Monday, November 30, 2009

Comparative history




One of Marc Bloch's most important contributions was to reinvigorate the idea of "comparative history."  Bloch believed that we could understand French feudalism better by putting it into the context of European legal and property regimes; and more broadly, he believed that the careful comparison of agrarian regimes across time and space could be an important source of insight into human societies.  Moreover, he did not believe that the cases needed to be sociologically connected.  He thought that we would learn important new truths by comparing medieval French serfdom with bonded labor in Senegal in the twentieth century, and one of the innovations developed in Bloch's editorship of Annales d'histoire économique et social was precisely his openness to this kind of comparison.  (Bloch's ideas about comparative history are presented in his 1928 article, "Toward a Comparative History of European Societies," reprinted in Frederick C. Lane and Jelle C. Riermersma, eds., Enterprise and Secular Change: Readings in Economic History.  See William Sewell's article, "Marc Bloch and the Logic of Comparative History" (link), for a sophisticated discussion of Bloch's theory of comparative history.  Another useful resource is Colleen Dunlavy's syllabus for seminar on comparative history at the University of Wisconsin (link).)

What is "comparative history"? Most basically, it is the organized study of similar historical phenomena in separated temporal or geographical settings.  The comparative historian picks several cases for detailed study and comparison, and then attempts to identify important similarities and differences across the cases.  Theda Skocpol's treatment of social revolution is a case in point (States and Social Revolutions: A Comparative Analysis of France, Russia and China); Skocpol is interested in examining the particulars of the French, Chinese, and Russian Revolutions in order to discover whether there are similar causal processes at work in these three cases.

Other possible comparative research projects might include --

  • Slave-based agriculture in Rome and the antebellum United States South
  • Rituals of royal healing in medieval France and Bali
  • Religious pilgrimages in Islam and Christianity
  • Periods of rural unrest in Britain and Malaysia
  • Modern economic development in England, France, and China
  • Frontier societies in nineteenth-century North America and seventeenth-century Russia
  • Feudal legal institutions in eastern and western Europe
  • Processes of urban development in London, Mumbai, and Berlin
What is the intellectual purpose of comparative history? What might we expect to learn through careful examination of sets of cases like these?  What sorts of knowledge can comparative historical research provide?

There might be several goals. First, we might imagine that some of these phenomena are the effect of similar causal processes, so comparison can help to identify causal conditions and regularities. This approach implies that we think of social structures and processes as being part of a causal system, where it is possible to identify recurring causal conditions.  This seems to be Skocpol's approach in States and Social Revolutions, though she later extends her views in an article mentioned below.  Researchers often make use of  some variant of Mill's methods in attempting to discover significant patterns of co-variation of conditions and outcomes.  See an earlier posting on "paired comparisons."

Second, we might have a theory of social types and subtypes into which social formations fall. The purpose of comparison would be to identify some of the sub-types of a general phenomenon such as "slave economy". This sounds pretty much like the approach that Comte and Durkheim took; it corresponds to a social metaphysic that holds that there are finitely many distinct types of society, and the central challenge for sociology is to discover the structural characteristics of the various types.

Third, we might have a fundamentally functionalist view of social organization, along with a basic repertoire of social functions that need to be performed. We might then look at religious systems as fulfilling one or more social functions -- social order, solidarity, legitimacy -- in alternative ways. Comparison might serve to identify functional alternatives -- the multiple ways that different social systems have evolved to handle these functional needs.

Another possible purpose of comparative history is to attempt to discover historical and social connections across separate historical settings. For example, examining different methods of labor control in different fascist countries in the 1930s may give us a basis for assessing some of the forms of influence that existed between these movements and governments (post). And Victor Lieberman's comparative study of the rise and fall of state power in France and Burma falls in this category as well; see an earlier posting on his metaphor of "strange parallels".

Finally, we might have a social metaphysics that emphasizes contingency and difference. This perspective differs from the first several ideas, in that it looks at structured comparative study as a vehicle for identifying difference rather than underlying similarity. Examining the histories of Berlin and Delhi may shed a great deal of light on the range of social forces and historical contingencies that occurred in these ostensibly similar cases of "urbanization".  Here the goal of comparison is more to discover alternatives, variations, and instances of path dependency.  Charles Sabel and Jonathan Zeitlin's analysis of alternative forms of capitalist development in "Historical Alternatives to Mass Production" illustrates this possibility (link; see also World of Possibilities: Flexibility and Mass Production in Western Industrialization).

So there are a number of different intellectual purposes we might have in undertaking comparative historical research.  How have other social scientists understood these issues?

Theda Skocpol and Margaret Somers address precisely this issue in "The Uses of Comparative History in Macrosocial Inquiry" (link).  Their analysis highlights three distinct models of analysis that can underlie comparative inquiry:

There are, in fact, at least three distinct logics-in-use of comparative history. One of them, which we shall label comparative history as macro-causal analysis, actually does resemble multivariate hypothesis-testing. But in addition there are two other major types: comparative history as the parallel demonstration of theory; and comparative history as the contrast of contexts. Each of the three major types of comparative history assigns a distinctive purpose to the juxtaposition of historical cases. Concomitantly, each has its own requisites of case selection, its own patterns of presentation of arguments, and--perhaps most important--its own strengths and limitations as a tool of research in macrosocial inquiry. (175)
R. Bin Wong offers a different view of the value of comparison in historical studies in his important comparative study of Chinese economic and political development (China Transformed: Historical Change and the Limits of European Experience).  Wong argues that comparison allows the historian to discover what is distinctive about a particular series of historical developments.  Features which perhaps looked inevitable and universal in European economic development look quite different when we consider a similar process of development in China; we may find that Chinese entrepreneurs and officials found very different institutions to do the work of insurance, provision of credit, or long-distance trade.  Likewise, elements that might have been taken to be sui generis characteristics of one national experience may turn out to be widespread in many locations when we do a comparative study.

Ultimately it seems that there are really only two fundamental intellectual reasons for being particularly interested in historical comparisons.  One is the hope of discovering recurring social mechanisms and structures.  This is what Charles Tilly seems to be about in his many studies of contentious politics.  And the second is the hope of discovering some of the differentiating pathways that lead to significantly different outcomes in ostensibly similar social settings.  The first goal serves the value of arriving at some level of generalization about social phenomena, and the second serves the goal of tracing out the fine structure of the particular.

(The images above represent rice cultivation in Bali and grain cultivation in France.  As Marc Bloch might have observed, they depict landscapes that reflect fundamentally different agrarian regimes: intensive cultivation in small plots in Bali, versus extensive cultivation making use of a considerable amount of animal or machine traction in France.  And Bloch would have been likely to spend a great deal of effort at discovering the legal, cultural, religious, and technical characteristics of the two regimes.)

Thursday, November 26, 2009

The German mandarins



Fritz Ringer's The Decline of the German Mandarins: The German Academic Community, 1890-1933 is a key source on the content and social location of German academic and intellectual culture in a crucial period of its development, 1870-1933. The book appeared in German in 1967, and it presents a detailed intellectual and institutional history of the issues and actors.  The concept of mandarin is Ringer's shorthand for "influential educated elite."  Humanistically educated in a system that emphasized literature, classical languages, and philosophy, the mandarins played the role of the educated and powerful elites of late nineteenth-century Germany, as officials, professors, and other highly educated professionals.  These were men of letters who played key roles in German social and political life.  Ringer concentrates on one important segment of this elite group: Germany's professors and university leaders, primarily in the humanities and social sciences.  And Ringer's central finding is that there was a highly distinctive mentality and set of social emotions that pervaded this group, and these ideas and emotions had dramatic consequences both for the nature of their theories and the direction of their political behavior as Germany's crisis deepened in the twentieth century. 

