Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Area studies and social science theories

image: The ruins of Bagan, Myanmar

Understanding a particular place seems to involve a very specific kind of knowledge and research. It involves understanding the unique combination of historical circumstances, social processes, cultural formations, and unique institutions that give rise to the current complex social reality. And yet it also involves an effort to understand and explain the developments that are observed -- which implies some sort of appeal to social science theory.  For the past four decades this space has been occupied by "area studies" -- Latin American studies, Asian studies, African studies.

Here is a nice 1998 paper by South Asian historian and former president of the Association for Asian Studies David Luddens on the epistemic foundations of area studies (link).  Here is how Luddens formulates the issue:
The production of area-specific knowledge about the world has no firm theoretical foundation. It seems to be an intellectual by-product of modern state territorialism and of those state-supported institutions of area studies which became prominent during the heyday of the nation state, in the decades between 1945 and 1990. Area studies in the university find their official justification in itself because they effectively serve disciplines, professions, business and national interests. The rationale for area studies for itself derives from the need to understand the diversity of human experience, which is increasingly embroiled in identity politics and debates about cultural pluralism. University administrators, legislators, and funding agencies now find the old rationale for area studies less compelling and institutional support for the production of area-specific knowledge depends more and more on its utility for academic globalization, as the university, like business and government, seeks to expand its operations around the world and to establish it own authority in global culture. Though scholars who produce area-specific knowledge are well endowed with talent and resources, they find it hard to adapt to this trend without sacrificing their old intellectual commitments, because they have such a weak theoretical justification for doing what they do. To sustain their enterprise, they need to theorize area-studies in relation to globalization. This is the first in a set of essays that work in that direction. It focuses on the institutional history of area studies in the long-term process of globalization. (1)
Here I'd like to focus on the relationship between area knowledge and disciplinary knowledge.

Area studies is in its nature an interdisciplinary assemblage, at two levels -- institutional and individual. For example, centers for Latin American studies commonly involve political scientists, anthropologists, literary specialists, art historians, and sociologists, each bringing a specific body of knowledge and inquiry to the collective effort. But furthermore, each individual area specialist is expected to show some degree of interdisciplinary knowledge in his or her research. This is the value-added provided by a center: individuals come together and gain insight from colleagues in other disciplines.  It is commonly believed among area specialists that excessive focus on a single disciplinary perspective is likely to create a form of "aspect blindness" in the investigator -- the economic historian of China overlooks the cultural forces at work, the political scientist who studies Latin American populism may fail to see the influence of religious traditions, and so forth.

How should area studies specialists and historians employ general social theories in attempting to understand particular social and historical examples? How, for example, is social science theory pertinent to explaining the historical experience of India or Burma?  In other words, how can we bring together the specific knowledge of area specialists and the more general knowledge of discipline-based social scientists?

Some theoretical frameworks -- the study of social movements, analysis of land tenure relations, analysis of local political power practices, analysis of local political traditions -- are plainly useful across studies of various societies. They offer good common questions -- so long as we recall that there are very different answers to these questions in different places and times.  And they can provide suggestive ideas about the causal processes that may be underway in particular periods of social change.

One important goal of the use of social science theories is to help the researcher to arrive at descriptions of the particular institutions, traditions, mentalities, etc., through which various general factors are worked out -- to mediate the particular and the general. Social science theories provide developed conceptual schemes and vocabularies in terms of which to analyze the concrete social phenomena. What is a revolution? How does it differ from a coup or a fall of government?  So social science theory is valuable as a source of ideas about how to organize and conceptualize the social given in a particular area.

Another critical contribution of the social sciences to area studies is the growing collection of common social mechanisms and processes that political scientists, sociologists, and economists have studied in detail. Social scientists aren't able to provide comprehensive theories of society that can simply be "applied" to specific areas; there is no general theory of the state that would permit the Middle East specialist to understand and predict the behavior of the Syrian regime. But social scientists are able to identify mundane mid-level mechanisms that arise in politics, economies, and social movements; and these theories of specific mechanisms can be of great value to the area specialist. (This is a crucial contribution of Chuck Tilly's work; for example, Tilly and Tarrow, Contentious Politics.)

Consider one particular example -- the China area specialist who is trying to get a better understanding of changes in China's economic structure between 1980 and 2000. Findings having to do with the mechanisms of rent-seeking and corruption will probably shed important light on the developments; the mechanism of "bureaucratic clientelism" will be helpful; and mechanisms of social movements and labor mobilization will prove helpful as well. In one sense China's sudden economic transformation after the reforms of the early 1980s was sui generis. But it also consisted of a number of component processes that have been identified and studied in very different historical and cultural settings.  (Jean Oi's State and Peasant in Contemporary China: The Political Economy of Village Government provides a good example.)

So there is an important sense in which the social sciences permit a basis for generalizing and explaining when we consider specific areas. But it is crucial to avoid the mistake of over-generalizing.

One such mistake is the idea that we can simply subsume a particular region's experience under a comprehensive general theory. In particular, we should avoid stereotyped contrasts and models of change: traditional-modern; capitalist-feudal; stagnant-dynamic. Constructs such as "modernization theory" are unhelpful, because they import a raft of unspoken presuppositions, they are teleological, and they are formulated at too high a level. Area specialists are better served by meso-level theories of social mechanisms.  (Arturo Escobar offers a strong contemporary critique of modernization theory in Encountering Development.)

Another variety of faulty historical analysis is the intellectual error of Eurocentrism. It is critical that we not generalize from the experience of Western Europe in application to Asia or Africa.  Consider the example of Asian politics. The polity of pre-colonial India was highly pluralistic, with a very wide and heterogeneous set of social relations, forms of power, ethnic conflicts, economic forms, and political and quasi-political arrangements. China, by contrast, was a more uniform political order, with a visible unified state. And neither of these states is well understood if we simply import the apparatus of political theory developed out of study of the modern European state.  So there is great variety and originality in the political institutions of India, China, or Bali, and we cannot understand those institutions by simply attempting to find European analogies.  (Bin Wong makes these points very powerfully in China Transformed: Historical Change and the Limits of European Experience.)

So area scholars have to aim for a delicate balance, between concrete, local knowledge and the application of relevant findings from the social sciences.  But the social sciences certainly have a key role in understanding the institutions, mentalities, and behavior of particular places.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

A property-owning democracy

John Rawls offered a general set of principles of justice that were formally neutral across specific institutions.  However, he also believed that the institutions of a "property-owning democracy" are most likely to satisfy the two principles of justice. So what is a property-owning democracy?

In Justice as Fairness: A Restatement (2001) Rawls offered a more explicit discussion of this concept than was offered in A Theory of Justice: Original Edition (1971).  Here are several important descriptions:
Let us distinguish five kinds of regime viewed as social systems, complete with their political, economic, and social institutions: (a) laissez-faire capitalism; (b) welfare-state capitalism; (c) state socialism with a command economy; (d) property-owning democracy; and finally, (e) liberal (democratic) socialism.
Regarding any regime four questions naturally arise.  One is the question of right: that is, whether its institutions are right and just.  Another is the question of design: that is, whether a regime's institutions can be effectively designed to realize its declared aims and objectives.  This implies a third question: whether citizens, in view of their likely interests and ends as shaped by the regime's basic structure, can be relied on to comply with just institutions and the rules that apply to them in their various offices and positions.  The problem of corruption is an aspect of this.  Finally, there is the question of competence: whether the tasks assigned to offices and positions would prove simply too difficult for those likely to hold them.
 What we would like, of course, are just and effectively designed basic institutions that effectively encourage aims and interests necessary to sustain them.  Beyond this, persons should not confront tasks that are too difficult for them or that exceed their powers.  Arrangements should be fully workable, or practicable.  Much conservative thought has focused on the last three questions mentionsed above, criticizing the ineffectiveness of the so-called welfare state and its tendencies toward waste and corruption.  But here we focus largely on the first question of right and justice, leaving the others aside.  (136-137)
(Notice that these four questions converge closely with the feasibility conditions on reforms mentioned in an earlier post.)

