Friday, December 30, 2011

Supervenience and social entities

What is the ontological status of social entities -- kinship systems, police departments, religious movements?  And what is the status of causal powers of social entities?  Do we need to "reduce" social entities to the compounds of individuals who make them up? And do we need to derive the causal properties of social entities from the characteristics and interactions of the individuals who make them up? In short, do we need to be reductionist about the social world?

This is a question that arises in many of the "special" sciences, including in particular psychology and neuroscience.  A basic premise of contemporary philosophy is that all phenomena are composed of physical entities, processes, and systems. The mind-body problem is the most immediate place where physicalism does some important work. Mind-body dualists held that mental states were independent from physical states, whereas physicalists insist that mental states are embodied in physical processes and systems.

It is plain enough that we make use of a vocabulary that doesn't appear to invoke physical states when we talk about people's actions and states of mind. When I decide to have tofu for dinner, or when I experience the taste of hot sesame oil, I am engaging in a mental act or qualitative state. "Deciding", "experiencing", and "having qualitative states" all appear to be terms that refer to private mental states. The physicalist takes it as a piece of ontological certainty, however, that these "mental" states are fully and entirely constituted by the physical substrates of the brain and nervous system.

So what do physicalists have in mind when they say that the phenomena to which these terms refer are really physical states? There are several possibilities:
  • eliminative materialism: mental states do not exist, and we need to give definitions of mental terms that allow us to eliminate them in favor of physical terms [reductionism]
  • non-eliminative materialism: mental states exist, but they are wholly and exhaustively caused by physical states
  • epiphenomenalism: mental states are by-products of physical states without causal powers to influence subsequent physical states
  • supervenience: mental states depend upon physical states and nothing else, but it is difficult and unnecessary to reduce facts about mental states to facts about physical states
Is there an analogous situation in the social sciences? Is individualism for the social sciences strongly analogous to physicalism for the natural sciences? Is there something ontologically dubious about referring to social entities and causes?

There is nothing peculiar about the idea that some entities are complex assemblages of other, simpler entities. Virtually every entity that we have an interest in is a compound of simpler entities -- genes, enzymes, or the insulin molecule depicted above.  A table has characteristics that depend on the physical features and arrangement of the materials that make it up, but those "table" characteristics are very different from the features of the composing elements -- hardness, stability, load-bearing capacity, etc. And there is no reason whatsoever to insist that "tables do not exist -- only bits of wood exist."  Tables are identifiable composite objects, and they have causal properties that we can invoke in explanations.  So the fact that there are characteristics of the composite that are dissimilar from the characteristics of the elements is not peculiar.  And this is entirely true of social entities as well.  The efficiency or corruptibility of a tax-collecting bureau is not a characteristic of the individuals who compose it; it is rather a system-level characteristic that derives from the incentives, oversight mechanisms, and physical infrastructure of the organization.

So composite entities are not suspect in general. However, there are a couple of challenging questions that we need to confront about composite entities.  First, can we explain the properties of the composite by knowing everything about the properties of the elements and the nature of their arrangement and interactions?  Can we derive the properties of the whole from the properties of the components?  Take metallurgy: can we derive the properties of the alloy from the physical characteristics of the tin and copper which make it up?  Or are there "emergent" properties that somehow do not depend solely on the properties of the components?

Second, can we attribute causal powers to composite entities directly, or do we need to disaggregate causal claims about the aggregate onto some set of claims about the causal powers of the elements?  Do we need to disaggregate the load-bearing capacity of the table onto a set of facts about the properties of the elements (legs, table top) and their configuration?  It is certainly true that we can derive the load-bearing capacity of the table from this set of facts; this is what civil engineers do in modeling bridges, for example.  The philosophical question is whether we ought to regard this causal property as simply a way of summarizing the underlying physics of the table, or as a stable causal property in its own right.

One appealing answer that has been offered to the question of the relationship between levels of entities is the theory of supervenience.  This theory is largely the work of philosopher Jaegwon Kim over the past thirty years. Here is a recent synthesis of his views (Physicalism, or Something Near Enough). He summarizes the basic idea in these terms:
It will suffice to understand [supervenience] as the claim that what happens in our mental life is wholly dependent on, and determined by, what happens with our bodily processes. (14)
And here is how Julie Zahle puts the point in her contribution to Turner and Risjord's Philosophy of Anthropology and Sociology:
Social entities, their properties, actions, etc. may be said to supervene upon individuals, their actions, and so on, insofar as: (1) there can be no difference at the level of social wholes, their properties, actions, etc., unless there is also a difference at the level of individuals, their properties, actions, and so on; (2) individuals, their actions, etc. fix or determine what kinds of social wholes, properties, etc. are instantiated. (327)
Does the idea of supervenience help answer the question of the ontological status of social entities?  Is it helpful to judge that social entities supervene upon facts about individuals and nothing else?  And does this leave room for the idea of social causation and relative explanatory autonomy?  Are we able to acknowledge the dependence of the social world on facts about individuals without abandoning the idea that there is social causation and social science?

Perhaps surprisingly, Kim thinks that the theory will not assist us in the last two ways, at least when it comes to psychology:
This view [supervenience] provides the burgeoning science of psychology and cognition with a philosophical rationale as an autonomous science in its own right: it investigates these irreducible psychological properties, functions, and capacities, discovering laws and regularities governing them and generating law-based explanations and predictions. It is a science with its own proper domain untouched by other sciences, especially those at the lower levels, like biology, chemistry, and physics. 
This seductive picture, however, turns out to be a piece of wishful thinking, when we consider the problem of mental causation--how it is possible, on such a picture, for mentality to have causal powers, powers to influence the course of natural events. (15)
So I am in a quandary at the moment: I favor the idea of "relatively autonomous social explanations" (link), I like the idea of regarding social entities as legitimate compound entities that don't require elimination, and I think of the theory of supervenience as providing some authority for these views.  And yet Kim himself seems to reject this line of thought when it comes to the special sciences of psychology and cognitive science.  Kim seems to want to argue that higher level sciences cannot claim relative autonomy; in this respect his own view seems to be reductionist.

What seems clear to me can be summarized in just a few points:
  • Social entities and facts are determined and constituted by facts about individuals, their beliefs, their relations, and their actions.  So social entities and facts do in fact supervene upon facts about individuals.
  • Social entities do have causal properties that can be discovered without needing to eliminate them in terms of properties of individuals.  
  • The requirement of microfoundations is crucial because it establishes the intellectual discipline required by the first point: we must be able to validate that the claims we make about social properties and causal powers can be provided microfoundations at the level of socially situated individuals.
  • There is a legitimate and defensible level of explanation at which social scientists can hypothesize social properties and causal capacities; so there is a place for a "relatively autonomous" social science.  We are not forced to be reductionist.
  • The "social" is not inherently puzzling in the way that the "mental" is.  Social entities are more analogous to chairs and proteins than they are to thoughts and qualia: they are complex entities whose system-level characteristics are the ultimate effects of the interactions and properties of the individual elements that constitute them.  We often cannot trace out exactly how the properties of the whole derive from the properties of the components; but we don't need to do so except in unusual circumstances.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Democracy in the mirror

Why is democracy something people should strive for? And how are we doing with ours?

Consider first the fundamentals. Why is there a role for democracy in any circumstances? Fundamentally democracy is a form of group decision-making. Political institutions are needed in circumstances in which decisions must be made that affect all members of a group. Each member of a group has his or her own set of preferences about choices that affect the group; so there needs to be a process for arriving at a set of social preferences -- a social choice function. Democracy requires designing a set of arrangements through which each person's preferences will have equal weight in determining the ultimate decision. Otherwise we would have a system in which one person decides (dictatorship) or a minority decides (oligarchy). So democracy represents a set of decision-making institutions that embody respect for the equal worth of all citizens when it comes to making collective choices.

