Monday, August 31, 2009

John Stuart Mill as a social science founder

John Stuart Mill was Britain's leading thinker when it came to issues having to do with logic and scientific knowledge in the mid-nineteenth century. His System of Logic was first published in 1843 and was reprinted in numerous editions, and it constituted a comprehensive treatment of scientific knowledge and inference within the empiricist tradition. The book devoted an entire section to the logic of what Mill referred to as the "moral sciences" (Book VI, published separately as The Logic of the Moral Sciences). He defined the moral sciences as those areas of study having to do with human dispositions, character, and action, extending from psychology to social science. The conception of social science knowledge that he presents has had a deep impact on subsequent thinking about "scientific" social analysis and is worth examining again. (Here is a link to the Gutenberg etext edition of the System of Logic.)

Mill developed a general vision of science that was derived from the best current examples of progress in the natural sciences, and he then applied this vision to the effort to understand human and social phenomena scientifically. Putting his vision simply, science consists of the discovery of general causal laws based on systematic empirical observation. It lays the framework for a positivist conception of social science, and it prepares a charge of "Not scientific!" to social scientists who deviate from these central positivist tenets.

The social sciences barely existed in 1843; so it is intriguing to see how Mill thought about the task of creating a social science. For one thing, he had virtually no good examples to work with; political economy was just about the only significant piece of rigorous social analysis that existed. The topics considered by modern sociology were only beginning to gain rigorous attention, and political science took the form of analysis of the interests and policies of specific nation states. Mill was very much interested in the work of Auguste Comte -- the thinker who introduced both "sociology" and "positivism" into the philosophical lexicon, and Mill wrote a critical essay about Comte's philosophy in 1865 (Auguste Comte & Positivism). But Comte's writings did not provide good examples of detailed empirical study of social phenomena. One of Comte's central goals was to discover laws of development for civilizations -- a far cry from the way we would define the focus of sociology today. Here is a summary definition of the science of society that Mill offers:
Next after the science of individual man comes the science of man in society--of the actions of collective masses of mankind, and the various phenomena which constitute social life. (Book VI, chap. VI, sect. 1)
In several earlier postings I've referred to the important role that philosophical ideas played in defining the aims and goals of the social sciences. Mill's writings certainly fall in the category of foundational, guiding ideas. So let's see what guiding ideas are expressed in the System of Logic for the social sciences.

Prediction. Mill opens his discussion of the social sciences by quoting a passage from Condorcet with evident approval on the role of prediction in the sciences and history. Condorcet draws an explicit parallel between the predictive capacity of some of the natural sciences (e.g. astronomy) and the development of history; if history is made by men, then we should be able to learn the laws of behavior and use them to predict history (Book VI). This captures Mill's conception of social science: social developments are the result of individual actions and behaviors; individual actions are subject to laws that can be discovered in psychology and ethology (the science of human development); and therefore, in principle, historical outcomes are governed by these laws as well. So the goal of the social sciences is to discover the laws of behavior that permit us to predict behavior and social outcomes.

Laws and regularities. Mill firmly believed that science involves the discovery of laws and regularities. A body of observations that lacks organizing regularities cannot be considered to be a science. So for Mill, social science research too must involve the discovery of laws of social behavior and social dynamics. "Are the actions of human beings, like all other natural events, subject to invariable laws? Does that constancy of causation, which is the foundation of every scientific theory of successive phenomena, really obtain among them?" (Book VI, chap. I, sect. 2) Mill's answer, ultimately, is affirmative: there are such laws of individual behavior and choice. In reflecting on the status of weather phenomena he writes:
Yet no one doubts that the phenomena depend on laws, and that these must be derivative laws resulting from known ultimate laws, those of heat, electricity, vaporization, and elastic fluids. (Book VI, chap. III, sect. 1)
He distinguishes between exact sciences (where a few general laws govern virtually all variation) and inexact sciences (where we need both fundamental laws and secondary influences in order to explain observed behavior). His example of an inexact science is tidology.
By combining, however, the exact laws of the greater causes, and of such of the minor ones as are sufficiently known, with such empirical laws or such approximate generalizations respecting the miscellaneous variations as can be obtained by specific observation, we can lay down general propositions which will be true in the main, and on which, with allowance for the degree of their probable inaccuracy, we may safely ground our expectations and our conduct. (Book VI, chap. III, sect. 1)
And this model seems to capture his entire conception of scientific understanding: we understand a phenomenon when we have identified the primary causes that bring it about (and the laws that correspond to these); and the secondary influences that disturb or modify the workings of the primary causes (with their laws as well).
The science of human nature is of this description. It falls far short of the standard of exactness now realized in Astronomy; but there is no reason that it should not be as much a science as Tidology is, or as Astronomy was when its calculations had only mastered the main phenomena, but not the perturbations.... (Book VI, chap. III, sect. 2)
The subject, then, of Psychology is the uniformities of succession, the laws, whether ultimate or derivative, according to which one mental state succeeds another, is caused by, or at least, is caused to follow, another. (Book VI, chap. IV, sect. 3)
So Mill believes that a science of behavior is possible, issuing in a set of regularities of behavior. And he believes that we can also arrive at a science of development, which he refers to as "ethology"; this is a description of the ways in which circumstances influence individual character. Ethology too issues in laws and regularities, according to Mill.
A science is thus formed, to which I would propose to give the name of Ethology, or the Science of Character, from ἦθος, a word more nearly corresponding to the term "character" as I here use it, than any other word in the same language. (Book VI, chap. V, sect. 4)
This leads to a general conception of how social change works:
All phenomena of society are phenomena of human nature, generated by the action of outward circumstances upon masses of human beings; and if, therefore, the phenomena of human thought, feeling, and action are subject to fixed laws, the phenomena of society can not but conform to fixed laws. (Book VI, chap. VI, sect. 2)
Methodological individualism. So laws govern individual actions. What about social phenomena? Mill sees social phenomena as the combination of multiple individual actions. And he believes that it is self-evident that the laws of the compound derive from the workings of the laws of the parts.
The laws of the phenomena of society are, and can be, nothing but the laws of the actions and passions of human beings united together in the social state. Men, however, in a state of society are still men; their actions and passions are obedient to the laws of individual human nature. Men are not, when brought together, converted into another kind of substance. (Book VI, chap. VII, sect. 1)
So social laws and regularities ought to be explained on the basis of individual-level laws and regularities. This is a pretty clear statement of the principle of methodological individualism.

Parallel to the assumption of methodological individualism is a strong inclination on Mill's part towards the idea of inter-theoretic reduction: the laws of the compound should be reducible to the action of the laws of the composing entities. So social laws should be reducible to laws of psychology, combined with factual descriptions of the particular circumstances that surround given societies.