There is similar but less developed language in the original version of the Theory of Justice:
Throughout the choice between a private-property economy and socialism isleft open; from the standpoint of the theory of justice alone, various basic structures would appear to satisfy its principles. (TJ, 258)
Rawls argues that the first three alternatives mentioned here (a-c) fail the test of justice, in that each violates conditions of the two principles of justice in one way or the other.  So only a property-owning democracy and liberal socialism are consistent with the two principles of justice (138).  Another way of putting this conclusion is that either regime can be just if it functions as designed, and the choice between them is dictated by pragmatic considerations rather than considerations of fundamental justice.

Here is how Rawls describes the fundamental goal of a property-owning democracy:
In property-owning democracy, ... the aim is to realize in the basic institutions the idea of society as a fair system of cooperation between citizens regarded as free and equal.  To do this, those institutions must, from the outset, put in the hands of citizens generally, and not only of a few, sufficient productive means for them to be fully cooperating members of society on a footing of equality (140).
Rawls isn't very explicit about the institutions that constitute a property-owning democracy, but here is a general description:
Both a property-owning democracy and a liberal socialist regime set up a constitutional framework for democratic politics, guarantee the basic liberties with the fair value of the political liberties and fair equality of opportunity, and regulate economic and social inequalities by a principle of mutuality, if not by the difference principle.  (138)
This last point is important:
For example, background institutions must work to keep property and wealth evenly enough shared over time to preserve the fair value of the political liberties and fair equality of opportunities over generations. They do this by laws regulating bequest and inheritance of property, and other devices such as taxes, to prevent excessive concentrations of private power. (51)
And concentration of wealth is one of the deficiencies of a near-cousin of the property-owning democracy, welfare-state capitalism:
One major difference is this: the background institutions of property-owning democracy work to disperse the ownership of wealth and capital, and thus to prevent a small part of society from controlling the economy, and indirectly, political life as well.  By contrast, welfare-state capitalism permits a small class to have a near monopoly of the means of production. (139) [also Collected Papers, p. 419]
The past thirty years have taken us a great distance away from the social ideal represented by Rawls's Theory of Justice.  The acceleration of inequalities of income and wealth in the US economy is flatly unjust, by Rawls's standards.  The increasing -- and now by Supreme Court decision, almost unconstrained -- ability of corporations to exert influence within political affairs has severely undermined the fundamental political equality of all citizens.  And the extreme forms of inequality of opportunity and outcome that exist in our society -- and the widening of these gaps in recent decades -- violate the basic principles of justice, requiring the full and fair equality of political lives of all citizens.  This suggests that Rawls's theory provides the basis for a very sweeping critique of existing economic and political institutions. In effect, the liberal theorist offers radical criticism of the existing order.

(Thomas Pogge's John Rawls: His Life and Theory of Justice has a good discussion of this topic.)

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

The politics color wheel












The problem of mapping or classifying people's political attitudes is more complicated than it looks. Placing people on a spectrum from left to right is convenient but over-simple. It assumes that there is a single dimension of political difference, ranging from conservative to liberal, and that everyone can be placed somewhere along that spectrum. But social and political attitudes aren't single-dimensional. So we'd like to have a way of mapping the space of attitudes that captures the separate dimensions that go into political attitudes.

Most of the schemes above take a step forward by hypothesizing two dimensions reflecting attitudes towards the involvement of the state in the economy and in individual social and moral life. An economic conservative opposes state involvement in the economy. A social liberal opposes state involvement in individual choices and lifestyle, while a social conservative favors intervention in individual behavior when it comes to certain "social" issues. A libertarian opposes both forms of state intervention and an authoritarian supports both.

This kind of classification is an improvement, but it doesn't fully satisfy. It doesn't really capture the substantive moral ideas that might underlie these attitudes, the political philosophy that might underlie political preferences.

A more substantive effort at classification might take the form of a cluster of values shared by various groups. Conservatives favor maintaining traditional values (religion and morality), maintaining an existing system of wealth, power, and prestige (market and social inequality), and limiting the use of state power to these functions. Progressives favor greater social equality and opportunity; they favor the free expression of individual life choices; and they favor using the authority of the state to increase the equality and freedom of ordinary people. Conservatives defend existing inequalities and oppose redistribution. Progressives condemn certain kinds of inequality and justify redistributive measures to redress these inequalities.

Yet another approach is to consider a diagnostic set of issues and classify the individual according to where he/she falls on these issues. For example:
  • Guaranteeing a woman's right to choose
  • Restricting the sale of assault rifles
  • Carbon tax
  • Inheritance tax
  • Immigration reform
  • Affirmative action
We might imagine grouping the population into a sort of Venn diagram.  Suppose that each circle represents individuals who include the specific issue within his/her top five issues.  Overlaps indicate the circumstance of individuals who share the issues of each overlapping circle.  So region A represents individuals who rank civil liberties, social justice, and environmental issues in their top five; region B represents individuals who rank markets, guns, right to life, and religious fundamentalism in their top five priorities.  On this diagram, there is no one who is a militia activist and a social justice advocate.

Several questions arise here: are there correlations across individuals with respect to these issues? Is there a set of philosophical principles that underlie the choices that individuals make within connected clusters?  And do the clusters correspond to identifiable political groups?


Sunday, July 18, 2010

Radicals, activists, and reformers


Several posts have drawn attention to the acts of criticism of the present and advocacy for change. But both criticism and programs of advocacy have enormous variation when it comes to analytical and theoretical rigor. Babeuf's conspiracy of equals set the stage for radicalism during the French Revolution. But how good were his diagnosis of the present and his vision of a possible future? And what was he really trying to accomplish as a radical?

Criticism and advocacy can combine into several rather different stances -- think of Mill, Bakunin, and Lenin and the very different ways in which they combined reasoned thought and political activism. It is worth asking the question, what are the different states of mind and intentionality that characterize different kinds of social activists. Fundamentally, how do we distinguish between liberal reformers, radical activists, and revolutionaries? We might say that the difference parallels that between amelioration, opposition, and transformation; systemic change and piecemeal improvement; gradual and abrupt; but can we say more? Here are some sketches.

Radical activists are ... radical.  They want largescale, rapid change in society.  The radical opposition surveys the existing social world; identifies a set of institutions and practices that currently exist; judges that these institutions and practices are fundamentally flawed in some important way; and demands fundamental change or replacement for these institutions and practices. So the radical activist demands immediate, concerted action to bring this complex state of affairs about.  The radical activist is not intellectually committed to proving the feasibility of alternatives; he/she is committed in the heart to the abolition of the present injustice.