Ringer's approach differs from other more internalist conceptions of intellectual history in several important respects.  First, he gives a great deal of attention to the social and political context of German academic culture, essentially implying a significant degree of social causation of thought.  And second, he tries to understand much of the thinking and action of this group in terms of a set of shared emotions towards the present and towards German culture.  He identifies the rapid processes of economic change, industrialization, and political upheavals as being key sources of impetus for the sense of intellectual upheaval that pervaded the period.  And the most important current of social emotion that he highlights is a progression from enthusiasm for a Romantic conception of education, to a profound pessimism and malaise about the current and future prospects for German culture in the face of mass democratization of society.

One way of reading this approach is to say that Ringer is functioning as a sociologist rather than strictly as an historian in his analysis of this period of intellectual history.  What makes Ringer's analysis sociological is his effort to locate the social position of the mandarin intellectual within a theory of comparative social and political development of early modern societies. His way of approaching the task recalls that of Karl Mannheim or Max Weber himself: situating an intellectual tradition within a broad and pervasive set of social circumstances. This approach leads to an understanding of a particular social segment -- the mandarin -- that is highly sensitive to changing social conditions: "Thus all will go well for the mandarins until economic conditions around them change radically enough to introduce powerful new groups upon the social scene" (12).

Key to the development of academic culture is the educational system, and Ringer shows how different Germany's educational institutions were from other European nations.  He provides a detailed treatment of the evolution of German educational institutions during the nineteenth century, including especially the elite gymnasium and the university. His treatment demonstrates how elite academic culture and the associated institutions incorporated the romantic and idealist strains of philosophy and literature through the theory of Bildung, or personal intellectual development.  The cultivation of the individual is the central goal of education. (This assumption has some similarity to the theory of liberal learning mentioned in an earlier post; but current ideas about liberal learning do not insist on a sharp separation between intellectual and practical activities.)

Ringer also documents the very sharp forms of social stratification that these educational institutions created within German society, particularly towards the end of the nineteenth century. So the academic elites were separated from the rest of society by the exclusive institutions through which they were educated and by an academic philosophy that was contemptuous of practical or utilitarian skills. The mandarins were defensive of German high culture, and they were hostile to the social processes of industrialization and democratization that seemed to threaten that culture.

Another distinctive feature of Ringer's treatment is his interest in providing a psychological account of how Germany's circumstances shaped the values and goals of its intellectual class. Contrasting "logical", "traditional", and "ideological" explanations of beliefs, he argues that German intellectuals were shaped by their "emotional group preferences" (4).  Ringer attempts to explain quite a bit of the development of social theory during this period in terms of the fit between a given theoretical position and the emotional perspective of the mandarin on current history.

Ringer's interpretations of the thoughts and values of these German intellectuals display a fascinating combination of assumptions about sources of influence on the character of an intellectual's thought. First, there is the fact of situatedness and limited perspective.  Ringer often characterizes a thinker's choices of theories and topics in terms of the unquestioned background assumptions of this particular historically situated group. The person who grows up surrounded by the unlimited, flat horizons of Illinois will probably think differently from the one who experienced the mountain villages of the Alps since childhood -- and likewise with unquestioned social verities that differ from epoch to epoch.  Second, there is the factor of self-interest. The mandarins favored a particular theory of education because it supported their positions of distinction within the university. And finally, of course, there is logic and the rational development of a particular line of thought. Ringer's presentation of Weber's exploration of the concept of the Protestant ethic is a case in point.

The first kind of intellectual influence is unconscious and invisible. The second is closer to being conscious to the thinker. And the third is analytical and intentional on the part of the thinker. These frameworks bear some analogy to the three perspectives mentioned above --  "logical", "traditional", and "ideological" explanations. But the correspondence is not exact. We might say that the three perspectives correspond to the three different ideas about how thought corresponds to the world: that thought reflects social reality; thought advocates for social position; and thought interrogates social reality. Ringer echoes this in his coda on Weber by suggesting that Weber was able to transcend the limitations of perspective and interest to some degree, permitting him to exercise some independent critical intelligence:
Max Weber and a few other leading social scientists in the modernist camp hold a special place in the intellectual history of the mandarin community.  They apparently shared some of the emotions with which the majority of their colleagues viewed the social transformations of their time.  But their intellectual response to these changes far surpassed the orthodox norm in subtlety, critical control, and precision.  Though never without a certain pessimism, they put their ambivalence at the service of analysis.  They became at least partly conscious of their own situation. (180)
What is particularly tragic in Ringer's account is how poorly this mandarin culture prepared universities and academics for the onslaught of National Socialism and antisemitism in the 1930s.  The nostalgia and pessimism that were the dominant themes of the mandarin social psychology left intellectuals unequipped for the struggle against fascism within the university and within German society.  Their ideas and emotions left them ready for "conservative revolution" during the Weimar period, and provided no positive basis for mobilizing society against fascism when the time came.
These differences of tone and emphasis played a role in the political struggles of the early 1930's, in which the National Socialists triumphed over their rivals among the enemies of the Republic. ...  Most academics realized at last that this was not the spiritual revolution they had sought.  It was too violent and too vulgar.  It declared itself the master of geist, not its servant. ...  The wrote in defense of historical continuity and tradition, as if they sensed that the minimal restraints of civilization were under attack.  Their tone was one of helplessness and pessimism.  In 1931 Karl Jaspers warned of a coming abyss of individual nullity and unfreedom.  Typically enough, he regarded the mass and machine age as the ultimate source of the approaching disaster. (436-7)
As a bit of contrast it is worth reading Arthur Koestler's autobiography, The Invisible Writing, in which he describes his experience as a radical journalist in Berlin in the early 1930s.  Koestler describes his own experience and that of other politicized European intellectuals in the face of the rise of National Socialism.  These too were intellectuals; but they were intellectuals who clearly perceived the deadly threat presented by the Nazi rise to power, and they were willing to fight.
Throughout the long, stifling summer of 1932 we fought our ding-dong battles with the Nazis.  Hardly a day passed without one or two being killed in Berlin.  The main battlefields were the bierstuben, the smoky little taverns of the working-class districts....  Among the Communist intellectuals who were prominent in pre-Nazi Berlin, my favourite was Hans Eisler, the composer.  His family belonged to the high Comintern aristocracy and deserves a brief description.  (29, 48)
(See an earlier post on Koestler's recollections.)



Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Marc Bloch and the French social sciences



Marc Bloch was one of the twentieth century's most important and pathbreaking historians.  Several features of his work are particularly important: his attention to the specifics of medieval economic institutions, his interest in historically specific customs and practices, and his interest in uncovering the social and technical characteristics of medieval agriculture.  He helped to define contemporary social history and economic history.  (See an earlier post on Bloch's historical writings.)  Somehow Bloch developed a way of thinking about the history of France that deeply incorporated some of the mental frameworks of the emerging social sciences -- geography and sociology, for example -- at a time when mainstream French history was still very much driven by the chronicling of events and personages. As a discipline, history in France was very specifically defined in terms of its definition of subject matter and historical method, and Bloch's historiography challenged some very important pillars of this framework.  Along with Lucien Febvre he created the intellectual impetus that led to several generations of deeply innovative historical research within the Annales school.  So it is an interesting question for the sociology of knowledge to trace out some of the influences that were present in the 1890s and 1900s in French intellectual life that propelled Bloch's development.  (The topic has some parallels to an earlier posting on "The history of sociology as sociology.")

Susan Friedman's Marc Bloch, Sociology and Geography: Encountering Changing Disciplines provides an excellent and detailed study of the intellectual and academic context in which Bloch's development occurred. (The book is also available in a much more affordable Kindle edition, and here is a link to the Google Books version.)  Friedman documents a major methodological debate, extended over roughly the decade surrounding 1903, concerning the relevance of geography and sociology to academic history.  The debate was in part intellectual -- how should the new ideas emerging from these social-science disciplines be incorporated into history?  But it was also institutional: how should the new disciplines of geography and sociology be represented within the university and the qualification system?  The École Normale Supérieure (ENS), the Collège de France, and the Sorbonne and their students and faculty played crucial roles throughout the debates.  The key figures in these debates were Durkheim and his followers, including especially François Simiand; Vidal and the young scholars who wanted to extend Vidal's ideas of human geography; and the defenders of traditional French historiography, centered around Charles Seignobos.  (Interestingly enough, Marc Bloch's father, Gustave Bloch, was an important voice on the side of history in this debate.)

Friedman sets up the institutional context of the French university (and the process of reform that was underway) at roughly the turn of the twentieth century, and she skillfully and knowledgeably traces through the intellectual debates and networks that provided the context to Bloch's development.  The book is of great value for any reader wanting to come to a better knowledge of the intellectual and institutional currents that shaped French intellectual life in the early twentieth century -- and particularly valuable if we are interested in learning more about the micro-development of Durkheimian sociology.  The book offers a detailed account of the development of the Durkheimian school of sociology and the approach to "human geography" championed by Paul Vidal de la Blache, and the controversies that arose between both schools and mainstream history.  (Here is a summary description of Vidal's theories of human geography and parallel thinking by Friedrich Ratzel.)

The central divides in these debates have a strikingly contemporary sound to them.  Main themes included:
  • Can history be a "scientific" discipline?  What does this require?
  • Is sociology subsumed under history or is history subsumed under sociology?
  • Can social facts be explained by anything other than social facts (Durkheim)?  (This cuts against both the historians, who want to explain social outcomes in terms of individual motives; and the geographers, who want to explain social outcomes in terms of physiographic features such as mountains, soil fertility, or river systems.)
  • Should history study "events" or "processes, customs, and institutions"?
  • What is a social or historical cause?  Is there a distinction between causes and conditions?
  • Should history focus its attention on the particulars of a given historical event or period; or should it use methods of comparison to arrive at generalizations and laws?
In reading Friedman's account of these debates, it is tempting to consider which positions were the most productive in the long term.  The Durkheimians' insistence on the autonomy of social facts, their inflexible holism, and their insistence on discovering general social laws all seem like mis-steps from the contemporary point of view.  They leave little room for social contingency and variation across social circumstances; and they leave no room whatsoever for an "agent-centered" approach to social and historical explanation.  Given these shortcomings, it is perhaps a good thing that the Durkheimians never fully dominated the history profession.  The Vidalians -- the human geographers -- seem like an improvement in each of these respects.  Their approach emphasizes regional variation; they are eclectic in their openness to a variety of types of historical causes; and they emphasize the crucial importance of paying attention in detail to the particulars of a case.  Their weakness, however, is a relative lack of attention to the specifics of social institutions.  But best of all is the historian who learns something from each perspective but then constructs his own intellectual framework for the historical setting of interest to him.

And in fact, this latter position seems to be the one that Bloch took.  Friedman argues that Bloch's historical sensibilities and methods were deeply influenced by these debates among the historians, sociologists, and geographers; but that ultimately his thinking remains "historical."
Even in his later years when he came closest to Durkheimian sociology, Marc Bloch remained essentially an historian.  He was an historian in the sense that his primary interests lay in change and differences rather than laws and theory and that the problems which he chose to address were human ones rather than those of the physical environment. (chapter 10)
It is interesting to observe that the writings of Marx and the ideas of historical materialism do not come into this story at any point.  These currents do not appear to have played a significant role in the academic debates over the future of French history in 1900.  Friedman observes that Bloch was impressed by Marx.  She notes that he wrote to Febvre "that he was considering using Marx to bring some 'fresh air into the Sorbonne' and that though he suspected that Marx was a 'poor philosopher' and probably also an 'unbearable man,' Marx was without a doubt a great historian" (Kindle loc 223-35).  But there is no indication in this book about what role Marx's writings played in his development. And even the statement about being a "great historian" is somewhat mysterious, since the bulk of Marx's work was plainly theoretical and immersed in political economy rather than historical research and narrative.  (See an earlier posting on primitive accumulation and a posting on Marx's strengths and weaknesses as an historian.)

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Defining the university curriculum



What is the purpose of a university education? And who ought to answer this question when it comes to the practical business of maintaining and reforming a university curriculum?

The second question is the easier of the two. In the United States university, the faculty generally have the responsibility and authority to make decisions about the curriculum -- from the content of a particular course to the requirements of a disciplinary major, to the nature of the general education requirements to the university's graduation requirements. To be sure, there are other significant sources of influence and constraint on this faculty-centered process. Accreditation agencies like the HLC (Higher Learning Commission), ACS (chemistry),  AACSB (business), and ABET (engineering) constrain various levels of curricular design at the university level and the professional or disciplinary levels. Schools of business, colleges of engineering, and chemistry departments are constrained and guided by the agencies that control their accreditation. But it is the faculty of a particular university, school, or department that fundamentally drive the process of curriculum design and maintenance.

It could have been otherwise, of course. Other nations have implemented more centralized processes where ministries of education determine the structure and content of a university program of study. And we could imagine vesting this authority in the hands of local academic administrators -- deans and provosts. But in the United States the role of the academic administrator is largely one of persuasive collaborator rather than authoritative decision-maker when it comes to the curriculum. And the reason for this is pretty compelling: faculty are experts on the content and structure of knowledge and it makes sense to entrust them with the responsibility of organizing the educational experience.

But let's go back to the harder question: what is our society trying to accomplish through a university education? Why is this a worthwhile goal? And how can we best accomplish the goal?

Most fundamentally universities exist to continue the intellectual and personal development of young people; to help them gain the skills and knowledge they will need to carry out their plans of life; and to help them fulfill their capacities as citizens, creators, and leaders. A university education ought to be an environment in which the young person is challenged and assisted in the process of expanding and deepening his or her intellectual capabilities.

We might put these ideas in more practical terms by saying that a university education should allow the student to develop the capabilities he or she will need to succeed in a career and to make productive contributions to the society of the future.

And what do these goals require in terms of a curriculum? What are those skills, capabilities, and bodies of knowledge that young people need to cultivate in order to achieve the kinds of success mentioned here?