Methods of agreement and difference. Quite a bit of attention has been directed to Mill's methods of agreement and difference within the field of comparative historical sociology. It is startling, therefore, to realize that Mill himself felt that these families of methods were not relevant or applicable to social phenomena. Appeal to these methods in the social sciences, Mill maintains, is to succumb to the fallacy of the "chemical or experimental method" in the social sciences (Book VI, chap. VII, sect. 1). The problem is that the conditions for the application of these methods are impossibly stringent when we come to consideration of the causes of complex social events like revolutions or civil wars. There are always innumerable differences between the cases; so the methods of difference and similarity cannot direct us to the unique differentiating causes.
The Method of Difference in either of its forms being thus completely out of the question, there remains the Method of Agreement. But we are already aware of how little value this method is, in cases admitting Plurality of Causes; and social phenomena are those in which the plurality prevails in the utmost possible extent. (Book VI, chap. VII, sect. 4)
Mill offers an alternative preferred method, the deductive method. "However complex the phenomena, all their sequences and co-existences result from the laws of the separate elements" (Book VI, chap. IX, sect. 1). The deductive method involves identifying these separate elements; discovering their fundamental properties and regularities; and deducing the interactions that occur among them to produce the complex outcome.
The Social Science, therefore (which, by a convenient barbarism, has been termed Sociology), is a deductive science; not, indeed, after the model of geometry, but after that of the more complex physical sciences. It infers the law of each effect from the laws of causation on which that effect depends; not, however, from the law merely of one cause, as in the geometrical method but by considering all the causes which conjunctly influence the effect, and compounding their laws with one another. (Book VI, chap. IX, sect. 1)
The plurality of causes that is explicit in the deductive method leads Mill to qualify the scope of prediction that is possible in the social sciences. Because it is not possible to precisely determine the joint effect of multiple causes, predictions are generally approximate rather than exact.
It is evident, in the first place, that Sociology, considered as a system of deductions a priori, can not be a science of positive predictions, but only of tendencies. We may be able to conclude, from the laws of human nature applied to the circumstances of a given state of society, that a particular cause will operate in a certain manner unless counteracted; but we can never be assured to what extent or amount it will so operate, or affirm with certainty that it will not be counteracted. (Book VI, chap. IX, sect. 2)
(Daniel Hausman gives a good exposition of this method of explanation in "The Deductive Method" (Essays on Philosophy and Economic Methodology).)

The aim of sociology. Mill believes that the most fundamental aim of sociology is to derive a set of governing laws for the whole of society from the laws of individual action and ethology, and to permit the scientist to explain the particular features of the total state of society. He describes the "state of society" in these terms:
In order to conceive correctly the scope of this general science, and distinguish it from the subordinate departments of sociological speculation, it is necessary to fix the ideas attached to the phrase, "A State of Society." What is called a state of society, is the simultaneous state of all the greater social facts or phenomena. Such are: the degree of knowledge, and of intellectual and moral culture, existing in the community, and in every class of it; the state of industry, of wealth and its distribution; the habitual occupations of the community; their division into classes, and the relations of those classes to one another; the common beliefs which they entertain on all the subjects most important to mankind, and the degree of assurance with which those beliefs are held; their tastes, and the character and degree of their aesthetic development; their form of government, and the more important of their laws and customs. (Book VI, chap. X, sect. 2)
This sounds pretty much like what we might call "macro-sociology" -- an effort to describe and explain the large-scale features of a given society. So the goal of sociology is to discover laws of behavior at the individual level that permit deduction of the features of society in which these individuals live, given the current circumstances. Sociology should provide a theory providing an understanding of the broad sweep of history, the totality of human individual and social actions.
The doctrine which the preceding chapters were intended to enforce and elucidate--that the collective series of social phenomena, in other words the course of history, is subject to general laws, which philosophy may possibly detect--has been familiar for generations to the scientific thinkers of the Continent, and has for the last quarter of a century passed out of their peculiar domain, into that of newspaers and ordinary political discussion. (Book VI, chap. XI, sect. 1)
A sociological imagination? In spite of Mill's evident interest in the foundations of a science of society, he shows little evidence of possessing a lively sociological imagination. He does not seem to have paid much attention to the actual social processes and changes underway in Britain in the beginning of the nineteenth century. There is almost no description or comment concerning the social circumstances of nineteenth-century Britain -- subjects that were of great interest to Mill as a reformer. It is striking to compare his writings with those of Tocqueville, who observes and conceptualizes a wide range of concrete social activity and behavior. Mill remains on a highly abstract plane: are there social laws? How do social laws relate to individual laws? How does evidence support or undermine various social hypotheses? (See an earlier posting on Tocqueville.)

So here we find almost all the elements that came to define the framework of positivist social science: the doctrine of the unity of science, the insistence on the primacy of the discovery of laws and regularities, the doctrines of methodological individualism and reductionism, and the assumption that the natural sciences provide a regulative guide to the social sciences (naturalism). Mill's writings about the social sciences set the stage for the development of a positivist paradigm that impaired the disciplines from adopting the fluidity and pluralistic viewpoints that they would need.

The shortcomings of Mill's philosophy of social science derive from his most basic assumptions. He treats the creation of a science of society as primarily a methodological and epistemic problem; he takes it for granted that the "phenomena" of the social world are entirely analogous to the phenomena of the natural world. But this is an error of social ontology. Social phenomena are not relevantly analogous to natural phenomena. "States" are not like "metals", and social processes like contention are not like physical processes of mixing and heating. And if Mill had devoted more of his analytical intelligence to the problem of discovering, analyzing, and explaining the actual social phenomena of contemporary Britain, he might well have been drawn to a less positivist construction of sociology.

(Here are several earlier postings that are relevant to this topic:
  • philosophical frameworks of the social sciences link
  • how does philosophy help guide the social sciences? link
  • why a philosophy of social science? link
  • proto-social inquiry link
  • components of positivism link
  • a non-naturalistic approach link
The unifying thread to these posts is the question, to what extent did philosophical presuppositions influence the development of the social sciences?)

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Revisiting Popper

Karl Popper's most commonly cited contribution to philosophy and the philosophy of science is his theory of falsifiability (The Logic of Scientific Discovery, Conjectures and Refutations: The Growth of Scientific Knowledge). (Stephen Thornton has a very nice essay on Popper's philosophy in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.) In its essence, this theory is an alternative to "confirmation theory." Contrary to positivist philosophy of science, Popper doesn't think that scientific theories can be confirmed by more and more positive empirical evidence. Instead, he argues that the logic of scientific research is a critical method in which scientists do their best to "falsify" their hypotheses and theories. And we are rationally justified in accepting theories that have been severely tested through an effort to show they are false -- rather than accepting theories for which we have accumulated a body of corroborative evidence. Basically, he argues that scientists are in the business of asking this question: what is the most unlikely consequence of this hypothesis? How can I find evidence in nature that would demonstrate that the hypothesis is false? Popper criticizes theorists like Marx and Freud who attempt to accumulate evidence that corroborates their theories (historical materialism, ego transference) and praises theorists like Einstein who honestly confront the unlikely consequences their theories appear to have (perihelion of Mercury).

At bottom, I think many philosophers of science have drawn their own conclusions about both falsifiability and confirmation theory: there is no recipe for measuring the empirical credibility of a given scientific theory, and there is no codifiable "inductive logic" that might replace the forms of empirical reasoning that we find throughout the history of science. Instead, we need to look in greater detail at the epistemic practices of real research communities in order to see the nuanced forms of empirical reasoning that are brought forward for the evaluation of scientific theories. Popper's student, Imre Lakatos, makes one effort at this (Methodology of Scientific Research Programmes; Criticism and the Growth of Knowledge); so does William Newton-Smith (The Rationality of Science), and much of the philosophy of science that has proceeded under the rubrics of philosophy of physics, biology, or economics is equally attentive to the specific epistemic practices of real working scientific traditions. So "falsifiability" doesn't seem to have a lot to add to a theory of scientific rationality at this point in the philosophy of science. In particular, Popper's grand critique of Marx's social science on the grounds that it is "unfalsifiable" just seems to miss the point; surely Marx, Durkheim, Weber, Simmel, or Tocqueville have important social science insights that can't be refuted by deriding them as "unfalsifiable". And Popper's impatience with Marxism makes one doubt his objectivity as a sympathetic reader of Marx's work.