The liberal reformer is a critic as well. There are feature of the existing social world that he/she strenuously rejects. But the liberal reformer accepts the reality of the present. He/she proposes a set of immediate and mid-range reforms that will work to modify the unacceptable features of the present and move society towards a more satisfactory set of institutions and practices in the future. Gradual transformation is the model of change for the liberal reformer.  Having confidence in the feasibility of a given set of pathways of reform is the highest intellectual value.

The revolutionary is an architect of change, not just a radical activist. The revolutionary wants to sweep away the bad institutions and social relations of the present. And the revolutionary has a vision of the new society which the movement is aiming at creating.  The revolutionary is intellectually committed to the achievement of a concrete social order that is better than the present; and this means he/she is committed to demonstrating the feasibility of the new order.   So the revolutionary, like the liberal reformer, needs to be a social engineer making good use of historical insights and social analysis into the ways that social change works.

So one way of distinguishing the radical from the liberal is in terms of the scope of change that the critic demands. The radical demands sweeping change of a wide range of institutions; the liberal demands a more limited set of changes. The revolutionary is distinct from the activist as well, in that the revolutionary is intellectually committed to the feasibility of the new order.

Here is another way of drawing the distinction -- in terms of pace and means of achieving change. The radical demands change in a very short period of change -- and therefore rejects "gradual reform and improvement".

Here is yet another way of drawing the line between liberal reformers and activists and revolutionaries.  The radical activist and the revolutionary sometimes advocate for means of social change that the liberal reformer would reject: the use of violence, dictatorship of the proletariat, authoritarian use of state power. The liberal reformer advocates for a process of change that takes place within existing institutions, over an extended period of time, perhaps leading to a less sweeping transformation of society.

The distinction between liberal, activist, and revolutionary is perhaps not as sharp as indicated here. The categories are not mutually exclusive. On the topic of racial justice, for example, we might say that the abolition of slavery was a radical demand, requiring profound and discontinuous change. The movement in the 1950s and 1960s for a raft of legal reforms in support of full equality for African-Americans was a liberal and gradualist strategy. So both radical and liberal steps were involved in the quest for racial justice in the United States. And each set of demands was crucial for the achievement of racial justice.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Methodological nationalism


Are there logical divisions within the global whole of social interactions and systems that permit us to focus on a limited, bounded social reality?  Is there a stable level of social aggregation that might provide an answer to the "units of analysis" question in the social sciences?  This is a question that has recurred several times in prior postings -- on regions (link), on levels of analysis (link), and on world systems (link). Here I'll focus on the nation-state as one such system of demarcation.

We can start with a very compelling recent critique of current definitions of the social sciences.  Andreas Wimmer and Nina Glick Schiller offer an intriguing analysis of social science conceptual schemes in "Methodological nationalism and beyond: nation-state building, migration and the social sciences" (link). (Wimmer's Nationalist Exclusion and Ethnic Conflict: Shadows of Modernity is also of great interest.) The core idea is the notion that the social sciences have tended to conceptualize social phenomena around the boundaries of the nation-state.  And, these authors contend, this assumption creates a set of blinders for the social sciences that makes it difficult to capture some crucially important forms of social interaction and structure.

Wimmer and Schiller characterize the idea of methodological nationalism in three forms:
The epistemic structures and programmes of mainstream social sciences have been closely attached to, and shaped by, the experience of modern nation-state formation....  The social sciences were captured by the apparent naturalness and givenness of a world divided into societies along the lines of nation-states....  Because they were structured according to nation-state principles, these became so routinely assumed and 'banal', that they vanished from sight altogether. (303-4)
A second variant, typical of more empirically oriented social science practices, is taking national discourses, agendas, loyalties and histories for granted, without problematizing themor making them an object of an analysis in its own right.  Instead, nationally bounded societies are taken to be the naturally given entities to study. (304)
Let us  now address a third and last variant of methodological nationalism: the territorialization of social science imaginary and the reduction of the analytical focus to the boundaries of the nation-state. (307)
The three variants of methodological nationalism ... are thus ignorance, naturalization, and territorial limitation. (308)
Their view is a complex one. They think that the social sciences have been trapped behind a kind of conceptual blindness, according to which the concepts of nation and state structure our perception of social reality but disappear as objects of critical inquiry. Second, they argue that there were real processes of nation and state building that created this blindness -- from nineteenth century nation building to twentieth century colonialism. And third, they suggest that the framework of MN itself contributed to the concrete shaping of the history of nation and state building. So it is a three-way relationship between knowledge and the social world.

"Nationalism" has several different connotations.  First, it implies that peoples fall into "nations," and that "nations" are somewhat inevitable and compact social realities.  France is a nation.  But closer examination reveals that France is a social-historical construct, not a uniform or natural social whole. (Here is a discussion of Emmanuel Todd's version of this argument; link).  Alsatians, Bretons, and Basques are part of the French nation; and yet they are communities with distinct identities, histories, and affinities.  So forging France as a nation was a political effort, and it is an unfinished project.

Second, nationalism refers to movements based on mobilization of political identities.  Hindu nationalists have sought power in India through the BJP on the basis of a constructed, mobilized (and in various ways fictional) Hindu identity.  The struggle over the Babri Mosque, and the political use to which this symbol was put in BJP mobilization, illustrates this point.  But "nationalist politics" also possess a social reality; it is all too evident that even fictive "national identities" can be powerful sources of political motivation.  So nationalist politics in the twentieth century were a key part of many historical processes.  (Michael Mann's The Dark Side of Democracy: Explaining Ethnic Cleansing illustrates this point.)  And, of course, there may be multiple national identities within a given region; so the "nation" consists of multiple "nationalist" groups.  Ben Anderson's Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism provides an extensive development of the political and constructed nature of ethnic and national identities.

What about the other pole of the "nation-state" conjunction -- the state?  Here the idea is that the state is the seat of sovereign authority; the origin and enforcement of legal institutions; and the holder of a monopoly of coercive power in a region.  A state does not inevitably correspond to a nation; so when we hyphenate the conjunction we make a further substantive assumption -- that nations grow into states, and that states cultivate national identities.

The fundamental criticism that Wimmer and Schiller express -- the fundamental defect of methodological nationalism -- is that it limits the ability of social scientists and historians to perceive processes that are above or below the level of the nation-state.  Trans-national processes (they offer migration as an example) and sub-national processes (we might refer to the kinds of violent mobilization studied by Mann in the Dark Side of Democracy) are either invisible or unimportant, from the point of view of methodological nationalism.  So the methodology occludes social phenomena that are actually of great importance to understanding the contemporary world.  Here is how they suggest going beyond methodological nationalism in the field of migration studies:
Going beyond methodological nationalism in the study of current migration thus may require more than a focus on transnational communities instead of the nation and its immigrants.  In order to escape the magnetism of established methodologies, ways of defining the object of analysis and algorithms for generating questions, we may have to develop (or rediscover?) analytical tools and concepts not coloured by the self-evidence of a world ordered into nation-states.  This is what we perceive, together with many other current observers of the social sciences, as the major task lying ahead of us.  We are certainly not able to offer such a set of analytical tools here. (323-24)
Wimmer and Schiller seem to point in a direction that we find in Saskia Sassen's work as well: the idea that it is necessary for the social sciences to invent a new vocabulary that does a better job of capturing the idea of the interconnectedness of social activity and social systems (for example, in A Sociology of Globalization; link).  The old metaphors of "levels" of social life organized on an ascending spatial basis doesn't seem to work well today when we try to deal with topics like global cities, diasporic communities, or transnational protest movements. And each of these critiques makes a convincing case that these non-national phenomena are influential all the way down into the "national" orders singled out by traditional classification schemes.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Knowing the population