This is the point at which there is often disagreement among various academic voices and non-academic stakeholders. There is a very career-oriented perspective that holds that there are specific professional skills that should be the primary content of a university education. On this approach, the specialized major needs to be the focus of the undergraduate's work, and the bulk of the student's effort should be directed towards acquiring these specific skills.

But there is also an approach that emphasizes the importance of breadth and pluralism within the university curriculum. On this "liberal learning" philosophy, the university student needs to be broadly exposed to the arts, humanities, mathematics, and the social and natural sciences.  Here the emphasis is on helping the student acquire a broad set of intellectual capacities, not tied to a particular professional body of knowledge.

The reasons offered for this answer to the question are pragmatic ones. A leader or creator -- in whatever career -- needs to have an understanding of the social and historical context of the problems he or she confronts. He/she needs to have a rich imagination as he confronts unprecedented challenges -- within a startup company, a non-profit organization, or a state legislature. He/she needs to have the ability and confidence needed to arrive at original approaches to a problem. And he/she needs a broad set of skills of analysis, reasoning, and communication, as he works with others to discover and implement new solutions. So a liberal education is a superb foundation for almost any career -- engineer, accountant, doctor, community activist, or president.

This picture argues for breadth in the undergraduate experience. It also argues for two other curricular values: interdisciplinarity and multicultural breadth. It is evident that the difficult problems our civilization faces do not fit neatly into specific academic disciplines. Climate change, mortgage crises, and the legacy of racism all pose dense, "wicked" problems that demand cross-discipline collaboration. And likewise, the advantages created for US society by the racial and ethnic diversity of our population will be wasted if our young adults don't learn how to see the world through multiple perspectives of different human circumstances. A university isn't the only place where multicultural learning takes place, but it is one very important place. And to date universities have only scratched the surface in creating a genuinely multicultural learning environment.

So these are a few leading values that can serve to guide decisions about what an effective university education for the twenty-first century ought to include: breadth, imagination, historical and social context, rigorous reasoning, and a genuine ability to live and work in a multicultural world.  And most great universities in the United States have placed their bets on some version of this philosophy of liberal learning.  This bundle of features should lead to flexibility of mind, readiness for innovation, preparation for working collaboratively, and a set of intellectual skills that support effective problem solving.  (Martha Nussbaum's Cultivating Humanity: A Classical Defense of Reform in Liberal Education lays out a very similar educational philosophy; her book is worth reading by everyone with an interest in university curriculum reform.)

Monday, November 16, 2009

Was Durkheim a professional sociologist?




At some point in the history of sociology there was a transition from the founding non-professional genius to the professional disciplinary researcher. Marx and Tocqueville certainly fall in the former category; Robert Merton, Mayer Zald, and Neil Smelser fall clearly in the latter. By some time in the mid-twentieth century sociology had become "professionalized." What is the situation of the "professional" sociologist? To what extent and why is this an improvement? And where do Durkheim and Weber fall in this transition?

We might characterize a discipline as --
a complex set of social institutions that organize, validate, and evaluate the work products of knowledge seekers. 
This means several things: organized processes for identifying and ranking important research problems; institutions for selecting and training young scientists; formal processes for evaluating scientific work; institutions for valorizing and disseminating scientific results; and ways of prioritizing certain methods of knowledge formation and discouraging others. As Andrew Abbott shows in Department and Discipline: Chicago Sociology at One Hundred, the discipline of sociology is an amalgam of journals and editorial boards, annual conferences, associations, research universities, departments of sociology, tenure processes and standards, and funding mechanisms. And the discipline succeeds to a substantial degree in fostering certain forms of scientific behavior among young sociologists while discouraging other forms. Heterodox researchers and innovators -- counter-disciplinary thinkers -- have a harder time in building a career in the discipline at every stage: dissertation, job seeking, promotion and tenure, and publication in high-value journals. So we might say that an academic field has become professionalized when it has created the institutions and norms that serve to guide, constrain, and regulate the scientific activities of its practitioners. (Abbott offers an extensive sociology of the professions in The System of Professions: An Essay on the Division of Expert Labor. And he analyzes academic disciplines in Chaos of Disciplines. Here is an earlier post on the sociology of the professions.)

We should begin by asking this basic question: why might professionalization of sociology be thought to be a good thing? Why is the formalization of a scientific or academic discipline a good step forward? The answers, if there are any, ought to be epistemic. We'd like to think that the professionalization of science leads to an improvement in the quality of the product -- the veridicality, scope, depth, and practical value of the products of the social activity of science. And disciplines might do this in at least two ways.

First, they might serve to embody and enforce standards of scientific rigor; they might give institutional expression to valid methods of scientific research and inference. And on the people side, they might create mechanisms of evaluation of researchers and their products that consistently identify talent and sort out high quality researchers. This promotes the high achievers, motivates everyone, and winnows out the unproductive.

And second, the institutions of a discipline might serve to enhance the collective effectiveness of the research community by establishing and organizing a scientific division of labor; they might serve to focus collective attention on a limited set of problems selected to be important -- cognitively or practically. In other words, the rules and norms of the discipline might be epistemically virtuous: they might serve to ratchet up the veridicality and scope of science as a social activity.

But do the norms and institutions of the social science disciplines actually achieve these good results? Not always. In fact, we can identify directly dysfunctional features of the disciplines: a dogmatic insistence on some methods over others, a myopic focus on research problems that are ideologically selected; a tendency to discourage innovators. (See several earlier posts on the negative potential of disciplines in the social and human sciences; sociology, political science.)

So now let's return to the cases of Tocqueville and Durkheim. How do these beacons of French sociology fare on the spectrum of the academic professions? Tocqueville is the easier case. He was an innovative and rigorous thinker when it came to understanding the social world around him. But he was clearly not a "professional," for several reasons. He was not immersed in an evaluative framework in the context of which his scientific work was to be judged. His research questions were of his own design, not part of an active community of sociologists with considered judgments about what topics were important. His reasoning about society and history followed his own intuitions about inference and explanation, not a community-based set of norms dictating answers to these questions. There was no professional discipline of sociology in 1835, and Tocqueville was not a professional.

The case of Durkheim is a bit more difficult.  (Steven Lukes's Emile Durkheim: His Life and Work: A Historical and Critical Study is a superb critical discussion of Durkheim's intellectual development (google books).  Robert Nisbet's The Sociology of Emile Durkheim is also valuable.)  Durkheim was highly credentialed, with degrees from the École Normale Supérieure -- and of course credentialing is a crucial component of professionalization. At the same time he was a founder; he was a highly original thinker with his own intuitions about what society consists of and how to research it. This implies that he was a "genius founder" or a sui generis amateur. But he was also embedded within a tradition of thought that was beginning to look more like an emerging discipline of sociology. His thought fit logically and clearly -- albeit with originality -- into a tradition of teachers and writers like Fustel de Coulanges and Hyppolite Taine -- another mark of being part of a discipline or research tradition.  And he distinguished himself from Comte and Spencer by committing himself to specialized studies of particular social phenomena -- yet another sign of professionalism (Lukes, 137-38; 289).