Of greater interest is another celebrated idea that Popper put forward, his critique of “historicism” in The Poverty of Historicism (1957). And unlike the theory of falsifiability, I think that there are important insights in this discussion that are even more useful today than they were in 1957, when it comes to conceptualizing the nature of the social sciences. So people who are a little dismissive of Popper may find that there are novelties here that they will find interesting.

Popper characterizes historicism as “an approach to the social sciences which assumes that historical prediction is their principal aim, and which assumes that this aim is attainable by discovering the ‘rhythms’ or the ‘patterns’, the ‘laws’ or the ‘trends’ that underlie the evolution of history” (3). Historicists differ from naturalists, however, in that they believe that the laws that govern history are themselves historically changeable. So a given historical epoch has its own laws and generalizations – unlike the laws of nature that are uniform across time and space. So historicism involves combining two ideas: prediction of historical change based on a formulation of general laws or patterns; and a recognition that historical laws and patterns are themselves variable over time, in reaction to human agency.

Popper’s central conclusion is that large predictions of historical or social outcomes are inherently unjustifiable -- a position taken up several times here (post, post). He finds that “holistic” or “utopian” historical predictions depend upon assumptions that simply cannot be justified; instead, he prefers “piecemeal” predictions and interventions (21). What Popper calls “historicism” amounts to the aspiration that there should be a comprehensive science of society that permits prediction of whole future states of the social system, and also supports re-engineering of the social system if we choose. In other words, historicism in his description sounds quite a bit like social physics: the aspiration of finding a theory that describes and predicts the total state of society.
The kind of history with which historicists wish to identify sociology looks not only backwards to the past but also forwards to the future. It is the study of the operative forces and, above all, of the laws of social development. (45)
Popper rejects the feasibility or appropriateness of this vision of social knowledge, and he is right to do so. The social world is not amenable to this kind of general theoretical representation.

The social thinker who serves as Popper’s example of this kind of holistic social theory is Karl Marx. According to Popper, Marx’s Capital (Marx 1977 [1867]) is intended to be a general theory of capitalist society, providing a basis for predicting its future and its specific internal changes over time. And Marx’s theory of historical materialism (“History is a history of class conflict,” “History is the unfolding of the contradictions between the forces and relations of production”; (Communist Manifesto, Preface to a Contribution to Political Economy)) is Popper’s central example of a holistic theory of history. And it is Marx’s theory of revolution that provides a central example for Popper under the category of utopian social engineering. In The Scientific Marx I argue that Popper’s representation of Marx’s social science contribution is flawed; rather, Marx's ideas about capitalism take the form of an eclectic combination of sociology, economic theory, historical description, and institutional analysis. It is also true, however, that Marx writes in Capital that he is looking to identify the laws of motion of the capitalist mode of production.

Whatever the accuracy of Popper's interpretation of Marx, his more general point is certainly correct. Sociology and economics cannot provide us with general theories that permit the prediction of large historical change. Popper’s critique of historicism, then, can be rephrased as a compelling critique of the model of the natural sciences as a meta-theory for the social and historical sciences. History and society are not law-governed systems for which we might eventually hope to find exact and comprehensive theories. Instead, they are the heterogeneous, plastic, and contingent compound of actions, structures, causal mechanisms, and conjunctures that elude systematization and prediction. And this conclusion brings us back to the centrality of agent-centered explanations of historical outcomes.

I chose the planetary photo above because it raises a number of complexities about theoretical systems, comprehensive models, and prediction that need sorting out. Popper observes that metaphors from astronomy have had a great deal of sway with historicists: "Modern historicists have been greatly impressed by the success of Newtonian theory, and especially by its power of forecasting the position of the planets a long time ahead" (36). The photo is of a distant planetary system in the making. The amount of debris in orbit makes it clear that it would be impossible to model and predict the behavior of this system over time; this is an n-body gravitational problem that even Newton despaired to solve. What physics does succeed in doing is identifying the processes and forces that are relevant to the evolution of this system over time -- without being able to predict its course in even gross form. This is a good example of a complex, chaotic system where prediction is impossible.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Patient safety -- Canada and France

Patient safety is a key issue in managing and assessing a regional or national health system. There are very sizable variations in patient safety statistics across hospitals, with significantly higher rates of infection and mortality in some institutions than others. Why is this? And what can be done in order to improve the safety performance of low-safety institutions, and to improve the overall safety performance of the hospital environment nationally?

Previous posts have made the point that safety is the net effect of a complex system within a hospital or chemical plant, including institutions, rules, practices, training, supervision, and day-to-day behavior by staff and supervisors (post, post). And experts on hospital safety agree that improvements in safety require careful analysis of patient processes in order to redesign processes so as to make infections, falls, improper medications, and unnecessary mortality less likely. Institutional design and workplace culture have to change if safety performance is to improve consistently and sustainably. (Here is a posting providing a bit more discussion of the institutions of a hospital; post.)

But here is an important question: what are the features of the social and legal environment that will make it most likely that hospital administrators will commit themselves to a thorough-going culture and management of safety? What incentives or constraints need to exist to offset the impulses of cost-cutting and status quo management that threaten to undermine patient safety? What will drive the institutional change in a health system that improving patient safety requires?

Several measures seem clear. One is state regulation of hospitals. This exists in every state; but the effectiveness of regulatory regimes varies widely across context. So understanding the dynamics of regulation and enforcement is a crucial step to improving hospital quality and patient safety. The oversight of rigorous hospital accreditation agencies is another important factor for improvement. For example, the Joint Commission accredits thousands of hospitals in the United States (web page) through dozens of accreditation and certification programs. Patient safety is the highest priority underlying Joint Commission standards of accreditation. So regulation and the formulation of standards are part of the answer. But a particularly important policy tool for improving safety performance is the mandatory collection and publication of safety statistics, so that potential patients can decide between hospitals on the basis of their safety performance. Publicity and transparency are crucial parts of good management behavior; and secrecy is a refuge of poor performance in areas of public concern such as safety, corruption, or rule-setting. (See an earlier post on the relationship between publicity and corruption.)

But here we have a little bit of a conundrum: achieving mandatory publication of safety statistics is politically difficult, because hospitals have a business interest in keeping these data private. So there was a lot of resistance to mandatory reporting of basic patient safety data in the US over the past twenty years. Fortunately, the public interest in having these data readily available has largely prevailed, and hospitals are now required to publish a broader and broader range of data on patient safety, including hospital-induced infection rates, ventilator-induced pneumonias, patient falls, and mortality rates. Here is a useful tool from USA Today that lets the public and the patient gather information about his/her hospital options and how these compare with other hospitals regionally and nationally. This is an effective accountability mechanism that inevitably drives hospitals towards better performance.

Canada has been very active in this area. Here is a website published by the Ontario Ministry of Health and Long-Term Care. The province requires hospitals to report a number of factors that are good indicators of patient safety: several kinds of hospital-born infections; central-line primary bloodstream infection and ventilator-associated pneumonia; surgical-site infection prevention activity; and hospital-standardized mortality ratio. The user can explore the site and find that there are in fact wide variations across hospitals in the province. This is likely to change patient choice; but it also serves as an instant guide for regulatory agencies and local hospital administrators as they attempt to focus attention on poor management practices and institutional arrangements. (It would be helpful for the purpose of comparison if the data could be easily downloaded into a spreadsheet.)