At any given time there are huge areas of the unknown when it comes to the question, what do various members of our society care about? We have opinion research tools, of course. But we don't really have good answers to any of these questions:
  • How do West Bloomfield teenagers think about their futures?
  • Why do Kenyan truck drivers refrain from the most basic AIDS-prevention techniques?
  • Are skateboarders disaffected from mainstream society?
  • What does it mean when affluent suburban white kids wear hiphop gear?
  • What do laid-off auto workers think about higher education for themselves?
  • How do Mexican gang killers feel about their victims?
These questions fall in the general area of qualitative knowledge of social actors and groups. We want to know in some detail about the subjectivity of the members of these groups -- how they think, what they value, how they perceive the world.  There can be a quantitative side as well -- once we have information about some people in a group we can ask about the distribution of these characteristics over the group.

But here is the key question at the moment: where within the disciplines of the social sciences does inquiry into these questions fall?  And the simple answer is, none of them and parts of all of them. Ethnography is relevant; but anthropologists usually seem to have larger theoretical apples to peel. Political scientists are interested in a small subset of these questions -- basically, they are interested in measuring political attitudes and preferences.  And some branches of sociology have had an interest in this kind of concrete social description -- for example, Erving Goffman; but at present this kind of detailed inquiry into the lived experience of particular individuals and groups doesn't have much prestige in the field. It is hard to see AJS publishing a descriptive study of attitudes and values of West Bloomfield teenagers.

So two things seem to be true. First, there is an important kind of knowledge that we need to have in order to adequately understand society. And second, there doesn't seem to be a discipline in the social sciences that takes on this challenge.

So how should we think about the subjective experience and mental frameworks of a given social group?  A group is defined by some set of characteristics -- people from a certain region ("midwesterners"), people with a certain occupation ("insurance adjustors"), people with a certain national origin ("Irish-Americans"), people from a particular age cohort (Generation X), or people with a certain religion or value scheme ("Protestants," "Populists").  So by construction, members of the group share a few characteristics in common -- the "nominal" characteristics of the group.  But we also know that almost every group displays a great range of diversity with respect to other characteristics -- lifestyle, political attitudes, moral commitments, ...  So how should we think about the problem of coming to better understand the distinctive features of consciousness as well as the range of diversity and similarity among members of the group?  This raises a number of interesting questions.  For example:
  • Are there similarities that members of this group possess over and above the nominal characteristics of the group?  Is there something distinctive about the experience and mentality of Gen X or "The Greatest Generation"?
  • Are some groups more diverse than others with respect to a given set of social characteristics?
  • Is it possible to explain some of the patterns of similarity that are discovered among members of the group?  
Suppose we are interested in K-12 school teachers: what makes them choose this work, what are some of the social backgrounds from which they emerge, how do they feel about their work, are they idealistic or jaded in their work?  How might we approach a subject like this from the point of view of social science research?

One possibility is to approach the task through survey research.  We might design a survey intended to measure attitudes, background, degree of commitment, etc.  The results of the survey can be presented as a set of descriptive statistics for each question, with standard deviations.  We might have a theory of how the questions cluster, and we might classify individuals into sub-groups sharing a cluster of properties.  Further, we might try to identify differences that exist among sub-populations (by race, age, or occupational group, let us say).  And we would probably want to see whether there are interesting correlations among some of the recorded variables.

Another possibility is to approach the task through interviews and qualitative research.  Here the investigator will work with a smaller number of cases; but he/she will get to know individuals well, and will come to see the nuance and detail of the multiple experiences that school teachers have of their work.  Here we might imagine several different kinds of findings:
"There is no typical school teacher; rather, each has a different profile." This researcher may not be able to summarize or analyze his/her findings, but rather needs to provide a descriptive narrative of a series of cases.  This is perhaps the kind of knowledge that Studs Terkel produces (link).  
Or: "A small set of common themes emerge from a number of the cases, so we can begin to classify teachers into a small set of similar groups."
It is also possible to code and aggregate the results of this sort of qualitative research.  This may permit us to discover that there are some broad groupings among the population surveyed.  We might find that there are fairly visible groupings among school teachers, with similar attitudes and commitments among individuals of group A that distinguish them sharply from individuals of group B.  (For example: "Inner city teachers differ significantly from suburban teachers;" "teachers in their 50s differ significantly from teachers in their 30s;" "white and black teacher differ significantly from each other.")  The researcher may then try to arrive at hypotheses about why the A's are so different from the B's: educational background, experience within a certain industry, gender or race characteristics, cohort-specific experiences, differences in the work-place environment.  This represents a slide from qualitative inquiry to quantitative analysis; ethnographic and individual-level investigation is aggregated into analytical categories.  Here the sociologically interesting question is that of social causation: what are the social influences that differently affected the two populations?

The key point here is that individuals have a rather specific socially constituted subjectivity -- a set of mental frameworks, concepts, modes of thinking, emotions, values, and aversions -- that distinguishes them from others.  This subjective framework provides a basis for their actions, choices, and preferences.  We also speculate, often, that there are important similarities in these frameworks within groups in dimensions that distinguish this group from that group.  It appears to be a fundamentally important task for the social sciences, to have means of investigating these empirical realities.  These questions are important, most fundamentally, because they give an indication of why people behave as they do.  And yet the existing disciplines have little interest in pursuing these types of questions.

Friday, July 9, 2010

Gabriel Tarde's rediscovery


Gabriel Tarde was an important rival to Emile Durkheim on the scene of French sociology in the 1880s and 1890s.  Durkheim essentially won the field, however, and Tarde's reputation diminished for a century. Durkheim's social holism and a search for social laws prevailed, and the sociology of individuals and the methodology of contingency that Tarde had constructed had little influence on the next several generations of sociologists in France.  In the 1990s, however, several important strands of thought were receptive to a rediscovery of Tarde's thinking; Gilles Deleuze and Bruno Latour each found elements in Tarde's thinking that provided intellectual antecedent and support for ideas of their own.  In the past fifteen years or so there has been a significant revival of interest in Tarde.

An important volume edited by Matei Candea represents the most extensive reconsideration of Tarde's views of sociology to date.  Contributors to The Social after Gabriel Tarde: Debates and Assessments provide highly provocative and stimulating discussions of various aspects of Tarde's philosophy of sociology, and the book represents an important contribution to new thinking about the social sciences.  The introductory essay by Candea is very useful and is available for free as a sample of the Kindle edition.  Bruno Latour's contribution to the volume is available on Latour's website (link), as are two short pieces on Latour's thoughts about Tarde (link, link).

Several aspects of Tarde's philosophy of sociology stand out.  First is his rejection of Durkheim's holism.  He was consistently critical of the idea of finished social wholes; instead, he recommended a focus on the components of social interactions and practices.  This might be understood as a focus on the individual and his/her psychological properties (methodological individualism); but it also might be seen as a more radical disassembly of the social into sub- and supra-individual constructions.  This is where Latour finds inspiration; he suggests that Tarde is an intellectual precursor to Actor Network Theory (ANT), which does not give ontological priority to either individuals or social wholes.