And what about publications and external standards of quality assessment? Here again, Durkheim was on the cusp of a transition. He himself was the creator and long-time editor of one of the first sociological journals in 1896, L'Année Sociologique.  His goal was to establish a working collaboration of young sociologists to contribute to the progress and specialization of the new science of sociology.  Other young sociologists associated with the journal included Célestin Bouglé, Marcel Mauss, Henri Hubert, Robert Hertz, Maurice Halbwachs, and François Simiand.  Durkheim was a prolific reviewer of other people's academic work in the journal (a discipline-like activity), and he did so on the basis of standards that were clearly sociological.  And of course he published numerous important and influential books on different aspects of social order, and these books helped to set the research agenda for French sociology for the next generation -- yet another disciplinary activity.

So perhaps we can say that Durkheim played a dual role with respect to sociology as a professional social science. He both contributed to the definition and articulation of a discipline of sociology, and he also fell within that discipline. He was a professional sociologist in the somewhat unusual sense that Bob "Barky" Barkhimer was a professional NASCAR driver: he helped to create the very institutional processes and institutions that would eventually validate his work.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Variation as a social fundamental



Over 700 historians, sociologists, demographers, and political scientists enjoyed a splendid program of panels at the Social Science History Association in Long Beach this week (link). There were panels on recent historical demography, comparative historical analysis, and social mobilization research, as well as a pair of great panels on the work of Charles Tilly. There was even a smattering of papers suggesting possible opportunities for innovation in theory and research methods in historical sociology.  (A book panel on Neil Smelser's recent The Odyssey Experience: Physical, Social, Psychological, and Spiritual Journeys illustrates this point: the book is highly original and demonstrates the value of seeking out new perspectives and angles of view on social behavior and social change.)

Here is one strong impression that emerges from the program.  Variation within a social or historical phenomenon seems to be all but ubiquitous. Think of the Cultural Revolution in China, demographic transition in early modern Europe, the ideology of a market society, or the experience of being black in America. We have the noun -- "Cultural Revolution" -- which can be explained or defined in a sentence or two as an extended social phenomenon of mobilization and conflict that took place in China from 1966-76; and we have the complex underlying social realities to which it refers, spread out over many cities, villages, and communes across China (The Chinese Cultural Revolution as History).  Or consider another general noun, "demographic transition," defined as a period in which a population experiences abrupt decline in mortality, followed by a decline in fertility.  Using a variety of statistical methods, historical demographers can document the occurrence of a demographic transition in different periods in Sweden, Italy, Britain, and China.  And it turns out that there are both common features and distinguishing characteristics that emerge from detailed study -- differences in timing, differences in social composition, differences in the mechanisms bringing these changes about.

In each case there is a very concrete and visible degree of variation in the factor over time and place. Historical and social research in a wide variety of fields confirms the non-homogeneity of social phenomena and the profound location-specific variations that occur in the characteristics of virtually all large social phenomena. Social nouns do not generally designate uniform social realities (post).  These facts of local and regional variation provide an immediate rationale for case studies and comparative research, selecting different venues of the phenomenon and identifying specific features of the phenomenon in this location. Through a range of case studies it is possible for the research community to map out both common features and distinguishing features of a given social process.

This description focuses on locational variation in processes -- village to village, country to country. But social scientists often also highlight variations across social segments within a given location: class, race, gender, religion, occupation.  Do sharecroppers have a different fertility profile over time than the wealthy in a particular region at a particular time?  Are there significant differences in survival strategies for distinct groups defined by race or ethnicity in a city or a group of cities?

This situation of variation and case-specific research raises a number of challenging questions. One is the question of whether the phenomenon designated by the noun is one integrated social reality, with varied expressions across locations, or whether instead the different locations are simply loosely similar but independent occurrences. Simon Schama's radical question -- was there a French Revolution, or were there simply a congeries of periods and locations of disturbance? -- illustrates this question (post), as does a previous discussion of the revolutions of 1848 (post).

A second major question is the challenge of discovering causal and social mechanisms connecting the various social locations encompassed by the phenomenon. How did the activism and ideology of Cultural Revolution spread from Beijing to Nanjing and other locations? How did activism spread from city to rural locations? How did local circumstances cause changes and variations in the political movement? How much path dependency existed in the spread of revolutionary ideas and strategies?

There is a more epistemic set of questions as well, concerning generalizability. Fundamentally, if there is substantial variation across locations and instances of a given phenomenon, then to what degree can we say anything about the phenomenon as a whole? And what does the study of one location allow us to say about the larger processes? Does study of the Tsinghua student Red Guard movement tell us anything about Red Guard mobilization in other places? Or is it simply one of many different and contingent develoments of contentious politics during the period?  Can we generalize from case studies and comparative research?

We can also look at the problem from the other end of the telescope: are there any social phenomena that occur fairly homogeneously across all places where this phenomenon occurs?  Candidates might include:
  • Anti-Semitic violence across 19th-century Ukraine villages
  • Marriage / fertility practices across rural Sweden 1700-1800
  • Peasant revolts in medieval Germany
  • Process of protoindustrialization in villages and towns in Low Countries 1300-1600 (Industrialization Before Industrialization)
For examples like these we can ask a symmetrical set of questions to those posed above. What factors explain the uniformity of results for these processes across separate locations? Various explanations are possible:
  • There is a common set of conditions across the regions (e.g. famine or drought)
  • There are common causes that mobilize people in many separate places (tax protests, land confiscations)
  • There are common political traditions
  • There is substantial inter-location communication and influence
  • There are no large institutional or circumstantial variations that would drive significant variations in outcomes across locations
This is where the appeal to social mechanisms seems once more to be highly relevant and helpful.  If we work on the assumption that any large social process -- the dispersed locations of contention associated with the French Revolution, say -- is the compound result of a set of underlying causal social mechanisms, and if we hypothesize that many of these mechanisms are in play in some places but not in others; then we can explain both similarity and difference in the occurrence of the phenomenon across time and place.  Now the work of historical investigation can be put in these terms: identify some of the social mechanisms that evidently recur in various locations; identify some of the mechanisms that lead to significantly different results in some places; and identify some of the cross-location mechanisms that are at work to secure a degree of synchrony and parallel in the developments observed in different locations (communication systems, networks of leaders, dissemination of activists).  Case studies and comparative research permit both a degree of generalization and an explanation of variation.

In other words, the intellectual strategy here is to disaggregate the large social factor into the results of a larger number of underlying mechanisms; and then to attempt to discover how these mechanisms played out differently in different settings throughout the range of the French Revolution, protoindustrialization, or ethnic conflict in South Asia.  Significantly, this is exactly the strategy of research and explanation that Charles Tilly was led to in his emphasis on discovering the component social mechanisms that underlie social contention (McAdam, Tarrow, Tilly, Dynamics of Contention).

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Localism and assemblage theory



Several earlier posts have described the idea of "methodological localism" (post).  This is part of an argument I want to defend in support of the idea that we need new and better ways of thinking about the "stuff" of society. We need to thoroughly question and rethink the assumptions we make about social objects -- groups, mentalities, structures, forces, power, states, and organizations. In short, we need a better social ontology -- one that is free from the patterns of thinking we have inherited from positivism and the natural sciences (post).

Here is the thrust of methodological localism. The only ontologically stable stuff that exists in the social world is the socially constructed and socially situated individual actor, embedded within a set of relationships with other concrete social actors. There are higher-level social frameworks -- police departments, professional soccer leagues, and civil wars. But these higher-level structures and events derive all their properties and powers from the extended systems of local activity that they encompass. And they are plastic and deformable in their properties over time (post, post).