In addition to the aggregation of individual preferences, democratic values consider as well the circumstances under which the members of a group form their beliefs and preferences. Narrow democratic theory takes individual preferences as exogenous. But broader versions of democratic theory attempt to bring democratic values into the social processes through which beliefs and preferences are formed. The theory of deliberative democracy emphasizes in particular the features of civility, mutual respect, and open-mindedness through which debate and critical examination of issues leads to a fuller understanding of issues and a more reflective set of preferences. This aspect of democracy is valuable because it corresponds to a society in which open and uncensored debate leads to the formation of individual and collective preferences and embodies the ideas of democratic equality among citizens. And less-privileged groups can exercise their voices in these forums to attempt to influence other citizens to support more just policies and choices.

There is another reason for cheering democracy: it is possible that democracy is more likely to protect the rights and needs of the relatively powerless in society; democratic institutions can function as a bulwark against the arbitrary power of elites of all kinds. If the powerless have political voice, they then have an ability to advocate for, and democratically support, the policies that favor their perspectives and interests. The fact that otherwise powerless people can express their preferences through democratic means is a substantial form of potential influence for non-privileged groups. (This political power is offset, of course, by the political power and influence wielded by elite minorities in most societies.)

The most fundamental reasons, then, to value democracy are its correspondence to the value of the moral equality of all persons and the capacity it creates for non-elite groups' struggles for fair treatment. Democratic institutions honor the equality of all persons in the fact that each person has an equal voice in deliberating upon and deciding collective policies. A democracy is morally preferable because it best embodies the more basic moral value of fundamental human equality and dignity and it provides a feasible mechanism for pursuing social justice.

So how does the US democracy measure up on these criteria?  Take the last point first: the idea that democracy empowers the powerless.  The role of money in politics takes a lot of the force out of this point in the US.  Corporations and wealthy individuals are able to influence legislation, regulation, and policy in ways that are vastly disproportionate to their numbers (link).  It is possible for a numerous group to exert political influence through the electoral process to defend its interests; but it is also possible for the powerful to quietly subvert these outcomes as well.

So how about the formative benefits of democracy?  Do we find that American citizens are involved in thoughtful debates that bring more facts to the discussion and result in clearer preferences and policies?  Here the answer is too often "no" as well.  The shouting and vitriol on the media outlets of the right set a tone that discourages or extinguishes respectful debate and clarification.  It's hard to see evidence that voters have gotten better at thinking through the issues, the facts, and the underlying values that can subsequently guide their political choices.

And how about the most basic function of democracy, its service as an institution that aggregates individual preferences onto a coherent social preference function?  Even here our democracy has challenges.  First, we don't seem to be trending towards "coherence" -- instead we have a Congress that mostly serves to block the formation of policy, from legislation to confirmation of appointment out of political opposition to the sitting president. And second, there is only a loose fit between the voting behavior of elected officials and the preferences of their constituents. Constituents have the ability to reject officials of whose voting behavior they strongly disapprove. But election campaigns have more to do with slogans and quick fixes than they do thoughtful efforts to align the candidate's platform with the diverse preferences of the electorate. Ideology and rhetoric drive electoral strategies, not honest discussion of the issues and the facts that surround them.

Take healthcare reform as an example. The reforms that the Obama administration fought for were plainly advantageous for a very large segment of the American population. Tens of millions of people stood to gain access to health insurance as a consequence of the reforms. And yet the voices of those tens of millions of people played almost no role in the bitter political conflict that ensued. Conservative theories and agendas, widely disseminated falsehoods ("death panels"), and purple rhetoric instead dominated the legislative and electoral process. Eventually a weakened version of healthcare reform became law, of course, but the process did a very poor job of embodying the interests of those most affected by the issue.  (Here is a good post by Barbara Ehrenreich that updates her insights in Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America. Ehrenreich makes the importance of healthcare for poor people very clear.)

What American democracy is good at, by and large, is establishing government that is ruled by law. Legal and constitutional protections for citizens are a substantial bulwark against the arbitrary exercise of power by political or social elites. It doesn't need saying that these protections are incomplete, and that various groups in the US have suffered from illegal or unconstitutional treatment. (Consider, for example, the determined efforts being made by some state legislatures to deny partner health benefits to one specific group of citizens.) But by and large, US citizens have justified confidence that their rights will be respected and enforced. They have relatively extensive rights of speech and association, and it is difficult for government to curtail those rights for short term political or individual advantage. Citizens also know that they have the periodic ability to reject the men and women who rule them, which puts some constraints on the behavior of the elected officials.

It is possible that this is the most we can hope for from any government in a modern mass society. But it is also possible that a PhD student in comparative politics from Mars might classify our polity as "constitutionally regulated oligarchy with periodic elections of government officials and extensive infrastructures for managing elections to lead to outcomes that satisfy the elites" -- in other words, something rather different from idealized theories of "democracy" and political institutions well designed for establishing the common good.

(See Jack Knight and Jim Johnson, The Priority of Democracy: Political Consequences of Pragmatism, Ian Shapiro, The State of Democratic Theory, Amy Gutmann and Dennis Thompson, Why Deliberative Democracy?, and Adam Przeworski, Democracy and the Market: Political and Economic Reforms in Eastern Europe and Latin America for different aspects of this issue.)

Sunday, December 25, 2011

A peaceful world?


Many people around the world are celebrating Christmas this morning.  A central wish around this holiday is "peace and good will for all." Why is enduring peace so difficult to achieve?  What are the prospects for us in the twenty-first century?

Peace and conflict are related, but they aren't precise opposites.  Conflict between individuals and groups can take many forms, and it is possible to manage or resolve conflicts without violence or hatred.  This village uses its pasture and forest for gathering; that village begins to encroach with its livestock herd.  The two villages have a conflict over the pasture.  This conflict may eventually escalate into violence between the villages, with armed groups from each waging small-scale war against the others.  But it doesn't have to work out this way.  Leaders of the two villages may negotiate a set of land use customs that do something to satisfy the needs and interests of both villages, and they may be successful in getting their constituents to honor those agreements.  Or there may be a state capable of establishing and enforcing property rights that are binding on both groups, while permitting each group to pursue its most important life activities.  Or, perhaps, the two groups may have normative and religious bonds of solidarity that lead each member of the group to possess a reservoir of good will that makes resort to violence impossible to imagine.

So conflict of interests and wants doesn't necessarily lead to a breaking of the peace.  But these conflicts have the potential to do so.  And political theorists in the social contract tradition since Hobbes have held that this is the key role of the state -- to establish an acceptable set of rules for property and person that determine clear rights and obligations for everyone, and clear procedures for punishment if rights are violated.  Only through a system of law can we avoid the state of nature which is a state of war of all against all.

Other theorists, notably Elinor Ostrom, have argued that populations have solved the problems of conflict over resources in non-state ways, through "common property resource regimes" (Governing the Commons: The Evolution of Institutions for Collective Action).  The conditions under which a CPRR is stable are more complex than those of a state -- essentially, the CPRR needs to be supported by normative and cultural elements that give all participants a reason to honor the rules -- but Ostrom and fellow researchers have documented many successful instances.  And, of course, a common property resource regime needs to have some kind of processes for addressing and resolving conflicts among participants -- fishermen who disagree about the catch, water users who disagree about the management of upstream resources.

So what are some of the large causes of breakdowns of peace in populations of people?

A key source of sustained violent conflict on a large scale is perceived unresolved injustice.  One party or nation blocks access to resources or opportunities to which another party believes it has a moral right; demands are made; the situation persists; and violent acts begin to occur.

Another important source is conflict over access to important natural resources -- water, oil, minerals.  Conflicts over resources may occur at the local level, or they may rise to the level of inter-country armed conflict and war.

We can't overlook the religious and ideological origins of much conflict in humanity's history.  The prolonged conflict, often violent, between Hindus and Muslims over the Babri Mosque in India is a good example.  The site has religious importance for both communities; leaders are able to mobilize their followers in defense of their claims; violence ensues.

So what can humanity do to improve the prospects for peace and good will?