Another important feature of Tarde's philosophy of the social is his emphasis on heterogeneity and contingency within the social.  He revels in the fact of variation among and within social processes, and he emphasizes the deep degree of contingency that characterizes social outcomes.  Here is one example in Social Laws: "Science is the co-ordination of phenomena regarded from the side of their repetitions.  But this does not mean that differentiation is not an essential mode of procedure for the scientific mind" (8).

The contributors to the Candea volume illustrate this deep contingency in a different way; they ask the question of how the science of sociology might have developed differently if Tarde's views had taken deeper root.  Here is how Candea puts this point in the opening words of the volume:
Some theorists have intersected with history in such an odd way that they seem to require an introduction in the form of a thought experiment: What if Durkheimian sociology had had, from the very beginning, a thoughtful and vocal opponent; one who queries the 'thingness' of the social and the holistic, bounded nature of societies and human groups; one who accused Durkheim of disregarding the contingency of history in the search for scientific 'structure'; one who proposed a radical reversal of the organic analogy, claiming that organisms are societies and not the other way around; one who foregrounded imitations, oppositions and inventions where Durkheim saw conformism to a rule as the key component of the social; one who had already found a way to dissolve the linked contrasts between individual and society, micro and macro, agency and structure, freedom and constraint -- Durkheim's main (and for many, troublesome) legacy to twentieth-century social science?
And, of course, that critic is none other than Tarde.

Here are a few of Tarde's ideas as expressed in his 1897 volume, Social Laws: An Outline of Sociology (translated into English in 1899).
Thus science consists in viewing any fact whatsoever under three aspects, corresponding, respectively, to the repetitions, oppositions, and adaptations which it contains, and which are obscured by a mass of variations, dissymmetries, and disharmonies. The relation of cause to effect, in fact, is not the only element which properly constitutes scientific knowledge. (9)
Here is a schematic philosophy of science -- an account of what sociology consists of.  Tarde emphasizes the discovery of both regularities and variations:
These reflections were needed in order to show what sociology must be, if it is to deserve the name of science, and along what paths sociologists must guide its course, if they wish to see it assume, unchallenged, its proper rank. Like every other science, it will attain this only when it has gained, and is conscious of possessing, its own domain of repetitions, its own domain of oppositions, and its own domain of adaptations, each characteristic of itself and belonging wholly to itself. Sociology can only make progress when it succeeds in substituting true repetitions, oppositions, and harmonies for false ones, as all the other sciences have done before it. And in place of repetitions, oppositions, and adaptations that are true but vague, it must find others that become ever more exact as it advances. (10)
And on a central tenet of methodological individualism--the idea of the strict determination of the whole as a consequence of the characteristics of indistinguishable individual components:
I believe that none of the above-mentioned differences, including even the mere variety of arrangement and random distribution of matter throughout space, can be explained on the theory of exactly similar atomic elements—an hypothesis so dear to chemists, who are in this respect the real metaphysicians; I do not see that Spencer’s so-called law of the instability of the homogeneous explains anything. And hence, I believe that the only means of explaining this exuberant growth of individual differences upon the surface of phenomena is by assuming that they spring from a motley array of elements, each possessing its own individual characteristics. (15)
And rather than seeking out high-level generalizations and regularities about the social world, Tarde advocates for more specific and granular studies:
Fortunately, screened and sheltered from view by these ambitious generalizations, certain less venturesome workers strove, with greater success, to formulate other more substantial laws concerning the details. Among these should be mentioned the linguists, the mythologists, and above all the economists. These specialists in sociological fields discovered various interesting relations among successive and simultaneous facts, which recurred constantly within the limits of the narrow domain they were examining. (18)
Tarde explicitly rejects John Stuart Mill's particular version of methodological individualism:
In some quarters the feeling has existed that we must look to psychology for any general explanation of the laws and pseudo-laws of economics, language, mythology, etc. No man held to this view with greater force and clearness than John Stuart Mill. At the end of his Logic he represents sociology as a species of applied psychology. Unfortunately he did not analyze the concept carefully enough; and the psychology to which he looked for the key to social phenomena was merely individual psychology—the branch which studies the interrelations of impressions and imagery in a single mind, believing that everything within this domain can be explained according to the laws of association of these elements. Thus conceived, sociology became a sort of enlarged and externalized English associationism, and was in a fair way to lose its originality. (19)
And here is an explicit rejection of a particular kind of Durkheimian social fact -- the idea of a national character:
Sooner or later, one must open his eyes to the evidence, and recognize that the genius of a people or race, instead of being a factor superior to and dominating the characters of the individuals (who have been considered its offshoots and ephemeral manifestations) is simply a convenient label, or impersonal synthesis, of these individual characteristics; the latter alone are real, effective, and ever in activity; they are in a state of continual fermentation in the bosom of every society, thanks to the examples borrowed and exchanged with neighboring societies to their great mutual profit. (27)
Here is how Bruno Latour summarizes his appreciation of Tarde in "Gabriel Tarde and the End of the Social" (link):
And yet, I want to argue in this chapter, through a close reading of his recently republished most daring book, Monadologie et sociologie (M&S), that Tarde introduced into social theory the two main arguments which ANT has tried, somewhat vainly, to champion:
a) the nature and society divide is irrelevant for understanding the world of human interactions ;
b) the micro/macro distinction stifle any attempt at understanding how society is being generated.
In other words, I want to make a little thought experiment and imagine what the field of social sciences would have become in the last century, had Tarde's insights been turned into a science instead of Durkheim's. Or may be it is that Tarde, a truly daring but also, I have to admit, totally undisciplined mind, needed a rather different century so as to be finally understood. 
Latour ends his contribution to the Candea volume with an intriguing section called "Digital traceability ... Tarde's vindication?".  The key idea here is that the twenty-first century permits social scientists to go decisively and transparently beyond the primitive aggregative statistics that underlay Durkheim's approach to the "social whole."  Tarde, and Latour, look at Durkheim's social whole as no more than a crude statistical aggregation of data; and, according to Latour, Tarde had envisioned a time when the statistics and quantitative data deriving from social behavior would be transparent and visible.  This, Latour suggests, is becoming true.  Today we can look at social data at a full range of levels of aggregation, moving back and forth from the micro to the macro with ease.  Here is Tarde's version of the vision:
If Statistics continues to progress as it has done for several years, if the information which it gives us continues to gain in accuracy, in dispatch, in bulk, and in regularity, a time may come when upon the accomplishment of every social event a figure will at once issue forth automatically, so to speak, to take its place on the statistical registers that will be continuously communicated to the public and spread abroad pictorially by the daily press.
And here is Latour's comment:
It is indeed striking that at this very moment, the fast expanding fields of "data visualization", "computational social science" or "biological networks" are tracing before our eyes, just the sort of data Tarde would have acclaimed. ... Digital navigation through point-to-point datascapes might, a century later, vindicate Tarde's insights.
This is only the briefest of samplings from Tarde's work, from one short book.  But it is perhaps enough to give substance to the idea that Tarde is as much of an innovative founder of scientific sociology as Weber, Marx, or Durkheim; and he is a thinker from whom a new generation of sociologists can gain new ideas.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Protest and the politics of dissent








There are several different moral and practical stances that people can take in relation to their social worlds.  The scenes above depict one of these possibilities: vociferous protest and active opposition to specific social and political policies.  Individuals and groups have ideas about justice and legitimacy.  And they have specific material interests that are affected by state policies.  When their values and interests are offended by the actions of their government or other collective actors, they may choose to mobilize around overt opposition and collective action.  Street demonstrations, protests, boycotts, and destruction of property may be the result.  Anti-globalization protests in Toronto in 2010, anti-war protests in 1968 and 2004, demands for aggressive AIDS policies in the 1990s, anti-racism protests in 1968, French protests against President Sarkozy's policies in 1999, and anti-NATO protests in Strasbourg in 2009 -- each scene represents an extensive movement against the actions of governments, international organizations, and social institutions.