On first principles, it seems likely that any country that has a hospital system in which the safety performance of each hospital is kept secret will also show a wide distribution of patient safety outcomes across institutions, and will have an overall safety record that is much lower than it could be. This is because secrecy gives hospital administrators the ability to conceal the risks their institutions impose on patients through bad practices. So publicity and regular publication of patient safety information seems to be a necessary precondition to maintaining a high-safety hospital system.

But here is the crucial point: many countries continue to permit secrecy when it comes to hospital safety. In particular, this seems to be true in France. It seems that the French medical and hospital system continues to display a very high degree of secrecy and opacity when it comes to patient safety. In fact, anecdotal information about French hospitals suggests a wide range of levels of hospital-born infections in different hospitals. Hospital-born infections (infections nosocomiales) are an important and rising cause of patient illness and morbidity. And there are well-known practices and technologies that substantially reduce the incidence of these infections. But the implementation of these practices requires strong commitment and dedication at the unit level; and this degree of commitment is unlikely to occur in an environment of secrecy.

In fact, I have not been able to discover any of the tools that are now available for measuring patient safety in hospitals in North America in application to hospitals in France. But without this regular reporting, there is no mechanism through which institutions with bad safety performance can be "ratcheted" up into better practices and better safety outcomes. The impression that is given in the French medical system is that the doctors and the medical authorities are sacrosanct; patients are not expected to question their judgment, and the state appears not to require institutions to report and publish fundamental safety information. Patients have very little power and the media so far seem to have paid little attention to the issues of patient safety in French hospitals. This 2007 article in LePoint seems to be a first for France in that it provides quantitative rankings of a large number of hospitals in their treatment of a number of diseases. But it does not provide the kinds of safety information -- infections, falls, pneumonias -- that are core measures of patient safety.

There is a French state agency, OFFICE NATIONAL D'INDEMNISATION DES ACCIDENTS MÉDICAUX (ONIAM), that provides compensation to patients who can demonstrate that their injuries are the result of hospital-induced causes, including especially hospital-associated infections. But it appears that this agency is restricted to after-the-fact recognition of hospital errors rather than pro-active programs designed to reduce hospital errors. And here is a French government web site devoted to the issue of hospital infections. It announces a multi-pronged strategy for controlling the problem of infections nosocomiales, including the establishment of a national program of surveillance of the rates of these infections. So far, however, I have not been able to locate web resources that would provide hospital-level data about infection rates.

So I am offering a hypothesis that I would be very happy to find to be refuted: that the French medical establishment continues to be bureaucratically administered with very little public exposure of actual performance when it comes to patient safety. And without this system of publicity, it seems very likely that there are wide and tragic variations across French hospitals with regard to patient safety.

Are there French medical sociologists and public health researchers who are working on the issue of patient safety in French hospitals? Can good contemporary French sociologists like Céline Béraud, Baptiste Coulmont, and Philippe Masson offer some guidance on this topic (post)? If readers are aware of databases and patient safety research programs in France that are relevant to these topics, I would be very happy to hear about them.

Update: Baptiste Coulmont (blog) passes on this link to Réseau d'alerte d'investigations et de surveillance des infections nosocomia (RAISIN) within the Institut de veille sanitaire. The site provides research reports and regional assessments of nosocomia incidence. It does not appear to provide data at the level of the specific hospitals and medical centers. Baptiste refers also to work by Jean Peneff, a French medical sociologist and author of La France malade de ses médecins. Here is a link to a subsequent research report by Peneff. Thanks, Baptiste.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Social mobility?

We often think of the United States as a place with a lot of social mobility. What exactly does this mean? And is it true? Ironically, the answer appears to be a fairly decisive "no." In fact, here's a graph from a 2005 New York Times series on income mobility that shows that the United States ranks second to last among Great Britain, US, France, Canada, and Denmark when it comes to the rate of income improvement over four generations for poor families. And here are two very interesting recent studies that come to similar conclusions -- a report on social mobility by the Center for American Progress and a 2007 academic study by researchers at Kent State, Wisconsin and Syracuse. Here is how Professor Kathryn Wilson, associate professor of economics at Kent State University, summarizes the main finding of the latter study: “People like to think of America as the land of opportunities. The irony is that our country actually has less social mobility and more inequality than most developed countries” (link).

Basically social mobility refers to the likelihood that a child will grow up into adulthood and attain a higher level of economic and social wellbeing than his/her family of origin. Is there a correlation between the socioeconomic status (SES) of an adult and his/her family of origin? Do poor people tend to have poor parents? And do poor parents tend to have children who end up as poor adults later in life? Does low SES in the parents' circumstances at a certain time in life -- say, the age of 30 -- serve to predict the SES of the child at the same age?

The fact of social mobility is closely tied to facts about social inequality and facts about social class. In a highly egalitarian society there would be little need for social mobility. And in a society with a fairly persistent class structure there is also relatively little social mobility -- because there is some set of mechanisms that limit entry and exit into the various classes. In the simplest terms, a social class is a sub-population within a society in which parents and their adult children tend to share similar occupations and economic circumstances of life. It is possible for a society to have substantial inequalities but also a substantial degree of social mobility. But there are good sociological reasons to suspect that this is a fairly unstable situation; groups with a significant degree of wealth and power are also likely to be in a position to arrange social institutions in such a way that privilege is transmitted across generations. (Here are several earlier postings on class; post, post, post.)

A crucial question to pose as we think about class and social mobility, is the issue of the social mechanisms through which children are launched into careers and economic positions in society. A pure meritocracy is a society in which specific social mechanisms distinguish between high-achieving and low-achieving individuals, assigning high-achieving individuals to desirable positions in society. A pure plutocracy is a society in which holders of wealth provide advantages to their children, ensuring that their adult children become the wealth-holders of the next generation. A caste system assigns children and young adults to occupations based on their ascriptive status. In each case there are fairly visible social mechanisms through which children from specific social environments are tracked into specific groups of roles in society. The sociological question is how these mechanisms work; in other words, we want to know about the "microfoundations" of the system of economic and social placement across generations.

In a society in which there is substantial equality of opportunity across all social groups, we would expect there to be little or no correlation between the SES of the parent and the child. We might have a very simple theory of the factors that determine an adult's SES in a society with extensive equality of opportunity: the sum total of the individual's talents, personality traits, and motivation strongly influence success in the pursuit of a career. (Chance also plays a role.) If talent is randomly distributed across the population, rich and poor; if all children are exposed to similar opportunities for the development of their talents; and if all walks of life are open to talent without regard to social status -- then we should find a zero correlation between parents' SES and adult child's SES. So, in this simple model, evidence of correlation with SES of parent and child would also be evidence of failures of equality of opportunity.

However, the situation is more complicated. Success in career is probably influenced by factors other than talent: for example, personal values, practical interests, personality qualities like perseverence, and cultural values. And these qualities are plainly influenced by the child's family and neighborhood environment. So if there is such a thing as a "culture of poverty" or a "culture of entrepreneurism", then the social fact of the child's immersion in this culture will be part of the explanation of the child's performance in adulthood -- whatever opportunities were available to the child. (French sociologist Didier Lapeyronnie makes a point along these lines about the segregation of immigrant communities that exists in French society today; post, post.) So this is a fact about family background that is causally relevant to eventual SES and independent of the opportunity structure of the society.

But another relevant fact is the sharply differentiated opportunities that exist for children and young adults from various social groups in many societies, including the United States. How is schooling provided to children across all income groups? What kind and quality of healthcare is available across income and race? To what extent are job opportunities made available to all individuals without regard to status, race, or income? How are urban people treated relative to suburban or rural people when it comes to the availability of important social opportunities? It is plain that there are substantial differences across many societies when it comes to questions like these.