Sustained efforts at conflict resolution are a good place to start.  People of good will can often enough find the resources they need to bring down the degree of conflict and hostility between groups, and to find procedures that make resort to violence less likely.

Recognizing and addressing injustices between peoples and nations will help.  Justice and peace are intertwined.

Promoting the universality of human needs and the value of inter-group tolerance and respect is a very good step.  And spiritual leaders of all faiths are sometimes very committed to this work.  (Others are not, of course!)

So, this fine Christmas morning in 2011, let us all work for peace and justice for our grandchildren!

Friday, December 23, 2011

A pragmatist action theory

A theory of action is one component of a meta-framework for sociology. It is an organized set of ideas about what individuals are doing when they engage in interactions in the world, and what we think at the highest level of generality about why they behave as they do. Individuals within social interactions constitute the social world; they do things; and they do things for reasons that we would like to understand. A theory of action ought to give us a basic vocabulary for describing behavior in the social world. And it ought to provide some framing hypotheses about the causes or motivations of behavior.

An important aspect of action theory is the idea of "intensionality" and mental representation. This is the conception of the individual as possessing consciousness, purposes, and a mental orientation to the world. He or she "understands" the events that surround him/her -- that is, the individual forms a mental representation of the swirling set of actions and events that surround him or her. And the individual places him/herself within this representation by conceptualizing wants, aversions, aspirations, and intentions concerning what might be achieved through intentional behavior.

This description may seem obvious. Or it may seem to reflect a set of assumptions about how to parse the social world that are substantive, consequential, and debatable. They are consequential because they push our sociological researches in a particular direction: who are the actors that make up a social ensemble? What are they doing? Why are they doing these things?

They are debatable because -- as we've seen in discussions of Abbott and Gross previously -- they privilege the actor over the action, the individual over the interaction. They push us in the direction of a social ontology that is individualistic and perhaps reductionist. Abbott proposes, in contrast, that we begin with the interaction, the flow of moves and responses. Tilly suggests that we start with the relationships and turn to the individual actors only later in the analysis. And Gross suggests starting with the creativity inherent in any complex flow of human activities and interactions.

Each of these thinkers point in the direction of a pragmatist theory of action. So what might a pragmatist theory involve?

One avenue for getting a handle on this question is to turn to the work of Hans Joas, who has contributed deeply to the question of how pragmatism intersects with sociology. His article with Jens Beckert in Jonathan Turner's Handbook of Sociological Theory is a good place to start, since he is specifically concerned there to give an exposition of a theory of action that acknowledges several important sources for such a theory while specifically developing a pragmatist account.  (The article covers a lot of the ground presented in Joas's 1997 book, The Creativity of Action. Also important is his Pragmatism and Social Theory.)

Joas begins his account by framing the standard assumptions of existing action theory in terms of two poles: action as rational choice (e.g. James Coleman) and action as conformance to a set of prescriptions and norms (e.g. Durkheim, Parsons). He argues for a view that is separate from both of these, under the heading of "creative action".
However, the alternative that reaches even further beyond the routinized exchanges between rationalist and normativist theories of action seems to us an action-theoretic conceptualization that focuses on the notion of the creativity of human action. Such a theory can be based primarily on the tradition of American pragmatism that originated in philosophy and psychology but also has a significant sociological tradition. (270)
Common to both traditional views, Joas argues, is the assumption of purposiveness: that action proceeds to bring about explicit pre-articulated goals subject to antecedently recognized constraints. The pragmatist view of action rejects this separation between goals, action, and outcome, and focuses on the fact that goals and actions themselves are formulated within a dynamic and extended process of thought and movement. (Dewey is the chief source of this view.) Tactics, movements, and responses are creative adaptations to fluidly changing circumstances. The basketball player driving to the basket is looking to score a goal or find an open teammate. But it is the rapid flow of movement, response by other players, and position on the floor that shapes the extended action of "driving for a layup." Likewise, a talented public speaker approaches the podium with a few goals and ideas for the speech. But the actual flow of ideas, words, gestures, and flourishes is the result of the thinking speaker interacting dynamically with the audience. Joas puts his view in these terms:
At the beginning of an action process goals are frequently unspecific and only vaguely understood. They become clearer once the actor has a better understanding of the possible means to achieve the ends; even new goals will arise on the basis of newly available means. (273)
For the theory of creativity of action the significance of the situation is far greater: Action is not only contingent on the structure of the situation but the situation is constitutive of action. (274)
So what are the features of the situation that intersect with the thinking actor to create the temporally extended action? Joas refers to corporality and sociality. The body is not simply the instrument of the agent. Rather, the physical features and limitations of the body themselves contribute to the unfolding of the action. (This aspect of the theory has much to do with phenomenology.) And the other persons involved in an action are not simply subjects of manipulation. Their own creativity in movement and action defines the changing parameters of the actor's course of action. (Again, think of the analogy of 10 players in a basketball game.)

Joas thinks that this interpretation of action as extended intelligent adaptation to shifting circumstances helps to account for complex social circumstances that rational-actor and normative-actor theories have difficulty with. He illustrates this claim with the extended examples of reciprocity and innovation.

This is a rich and nuanced theory of action, and one that has the potential for offering a basis of a much richer analysis of concrete social circumstances than we currently have. At the same time it should not be thought to be in contradiction to either rational-deliberation or normative-deliberation theories. These creative actors whom Joas describes are purposive in a more diffuse sense, and they are responsive to norms in action. It seems to me that the chief tension Joas offers is between stylized, mono-stranded models of action, and thick theories that incorporate the plain fact of intelligent adaptation and shaping of behavior that occurs in virtually all human activities.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Protest in Wukan


A period of demonstration and protest in the Chinese village of Wukan has caught the attention of world media in the past several weeks (link, link). The village is in Guangdong, the dynamic coastal province.  The demonstrations began in September against major land seizures by local government in alignment with developers, and became more intense in the past week when leader Xue Jinbo died in police custody.  (Here is a good Wikipedia article on the village.)  Land seizures seem to be the most volatile issue in China today, producing a large proportion of the roughly 90,000 civil disturbances the country currently faces a year.

Analysts are interested in probing the causes and dynamics of protest and resistance in contemporary China, including C. K. Lee (Against the Law: Labor Protests in China's Rustbelt and Sunbelt) and Kevin O'Brien (Rightful Resistance in Rural China).  Here, though, it may also be interesting to compare the current situation with the occurrence of similar incidents during the Qing Dynasty.

Fortunately, it is possible to do so on the basis of a recent relevant study. Ho-Fung Hung's recent Protest with Chinese Characteristics: Demonstrations, Riots, and Petitions in the Mid-Qing Dynasty addresses exactly this issue in historical context. He looks at the period 1740-1839 and finds that the character of protest and resistance varied throughout the period. This is the early modernization period of Chinese history, and Hung believes that the subject of popular unrest has been overlooked in this period. The grasp of the central power of the state increased during this period, and it also represented a major advance in commercialization of Chinese society.

The main source of data on protests during this period that Hung analyzes is the Veritable Records of the Qing, a compendium of shortened versions of edicts and memorials from the emperor and other officials. Out of the 2,096 volumes of this archive Hung identifies 514 events of popular protest and 450 events of petitions to higher officials (55).  His empirical work involves coding hundreds of contentious events during the period, classifying them, and looking for patterns of change over time.  But how to categorize?  Here is his overview description of his approach:
I classify the documented protest events into different types according to their claims and repertoires. A protest's claim is a set of articulated demands advanced by the participants. The repertoire of a protest is the set of learned or invented acts that the protesters performed to attract the attention of potential participants and the authorities, as well as to persuade or force the authorities to meet their demands. (58)
One distinction between events that he draws from the existing literature on contention and rebellion is between backward looking and modernizing protests. Essentially the former represent demands to secure existing rights (or re-establish recently extinguished rights). The latter take the form of proactive protests aimed at creating new opportunities and rights within an emerging set of economic or social institutions. Hung rightly rejects the idea that European experience can provide a full theory of contentious politics. So he insists on using the evidence of non-western movements as an alternative basis of analysis and theory. China's experience in the mid-Qing provides an ample basis for arriving at such a scheme.