What are some of the goals of public protests?  One is obvious: to exert direct pressure on governments and other powerful organizations to change their policies and actions.  Organizers and followers often have very concrete goals in mounting a protest, with an explicit theory of how the protest action will lead to the possibility of change of policy.  This is most evident in the demonstrations that took place in France in 2009 in opposition to the government's neo-liberal economic reform policies.  Organizers, organizations, and unions had very specific notions about how mass protests in Paris, Dijon, Marseille, and Lyon could succeed in forcing the government to retreat.  In this case the action is purposive and instrumental: choose this strategy to bring about that result.

Another possible goal is more expressive than this description would suggest.  People may mobilize around a demonstration out of their simple desire to express their moral dissent; to offer a moral example to the world of the wrongness of the targeted policy.  Some strands of the US civil rights movement had this character; demonstrations served to cast a light on the fundamental injustice of US race relations and laws, and many supporters participated simply out of moral solidarity with these values.

A third possibility combines the expressive and instrumental types of collective action.  Leaders and followers invested in a particular issue may want to publicize their values and their critique in order to persuade the broader public to share these values.  So a goal of the demonstration is to illustrate the moral and political values that are involved, and to attempt to sway other citizens to share these values.  This was part of Martin Luther King, Jr.'s theory of change: a strategy of non-violent protest could change attitudes throughout the country and eventually lead to very substantial change in law and practice.  It also seems to be a part of the transnational movement of activists against neo-liberal globalization: help the mass of citizens of the developed world to see the harms created by the neo-liberal regime.

The occurrence of protest and demonstration is a commonplace.  But it is also a central focus of scientific study by scholars such as Charles Tilly, Sidney Tarrow, or Doug McAdam under the topics of social movements and social contention. Here are several important recent contributions.  Tarrow and Tilly published Contentious Politics in 2006.  Tarrow's New Transnational Activism focuses on the anti-globalization protests that have occurred since Seattle's WTO meetings in 1999. McAdam's Political Process and the Development of Black Insurgency, 1930-1970 offers a detailed analysis of the mobilization processes that culminated in the US Civil Rights movement.  Each of these works, and dozens of others, have offered careful insights and theories about the mechanisms of social mobilization.

Social scientists have focused on several aspects of protest movements: for example, motivations of the followers; social characteristics of followers; characteristics of leaders; the organizations that serve to mobilize and coordinate protest; the networks of information and other resources that link separate organizations together; the nature of the grievances that stimulate prolonged protest movements; and the efficacy of protest movements.  Quite a few important ideas have come out of these research efforts.  For example, Charles Tilly introduced the important idea of "repertoires" of protest, making the point that different communities have developed different scripts for presenting their protests to the public and to the government.  And Tilly, Tarrow, and McAdam have argued for an innovative approach to the study of contention, in the form of a methodology of the range of social mechanisms that can be identified in a variety of instances of mobilization.

One important fact that comparative study of protest movements and organizations demonstrates, is the common feature of diversity of purposes, goals, and strategies among the individuals and groups who support a movement.  The US anti-war movement is a good example; the coalition that came together to create large demonstrations and public actions in various cities in the 1960s commonly represented a very wide range of political perspectives and goals, from Quakers to Progressive Labor activists.  This range of political positions reflected significant disagreement about the goals of protest; but it also represented serious disagreement about the strategies of protest as well.

A crucial dividing line among anti-war organizations was the use of deliberate destruction of property as a tool of protest.  Probably the majority of individuals and groups opposed the use of violence, whereas small organizations deliberately sought out opportunities for "trashing".  The slogan, "Days of Rage," captures this perspective.  This same divide was evident in the G20 demonstrations in Toronto last month, with Black Bloc activists deliberately finding opportunities for burning police cars and smashing shop windows.  (Here is a manifesto from the Wombles on the subject of violence in demonstrations.)  Peter Ackerman demonstrates in Strategic Nonviolent Conflict: The Dynamics of People Power in the Twentieth Century that non-violent protest has a very wide range of strategies at its disposal, and that these mechanisms have often proven very effective in achieving the goals of the protest.

(Quite a few earlier posts have focused on examples of social mobilization and theories of how groups become engaged in collective action; these can be found in the collective action thread.)

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Feasibility conditions on social reform


Several earlier posts have raised the issues of social change and social progress (post, post). People sometimes want society to be different (change), and they want it to be better (progress). But not all outcomes are possible, and some possible outcomes are not sustainable over time. So how should we think about sweeping prescriptions for social change? What constraints does social reality impose upon the reformer? And what kinds of moral and political constraints should be respected as we advocate for change?

Consider an analogy with the natural sciences and engineering.  Physics and the natural sciences set the boundary conditions on what kinds of structures can be built and used.  Engineering design involves acquiring a detailed knowledge of the natural properties of materials and structures, and then designing artifacts that satisfy human needs.  The human-built world is not determined by the laws of physics, since there are countless different technologies that could have satisfied human needs consistent with physics; but it is constrained by the laws of physics.  What is the corresponding relationship between the social sciences and social reform?

Let's begin by giving a schematic definition of a reform program. A program for reform consists of several things: a representation of the existing social world; a critique of some aspects of that world; a prescription for what the reformer believes would be a better social world; and a developed strategy for moving society from here to there. Reformers think that a specified set of changes will make for a better environment for some aspect of human life, for a group or for the population as a whole.  The representation of the current social world may include several different kinds of elements: representation of typical social behavior, representation of existing institutions and practices, and representations of things like justice, power, inequality, and repression.

For example, suppose one was an anti-racist reformer in the US in 1850 or 1950. The diagnosis of the present may be that current institutions and majority attitudes, behaviors, and practices systematically repress, demean, and stunt members of the racial minority. The reformer's goal may be the creation of a society in which racial oppression, discrimination, and bias do not exist. And the strategy may be to create powerful coalitions of players in society who will work effectively and quickly to disassemble racist laws and institutions and to educate the public to leave behind their racist attitudes and beliefs.

So what are some of the basic conditions of realism and feasibility that a legitimate program of reform must satisfy? For a proposed reform agenda to be rationally supportable, its goals must be feasible and accessible. The institutions, practices, and behaviors it postulates as an end state need to be consistent with what we know about how a society works. And there needs to be a possible pathway through which society can move from here to there.