Education is certainly one of the chief mechanisms of social mobility in any society; it involves providing the child and young adult with the tools necessary to translate personal qualities and talents into productive activity. So inequalities in access to education constitute a central barrier to social mobility. (See this earlier post for a discussion of some efforts to assess the impact of higher education on social mobility for disadvantaged people.)

And it seems all too clear that children have very unequal educational opportunities throughout the United States, from pre-school to university. These inequalities correlate with socially significant facts like family income, place of residence, and race; and they correlate in turn with the career paths and eventual SES of the young people who are placed in one or another of these educational settings. Race is a particularly prevalent form of structural inequalities of opportunity in the US; multiple studies have shown how slowly patterns of racial segregation are changing in the cities of the United States (post). And along with segregation comes limitation on opportunities associated with health, education, and employment.

So the findings mentioned above, documenting the relatively limited degree of social mobility that currently exists in the United States by international standards, are understandable when we consider the entrenched structures that exist in our country determining the opportunities available to children and young adults. Race, poverty, and geography conspire to create recurring patterns of low SES across generations of families in the United States. (See an earlier post on Douglas Massey's analysis of the mechanisms of race and inequality in the US.) And limited social mobility is the predictable result.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Public opinion--an example

This posting is a thought experiment that is an effort to probe the underlying components of "public opinion." I've created 8 sample data sets that I have normalized to a 1-5 scale; I've interpreted the scores as a Likert scale (from strongly disagree to strongly agree); I've assumed that each data set represents a distinct sub-population within a mass population; and I've examined the disaggregated and aggregated results in a simple spreadsheet model. This is an effort to push the questions raised in an earlier post a bit further: how do the tools of survey research allow us to answer questions about how a mass population thinks and feels about a given set of issues? The central observation there was that public opinion needs to be disaggregated around groups that have greater homogeneity. Here I am undertaking to illustrate how that disaggregation can shed greater light on the nature of public opinion.

So -- suppose we have a public that consists of eight distinct and mutually exclusive groups, A through H. Suppose we want to evaluate their attitude towards some important issue -- let's say, immigration reform. And suppose we've designed a study with a number of Likert-scaled questions that are combined and reaggregated to a 1-5 scale from "strongly oppose (1) to strongly support (5)". Finally, suppose the population as a whole shows a distribution represented in the large panel above, "SUM". The whole population represented in the top panel is simply the sum of the sub-groups A-H.

The hypothetical study is pretty uninformative up to this point. The average value for the population as a whole is 2.94 -- almost exactly in the middle of the scale. And with a standard deviation of 1.02, there is a substantial spread of opinion around the mean. We can be confident that 95% of the population falls within two standard deviations of the mean -- roughly between 1 and 5. So the aggregate data we have for the population as a whole is almost wholly uninformative -- as suggested in the earlier post. It tells us that the average voter is neutral on the issue and that the population ranges between extremely opposed and extremely favorable.

But now suppose that we are able to break out the data for the eight sub-groups, and we find that their attitudes are described in panels A through H. Here we can sometimes provide more specific answers to the question, what does Group X think about the issue?

Here we find more useful information, in that the groups have very different profiles of response to the issue. Group A is slightly unfavorable to the issue, with a standard deviation of a little more than half a point. Group B is strongly favorable (3.70) but with a significant distribution to the left with a standard deviation of a full point. Group D is the most negative, with an average score of 2.15 and a standard deviation of .74. Groups F and H are the most interesting, in that they are bimodal, with peaks around "strongly disagree" and "strongly agree" and almost no one indifferent. (The mean value for Group H is 2.93, right in the middle of the scale -- but there are no individuals in this range!) Given the bimodal nature of these two populations, we're encouraged to explore the idea that there may be a distinguishing characteristic within the group that accounts for the divided attitudes. Group C looks pretty much like the population as a whole; and Group G is distributed evenly across the whole spectrum of opinion, with no concentration around any particular position.

So this simple thought experiment seems to validate the conclusion proposed in the prior posting: in a population consisting of a number of heterogeneous groups, it is important to attempt to disaggregate the results of opinion research in a way that allows us to examine the sub-groups separately. And the statistics describing the sum of the sub-groups are likely to be uninformative; pooling the data from the eight subgroups creates pretty much of a broad, normal distribution of responses. The real insight comes in when we are able to differentiate the population into a number of sociologically real sub-groups with their own more distinctive profiles of attitudes and responses. And more important, perhaps this experiment illustrates a different way of conceptualizing public opinion: not as a characteristic distributed in a gradient across a population, but rather a composite characteristic reflecting underlying groups with their own distributions of attitudes and feelings.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

What is a diasporic community?

There are many diaspora populations in the world: the African diaspora, with populations in the Caribbean, North and South America, and Europe; the Chinese diaspora, from Indonesia and Malaysia to Cuba and the United States and Canada; the Jewish diaspora, from eastern Europe and Spain across all of Europe, to South Africa and North America with historical enclaves in India and China; and so on for numerous national and cultural groups. In some instances these groups maintain a strong sense of collective identity in spite of the physical and social distances that separate various sub-populations, and in some instances the strands of identity have attenuated significantly.

The fact of diaspora is a deeply interesting one, in that it provides a kind of "natural experiment" on the subject of the persistence and plasticity of culture. It is possible to observe the variations and modifications of culture as they occur over time and geography in diasporic populations.

The question I'd like to raise here is whether a diasporic population, an archipelago of separated groups of common national or cultural origin, can be said to constitute a community. Or does a population require a greater intimacy, a deeper social reality of face-to-face contact, in order to constitute a community? And is it possible that the unavoidable distancing and separation created by diaspora inevitably leads to the fragmentation of community?

I'm led to this question by a current reading of Tai Lands and Thailand: Community and the State in Southeast Asia, a major new contribution to southeast Asian studies edited by Andrew Walker. The authors and contributors are working with an innovative concept of "modern community", deliberately challenging the idea of traditional communities organized around stable peasant villages. And they consider a specific version of this question: do the groups scattered across nations in Southeast Asia that are bound together by a Tai language and a set of overlapping practices and values, constitute a modern community? The book warrants a careful reading, and I will return to it more specifically in a later post. But here let's look at the broader question: can a physically separated set of populations constitute a genuine community?

It won't do to attempt to reduce this question to pure semantics -- "it depends on what we mean by community". Instead, we need to understand the question in a way that makes substantive sense of the ways in which human groups are constituted over time and space. But to make it a substantive and theoretically interesting question we have to specify a few characteristics that we think communities must possess. And this requires some conceptual work that goes beyond ordinary language analysis and stretches into the realm of theory construction. So consider these features of social groups that might be considered crucial for community: a degree of shared collective identity; a degree of shared values, histories, and meanings; an orientation by members towards others as belonging to a valued social group; a degree of communication and interaction among members of the group; and a preparedness to engage in some degree of collective action in support of the group's interests. We can think of examples of social groups that possess some of these characteristics but not others, and in some cases we're inclined to deny that these groups are "communities." So what about diasporic populations?

It is clear that a separated population may certainly possess some of the qualities that paradigm cases of communities exhibit. Separated populations may maintain traditions, beliefs, and practices that extend backward in time to their origin. They may possess memories and myths that serve as a foundation for identifying them as a specific group. They may retain a strong sense of cultural identity with the group, both in the home location and throughout the world.