One way to put this point is to say that higher-level social structures and entities are only composites or assemblages of lower-level structures, all tracing back ultimately to an extended set of local contexts of activity (post).

And this paraphrase brings the view into some kind of relationship with the theory of "assemblage" that has emerged from several strands of continental thought, including especially some writings of Gilles Deleuze. Manuel DeLanda's book A New Philosophy of Society: Assemblage Theory And Social Complexity presents an appealing and accessible version of the perspective. Nick Srnicek's master's thesis "Assemblage Theory, Complexity and Contentious Politics" is a good exposition and critical discussion of the theory.  And Bruno Latour's book Reassembling the Social: An Introduction to Actor-Network-Theory provides a coherent and useful reconstruction of "actor-network theory" (ANT) within the general framework of assemblage theory.

Latour's theory stems significantly from the tradition of "social construction of technology" and recent sociology and history of science and technology. Reassembling the Social is a radical call to action in the social sciences. Latour wants us to dispense entirely with traditional sociological concepts when they purport to refer to fixed, stable social things.  And he wants a new conceptual scheme that puts the emphasis on relationships and associations, on dynamic patterns of action and coordination, rather than on structures and institutions.
The argument of this book can be stated very simply: when social scientists add the adjective ‘social’ to some phenomenon, they designate a stabilized state of affairs, a bundle of ties that, later, may be mobilized to account for some other phenomenon. There is nothing wrong with this use of the word as long as it designates what is already assembled together, without making any superfluous assumption about the nature of what is assembled. Problems arise, however, when ‘social’ begins to mean a type of material, as if the adjective was roughly comparable to other terms like ‘wooden’, ‘steely’, ‘biological’, ‘economical’, ‘mental’, ‘organizational’, or ‘linguistic’. At that point, the meaning of the word breaks down since it now designates two entirely different things: first, a movement during a process of assembling; and second, a specific type of ingredient that is supposed to differ from other materials.(1)
The key task for social science research, according to Latour, is systematic tracing of compound associations among diverse elements.  Here is a description of what this might mean:
In such a view, law, for instance, should not be seen as what should be explained by ‘social structure’ in addition to its inner logic; on the contrary, its inner logic may explain some features of what makes an association last longer and extend wider. Without the ability of legal precedents to draw connections between a case and a general rule, what would we know about putting some matter ‘into a larger context’?  Science does not have to be replaced by its ‘social framework’, which is ‘shaped by social forces’ as well as its own objectivity, because its objects are themselves dislocating any given context through the foreign elements research laboratories are associating together in unpredictable ways.
...
And the same is true for all other domains. Whereas, in the first approach, every activity—law, science, technology, religion, organization, politics, management, etc.—could be related to and explained by the same social aggregates behind all of them, in the second version of sociology there exists nothing behind those activities even though they might be linked in a way that does produce a society—or doesn’t produce one. Such is the crucial point of departure between the two versions. To be social is no longer a safe and unproblematic property, it is a movement that may fail to trace any new connection and may fail to redesign any well-formed assemblage.  (7,8)
The social realities of "law", "science", or "technology", then, are to be understood in terms of the network of associations that they encompass among actors and other elements.  These social "things" are not static realities, but rather assemblages of dynamic actor relationships or "associations".

John Law provides a similar statement of some of the fundamental starting points of ANT in "Notes on the Theory of the Actor Network" (link), emphasizing the same skepticism about existing assumptions of social ontology:
Here is the argument. If we want to understand the mechanics of power and organisation it is important not to start out assuming whatever we wish to explain. For instance, it is a good idea not to take it for granted that there is a macrosocial system on the one hand, and bits and pieces of derivative microsocial detail on the other. If we do this we close off most of the interesting questions about the origins of power and organisation. Instead we should start with a clean slate. For instance, we might start with interaction and assume that interaction is all that there is. Then we might ask how some kinds of interactions more or less succeed in stabilising and reproducing themselves: how it is that they overcome resistance and seem to become "macrosocial"; how it is that they seem to generate the effects such power, fame, size, scope or organisation with which we are all familiar. This, then, is the one of the core assumptions of actor-network theory: that Napoleons are no different in kind to small-time hustlers, and IBMs to whelk-stalls. And if they are larger, then we should be studying how this comes about -- how, in other words, size, power or organisation are generated.
I said above that there is a convergence between methodological localism and assemblage theory. But it is an uneasy convergence, on both sides. What the two perspectives have in common is easiest to identify. Each calls for a radical rethinking of social ontology. Each emphasizes plasticity, heterogeneity, and contingency in social life and structure. And each works with a metaphor of construction or composition as a way of understanding complex social stuff -- cities, for example (post).  So far, so good.

But I have a suspicion that Latour would have more to criticize than to applaud in my approach. For one thing, it may appear to be reductionist: it attempts to ground social statements and theories in facts about the local circumstances of action. And it is unsympathetic to the idea of "emergent" social properties -- properties of the social whole that do not derive from the properties of the underlying social actors and their behavior. (Though see this post for a qualified defense of holism.) Further, contrary to Latour, my perspective asserts that there is a distinctive domain of social stuff; it is the domain of purposive actors in interaction, cooperation, and competition with each other. Third, the ML approach provides a basis for attributing relatively stable causal powers to higher-level social structures -- provided we can offer appropriate microfoundations for these powers (post). Finally, in spite of my insistence on not reifying higher-level structures, Latour would probably still feel that I'm giving a degree of "thing"-ness to states and organizations that is inconsistent with his view of sociology as a study of associations among actors rather than a study of social entities and forces.

These considerations suggest there are important disagreements between the views. However, it still seems to me that there are important areas of convergence between the two bodies of thought as well: the need for a new social ontology, emphasis on the composition of the social, and an insistence on the fluidity of social life.

What seems particularly worthwhile is to probe in detail how either perspective may turn out to have real utility when it comes to framing an empirical research programme in sociology. How does either perspective help to contribute to a more successful empirical study of society?  If it is just philosophical theory with no implications for doing better science, then neither framework should be taken seriously by working social researchers. But I think there is concrete practical value in these ideas; most fundamentally, if we misconceptualize a domain of inquiry, we are not likely to succeed in understanding it.  Delanda, Latour, and other theorists of assemblage are worth reading carefully.

Methodological localism



I offer a social ontology that I refer to as methodological localism (ML).  This theory of social entities affirms that there are large social structures and facts that influence social outcomes.  But it insists that these structures are only possible insofar as they are embodied in the actions and states of socially constructed individuals.  The “molecule” of all social life is the socially constructed and socially situated individual, who lives, acts, and develops within a set of local social relationships, institutions, norms, and rules.

This account begins with the socially constituted person. Human beings are subjective, purposive, and relational agents. They interact with other persons in ways that involve competition and cooperation. They form relationships, enmities, alliances, and networks; they compose institutions and organizations. They create material embodiments that reflect and affect human intentionality. They acquire beliefs, norms, practices, and worldviews, and they socialize their children, their friends, and others with whom they interact. Some of the products of human social interaction are short-lived and local (indigenous fishing practices); others are long-duration but local (oral traditions, stories, and jokes); and yet others are built up into social organizations of great geographical scope and extended duration (states, trade routes, knowledge systems). But always we have individual agents interacting with other agents, making use of resources (material and social), and pursuing their goals, desires, and impulses.