In other words, the social reformer needs to demonstrate that --
  • The described social arrangement can be implemented, given ordinary people and ordinary social processes and mechanisms; in other words, the social arrangement doesn't require a miracle to be achieved.
  • The arrangement will have a significant likelihood of being sustainable and self-reproducing, given ordinary people and ordinary social processes. No miracles are needed to sustain the new society.
  • There is a feasible pathway that can take us from here to there, consistent with ordinary people AND some set of moral constraints (democracy, commitment to legal processes, no illegal use of force). 
  • The described social arrangement will be efficacious: it will have the social effects that it is planned to have.
A little more specifically, the program of reform needs to be consistent with our best understanding of how ordinary human beings behave.  It needs to create incentives that are consistent with ordinary human behavior; and the behaviors that result from these incentives need to reinforce the stability of the institutions that the program postulates. We don't need to offer a strong theory of universal human nature, in order to maintain that there are elements of motivation and psychology that are common among human beings and that will continue to drive their behavior in the future.

Second, the program needs to envision institutions that work correctly together: they successfully coordinate behavior, motivate citizens, raise public revenues, and maintain order as a coherent system. For example, we could have little confidence in a theory of the future that postulated a wide range of public services and a fiscal model that depended entirely on voluntary contributions by citizens to society's coffers. And we would likewise be skeptical about a vision of the future that aggregated local functions like trash collection and building inspections to the national level.

Third, we would want to specify that we need to have a theory of democratic feasibility: that there is a strategy of change that can be successfully executed within the constraints of a democratic society. No "dictatorship of the proletariat" on the road to a more just future; no use of violence by a minority party aiming to achieve its goals by force.

The social sciences can assist with each of these challenges.  Consider first the "ordinary behavior" condition.  Empirical studies of human behavior -- motivations, modes of reasoning, schemes of action -- provide a rich set of tools in terms of which to assess the likely behavior of individuals within a hypothetical social context.  Ethnography, social psychology, applied rational choice theory, and the philosophy of action all have much to contribute on this issue.

Turn next to the "institutional workings" condition.  One of the central tasks of the "new institutionalism" is to provide theories of the mechanisms and processes through which specific institutions interact with human actors to bring about social outcomes.  So institutionalists from sociology, political science, and economics have many of the tools necessary to provide an assessment of the likely workings of a specified set of hypothetical institutions.

The social sciences are also relevant to assessing the democratic feasibility requirement.  Policies are implemented by governments, and governments are subject to a variety of political constraints. Within a democratic electoral system governments are unavoidably concerned about the effects of various policies on the electoral blocks upon which they depend.  We can reason in some detail, as Adam Przeworski does in Capitalism and Social Democracy, about the feasibility of maintaining an electoral majority in favor of a given reform program over the period of time that would be required.

There is an important implication in all of this.  Envisioning a better future for our society is a good thing.  But in order to have a defensible plan for creating that future, we need to make the very best use possible of the social sciences in order to assess the feasibility, stability, and efficacy of the ideas for which we advocate.  Not all visions for the future can be realized; and some visions turn out to have unintended and unanticipated consequences that have proven disastrous.

Sunday, July 4, 2010

International social science


Last month the International Social Science Council (ISSC) launched a major review of the status of the social sciences worldwide (link).  The report was commissioned and partially funded by UNESCO.  The full report is available as a PDF file, and it is an important piece of work.  It includes review essays by leading social scientists and chiefs of social science research organizations in Europe, North America, the Middle East, Africa, and Latin America and the Caribbean, and it makes an effort to provide a fairly comprehensive snapshot of the current state of affairs in the institutions, funding, and patterns of collaboration that currently drive social science research programmes in almost all regions of the world.  (It is interesting to observe that there is not a single mention of social science research in Israel.)

The primary focus of the report is on the institutional settings within which social science research takes place globally: for example, funding systems, universities and institutes, peer review systems, and publication systems.  To what extent are these institutions, in various regions of the world, succeeding in supporting and encouraging the kinds of social science research that will further the policy and informational needs of the publics they serve?  And to what extent are there substantial differences across regions of the world with respect to the depth and effectiveness of these institutional supports for the social sciences?

Here are three high-level changes in the social sciences that are noted in the report:
Three changes in the environment of social science production are particularly likely to affect their content, role and function. These are first, globalization, leading to the parallel internationalization of some public concerns and of social science research itself; second, changes in the institutional and social organization of social sciences; and third, the increased role of new information technology (IT) in the production and dissemination of social sciences. (1)
A more pervasive finding that structures many chapters in the report is the idea of "divides" within and across the world's communities of social scientists.  Most fundamental is the gap in resources and institutional capacity that exists between North and South with respect to social science research:
For any observer of social sciences worldwide, the most striking divide is between countries and regions. There is not much in common between a social science department in a well-endowed university of the global North and a social science research institute in a Southern country suffering from economic and political instability. (3)
(Here is a map indicating widely different levels of spending on tertiary education across the globe:)


But the report also highlights divides across the practices of the social sciences that reflect real differences in intellectual commitments:
From an epistemological point of view, social sciences have been diverse and are characterized by a multiplicity of methods, approaches, disciplines, paradigms, national traditions and underlying political and social philosophies. (3)
Before undertaking such a survey, it is necessary to have a working conception of the definition and role of the social sciences.  The report takes a pragmatic approach; the social sciences are "the disciplines whose professional association is part of ISSC" (3).  But here is the closest the report comes to framing the intellectual task of the social sciences:
The social sciences are concerned with providing the main classificatory, descriptive and analytical tools and narratives that allow us to see, name and explain the developments that confront human societies. They allow us to decode underlying conceptions, assumptions and mental maps in the debates surrounding these developments. They may assist decision-making processes by attempting to surmount them. And they provide the instruments to gauge policies and initiatives, ‘and to determine what works and what does not’. (9)
Another organizing thread in the work of this large team of collaborators is the idea that the social sciences are most valuable when they make a contribution to the solution of important social and political problems.  They specifically refer to a set of common challenges that are of concern to virtually all the regional research communities surveyed here:
Challenges such as environmental change, poverty, financial crisis and inequality, as well as trends affecting human societies such as ageing, marginalization and the rise of cities as strategic economic spaces in the global economy are occurring everywhere but take on different forms according to local contexts. The authors discuss a wide array of challenges and trends, but other challenges such as gender issues, public health concerns, security, food crisis, migrations, diversity and integration, and burning issues and trends could also have found a place in this section. (9-10)
The greatest value and interest of this report is the degree of detail it is possible to glean from the summary reports provided by the regional associations of the social sciences.  This gives a cumulatively detailed impression of the ways in which the social sciences are framed in Africa, the Middle East, Asia, and Latin America, as well as North America and Europe.  Here is a nice example from Huang Ping's survey of the status of the social sciences in China, where Ping provides historical context for Chinese social science:
In terms of what we see today, the status of the social sciences in China can be traced back to the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, when the first generation of Chinese students and scholars returned from Western countries, mostly the UK and the USA, after completing their degrees or their research.
After the Second World War and since the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, social sciences in China have developed along three traditions: Chinese scholarly academia, especially Confucianism, Daoism and Buddhism; focusing on economics in line with Soviet influences and Marxist studies; and later, Western approaches.
During the Cultural Revolution (1966–76), social sciences almost disappeared and were hardly taught. After the opening-up process initiated in 1978, social sciences, along with science and research in general, were resumed and given a mandate to support the reform process. The Soviet influence gradually disappeared, and Western, especially US, social science approaches became the most influential. Sociology, for example, had been banned since 1952 and was reintroduced in 1979. During the past decade, traditional Chinese academic traditions have been reintroduced in universities and have caught the interest of an increasing number of students. (73)
The report does not explicitly attempt to map the range and diversity of research priorities in different regions of the world; but it is possible to begin to do so by paying close attention to the surveys offered by the regional associations for social science research. Topics vary across regions. What is more difficult to assess is the degree to which epistemologies, theories, and intellectual frameworks vary as well -- though Sandra Harding's contribution points in this direction. (See an earlier posting discussing work by Gabriel Abend on "Styles of Epistemology" (link).)