Moreover, in the context of modern forms of communication and the internet, it is possible for separated populations to maintain significant interaction with members of other sub-populations throughout the world. Indian sub-populations in Michigan, Germany, and Argentina can have significant real-time contact with each other through web pages, Facebook, or Twitter, and these mechanisms can create real interpersonal relationships across space. This is a significant difference in the situation of diaspora in the twenty-first century relative to the nineteenth century: we might hypothesize that there is the possibility of greater cultural unity across a diasporic group today than was the case a century ago.

It is also possible that a diasporic population will display "creolization" -- the incorporation of new cultural elements into the mix of its practices, values, and meanings. This is suggested in the photo above; one imagines that Caribo-Chinese culture is a mix that would seem foreign in Canton. And this raises the possibility of a significant degree of cultural "drift" -- with the result that isolated sub-populations no longer speak the same cultural language. This would seem to cut against the idea of community.

Finally, we can ask whether the motivational ideas mentioned above can persist in a diasporic community. Will members of the Chinese communities in Cuba or Canada retain a high degree of solidarity with their counterparts in China? Will they be willing to support the struggles that are presented to various of the Chinese groups across the world -- repression of Buddhism in China during certain periods, racism against Chinese workers in other countries, ethnic violence against Chinese businessmen in yet other settings? Accepting the point that there are substantial elements of Chinese culture and history that persist in the various Chinese communities around the world -- is this a sufficient basis to generate the willingness to mobilize that core communities possess? To what extent do diasporic populations support the kinds of integrative mechanisms that are needed in order to sustain solidarity across a dispersed group? And what can we say about those mechanisms of solidarity in the circumstances of diaspora?

These questions require careful theoretical and ethnographic work. But I'm inclined to agree with the perspective that Andrew Walker, Nicholas Farrelly, and other contributers to Tai Lands and Thailand put forward: the intertwining mechanisms of popular culture, personal mobility, communications technology, and a reservoir of values and histories that many modern identity groups retain, give a positive basis for thinking that diasporic community is possible in the globalizing world of the twenty-first century.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

What do Americans think?

Public opinion research raises many difficult questions. (See an earlier post on this topic.) We would like to know what Americans are thinking about current circumstances and issues; we'd like to know how those attitudes differ across social groups; and we'd like to have a basis for attempting to explain changes in attitudes over time. There is a vast amount of survey research underway at any given time in the United States. For example, the Pew Research Center (link) and the Roper Center (link) provide substantial survey research on social and political attitudes in the United States. But what does it really tell us?

There are, of course, the normal statistical questions about the interpretation of results: what is a representative sample? What is the margin of error? What is the variance of the population around a given topic? But these are the easy questions; there are fairly specific statistical answers to them, no different in kind from analogous questions about quality sampling methods in a manufacturing process.

But the harder questions are conceptual. What is the social fact that is being reported when a study finds that "41 percent of Americans believe that they are better off than their parents"? What are we trying to learn when we sample a population of 250 million people with a survey of a set of topically organized questions about perceptions, values, or beliefs?

Let's start constructively. We can suppose, to begin, that each person has a set of values, beliefs, or attitudes on a range of subjects. And let's say that we are interested in measuring some of these attitudes through a survey using questions based on a Likert scale (discussion); the respondent is asked to rate level of agreement with the statement on a five-point scale. Survey responses will display a distribution of answers for the topics on the survey questionnaire. We can describe this distribution in statistical terms; for example, we might find that the mean value of "trust/mistrust my elected officials" for the population is 3.5 with a standard deviation of .8. And we would probably try to group a set of questions around a single attribute (e.g., "social conservative"), and then examine the profile of individuals and groups according to their responses to these grouped questions.

But here is the hard question: what really do these descriptive statistics tell us about the population? At bottom, they tell us that, if we were to randomly draw an individual subject and ask the question, there is a high likelihood that the respondent's rating will be within the range defined by the mean for the population plus/minus the standard deviation. If the mean for the question is 3.5 and the standard deviation is .8, then this implies a range from 2.7 to 4.3 -- from "slightly disapprove" to "strongly approve". So this hypothetical study doesn't tell us very much, given the underlying variation in attitudes in the general population; the random person may range from negative to strongly positive. This is where we stand for the population as a whole, and it is not very informative because there is so much variation within the population. In other words: in a fairly specific sense, there is no single answer to the question, "what do Americans think?", because there is so much heterogeneity of attitude and opinion across the full population.

We get more information if we are able to discover that there are sub-groups that show significantly less variance around a given attitudinal position. Some groupings that may have a significant association with attitudes might include: region (northeast, south, midwest, west coast); race/ethnicity; gender; occupational status; education level; income level; age; immigration status; and so forth. And when we break down the data by groups, we may find results like these: men and women have different levels of support for capital punishment; blacks, latinos, and whites have different levels of trust in their elected officials; or well-educated and poorly-educated people differ significantly in their attitudes towards immigration policy. The population distribution is simply the sum of the distributions of attitudes in the composite groups of the society.

This differentiation of results by groups tells us that the attitudes are not randomly distributed across the population, but rather are significantly associated with group membership. And this poses a significant sociological problem for research: what explains the differences across sub-groups? How are region, gender, race, religion, age, income, or occupation relevant to the formation of attitudes and beliefs, so that groups defined by these characteristics show greater similarity to each other than does the general population?

Now we can take a stab at answering the question we began with: what do Americans think? Our studies may have allowed us to say that there are a few topics where the full population thinks roughly the same thing: there are no significant differences in the distribution of responses from individuals from sub-groups with respect to these topics. ("It is important for the recession to come to an end as early as possible"; "It is important for our country to invest in the education of children".) Second, and more commonly, there is probably a much wider group of topics where we do not find uniformity across groups; instead, African-Americans may offer one distribution of responses and Arab-Americans may offer a significantly different distribution of responses with respect to many topics. Or midwesterners and southerners may offer different distributions. In this case we can't say "Americans think X," but instead "sub-groups A, B, C, ... have significantly different attitudes with respect to this topic." And maybe this is an important possible direction for future research: how to incorporate the representation of differentiation and variation across a population into the interpretation of public opinion research. Are there better ways of visualizing the population and the modes of variation of attitude and belief that it embodies?

Thursday, August 6, 2009

A cognitivist philosophy of history

Many of the posts here have raised issues about the philosophy of history. Here is a bit of a synthesis of many of those prior observations.

Fundamentally, we have unfolded a conception of historical explanation that derives from the central idea of situated human action; the idea, as Marx put the point in 1850, that “men make their own history, but not in circumstances of their own choosing.” In other words, historical explanation fundamentally involves identifying the features of agency and structure in the presence of which the great and minor events of history have transpired. Fundamentally historians are faced with the challenge of making sense of the choices that actors have made in bringing about the historical processes that interest us, given their motives and the constraints created by social institutions and structures.

Formulating ideas about agency is therefore key for historians, and we have seen a wide variety of theories of agency in prior posts: Robert Darnton’s ethnographic study of the book-makers’ apprentices; interpretations of historically specific mentalités; attributions of rational or materialist motivations to participants in riots and rebellions; interpretations of religious commitments; and so forth, throughout the almost endless variety of forms that human agency takes. This is the aspect of historical imagination that corresponds roughly to the “hermeneutic” or interpretive strand of historical thinking: what did these historical actors want? How did they think about the world? The topic of mentalités is important; to explain historical outcomes, we must have a theory of the states of mind of the actors who make history and endure it.