Hung doubts the utility of the concept of "backward-looking" protest in the mid-Qing period. Instead, he argues that protests throughout the period were proactive and aimed at securing better outcomes in the future for the protesters, in light of changing political and economic conditions. The large distinction that Hung favors as a way of categorizing contention has to do with the purpose and style of the mobilization. "Filial protest", or "state-engaging" protest, involves collective action intended to implore the state to honor its obligations. "State-resisting" protest involves action deliberately designed to challenge the authority and power of the state, often with the threat or reality of violence (58). And Hung believes this scheme is valuable for China, in part, because some surprising patterns emerge through these lenses. In particular, he finds the frequency of state-resisting protest varies significantly along this timeframe, from a high point in 1600-44 of 94% to a low in 1740-59 of 40%, rising again between 1776 and 1839 (figure 6.1).

Hung's account highlights several important things about Chinese protest. First is the point that protests exist within a set of material social arrangements that provide the interests that lead to mobilization. So an important dimension of analysis for uncovering the causes of a wave of protests is to analyze the changing economic and political circumstances that created new pressures and opportunities for ordinary people.  Second is the point that culture and repertoires of resistance give form to the protests that emerge.  Here he gives causal importance to Confucian ideas about the state, but also to heterodox ideas stemming from non-Confucian traditions (for example, White Lotus Buddhism).

A very old feature of Chinese protest involves the delivery of petitions to the central government (emperor) to protest abuses by local officials, tax farmers, or other scourges of peasant life.
In Qing times (1644-1911), a common remedy for powerless subjects abused by local officials was to travel all the way to Beijing to appeal to the emperor as their grand patriarch, hoping he would sympathize with their plight and penalize corrupt local officials. (1)
And, as Hung points out, this tradition continued through 1989 and beyond.

So what about Wukan?  Does Hung's analysis of mid-Qing protest shed any light on the nature of protest there?

Accounts make several things clear.  First, the cause of popular unrest that precipitated the first round of protest in Wukan had to do with an important material issue (land seizures) and the actions of potentially corrupt local officials in collusion with powerful developers.  Second, the protest intensified dramatically in the past 10 days after security officials took violent action against elected leaders of the protesters, leading to the seizure of Xue Jinbo and his death in police custody. Third, it appears through news reports that protests took the form of non-violent appeals for relief against corrupt officials -- similar to the tradition of filial protest.  The tradition of taking the protest to higher officials is also illustrated here, with the stated intention of marching to Lufeng, the local administrative center. Here is an indicative passage from the New York Times:
Almost to a person, the villagers are holding out hope that leaders in Beijing will intervene to settle the dispute and to investigate what they contend is widespread corruption in local affairs, including land sales. Saturday’s rally, laced with chants like “We love the Communist Party,” stressed the villagers’ loyalty to the central government. One prominent banner begged the central government to come to their aid. (link)
But the same article raises the possibility that this protest may move from state-engaging to state-resisting as villagers come to believe that they have no recourse from the central government:
“Our original intent was just to get our land back,” a 29-year-old homemaker who identified herself only as Mrs. Zhu said as she stood under a Chinese flag, mounted on a makeshift pole at a protesters’ checkpoint on the village outskirts. “We never intended that things would get into such a situation.”Asked what could be done, she replied: “We have to fight to the end. That’s the only way out. If we retreat now, all the hardships the government imposed on us will come true.”
Hung provides an interesting tabulation of several important characteristics of protests in mid-Qing China that I've reproduced below. I've supplemented the table in two ways.  First, I've included in this table the data Hung reports on the incidence of state-resisting protests, which vary significantly throughout the period he studies (figure 6.1). Second, I've added an additional column of my own indicating how Wukan seems to measure up on these criteria.  The finding that I've come to is that Wukan began as a "filial protest" through which villagers sought to engage the state to obtain relief from local officials.  The protest has been pushed into a more "state-resisting" posture, however, as a result of the violence and intransigence of local and county officials, and the fact that Beijing has so far ignored the villagers' demands.


Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Global history?





A question that arises in historiography and the philosophy of history is that of the status of the notion of "global history."  I've addressed the topic several times here in a limited way -- often by making the case for Eurasian history rather than French history or Japanese history (post). There the view is that expanding the scope of vision from the separate nation states of Europe or Asia to the broader panoply of multiple peoples, cultures, and structures is helpful when it comes to understanding the past four hundred years.  But what are some of the more general concerns that make thinking about global history an interesting or important topic?

One important reason for thinking globally as an historian is the fact that the history discipline -- since the Greeks! -- has tended to be eurocentric in its choice of topics, framing assumptions, and methods.  Economic and political history, for example, often privileges the industrial revolution in England and the creation of the modern bureaucratic state in France, Britain, and Germany, as being exemplars of "modern" development in economics and politics.  This has led to a tendency to look at other countries' development as non-standard or stunted.  So global history is, in part, a framework within which the historian avoids privileging one regional center as primary and others as secondary or peripheral. Bin Wong makes this point very strongly in China Transformed.

Second is the apparent fact that when Western historical thinkers -- for example, Hegel, Malthus, Montesquieu -- have turned their attention to Asia, they have often engaged in a high degree of stereotyping without much factual historical knowledge.  The ideas of Oriental despotism, Asian overpopulation, and Chinese stagnation have encouraged a cartoonish replacement of the intricate and diverse processes of development of different parts of Asia by a single-dimensional and reductive set of simplifying frameworks of thought.  This is one of the points of Edward Said's critique of orientalism (Orientalism).  So doing "global" history means paying rigorous attention to the specificities of social, political, and cultural arrangements in other parts of the world besides Europe.

So a global history can be expected to be more agnostic about patterns of development, and more open to discovery of surprising patterns, twists, and variations in the experiences of India (and its many regional differences), China, Indochina, the Arab world, the Ottoman Empire, and Sub-saharan Africa.  Variation and complexity are what we should expect, not stereotyped simplicity.  (Geertz's historical reconstruction of the "theatre state" of Bali is a case in point -- he uncovers a complex system of governance, symbol, value, and hierarchy that represents a substantially different structure of politics than the models derived from the emergence of bureaucratic states in early modern Europe; Negara: The Theatre State in 19th Century Bali.) A global history needs to free itself from eurocentrism.

This step away from eurocentrism in outlook should also be accompanied by a broadening of the geographical range of what is historically interesting.  So a global history ought to be global and trans-national in its selection of topics -- even while recognizing the fact that all historical research is selective.  A globally oriented historian will recognize that the political systems of classical India are as interesting and complex as the organization of the Roman Republic.

Another aspect of global history falls more on the side of how some historians have thought about historical structures and causes since the 1960s. History itself is a "global" process, in which events and systems occur that involve activities in many parts of the world simultaneously. Immanuel Wallerstein is first among these, with his framework of "world systems" (The Modern World-System I: Capitalist Agriculture and the Origins of the European World-Economy in the Sixteenth Century, With a New Prologue).  But the basic idea is a compelling one.  An effort to explain the English industrial revolution by only referring to factors, influences, and experiences that occur within England or on its edges (western Europe) is inadequate on its face.  International trade, the flow of technologies from Asia to Europe, and the flows of ideas and peoples from Asia, Africa, and the Americas have plain consequences for the domestic economy of England in 1800 and the development of machine and power technologies. And a "globally minded" historian will pay close attention to these trans-national influences and interdependencies.  This aspect of the interest of global history falls within the area of thinking about the scope of the causal factors that influence more local developments.