At the level of the socially constituted individual we need to ask two sorts of questions: First, what makes individual agents behave as they do? Here we need accounts of the mechanisms of deliberation and action at the level of the individual. What are the main features of individual choice, motivation, reasoning, and preference? How do these differ across social groups? How do emotions, rational deliberation, practical commitments, and other forms of agency influence the individual’s deliberations and actions?  This area of research is purposively eclectic, including performative action, rational action, impulse, theories of the emotions, theories of the self, or theories of identity.

Second, how are individuals formed and constituted? Methodological localism gives great importance to learning more about how individuals are formed and constituted—the concrete study of the social process of the development of the self. Here we need better accounts of social development, the acquisition of worldview, preferences, and moral frameworks, among the many other determinants of individual agency and action. What are the social institutions and influences through which individuals acquire norms, preferences, and ways of thinking? How do individuals develop cognitively, affectively, and socially? So methodological localism points up the importance of discovering the microfoundations and local variations of identity formation and the construction of the historically situated self.

So far we have emphasized the socially situated individual. But social action takes place within spaces that are themselves socially structured by the actions and purposes of others—by property, by prejudice, by law and custom, and by systems of knowledge. So our account needs to identify the local social environments through which action is structured and projected: the inter-personal networks, the systems of rules, the social institutions. The social thus has to do with the behaviorally, cognitively, and materially embodied reality of social institutions.  An institution is a complex of socially embodied powers, limitations, and opportunities within which individuals pursue their lives and goals. A property system, a legal system, and a professional baseball league all represent examples of institutions. Institutions have effects that are in varying degrees independent from the individual or “larger” than the individual. Each of these social entities is embodied in the social states of a number of actors—their beliefs, intentions, reasoning, dispositions, and histories. Actors perform their actions within the context of social frameworks represented as rules, institutions, and organizations, and their actions and dispositions embody the causal effectiveness of those frameworks. And institutions influence individuals by offering incentives and constraints on their actions, by framing the knowledge and information on the basis of which they choose, and by conveying sets of normative commitments (ethical, religious, interpersonal) that influence individual action.

It is important to emphasize that ML affirms the existence of social constructs beyond the purview of the individual actor or group.  Political institutions exist—and they are embodied in the actions and states of officials, citizens, criminals, and opportunistic others.  These institutions have real effects on individual behavior and on social processes and outcomes—but always mediated through the structured circumstances of agency of the myriad participants in these institutions and the affected society.  This perspective emphasizes the contingency of social processes, the mutability of social structures over space and time, and the variability of human social systems (norms, urban arrangements, social practices, and so on).

This approach highlights the important point that all social facts, social structures, and social causal properties depend ultimately on facts about individuals within socially defined circumstances.  Social ascriptions require microfoundations at the level of individuals in concrete social relationships.  According to this way of understanding the nature of social ontology, an assertion of a structure or process at the macro-social level (causal, functional, structural) must be supplemented by two things: knowledge about what it is about the local circumstances of the typical individual that leads him or her to act in such a way as to bring about this relationship; and knowledge of the aggregative processes that lead from individual actions of that sort to an explanatory social relationship of this sort. So if we are interested in analysis of the causal properties of states and governments, we need to arrive at an analysis of the institutions and constrained patterns of individual behavior through which the state’s characteristics are effected.  We need to raise questions such as these: How do states exercise influence throughout society?  What are the institutional embodiments at lower levels that secure the impact of law, taxation, conscription, contract enforcement, and other central elements of state behavior? If we are concerned about the workings of social identities, then we need to inquire into the concrete social mechanisms through which social identities are reproduced within a local population—and the ways in which these mechanisms and identities may vary over time and place.  And if we are interested in analyzing the causal role that systems of norms play in social behavior, we need to discover some of the specific institutional practices through which individuals come to embrace a given set of norms.

The microfoundations perspective requires that we attempt to discover the pathways by which socially constituted individuals are influenced by distant social circumstances, and how their actions in turn affect distant social outcomes.  There is no action at a distance in social life; instead, individuals have the values that they have, the styles of reasoning, the funds of factual and causal beliefs, etc., as a result of the structured experiences of development that they have undergone as children and adults.  On this perspective, large social facts and structures do indeed exist; but their causal properties are entirely defined by the current states of psychology, norm, and action of the individuals who currently exist.  Systems of norms and bodies of knowledge exist—but only insofar as individuals (and material traces) embody and transmit them.  So when we assert that a given social structure causes a given outcome, we need to be able to specify the local pathways through which individual actors embody this causal process.  That is, we need to be able to provide an account of the causal mechanisms that convey social effects.

It is evident that methodological localism implies a fairly limited social ontology.  What exists is the socially constructed individual, within a congeries of concrete social relations and institutions.  The socially constructed individual possesses beliefs, norms, opportunities, powers, and capacities.  These features are socially constructed in a perfectly ordinary sense: the individual has acquired his or her beliefs, norms, powers, and desires through social contact with other individuals and institutions, and the powers and constraints that define the domain of choice for the individual are largely constituted by social institutions (property systems, legal systems, educational systems, organizations, and the like). Inevitably, social organizations at any level are constituted by the individuals who participate in them and whose behavior and ideas are influenced by them; sub-systems and organizations through which the actions of the organization are implemented; and the material traces through which the policies, memories, and acts of decision are imposed on the environment: buildings, archives, roads, etc.  All features of the organization are embodied in the actors and institutional arrangements that carry the organization at a given time.  At each point we are invited to ask the question: what are the social mechanisms through which this institution or organization exerts influence on other organizations and on agents’ behavior? 

Monday, November 9, 2009

Are social networks fundamental?



There are several natural starting points when we begin thinking seriously about the social world and how it works. For example, we can begin with individual agents and try to understand social patterns as the expression of common features of reasoning and motivation by stylized agents. This is roughly the strategy underway in rational choice theory, neoclassical economics, game theory, and methodological individualism. Or we might begin with an account of group attributes -- race, class, gender, ethnicity, religion. This is roughly the way in which Durkheim, Giddens, and Du Bois begin -- with a kind of macro-social set of categories in terms of which we attempt to understand social structure and behavior.

The concept of a social network doesn't fit neatly into either category. It is larger than a collection of individuals, in that we have to specify a set of relationships among individuals in order to define a social network. But it is much more concrete and agent-based than the super-categories of race, class, or gender turn out to be. So my question here is a fundamental one: Is the concept of a social network one of a very small number of concepts that must be invoked in virtually every kind of social explanation? As such, is the concept of a social network, and the associated concepts of concrete social relationships it brings with it, a fundamental component of any satisfactory social ontology?  And does the concept of a social network define a crucial space between the micro and the macro?  (A good recent effort to link social networks theory to an important area of social science research is Mario Diani and Doug McAdam, Social Movements and Networks: Relational Approaches to Collective Action.)

A couple of points are pretty obvious. One is that social networks do in fact constitute a key causal mechanism underlying many social processes. We can explain important features of social and political life by identifying the concrete social networks that exist within the population: the transmission of ideas, knowledge, and styles through a population; the selection of important leaders in government and industry; the effective reach of the state; the course of mobilization within a community around an important issue; and the effectiveness of a terrorist group, to name a few examples. A second point is that networks have specific features of topology and functioning that have causal consequences that are largely independent from the personal characteristics of the people who constitute it. For example, information may travel more quickly through a network of people containing many midsized nodes than one containing just a few mega-hubs. And this structural fact may suffice to explain some social outcomes: for example, this rebellion succeeded (because of rapid transmission of information) whereas that one petered out (because of ineffective communications).