Arriving at better understandings of the metaphysics of social structures is a second key focus of the philosophy of history being developed here. How do structures influence and constrain human action? How are structures embodied in the actions and thoughts of individuals? What are the microfoundations of social structures? It is crucial to avoid reifying social structures – attributing to “the state” or “the proletariat” a causal and ontological presence that transcends the individuals who constitute it. But it is also true that there are coherent and defensible ways of formulating conceptions of extended social structures that do not reify them, and that nonetheless provide them with an important and potent source of historical causal force. Once embedded in barracks, police stations, businesses, social networks, and command structures, the military structure of the Burmese junta creates a highly coercive set of social constraints within which Burmese citizens must act. So the fact that each structure is necessarily embodied in the actions, thoughts, and motives of a population of people does not imply that the structure lacks “autonomous” causal effectiveness to influence agents’ behavior.

This philosophy of history also emphasizes that it is very important for historians to arrive at deeper understandings of the metaphysics of social causation. This means, first, understanding the complete inadequacy of traditional positivist interpretations of causation: “causation is no more than regularity”. This Humean view does not serve the natural sciences well, and it certainly does not help us when it comes to social causation. So it is necessary to explore in a fair amount of detail a model of causation that fits with what we know about the actual workings of social processes. The model that I favor is “causal realism”; it holds that the task of arriving at a causal explanation comes down to discovering one or more causal mechanisms linking antecedent to outcome. This approach conforms well to the actual practice of historians constructing narratives. And it is supported by a careful analysis of the metaphysics of social causation as well. The microfoundational approach argued elsewhere holds that social causation proceeds through the behavior of individuals making choices within structures. But whether or not one accepts the microfoundational approach, it is necessary for historians to have a better idea of what they mean when they judge that “X caused Y.”

A fourth important idea that for this philosophy of history is the fact of historical contingency. Historical events are the result of the conjunction of separate strands of causation, each of which contains its own inherent contingency. And coincidence, accident, and unanticipated actions by participants and bystanders all lead to a deepening of the contingency of historical outcomes. However, the fact that social outcomes have a high degree of contingency is entirely consistent with the idea that the idea that a social order embodies a broad collection of causal processes and mechanisms. These causal mechanisms are a valid subject of study – even though they do not contribute to a deterministic causal order.

Further, we have observed repeatedly that social phenomena are heterogeneous and plastic. Institutions change over time in response to the actions and intentions of participants (plasticity); and generally similar institutions are nonetheless significantly different in their mid-level characteristics and dynamics (heterogeneity). Cities illustrate both characteristics. The institutional regimes through which a given city manages an important urban problem – handling the provisioning of clean water, let us say – change over time; this illustrates plasticity. And different cities have very different internal functional organizations, all serving to fulfill roughly the same set of urban functions but in very different ways (heterogeneity). It is important for historians and historical social scientists to keep these fundamental ontological facts about the social world in mind as they attempt to conceptualize the past. Otherwise we are likely to produce stylized and repetitive interpretations of the institutions and actions of the past, overlooking the important ways in which those institutions differed from each other and from contemporary equivalents.

The related ideas of meso-history and comparative history conform well to all these recommendations. By paying attention to the mid-level processes and institutions of a given time period, the historian is drawn into the distinguishing features as well as the common features of these institutions. (How did French absolutism really work, when it came to collecting taxes, raising armies, and managing a bureaucracy?) And by engaging in careful comparison across complex cases, the historian is brought to recognize the facts of institutional variation and, sometimes, commonality. (How did proto-industrial handicraft production work in Amsterdam and Suzhou; what were the similarities as well as differences of these pre-modern economic institutions?) Likewise, several discussions above have illustrated the explanatory value that derives from the study of meso-level social institutions and organizations – for example, the transportation system that exists in a given region. Further, meso-history and comparative history lead the historian to have a more practical recognition of the contingency and path dependency of mid-level economic, political, or social institutions. It is difficult to maintain that there is only one way of managing a fiscal system or growing a pre-modern industrial economy, when one’s research lays bare the similarities and differences that existed in different settings in France or Japan.

Turning to questions about evidence and objectivity, this philosophy of history offers support for the idea that historical inquiry is an empirically rigorous endeavor. Skeptics sometimes make easy statements such as “the past is unknowable,” “historical interpretations are inherently subjective,” and “all historical statements are the result of the historian’s bias.” But close examination of serious examples of historical research and debate demonstrate that historians engage in detailed historical research involving different kinds of historical evidence and theories from the social sciences, and arrive at well-grounded hypotheses about circumstances in the past. Questions like these turn out to have answers in which we can have a fair degree of confidence: “What was the typical annual food budget for an agricultural worker in England’s midlands in 1700?”, “Why did Parisian artisans support mobilization against the monarchy in 1848?”, “Did the Chinese Cultural Revolution involve deliberate strategies of mass killing?” It will sometimes turn out that there just is not enough historical evidence available to answer a given question, but this is surprisingly uncommon. Debates exist over the interpretation of the facts; but often enough, further research suffices to narrow the range of debate for the next generation. So we have found many reasons to be optimistic about the objectivity and truthfulness of historical knowledge.

This philosophy of history does not consider every problem that arises in the doing of history. I focus instead on the knowledge enterprise: what is involved in knowing (some of) the facts about the past? And what is involved in arriving at satisfactory explanations of these facts? There are other goals that historians have in doing their work, from illustrating a moral point, to entertaining a reading audience with surprising stories about those who came before. But many of the most interesting historical writings fall squarely within the “cognitivist” approach, and their examples support an interpretation of historical knowledge that is evidence-based, rigorous, and post-positivist. On this interpretation, history is a kind of social science, sharing commitments to evidence, rigorous reasoning, and critical use of theory in arriving at true statements about the world. And this is a lofty aspiration for historians and philosophers.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Internet activism in China

Guobin Yang's The Power of the Internet in China: Citizen Activism Online is a boundary-breaking book. It is a sociology of the communities who use the internet in China; it is a contribution to the study of social movements; it is a history of a recent period of China's modern history during which internet activism became important; it is an ethnography of the wangmin -- "netizens"; and it is a snap review of some of the hottest issues in front of the Chinese public today -- environmental problems, corruption, exploitation of factory workers, abuse of power, and social inequalities. Much more than in North America or Western Europe, the internet functions as a location of social activism in China, according to Yang. And it serves an enormous audience; China's internet population is staggeringly large. Yang estimates that by June 2008 "the number of internet users had reached 253 million" (2). He indicates that surveys find that online activists are mostly young and urban, but reflecting diversity in age and occupation (32). And Yang refers to a highly heterogeneous set of internet constituencies that include "homeowners, pensioners, migrants, hepatitis-B carriers, ant farmers, consumers, even computer gamers and pet owners" (27).

Yang puts his view of the role that internet activism is playing in China in these terms:
Analyzing online activism will both reveal the new forms, dynamics, and consequences of popular contention in the age of the Internet and will shed light on general patterns and dynamics of change in contemporary China. I show how Chinese people have created a world of carnival, community, and contention in and through cyberspace and how in this process they have transformed personhood, society, and politics. This book is about people's power in the Internet age. (1)
So what is the significance of the online presence of China's internet users? Does the internet represent a new tool for organizing and expressing grievances? Is it simply "performative" -- a space where feelings and reactions can be more safely aired than in physical spaces? Yang takes the view that the activism expressed on the internet is "active" -- it is engaged, it leads to groups having stronger affinities with each other, and it can lead to a different kind of politics and democracy in the world of factories, officials, corporations, and homeowners. And in the 1990s and 2000s, these forms of collective action are more likely to be non-confrontational than was true in the mobilization leading up to 1989.