An important current underlying much work in global history is the reality of colonialism through the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, and the equally important reality of anti-colonial struggles and nation building in the 1960s and 1970s.  "The world" was important in the capitals of Great Britain, France, Germany, and Belgium because those nations exerted colonial rule in various parts of Africa, Asia, and South America.  So there was a specific interest in gaining certain kinds of knowledge about those societies -- in order to better govern them and exploit them.  And post-colonial states had a symmetrical interest in supporting global historiography in their own universities and knowledge systems, in order to better understand and better critique the forming relations of the past.

Then there is the issue of climate and climate change.  The "little ice age" had major consequences for population, nutrition, trade, and economic activity in western Europe; but the same climate processes also affected life in other quarters of the globe.  So to have a good understanding of the timing and pace of historical change, we often need to know some fairly detailed facts about the global environment.

A final way in which history needs to become "global" is to incorporate the perspectives and historical traditions of historians in non-western countries into the mainstream of discussion of major world developments.  Indian and Chinese historians have their own intellectual traditions in conducting historical research and explanation; a global history is one that pays attention to the insights and arguments of these traditions.

So global history has to do with --
  • a broadened definition of the arena of historical change to include Europe, Asia, Africa, the Middle East, and the Americas
  • a recognition of the complexity and sophistication of institutions and systems in many parts of the world
  • a recognition of the trans-national interrelatedness that has existed among continents for at least four centuries
  • a recognition of the complexity and distinctiveness of different national traditions of historiography
Dominic Sachsenmaier provides a significant recent discussion of some of these issues in Global Perspectives on Global History: Theories and Approaches in a Connected World.  Sachsenmaier devotes much of his attention to the last point mentioned here, the "multiple global perspectives" point. He wants to take this idea seriously and try to discover some of the implications of different national traditions of academic historiography.  More than half his book is devoted to case studies of global historical research traditions and foci in three distinct national contexts -- Germany, the United States, and China.  How do historians trained and en-disciplined in these three traditions think about the core problems of transnational, global history? Sachsenmaier believes that these differences are real, and that they can be productive of future historical insights through more sustained dialogue.  But he also believes there are conceptual and methodological barriers to these dialogues, somewhat akin the the "paradigm incommensurability" ideas that Thomas Kuhn advanced for the physical sciences.
The idea that in the future, global history may experience more sustained dialogues between scholars from different world regions leads to deeper theoretical challenges than may be apparent at first sight.  Most importantly, there is the question of how to conceptualize "local" viewpoints in today's complex intellectual and academic landscapes. (11)
And he does a good job of articulating what some of these conceptual barriers involve:
In almost all world regions university-based historiography is at least partly an outcome of epistemological discontinuities, outside influences, and shared transformations.... These also had an impact on the conceptions of space underlying world historical scholarship in the widest sense. Prior to spread of history as a modern academic field, forms of border-crossing histories were typically written from a clear perspective of cultural, religious, or even ethical centricity, which means that they tended to be tied to distinct value claims. This situation changed decisively during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, when either colonial rule or nation-building efforts had a profound impact on what elements were selected into the canon of academic historiography and many earlier forms of knowledge were rendered subaltern. (13) 
Certain hierarchies of knowledge became deeply engrained in the conceptual worlds of modern historiography. Approaching the realities and further possibilities of alternative approaches to global history thus requires us to critically examine changing dynamics and lasting hierarchies which typify historiography as a global professional environment. (17) 
It will become quite clear that in European societies the question of historiographical traditions tended to be answered in ways that were profoundly different from most academic communities in other parts of the world. (17)
So Sachsenmaier's attention is directed largely to the conceptual issues and disciplinary frameworks that are pertinent when we consider how different national traditions have done history.  What he has to say here is very useful and original.  But he also makes several of the points mentioned above as well -- the need to select different definitions of geography in doing history, the need to put aside the stereotypes of eurocentrism, and the value in understanding in depth the alternative traditions of historical understanding that exist in the world.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Sociology of ideas: Richard Rorty


Where do new ideas and directions of thought come from?  Is it possible to set a context for important changes in intellectual culture, in the sciences or the humanities?  Can we give any explanation for the development of individual thinkers' thought?

These are the key questions that Neil Gross raises in his sociological biography of Richard Rorty in Richard Rorty: The Making of an American Philosopher (2009).  The book is excellent in every respect.  Gross has gone into thorough detail in discovering and incorporating correspondence with family and friends that allow him to reconstruct the micro setting within which the young Rorty took shape.  His exposition of the complex philosophical debates that set the stage for academic philosophy in the United States from the 1950s to the 1980s is effortless and accurate.  And he offers a very coherent interpretation of many of Rorty's most important ideas.  Any one of these achievements is noteworthy; together they are exceptional.

Gross is not interested in writing a traditional intellectual biography. Rather, he wants to advance the emerging field of "new sociology of ideas" through an extended case study of the development of a particularly important philosopher. The purpose of the book is to provide a careful and sociologically rich account of the ways in which a humanities discipline (philosophy) developed, through a crucial period (the 1940s through the 1980s).
My goal is to develop, on the basis of immersion in an empirical case, a new theory about the social influences on intellectual choice, particularly for humanists—that is, a theory about the social factors that lead them to fasten onto one idea, or set of ideas, rather than another, during turning points in their intellectual careers. (kindle location 95)
The argument I now want to make is that the developments considered in chapters 1–8 reflect not Rorty’s idiosyncratic and entirely contingent biographical experiences but the operation of more general social mechanisms and processes that shaped and structured his intellectual life and career. (kl 5904)
Here is how he describes the sociology of ideas:
Sociologists of ideas seek to uncover the relatively autonomous social logics and dynamics, the underlying mechanisms and processes, that shape and structure life in the various social settings intellectuals inhabit: academic departments, laboratories, disciplinary fields, scholarly networks, and so on. It is these mechanisms and processes, they claim, that—in interaction with the facts that form the material for reflection—do the most to explain the assumptions, theories, methodologies, interpretations of ambiguous data, and specific ideas to which thinkers come to cleave. (kl 499)
The goal is to provide a sociological interpretation of the development of thinkers and disciplines within the humanities (in deliberate analogy to current studies in the sociology of science).  Gross acknowledges but rejects earlier efforts at sociology of knowledge (Marx, Mannheim), as being reductionist to the thinker's location within a set of social structures.  Gross is more sympathetic to more recent contributions, including especially  the theories of Bourdieu (field) (Homo Academicus) and Randall Collins (interaction ritual chains) (The Sociology of Philosophies: A Global Theory of Intellectual Change).  These theories emphasize the incentives and advantages that lead strategically minded professionals in one direction or another within a discipline or field. But Gross argues that these theories too are insufficiently granular and don't provide a basis for accounting for the choices made by particular intellectuals.
One does not have to be a methodological individualist to recognize that meso- and macrolevel social phenomena are constituted out of the actions and interactions of individual persons and that understanding individual-level action—its nature and phenomenology and the conditions and constraints under which it unfolds—is helpful for constructing theories of higher order phenomena, even though the latter have emergent properties and cannot be completely reduced to the former. (kl 158)
To fill this gap he wants to offer a sociology of ideas that brings agency back in.  He introduces the idea of the role of the individual's "self-concept", which turns out to be a basis for the choices the young intellectual makes within the context of the strategy-setting realities of the field.  A self-concept is a set of values, purposes, and conceptions that the individual has acquired through a variety of social structures, and that continues to evolve through life.  Gross emphasizes the narrative character of a self-conception: it is expressed and embodied through the stories the individual tells him/herself and others about the development of his/her life.
The theory of intellectual self-concept can thus be restated as follows: Thinkers tell stories to themselves and others about who they are as intellectuals. They are then strongly motivated to do intellectual work that will, inter alia, help to express and bring together the disparate elements of these stories. Everything else being equal, they will gravitate toward ideas that make this kind of synthesis possible. (kl 6650)
...
There is good reason to believe that such stories or self-narratives are not epiphenomenal aspects of experience but influences on social action in their own right. Indeed, few notions have been as important in social psychology as those of self and self-concept. (551)
Simply stated, the theory of intellectual self-concept holds that intellectuals tell themselves and others stories about who they are qua intellectuals: about their distinctive interests, dispositions, values, capacities, and tastes. (kl 6487)
And Gross thinks that these stories are deeply influential, in terms of the choices that a developing intellectual makes at each stage of life.  In particular, he thinks that the academic's choices are often inflected by his/her self-conception to an extent that may override the strategic and prudential considerations that are highlighted by Bourdieu and Collins. Bourdieu and Collins offer "no attempt to think through how the quest for status and upward mobility in an intellectual field may intersect and sometimes compete with thinkers’ cognitive and affective interests in remaining true to narratives of intellectual selfhood that have become more or less stable features of their existence" (562). In his view, identity trumps interest--at least sometimes.

