Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Social embeddedness

To what extent do individuals choose their courses of action largely on the basis of a calculation of costs and benefits? And to what extent, on the contrary, are their actions importantly driven by the normative assumptions they share with other individuals with whom they interact? Mark Granovetter formulated this foundational question for the social sciences in his important 1985 contribution to the American Journal of Sociology, "Economic Action and Social Structure: The Problem of Embeddedness" (link). He used the concept of embeddedness as a way of capturing the idea that the actions individuals choose are importantly refracted by the social relations within which they function. This is a topic we've addressed frequently in prior posts under the topic of the social actor, and Granovetter's contribution is an important one to consider as we try to further clarify the issues involved.

The large distinction at issue here is the contrast between rational actor models of the social world, in which the actor makes choices within a thin set of context-independent decision rules, and social actor models, in which the actor is largely driven by a context-defined set of scripts as he/she makes choices. The contrast is sometimes illustrated by contrasting neoclassical economic models of the market with substantivist models along the lines of Karl Polanyi's The Great Transformation: The Political and Economic Origins of Our Time, and it links to the debate in economic anthropology between formalists and substantivists. Here is how Granovetter puts the fundamental question:
How behavior and institutions are affected by social relations is one of the classic questions of social theory. (481)
He argues that neither of the polar positions are tenable.  The formalist approach errs in taking too a-social view of the actor:
Classical and neoclassical economics operates, in contrast, with an atomized, undersocialized conception of human action, continuing in the utilitarian tradition. ... In classical and neoclassical economics, therefore, the fact that actors may have social relations with one another has been treated, if at all, as a frictional drag that impedes competitive markets. (483, 484)
But the extreme alternative isn't appealing either:
More recent comments by economists on "social influences" construe these as processes in which actors acquire customs, habits, or norms that are followed mechanically and automatically, irrespective of their bearing on rational choice. (485)
So action doesn't reduce to abstract optimizing rationality, and it doesn't reduce to inflexible cultural or normative scripts either. Instead, Granovetter proposes an approach to this topic that reframes the issue around a more fluid and relational conception of the actor. Like the pragmatist theories of the actor discussed in earlier posts (Abbott, Gross, Joas), he explores the idea that the actor's choices emerge from a flow of interactions and shifting relations with others. The actor is not an atomized agent, but rather a participant in a flow of actions and interactions.

At the same time, Granovetter insists that this approach does not deny purposiveness and agency to the actor. The actor reacts and responds to the social relations surrounding him or her; but actions are constructed and refracted through the consciousness, beliefs, and purposes of the individual.

The idea of embeddedness is crucial for Granovetter's argument; but it isn't explicitly defined in this piece.  The idea of an "embedded" individual is contrasted to the idea of an atomized actor; this implies that the individual's choices and actions are generated, in part anyway, by the actions and expected behavior of other actors.  It is a relational concept; the embedded actor exists in a set of relationships with other actors whose choices affect his or her own choices as well.  And this in turn implies that the choices actors make are not wholly determined by facts internal to their spheres of individual deliberation and beliefs; instead, actions are importantly influenced by the observed and expected behavior of others.
Their attempts at purposive action are instead embedded in concrete, ongoing systems of social relations. (487)
Some of Granovetter's discussion crystallizes around the social reality of trust within a system of economic actors. Trust is an inherently relational social category; it depends upon the past and present actions and interactions within a group of actors, on the basis of which the actors choose courses of action that depend on expectations about the future cooperative actions of the other actors. Trust for Granovetter is therefore a feature of social relations and social networks:
The embeddedness argument stresses instead the role of concrete personal relations and structures (or "networks") of such relations in generating trust and discouraging malfeasance. (490)
And trust is relevant to cooperation in all its variants -- benevolent and malicious as well. As Granovetter points out, a conspiracy to defraud a business requires a group of trusting confederates. So it is an important sociological question to investigate how those bonds of trust among thieves are created and sustained.

This line of thought, and the theory of the actor that it suggests, is an important contribution to how we can understand social behavior in a wide range of contexts. The key premise is that individuals choose their actions in consideration of the likely choices of others, and this means that their concrete social relations are critical to their actions. How frequently do a set of actors interact? Has there been a history of successful cooperation among these actors in the past? Are there rivalries among the actors that might work to reduce trust? These are all situational and historical facts about the location and social relations of the individual. And they imply that very similar individuals, confronting very similar circumstances of choice, may arrive at very different patterns of social action dependent on their histories of interaction with each other.