It is challenging to conceptualize the concept of "internet activism." Is it simply a communications technology? Is it a backbone of copper and fiber through which hundreds of millions of Chinese people can interact for large purposes and small? How does the social reality of "internet society" relate to our traditional categories of "government," "economy," "culture," "religion," etc.? Yang describes his theoretical approach as "multi-interactionism," by which he means that internet activism develops in dynamic relationship to a handful of separate social factors that facilitate and constrain the actions users can take. He refers to state power, culture, the market, civil society, and transnationalism (7) as the large contextual factors that bound the social reality of the internet; and he argues that the creative and innovative users adapt flexible strategies for dealing with each in interaction. (He attributes this view to the interactionalist approach to contention taken by Tilly, McAdam, and others.)

A question that inevitably arises when we think about the internet in China is the issue of technology censorship. How important and effective are the Chinese state's efforts to regulate and control the internet? Does the "great firewall" actually put a significant brake on the forms of expression and mobilization that can occur in cyberspace? James Fallows gave an assessment of the overall effectiveness of censorship in 2008 in the Atlantic (link); his view there is that the state's aim is largely to make "subversive" uses of the internet more trouble than they are worth. Is this a fair assessment? Yang too suggests that the state's efforts at censorship are fairly ineffective, writing that "state power constrains the forms and issues of contention, but instead of preventing it from happening, it forces activists to be more creative and artful" (7). This tends to support the idea that the advantage still lies with the user; and yet it seems clear that the state is devoting a very large amount of resources to the effort. Yang describes the situation this way:
An entire apparatus of institutions and practices have appeared for the control of the Internet. Under these conditions, Internet activists have three ways of negotiating political control: rightful resistance, artful contention, and digital "hidden transcripts" of the information age. The main issues in online activism reflect both the political constraints on contention and the social milieu of activism. (23)
Yang describes the institutions and rules that the government has created to control internet activism in some detail (47-53). And he argues that the Chinese state is aware of a fundamental contemporary reality: a relatively free access to the information superhighway is a critical component of economic success. So control and economic innovation are in conflict, and so far users have been successful in finding ways of expressing themselves and gaining access to ideas and information from others.

What sorts of issues have created strong responses from online activists? There are many examples of websites and campaigns that are stimulated as protests against injustice -- police beatings and killings, bad treatment of workers or homeowners, etc. And there are many instances of campaigns that have to do with assertions of group identity and rights -- for example, the hepatitis-B carriers or diabetes patients. So social protest and identity expression are key. But here is a more extensive list of issue areas that Yang identifies within online activism: popular nationalism; rights defense; corruption and power abuse; environment; cultural contention; muckraking; and online charity (55). And within the category of rights defense he lists: vulnerable persons, homeowners, forced relocation, hepatitis-B carriers and diabetes patients, consumer rights, human rights, and other issues of urban middle-class concern (56). (Many of these issues about rights are the same subjects that Kevin O'Brien identifies under the heading of "rightful protest"; Rightful Resistance in Rural China.)

We might close by asking what effects "internet activism" is likely to have in China. And after reading Guobin Yang's book, we might offer a best guess that goes along these lines. The internet serves as a large, dynamic space of expression and contention, that plays a critically important role in shaping Chinese people's political and social attitudes. Its importance is less as an instrument of political organization and mobilization, than as a decentralized medium of consciousness formation. The anger and sorrow that is expressed over a single wrongful death -- repeated tens of thousands of times in a variety of forums and forms -- can also produce a stronger sense of a need for change in China. And so the effects of internet activism are somewhat unpredictable. But we might speculate that it can lead in the end to powerful and popular demands in earthly China for important legal and institutional reforms. Perhaps Charter '08 will be the big winner (link): legal protections and a broadened scope for life within civil society.

Sunday, August 2, 2009

History of the present

What is involved in writing a history of the present? It's not quite the oxymoron it may appear to be. It is often enough that we find ourselves in the middle of complicated, confusing, and interwoven events locally, regionally, or globally -- events that require much the same sort of conceptual and integrative work that the Manchu conquest of China or the Odessa mutiny requires for the traditional historian. For example, think of the Red Shirt protests in Thailand a few months ago, or the financial crisis in September 2008. And think of the intellectual challenge presented for the observer to try to arrive at a somewhat detailed interpretation of what was occurring. This is an act of "apperception" -- taking many separate pieces of evidence and experience and forging them together into a unified representation. And it seems to have a great deal in common with more traditional historical cognition.

There seems to be one specific way in which the task can't be done at all. When we are in the midst of something big, we may be able to recognize that it is momentous without really being able to say what "it" is. That is because we don't know how it is going to turn out. Is it a popular revolution of the have-nots against Thailand's elites, or a short period of unrest? Is it the beginning of another Great Depression, or just a serious episode of financial turbulence? We can't answer these questions until the events play out.

That point is fair enough, but it doesn't really close off the discussion. There is still the question, what can contemporary observers do to understand and document an important event as it unfolds? And here the answer is very similar to traditional historical research. Observers can collect and record documents in real time. They can interview participants. They can view and interpret the communications of the powerful and the insurgents. And, on the basis of these kinds of investigations, they can begin to arrive at interpretations of what is occurring, over what terrain, by what actors, in response to what forces and motives. In other words, they can attempt to arrive at an evidence-based integrative narrative of what the processes of the present amount to.

Think, for example, of western academics who found themselves in Shanghai in the late 1930s. They were in a position to talk with ordinary people, Communist activists, and Guomindang officials. They were able to collect the ephemera of the social struggle that was underway. They were able to observe at close range the Japanese assault on the city. And, perhaps, they were forced to join one of the great mass evacuations in history, with tens of thousands of ordinary Chinese people fleeing the city on foot. These observers lived a bit of China's history; but they were also in a position to write a part of its current history in 1938. One such academic was Professor Theodore Herman, who lived in China during the period and gathered an important collection of political posters and other ephemera (link).

And we can extend these examples indefinitely. Think of the young African-American activists who went south in 1963, who lived and made this piece of American history; and think of the perspective they were able to arrive at in conceptualizing America, 1963. And for some of these men and women, the discovery and writing of the history was itself an important part of the struggle. (Here is an excerpt of an interview with Professor Gloria House that gives a vivid sense of this aspect of historical experience and interpretation (link).)

So a couple of things seem true. One is that there is a form of "historical apperception" that is just as necessary for understanding the present as for understanding the past. A second point is that a given "history of the present" is doubly contestable: the contemporary's angle of view may be limited enough that future historians will conclude that the apperception was fundamentally flawed; and the processes underway may turn out so differently from what was expected, that the mid-stream apperception may be judged basically misleading when the process is complete.

But a few other things are true as well. The participant has an immediate access to documents, speeches, and events that later historians can only envy; so by recording these observations the participant can lay a good foundation for later interpretations. The participant has often had direct experiences that give him or her a specific understanding of some aspects of the events -- for example, the passions and motives associated with the period. And third, the participant's historical observations may in fact be remarkably acute, taking observations of current activities and constructing them into a historical representation that holds up well. So attempting to write a history of significant events in the present is a valid intellectual goal.

So far I've looked at the easy part of the question: historical apperception of specific events and processes. Much harder is the more general question: to what extent is it possible for an observer in 2000 to attempt an interpretation of "fin-de-siècle" America? That is, to what extent is it possible to encapsulate the broad sweep of the present from the perspective of the present? And here we can probably agree with Zhou Enlai in 1989 when asked, "what is the significance of the French Revolution?" -- "It is too early to tell."