Particularly interesting for me are short pieces by Saskia Sassen ("Cities in today's global age"), Craig Calhoun ("Social sciences in North America"), Akhil Gupta ("Construction of the global poor"), David Harvey ("A financial Katrina?"), Jon Elster ("One social science or many?"), and Sandra Harding ("Standpoint methodologies and epistemologies: A logic of scientific inquiry for people").

In short, this is a genuinely interesting and detailed review of the status of the social sciences in the world today, and anyone with an interest in the "sociology of the social sciences" and the globalization of social knowledge will want to read it carefully.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

The Chinese-American Left in the early 20th century


There hasn't been much historical scholarship on the forms of political activism that existed within the Chinese-American communities in the US in the early part of the twentieth century. Historical research on the Chinese-American community has more often focused on poverty, discrimination, employment, immigration law, and racism. A very important exception to this is the life-long research of Him Mark Lai, collected in a fascinating recent book (Chinese American Transnational Politics, edited by Madeline Hsu). And, as Lai demonstrates, it is a fascinating and important story.

Lai was an independent scholar who devoted a lifetime to historical and archival research on the history of the Chinese communities in the United States. He was trained as an engineer and had a career as a mechanical engineer for Bechtel in San Francisco. But what he really cared about was history. And he became a founding pioneer in the field of Chinese-American studies. Here are several links to biographies and archives of Lai's contributions (link, link).  Here is how Lai frames his analysis of the Chinese-American Left:
The different Chinese left movements from the later nineteenth through the greater part of the twentieth century were offshoots of important political and social movements of the West.  Probably because the Chinese population constituted only a small minority in the United States, little scholarly attention has focused on the historical development of these movements among them.  This essay strives to piece together information scattered among many publications and oral sources to reconstruct this history and the varying roles of the individuals involved.  This essay emphasizes activities concerning Chinese people in America rather than interpreting the inner workings, conflicts, or ideological leanings of global left movements.
Two factors stimulated the emergence and rise of left-wing activities among Chinese in America: the desire to improve their status in America, where they faced exploitation and racial oppression, and the hope of modernizing China into an internationally respected nation. (53)
The topic of interest here is the political identities that began to emerge within Chinese-American communities in the 1920s and 1930s. This is interesting for several reasons: the fact of an indigenous left in the US during these decades, which poses the questions of influence and alliance within the American left and radical working class movement; and the fact of rapid political development for reform and revolution in China itself, which raises the question of influence of Chinese radical thought on American Chinese intellectuals and activists. Lai documents the appearance of anarchist, socialist, and communist thought in leaders and intellectuals in leading Chinese-American communities, and he attempts to tease out the intellectual and political influences that created this efflorescence of the Chinese left in the US.  (Here is an interesting link to short texts referring to Chinese anarchists in the United States in the 1920s.)

One potential influence that conspicuously did not occur was deliberate recruitment of Chinese people by left labor organizations in the US. "Even the Socialist Party, despite its emphasis on the common interests of the proletariat regardless of race or nationality, was hostile toward Chinese labor" (53).  Only the IWW was able to genuinely embrace the anti-racist principles of the theory of socialism; only the Wobblies made determined efforts to organize and mobilize exploited Chinese workers in the US.

A key influence on Chinese-American activists was the impact that had been created in China by exposure to socialist and anarchist critiques of modern society.
During this period, Chinese Marxists and anarchists were chiefly intellectuals and students who had gone abroad to study and become politically active reformers and revolutionaries.  Through Japanese and European writings, they learned about the ideas of Bakunin, Kropotkin, Marx, Engels, and others.  Many articles touching on these doctrines appeared in newspapers and periodicals established by reform and revolutionary organizations in Hong Kong and Japan (54).
(Here is an online review by Jason Schultz of Arif Dirlik's book, Anarchism in the Chinese Revolution.  Dirlik gives a good representation of the thread of non-communist radicalism in China.)

These developments among Chinese activists and intellectuals diffused to the Chinese diaspora and concentrated Chinese populations abroad.  "Around the turn of the twentieth century, first the reformers, then the Hongmen, followed by the revolutionaries, founded newspapers in major New World Chinese communities such as San Francisco, Honolulu, Vancouver, and New York City" (55).  "The teachings of Proudhon, Bakunin, and Kropotkin gained in popularity as petty bourgeois Chinese intellectuals embraced the concept of committing acts of terrorism to help destroy the old order" (55).  "Around 1907-08 the IWW recruited two Chinese sympathizers in San Francisco to translate some of their literature.  In 1909 a Honolulu book club was already in existence and met periodically to discuss such works as 'A Critique of Socialism,' 'Scientific Socialism,' and 'Marx'" (55-56).

Some of these political-social theories began to have an influence on ordinary working people in the Chinese communities of the United States.  "Immigrants from China, many influenced by anarcho-syndicalist philosophies, were active in labor issues among the Chinese population on the North American mainland.  The widespread labor unrest in the United States and Canada that peaked during the years following World War I probably contributed to such developments" (58).  "One of the first major labor organizing efforts occurred in Vancouver, with the founding of the Zhonghua Gongdang [Chinese Labour Association] in 1916 and that group's efforts to organize sawmill workers in the area. In 1918 and 1919 the association led successful strikes that won on such issues as shortening the workday from ten to eight hours" (58).  "In the United States, Chinese spearheaded a major labor organizing effort in 1918, when Chicago waiters organized the Mon Sang Association to demand better working conditions.  However, the largest group of Chinese organized workers was the Sanfanshi Gongyi Tongmeng Zonghui [Workers' League of San Francisco, or Unionist Guild], founded in 1919 in San Francisco, which at the time had the largest population of Chinese shirt-factory workers" (58).

Anarcho-syndicalist ideas appear to have the earliest appeal to Chinese-American activists; but Marxism soon came along as well.  "Chinese in America showed interest in Marxism as early as December 1919, when Oi-won Jung, a KMT party member who had also been active in the Chinese Socialist Club, helped organize Xin Shehui [New Society] in San Jose, California, 'to study capitalism and communism and the radical politics of the New Russia'" (61).  But, Lai argues, this influence did not reflect a connection between Chinese activists and the Communist Party of the United States of America; rather, the influence proceeded from debates occurring in China around the direction and strategies of the KMT. And the mortal split that eventually occurred between the KMT and the CCP forced division between radical Chinese groups in the US as well (70).

This summary only touches upon the complex and fascinating narrative that Lai constructs, interweaving the local grievances expressed by the Chinese-American community and the increasingly complex political relationships that evolved in China between KMT and CCP groups as China struggled towards revolution.  It is a history well worth reading, and gives a good illustration of the power of "micro-history" as a way of discovering the underlying complexities of macro-level, world-historical phenomena -- revolution, ideology, racism, injustice, and resistance.

(And now, for something completely different -- Monty Python's version of anarcho-syndicalism:)