It seems that this theory of the actor would be amenable to empirical investigation.  The methodologies of experimental economics could be adapted to study of the relational intelligence that Granovetter describes here. Recent works by Ernst Fehr and Klaus Schmidt explore related empirical questions about decision making in the context of problems involving fairness and reciprocity (Foundations of Human Sociality: Economic Experiments and Ethnographic Evidence from Fifteen Small-Scale Societies and "The Economics of Fairness, Reciprocity and Altruism - Experimental Evidence and New Theories"; link).

(These topics have come up in earlier discussions here. Here is a post on Chuck Tilly's treatment of trust networks; link. Amartya Sen's discussion of "rational fools" is relevant as well, as is his account of the role that commitments play in action (link). It seems likely that Granovetter would argue that Sen's solution is still too formalist, in that it attempts to internalize he social relations component into the actor's calculations. This is true of the "identity economics" approach as well; (link).)

Friday, July 27, 2012

Woodward Avenue

How does a rust belt city relaunch itself? How can the stakeholders of Detroit, Cleveland, or Milwaukee begin to reinvent their cities and get on a track that leads to greater prosperity, health, and educational attainment that can eventually result in opportunity and quality of life for the urban majority?

The factors that led to Detroit's crisis were extended and multiple -- loss of manufacturing jobs, white flight, collapsing city revenues, sudden decline in the public school system, city government mismanagement and corruption, and state and federal neglect, to name several. And the crisis has extended over many decades. Tom Sugrue documents that the seeds of decline began earlier than the standard narrative -- white flight was well underway in the 1950s (The Origins of the Urban Crisis: Race and Inequality in Postwar Detroit). The 1967 uprising was a major punctuation mark in the process, but it was an effect as much as a cause of the decline.

So what can be done today? A key part of the puzzle is bringing good jobs back into the city. This is why there has been so much excitement about the decisions by Compuware, Quicken Loans, and Blue Cross/Blue Shield to relocate their headquarters back into the city. The impact is substantial -- something like 10,000 jobs have been brought back into the city, with more to come. Along with the jobs comes a flurry of collateral developments -- student interns who come to love the city, demand for housing, new restaurants and cafes along Woodward, and a significant multiplier of jobs associated with these new service businesses.

There is a lot of purposiveness in these business developments, with a good portion of civic-mindedness in the mix. These business leaders wanted to make a difference in the city of Detroit, and their decisions about where to locate their companies help to carry this out. There is a deliberate effort on the part of this group of new-economy business leaders to attract innovative companies to the corridor. Detroit has a long tradition of creativity and the arts. Business leaders want to extend this tradition in the direction of innovative high-tech startups that can take root in Detroit. The goals for the Madison Building restortation illustrate this goal -- beautiful open-design space for innovative companies that should strike synergies in the coming years. Twitter opened a Detroit office in the building in the spring.

It's not simply Michigan chauvinism to say that Detroiters are resourceful. This is an important resource for the future for the city. But the people of the city need some concrete things in order to turn their talents into success -- jobs, healthcare, decent education, and better urban transportation.

A leading land use planner for one of the auto companies offered a theory about Detroit's eventual recovery to me about ten years ago. His theory was that the key to success is the recovery of tens of thousands of professional jobs in the core of the city. At its peak in the 1950s he estimated that there were perhaps 150,000 such jobs in the city of Detroit, and this constituted an economic engine for the city through direct and indirect economic effects. At the low point in the 1990s he estimated that this number had fallen to perhaps 20-30,000 jobs -- not enough to support the development the city needed. He projected that if the city could return to 80-90,000 well-paying professional jobs, almost all its other problems would be solvable.

The steps taken by major and small companies in the past five years to locate their operations downtown are a very significant step towards that goal. It seems likely that the three major relocations into the city have resulted in 8-10,000 jobs in the city, and these workers are adding a lot to the vitality of the city as well.

So that's part of the reason why Woodward Avenue is a happening place today. There are appealing cafes along the street serving lunch to workers in the Compuware Building, there is Motown music blasting from an informal market across the street, and there is a sense of a lively urban environment. What will it look like in ten years?

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Durable inequality

Chuck Tilly was an enormously creative historical sociologist, and he also had a knack for a good title. This is certainly true of his 1998 book, Durable Inequality. The topic is of particular interest today, in the contemporary environment of ever-more visible and widening inequalities that pervade American society.