Consider two very different examples of group behavior: synchronized cheering in a stadium and the spread of boycotts in Alabama in the early 1960s. The first case involves no social network at all. Cheerleaders stationed around the field initiate the chant as the noise moves to their part of the stadium, and many fans respond when called. Fan behavior is explained by the fan's observation of the behavior of other fans and the motions of the cheerleader. The boycotts had a different dynamic. Organizations emerged which set about to mobilize support for the strategy of boycott. Some of this effort took the form of public calls to action. But a larger part of the mobilization occurred through the workings of extended networks of engaged people -- ministers, union activists, student organizations, and civil rights groups. And the effectiveness and pattern of dissemination of the call to action depended critically on the scope and structure of each of these networks of networks -- networks among leaders of diverse organizations and subordinate networks clustered around each leader. (Doug McAdam describes these processes in detail in Political Process and the Development of Black Insurgency, 1930-1970.)

These examples seem to lead to a couple of observations. One is that social networks are not critical for every form of social action. But the exceptions are pretty simple cases of spontaneous coordination. And second, the example of civil rights mobilization illustrates very clearly why we should expect that social networks are usually crucial. The reason is straightforward: almost all social outcomes require a degree of coordination, communication, and mobilization. A social network is not the only way of bringing these factors about -- cheerleaders and television stations can do it too. But the causal importance of social networks is likely to be great in many cases. And for this reason it seems justified to conclude that social networks are in fact fundamental to social explanation.  Likewise, it appears correct to say that they function as bridging mechanisms from micro to macro, in that they help to convey the actions of local agents onto larger social outcomes (and back!).

(Several earlier posts are relevant to this topic: agent-based modeling, transnational protest, ethnic strife.)

Friday, November 6, 2009

Singular and generic causal assertions



It is worthwhile to notice that we can ask causal questions at two extremes of specificity and generality. We can ask why the Nicaraguan Revolution occurred—that is, what was the chain of circumstances that led to the successful seizure of power by the Sandinistas? This is to invite a specific historical narrative, supported by claims about causal powers of various circumstances. And we can ask why twentieth-century revolutionary movements succeeded in some circumstances and failed in others—that is, we can ask for an account of the common causal factors that influenced the course of revolution in the twentieth century. In the first instance we are looking to put forward a causal hypothesis about a particular event; in the latter we are seeking a causal explanation concerning the behavior of a class of events.

Take the idea that the outbreak of hostilities in World War I was caused by the assassination of Franz Ferdinand of Austria in 1914.  This claim might be supported by identifying a chain of events that proceeded from the assassination, to decisions in various capitals, to the mobilization of troops, to the outbreak of fighting.  The assassination was the spark that led to the conflagration.  But this is a purely singular chain of events, and there is no regular connection between occurrences of this set of events and the outbreak of war.  The sequence of causal links in this story involves pure contingency at many stages.  Assassinations don't generally cause wars; sometimes they do and sometimes they don't. Events in the category of "political assassination" do in fact have a set of causal powers -- through the influence that a political assassination can have on powerful decision-makers and public opinion.  But there is no single mechanism that links assassinations to the outbreak of war.

Consider an analogy with professional basketball.  We might ask the question, "What circumstances permitted the Pistons to defeat the Celtics in Game Seven of the NBA playoffs?"  And the answer may include a mix of general and particular factors: their guards were quicker, their center shut down the lane, the Piston's coach had a great game plan; as well as the entirely contingent events: two Celtics players collided at a critical moment, a three-point shot at the buzzer banged off the rim, there was a clock malfunction that gave the Pistons a breather.  The former types of factors are the sorts of things that might be used to attempt to explain basketball success over the course of a season and a full range of teams; these are common causal factors explaining success and failure.  The latter types of factors are fundamentally contingent and non-repeatable.  These are random events with respect to a basketball season.

Much inquiry in the social sciences has to do with singular causal processes (historical outcomes): individual revolutions, specific experiences of modernization and development, specific histories of collective action. Charles Tilly‘s career-long treatment of the collective political behavior of the French is a case in point; Tilly attempts to identify a characteristic tradition of French political action, and attempts to identify the historical occurrences which gave this tradition its specificity (Tilly 1986).  But Tilly is also interested in identifying common social mechanisms of contention; and this allows him to identify general causes as well as singular causes.

Historical investigation and "process tracing" permit us to analyze particular singular causal sequences—for example, "a floating iceberg caused the sinking of the Titanic." This kind of singular historical analysis permits discovery of the causal mechanisms and contingent happenings that were involved in the production of the event to be explained.

A general hypothesis about causation is based on a discovery of a pattern across a number of similar cases.  For example, Theda Skocpol's States and Social Revolutions: A Comparative Analysis of France, Russia and China attempts to discover causal regularities leading to the occurrence of revolution that emerge from study of a small number of particular revolutions, and Jeffrey Paige's Agrarian Revolution offers a large-N study of cases of revolution and rebellion to attempt to discover common causal conditions.  And through either type of study we might arrive at evidence supporting general causal claims like these: "the occurrence of subsistence crises is a causal factor in the occurrence of rebellion," "a strong state inhibits the occurrence of rebellion," and "international crises make rebellions more likely."

To assert that A’s are causes of B’s is to assert that there is a typical causal mechanism through which events of type A lead to events of type B. Here, however, we must note that there are rarely single sufficient conditions for social outcomes; instead, causes work in the context of causal fields. So to say that revolutions are causally influenced by food crisis, weak states, and local organization, is to say that there are real causal linkages from these conditions to the occurrence of revolution in specific instances.  If we have enough cases, then these causal mechanisms will also produce some regularities of association between the hypothesized causal factors and the outcome; but without a large number of cases these regularities will be difficult or impossible to discern.

To what extent is such a causal analysis of a unique event explanatory, rather than merely true? The account is explanatory if it identifies influences that commonly exert causal power in a variety of contexts, not merely the case of the French in 1848 or Russia in 1917. And a case study that invokes or suggests no implications for other cases, falls short of being explanatory.

I will put it forward as a methodological maxim that a causal assertion is explanatory only if it identifies a causal process that recurs across a family of cases. A historical narrative is an answer to the first sort of question (“why did this particular event come about?”); such a narrative may or may not have implications for more general causal questions. A true causal story is not always explanatory.

There is another issue raised by this topic of general and particular causal hypotheses, which has to do with the idea of "over-determination."  Return to the case of World War I.  It might be argued that there were broad structural forces at work that were steadily increasing the likelihood of war throughout 1912-1914 -- deepening economic and geographical conflicts of interest among the great powers, large-scale military planning by various governments, and a worsening arms race, for example; so war was "inevitable" with or without the spark created by the assassination of the Archduke.  If this event had not occurred, some other instigating event would have cropped up; so the conflagration was inevitable.  On this interpretation, the assassination of the Archduke was a critical part of the actual pathway leading to the outbreak of war; but there were many other hypothetical pathways that would have led to the same result.  So it is the background structural conditions that were the real and substantive causes of World War I -- not the contingent and accidental fact of the assassination in 1914.