compute the graduation rate for the two components of the matches; that is, graduation rates for "high burden school" and "low burden school". If we find that the high burden schools have a lower graduation rate than the low burden schools, and if we are satisfied that the schools do not differ systematically in any other dimension, then we have a degree of confirmation for the causal hypothesis H1. But Stanley Lieberson in Making It Count poses some difficult challenges for the logic of this kind of experimental test; he believes that there are commonly unrecognized forms of selection bias in the makeup of the test cases that potentially invalidates any possible finding (link).
So far we have looked at ways of experimentally evaluating the link between (a) and (d). But H1 is more complex; it hypothesizes that social/familial problems exercise their influence through two behavioral stages that may themselves be the object of intervention. The link from (b) to (c) is an independent hypothetical causal relation, and likewise the link from (c) to (d). So we might attempt to tease out the workings of these links in the mechanism as well. Here we might design our experiments around populations of high burden students, but attempt to find ways of influencing either discouragement or the link from discouragement to non-attendance (or possibly the link from non-attendance to full dropping out).
Here our intervention might go along these lines: the burden of social/familial problems is usually exogenous and untreatable. But within-school programs like intensive peer mentoring and encouragement might serve to offset the discouragement that otherwise results from high burden of social/familial problems. This can be experimentally evaluated using one or another of the designs mentioned above. Or we might take discouragement as a given but find an intervention that prevents the discouraged student from becoming a truant -- perhaps a strong motivational incentive dependent on achieving 90% attendance during a six-week period.
In other words, causal hypotheses about causal mechanisms invite experimental and quasi-experimental investigation.

What about the other side of the equation; how do hypotheses about mechanisms contribute to policy intervention? This seems even more straightforward than the first question. The mechanism hypothesis points to several specific locations where intervention could affect the negative outcome with which we are concerned -- dropping out of high school in this case. If we have experimental evidence supporting the links specified in the hypothesis, then equally we have a set of policy options available to us. We can design a policy intervention that seeks to do one or more of the following things: reduce the burden of social/familial problems; increase the level of morale of students who are exposed to a high burden; find means of encouraging high-burden students to persevere; and design an intervention to encourage truants to return to school. This suite of interventions touches each of the causal connections specified in the hypothesis H1.
Now, finally, we are ready to close the circle by evaluating the success of interventions like these. Does the graduation rate of schools where the interventions have been implemented work out to be higher than those where the interventions were not implemented? Can we begin to assign efficacy assessments to various parts of the policy? Can we arrive at secondary hypotheses about why this policy intervention ("reduce the burden of social/familial issues") doesn't succeed, whereas another policy intervention ("bolster morale among high-risk students") does appear to succeed?
The upshot is that experiments and policies are opposite sides of the same coin. Both proceed from the common assumption that social causes are real; that we can assess the causal significance of various factors through experimentation and controlled observation; and that we can intervene in real-world processes with policy tools designed to exert influence at key junctures in the causal process.