Here is how he applies this analysis to Rorty:
My central empirical thesis is that the shift in Rorty’s thought from technically oriented philosopher to free-ranging pragmatist reflected a shift from a career stage in which status considerations were central to one in which self-concept considerations became central. (576)
Or in other words, Rorty's early career is well explained by the Bourdieu-Collins theory, whereas his later shift towards pragmatism and more heterodox, pluralistic philosophy is explained by his self-concept.

In Gross's telling of the story, much of Richard Rorty's self-concept was set by the influences of his remarkable parents in childhood and adolescence, James Rorty and Winifred Raushenbush.  The parents were politically engaged literary and political intellectuals, and they created an environment of social and intellectual engagement that set aspects of Richard's self-concept that influenced several key choices in his life.  Gross's depiction of the social and intellectual commitments of James and Winifred, and the elite milieu in which they circulated, is detailed and striking. This "social capital" served Richard well in his course from the University of Chicago to Yale into his academic career.

Gross believes that the key turns in Rorty's development were these: first, the decision to do a masters thesis on Whitehead at Chicago; then his choice of Yale as a doctoral institution, with a Ph.D. dissertation on "The Concept of Potentiality" (a metaphysical subject); his shift towards analytic philosophy during his first several years of teaching at Wellesley; his deepening engagement with analytic philosophy in the early years at Princeton; his eventual critique of analytic philosophy in Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature; and his further alienation from analytic philosophy in the years that followed towards a contemporary pragmatism and a more pluralistic view of the domain of philosophical methods.  In other words, he began in an environment where pragmatism and substantive metaphysics were valued; he shifted to the more highly valued field of analytic philosophy during the years in which he was building his career and approaching tenure; and he returned to a more pluralistic view of philosophy in the years when his career was well established.

Rorty's turn to analytic philosophy makes sense in a Bourdieuian way. Gross describes his Wellesley-era and early Princeton philosophical writings in these terms:
They represent Rorty’s attempt to make contributions to analytic thought of a piece with those that other bright, young analytic philosophers of his generation were making. They were, in other words, part of Rorty’s efforts to position himself even more squarely within the mainstream philosophical establishment. (kl 4642)
Those observing Rorty’s career from afar might have interpreted this spate of analytic publications, coming on the heels of The Linguistic Turn, as evidence that Rorty had joined the ranks of the analytic community and saw his work as of a piece with that being done by other analysts. (kl 4853)
But eventually Rorty shifts his philosophical stance, towards a pluralistic and pragmatist set of ideas about philosophical method and subject matter.  Here is how Gross summarizes Rorty's turn to pragmatism:
On this understanding, a pragmatist is someone who holds three beliefs: first, that “there is no wholesale, epistemological way to direct, or criticize, or underwrite, the course of inquiry”; second, that “there is no . . . metaphysical difference between facts and values, nor any methodological difference between morality and science”; and third, that “there are no constraints on inquiry save conversational ones.” (kl 719)
As Rorty went about developing a historicist, therapeutic alternative to the analytic philosophy he saw being practiced by his Princeton colleagues and others, no one’s work was more important to him than that of Thomas Kuhn. (kl 5054)
And Gross dates Rorty's impulses towards pragmatism to a much earlier phase of his intellectual development than is usually done:
Far from it being the case, as some Rorty interpreters have claimed, that Rorty’s interest in pragmatism arose only after he made a break with analytic philosophy, his earliest work is characterized by a desire to harness pragmatist insights in the service of a revised conception of the analytic project. (kl 4037)
Rorty rode both of these intellectual waves, becoming caught up in the rigorism of the analytic paradigm in the 1960s and then emerging as a leading figure in the antirigorist movement of the 1970s and 1980s. (kl 7058)
The book repays a close reading, in that it sheds a lot of light on a key period in the development of American philosophy and it provides a cogent sociological theory of the factors that influenced this development.  It is really a remarkable book. It would be fascinating to see similar accounts of innovative thinkers such as Nelson Goodman, John Rawls, or (from literary studies) Stephen Greenblatt.  That's not likely to happen, however, so this book will probably remain a singular illustration of a powerful theory of the sociology of ideas.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Structural adjustment for the middle class?

Working people in the US have suffered big economic losses in the past four years.  Losses of jobs in the economy have pushed many working people from high-wage to low-wage jobs, and as we all know, many people have been pushed out of jobs altogether.  The national unemployment rate was 8.6% in November, and very much higher in urban areas and African-American and Latino communities.  Michigan's rate was 10.6% in October 2011 (link).  White non-Hispanic households fell from $55,360 in 2009 to $54,620 (-1.3%), while black households fell from $33,122 to $32,068 (-3.2%) (Table 1).  These differences in household income across race are stunning: black households started out at only 63% the level of white households in 2009, and they fell by more than double the percentage rate of loss from 2009 to 2010.

Here is a report from the US Census Bureau,  Income, Poverty, and Health Insurance Coverage in the United States: 2010, that sheds some light on the changes of the past several years.  Here are a few important summary findings:
  • Real median household income was $49,445 in 2010, a 2.3 percent decline from 2009 (Figure 1 and Table 1).
  • Since 2007, the year before the most recent recession, real median household income has declined 6.4 percent and is 7.1 percent below the median household income peak that occurred in 1999 (Figure 1 and Tables A-1 and A-2).3
  • Both family and nonfamily households had declines in real median income between 2009 and 2010. The income of family households declined by 1.2 percent to $61,544; the income of nonfamily households declined by 3.9 percent to $29,730 (Table 1).
  • Real median income declined for White and Black households between 2009 and 2010, while the changes for Asian and Hispanic-origin households were not statistically significant (Table 1).
  • Real median household income for each race and Hispanic-origin group has not yet recovered to the pre-2001 recession all-time highs (Table A-1). (5)
Here is what real median income looks like, broken down by racial group, since 1967.


Now consider the poverty statistics the report contains.  Here is a summary graph:


The national poverty rate reached a forty-year low in 2000, at about 12%.  Through the decade, however, the national rate has grown to 15.1% in 2010, representing 46.2 million people.  Here again there is a stunningly wide gap between white and black populations.  The poverty rate in 2010 for white non-Hispanic households is 9.9%, while the rate for black households in 2010 is 27.4% (Table 4).

We've tended to think of this period as a difficult economic time that will eventually come to an end.  But perhaps that's too optimistic.  Perhaps what we are witnessing is a structural adjustment of the US labor market, with a permanent downward shift in income for middle and low income people.  And perhaps these shifts will be most extreme for African-American households.  (The past decade seems to bear this out.  From 2000 to 2010 white non-Hispanic households had declined 5.5%, while black households declined 14.6% during that same period (8).)

Here the concern is that maybe Bruce Springsteen was right -- "these jobs are going, boys, and they ain't coming back to your hometown."  Jobs with decent wages -- manufacturing jobs, union jobs, professional service jobs -- have declined precipitously in the past twenty years (not just since the recession).  And that means that the opportunities for many workers to have "middle-class" incomes have become much more restricted. Here is a sober report from Chemical and Engineering News --
The severe national recession of the past several years is having a negative impact on the employment and the starting salaries of chemists and chemical engineers. The latest data from the American Chemical Society on graduates from 2009 found that median starting salaries fell about 5% for those receiving bachelor’s and doctoral degrees compared with the previous year. New graduates with master’s degrees appeared to have gotten a jump in pay.
Even the banking and financial sector has contracted (link):
The financial services industry, hammered by job cuts and record losses, is in for an even bigger contraction as the global recession deepens, said Marc Faber, publisher of the Gloom, Boom & Doom Report. 
“The financial sector will contract and it will contract much more than we’ve seen so far,” said Faber, who was in Tokyo to speak at an event hosted by CLSA Ltd. Financial professionals have “been in paradise for the past 25 years.”
More than 275,000 jobs in the financial industry have been lost in the last two years, according to Bloomberg data, while losses and writedowns at global companies exceeded $1 trillion in the past year. Faber said the contraction could rival declines seen in the 1970s following the collapse of Bernard Cornfeld’s Investors Overseas Services that shook confidence in the industry for a decade.
So the financial industry isn't providing ready opportunities for young MBAs; many of them too will need to find other, less well-paying jobs.

Does this mean that everyone in the US economy is facing downward pressure on wages and salary? Not exactly.  There is a segment of the American economy that is doing very well indeed. Here is a graph provided by Lane Kenworthy demonstrating the growth in income of the top 1% (link).  (Kenworthy's discussion is very good.)  The top line is the median household income of the top 1%.  The lower lines, showing virtually no growth, represent the median of the middle three quintiles and the median of the bottom quintile of households.

source: Consider the Evidence (Lane Kenworthy)

So here are two important questions.  Is the US economy on a path towards a shift to lower-paid jobs for a large segment of its working population?  And are there policies that could be chosen that would result in an outcome that looks more fair than this graph of the recent past, with reasonable growth of income for all American workers and less extreme growth at the very top?

(Here is an interesting Google resource, the Public Data Explorer, that provides visualization tools for basic US economic and demographic data. This particular screen shows the growth of personal income per capita since about 1930, across the regions of the United States.  (This is money income, not adjusted for inflation.) The second graph shows personal income per capita for selected metropolitan areas.  The third graph shows the unemployment rates for Wayne County and Oakland County in Michigan.)





Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Neil Gross's pragmatist sociology

An earlier post discussed Neil Gross's attempt to understand social mechanisms from the point of view of a pragmatist sociology. Gross's attempt to flesh out a pragmatist theory of action is intriguing and worthy of further exploration.  So here I'll look at a subsequent article, "Charles Tilly and American Pragmatism" (2010), in which Gross extends this analysis to an interpretation of Charles Tilly.  He makes an interesting case that Tilly's theories share a great deal in common with pragmatist theory.  I'm not going to evaluate that claim here, though he makes a strong case, but instead want to pull out the essentials of what Gross seems to believe to be the fundamental assumptions of a pragmatist theory of acdtion.

So what are some of the insights from pragmatism that Gross thinks can help us to formulate a more adequate framework of sociological thinking?  Here is a suggestive statement:
I aimed for a way of proceeding that would also accord with the turn toward “practice” in contemporary theory—that is, toward the reconceptualization of action as “forms of doing or ways of acting and interacting that appear within particular communities or groups; depend on shared presuppositions or assumptions...; and unfold in individuals’ lives as a result of active, creative, and less than conscious puttings into play of those presuppositions and assumptions in the context of various and intersecting sociobiographical experiences and exigencies.” (342)
This part of the story falls clearly in the zone of attempting to improve upon the theory of action that much social theory has presupposed for more than a century -- the idea of the rational, purposive agent considering options and choosing outcomes (link).  Against that hyper-deliberative conception, Gross (and pragmatism) advocates for a more fluid, interactional, and only partially conscious flow of actions.  There is a suggestion here of stylized modes of behavior (scripts) within which persons locate their actions, and a suggestion of the importance of specific cognitive fields embodied in social groups that contextualize and rationalize the person's activities (assumptions, for example, of how a doctor should treat a patient in a hospital).

Another important part of Gross's conception of pragmatist action theory is the way we conceive of the individual. According to the pragmatist theory, the individual needs to be considered within the context of a social group, influenced by norms, emotions, and actions of the others in the group.  So action should not be "atomized" into a group of individual actors choosing independently.  Gross puts this part of the theory in the form of a comment about Tilly:
The motivating claim of Durable Inequality is that analysts should dispense with “individualistic” models that seek to explain differences in the life chances of members of social groups in terms of their experiences, properties, and characteristics, whether these are assumed to be a product of genetic endowments, as in Herrnstein and Murray’s (1994) controversial “bell curve” thesis, or social circumstance, as in some versions of human capital theory. (349)
The point emerges in Tilly through his insistence on "relationality" -- his deep objection to attempting to understand actions by individuals without regard to the networks of other individuals whose behavior and thoughts set the context to the actions.

Third, there is the question of how the agent decides what to do in a particular circumstance. The pragmatist view that Gross describes holds that the actor chooses in line with habit and script. Essentially, this is the insight that there are fairly well defined rules of thumb or scripts for how to respond to certain kinds of problems. And the theory holds that the actor generally acts accordingly. When an experienced politician is confronted by a heckler, the play book pretty well specifies how he/she should respond. This contrasts sharply from the deliberativist view of action.

What makes this set of assumptions a "pragmatist" approach?  Fundamentally, because it understands the actor as situated within a field of assumptions, modes of behavior, ways of perceiving; and as being stimulated to action by "problem situations".  So action is understood as the actor's creative use of scripts, habits, and cognitive frameworks to solve particular problems.  (Gross refers to this as an A-P-H-R chain: actor, problem situation, habit, and response; 343.)

How does this compare to the foil of pure deliberative rationality?  According to rational choice theory an actor makes a choice in a problem situation by (i) arranging a preference ordering of possible outcomes, including utilities for each outcome; (ii) consulting rational procedures to gain beliefs about the probabilities of various strategies leading to various outcomes; and (iii) choosing that strategy that results in the greatest expected utility (utility x probability).  This account makes choice rational in both aspects: rational acquisition of beliefs about interventions and outcomes, and rational comparison of the relative goodness/badness of the outcomes associated with possible interventions.  There is no place in this story for culturally variable cognitive frameworks for perceiving the situation, or for group-specific rules of thumb governing the choice of interventions.

This formulation of the two theories permits fairly direct comparison between them.  Consider this table comparing the two theories of action:


So how would we pursue a concrete sociological question differently if we chose one or the other of these theories of action?  Let's consider rebellion -- the coordinated activities of resistance of a large population against a powerful ruler.  What would a deliberative rationality sociology of rebellion look like?  And what would a pragmatist theory look like?

Oddly enough, it seems to me that we have clear illustrations of both approaches in the existing literature on peasant rebellion.  In fact, the moral economy debate of the 1970s illustrates both approaches. The protagonists here are Samuel Popkin's The Rational Peasant: The Political Economy of Rural Society in Vietnam and James Scott's The Moral Economy of the Peasant: Rebellion and Subsistence in Southeast Asia.  Popkin's analysis of rebellion and revolution in Vietnam is thoroughly grounded in the assumptions of rational choice theory.  Popkin tries to understand the actions of each of the players according to their rational behavior in the face of risk and uncertainty and the strategic behavior of others.  Peasants rebel when the likelihood of success is great enough to make the discounted rewards of rebellion greater than the discounted costs of failure.

Scott understands rebellion in Southeast Asia in very different terms.  He finds that the "moral economy of the peasant" is a powerful source of behavior for villagers as they consider the options of resistance and subordination.  He is sympathetic to the idea that peasant perceptions of society, of the power structure, and of the future are powerfully shaped by shared social assumptions and frameworks, here and in other works like Weapons of the Weak: Everyday Forms of Peasant Resistance and Domination and the Arts of Resistance: Hidden Transcripts.  So Popkin's assumptions are an almost pure example of rational-choice social research; whereas Scott's assumptions have a very close match with the premises of pragmatist theory of action, as I've reconstructed it here.

So perhaps James Scott too -- like Tilly, in Gross's interpretation -- has a deeply pragmatist side lurking within his sociological imagination.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

David Graeber on the anarchist movement


Progressives seem to be confronted with some real conundrums (or is it conundra?), here in the early part of the 21st century. We want to see a world that is genuinely committed to some basic principles of social justice, equality, and personal freedom. And we generally acknowledge the point that the modern world can only function on the basis of social, political, and economic structures that have a degree of authority over individual conduct. These two framing ideas are in tension, once we recognize the permanent likelihood of "institutional capture" of social structures by privileged individuals and groups. Capture may result from the access a privileged party has to the sources of wealth and power (the CCP in China) or the astronomically disproportional influence that corporations and private interests have in the legislative and regulatory process (lobbyists in France, the UK, and the US). So is it possible to create a society in which organizing structures exist, but that are genuinely governed by the constraints of justice,equality, and democracy? Can democratic institutions be established and defended that genuinely embody the interests and dignity of poor and working people? In a word, is social democracy actually a feasible outcome in the conditions of the 21st century?

There is a strand of radical thought that answers these questions in the negative.  The "autonomist" theories and practices within the labor movement of the 1950s that were described in an earlier post represent one thread in this world. Another is the body of thinking, rhetoric, and action that is involved in the anarchist organizations associated with current anti-globalization activism.  David Graeber has done an important service to the rest of us by offering an extended ethnography of this loosely connected movement in Direct Action. The book is the first I've seen to offer a nuanced description of the thinking, practices, and networks that have emerged within this movement over the past fifteen years or so. Unlike much of the journalism that this movement has produced, it resists both caricature and polemic. Graeber is a participant within the movement as well as an observer, and his voice helps to make sense of the thinking and actions that have surfaced in Seattle, Washington, Quebec, Madrid, and London in the past 15 years. And it certainly helps to put voices and faces into the OWS movement. Graeber is, by the way, an unusually appealing writer, so the book is a very engaging read.  (It is also very long -- 538 pages of text.)

The first half of the book provides a detailed chronological ethnography of the preparations that several Direct Action groups made to engage in demonstration and resistance at the Summit of the Americas in Quebec in April, 2001. Graeber gives a textured understanding of the personalities and debates that unfolded. (Here is an activist-produced video of the protests; link.)  As his description makes clear, this was a transnational network from the start, with alliances and affinities extending from Chiapas to Italy to Spain to Switzerland to the Mohawk Nation spanning the US and Canada border.

The second part of the book is a more analytical exposition of direct action and anarchism.  He offers a clear description of what these activists mean by "direct action" (chapter 5), and attempts to capture something of the culture of anarchist activism (chapter 6). Here is an interesting observation about the social composition of anarchist networks in the US, which may also shed some light on OWS:
Speaking broadly, it seems to me activist milieu can best be seen as a juncture, a kind of meeting place, between downwardly mobile elements of the professional classes and upwardly mobile children of the working class. (252)
The groups that Graeber describes include various Direct Action Networks (DAN), including the one based in New York in which he was involved, NYC DAN. Another is Ya Basta!, also anarchist but with a decided taste for performance.  These groups conduct their discussions, planning, and decision-making according to egalitarian, consensual practices: no leaders, no executive committees, no authority. These practices are described in the principles endorsed by one of the oldest Direct Action groups, the Peoples' Global Action (PGA) (link). Here is how Graeber describes the principles of consensus:
DAN employed a formal consensus process with rotating facilitators, an elaborate system of “stacking” designed to ensure no small group of voices dominated the conversation. Smokey and Flamma hated DAN. Like a number of other anarchists in New York—I’ll call them the “hardcores,” for lack of a better name, the sort that were likely to have more experience in Black Blocs, tree sits, or the squatter scene, or anyway used to working in small, intimate collectives—they saw DAN’s formal structure as itself stifling and oppressive. (20)
But the ideal of consensus doesn't imply inability to act as a group. In fact, Graeber describes an extended process of brainstorming, planning, and decision-making leading up to coordination with the Mohawk Warrior Society, Ya Basta!, the International Socialist Organisation (ISO), and other sympathetic groups, and execution of complex actions in Quebec. (Graeber and other DAN participants seem to find the socialist ISO activists particularly annoying because of their apparent opportunism and vanguardism; and yet their egalitarian principles make it impossible for them to exclude them.)

The detailed notes about the tactics and actions in Quebec once the demonstrations began read like an urban combat novel: anarchist groups approaching the fence surrounding the core Summit area, police firing tear gas and water cannons, many injuries and arrests, molotov cocktails from a variety of Blocs against water cannon.  Graeber's narrative gives a vivid depiction of what must have been similar actions and tactics in Strasbourg, London, and Seattle, with activists learning new tactics (and equipment) from one siege to another.  (The horrendous video and photos from UC-Davis of police methodically pepper-spraying seated demonstrators give another current exposure to the potential for police violence in circumstances of protest and resistance.)

I find some interesting affinities between the movements and ideas that Graeber describes and the views of economic development advocated by Arturo Escobar in Encountering Development: The Making and Unmaking of the Third World. Escobar articulates much of the radical critique of globalization and its effects on poor people that lies at the core of the worldview expressed by the anarchist movement Graeber describes.  Escobar's position is strongly anti-neoliberal, taking issue with foundational development ideas about growth and the general beneficence of markets. He too favors a view of the future in which people exercise continuing control over the processes that affect them. And he too likes a future built around fairly autonomous communities, cooperatives, and non-market institutions.

Also resonant are new ideas about deliberative and participatory democracy being developed by Archon Fung and Erik Olin Wright under the rubric of "empowered deliberative democracy"-- for example, in Deepening Democracy. Here is a representative statement of their view of the challenge facing existing democracies:
As the tasks of the state have become more complex and the size of polities larger and more heterogeneous, the institutional forms of liberal democracy developed in the nineteenth century—representative democracy plus techno-bureaucratic administration—seem increasingly ill suited to the novel problems we face in the twenty-first century. “Democracy” as a way of organizing the state has come to be narrowly identified with territorially based competitive elections of political leadership for legislative and executive offices. Yet, increasingly, this mechanism of political representation seems ineffective in accomplishing the central ideals of democratic politics: facilitating active political involvement of the citizenry, forging political consensus through dialogue, devising and impleenting public policies that ground a productive economy and healthy society, and, in more radical egalitarian versions of the democratic ideal, ensuring that all citizens benefit from the nation's wealth. (3)
There are quite a few political values and perceptions embodied in the Direct Action movement that many progressive people can relate to. It isn't surprising that OWS has caught the attention of many young people. But are the mini-movements of activists that Graeber describes really a potential solution to the conundrum mentioned above? Can we get to a more just world through this kind of activism? Seattle and Quebec can claim some successes in achieving negative goals -- discrediting the IMF, challenging the World Bank, exposing a latent violence in democratic societies through excessive police force and brutality. And perhaps OWS will be successful in pushing back against over-greedy financial institutions.  This kind of effect can plausibly come about through spontaneous popular protest. And as Graeber makes clear, these large anarchist actions are organized and planned, even if they are collective and mass-based.

But this just delays the problem, because it doesn't give a basis for creating institutions and structures that really work from the point of view of social justice and participatory democracy.  The kinds of activism Graeber describes might be compared to an "immune system" for the periodic disorders of imperfect democracy: activists and their organizations (lymphocytes) swarm around important causes of distress (infections, inflammation), provoking repair responses within the society. But the movement doesn't contribute to the basic metabolism of society and politics. "Direct Action" isn't really a prescription for organizing society in its routine work; the approval of food and drug safety, the plans that states make for energy production, the creation and maintenance of social safety nets. The voice of the people can demand these protections. But then we need institutions that actually do the work. And the funny suits of Ya Basta! and spokescouncils don't fill the bill for this task.  In the end, I am more attracted to the kind of work begun by Fung and Wright, which is aimed at creating sustainable institutions of participatory democracy.