The contemporary facts in the United States are more clearly understood than ever: an increasing separation between the top decile of income and the bottom forty percent of the income distribution, a low level of social mobility relative to European countries, and a high degree of permanent poverty. The Pew Economic Mobility Project provides an important snapshot of social mobility in the United States; link; in brief, the likelihood of the child of parents from the bottom quintile to remain in the bottom quintile is 43%, while the likelihood of a child born to the top quintile remaining there is 40%.

source: Lane Kenworthy, Consider the Evidence  blog (link)

source: Pew Report, Pursuing the American Dream (link)

So the inequalities we confront in the United States are indeed "durable" and multigenerational.  But how do economic and social inequalities come about?

This is a large part of the agenda of Durable Inequalities. Here Tilly looks at social and economic inequalities from a historical point of view. He is concerned with "categorical inequalities" -- that is, inequalities across groups of people defined by relatively rigid social discriminators. "Durable inequality depends heavily on the institutionalization of categorical pairs" (8). Relevant social categories include gender, race, immigrant status, or rural-urban origins.  Tilly begins his book with an astounding statistic about durable inequalities in nineteenth-century England: "poor boys of fourteen averaged only 4 feet 3 inches tall, while aristocrats and gentry of the same age averaged about 5 feet 1 inch" (1).

The central intellectual task of the book is to account for how social categories often result in categorical inequalities.  Not all categorical distinctions among people result in economic or political disparities across the resulting groups -- for example, "good sense of humor/bad sense of humor" doesn't appear to result in income disparities across the humorous and the humorless.  But the male-female wage gap, the black-white wealth gap, and the white-latino education gap all are examples of inequalities that follow from, and are presumably caused by, the categorical status possessed by the two groups.

Categorical inequalities are particularly important because they appear to be wholly indefensible.  The fact that "skilled/unskilled" workers have differential incomes is not surprising on grounds of productivity and value-added work; but the fact that equally well educated women and men have differential incomes is indeed surprising.

The social mechanisms that Tilly identifies as being primarily responsible for inequalities across social categories are exploitation and opportunity hoarding (10).
  • Exploitation, which operates when powerful, connected people command resources from which they draw significantly increased returns by coordinating the efforts of outsiders whom they exclude from the full value added by that effort.
  • Opportunity hoarding, which operates when members of a categorically bounded network acquire access to a resource that is valuable, renewable, subject to monopoly, supportive of network activities, and enhanced by the network's modus operandi. (10)
Here are a few summary observations about these two mechanisms and how they work within institutions and organizations.
  • Exploitation rests on unequal distribution of rewards proportionate to value added among participants in the same enterprise.
  • Organizationally installed categorical inequality facilitates exploitation.
  • Organizations whose survival depends on exploitation therefore tend to adopt categorical inequality.
  • Because organizations adopting categorial inequality deliver greater returns to their dominant members and because a portion of those returns goes to organizational maintenance, such organizations tend to crowd out other types of organizations.
  • Opportunity hoarding by collaborative agents complements exploitation.
  • Opportunity hoarding operates more effectively and at lower cost in conjunction with categorical inequality.
  • ...
  • Seemingly contradictory categorical principles such as age, race, gender, and ethnicity operate in similar ways and can be organizationally combined or substituted within limits set by previously established scripting and local knowledge. (85-86)

What Tilly is trying to accomplish in this work is genuinely ambitious: it is to establish both a natural history and a causal dynamics of socially generated inequalities.  Inequalities are not solely the natural outcome of differences in abilities, talent, and motivation (individual characteristics); instead, they are the result of institutions and social relations that have been strategically crafted over time by individuals and groups for their ongoing advantage.
Exploitation, opportunity hoarding, emulation, and adaptation that incorporate asymmetrically paired categories have for millennia promoted most of the inequality that historians commonly attribute to individual differences in capacity or enterprise. These causal principles combine with a vast historical record to provide the means of constructing counterfactual accounts of durable inequality: forms of inequality or equality that have existed in some times and places, that could have existed, that could exist now, that could take shape in the future. (230)
And the forms of group discrimination that go along with categorical differences play a key role in these inequalities.

How does this analysis fit with the two graphs provided above of income inequality and slow social mobility in the United States? A careful analysis of the social mechanisms that impede social mobility will certainly include the processes of exploitation and opportunity-hoarding that Tilly discusses; it will include the impact of social categories like race, gender, and ethnicity; and it will include the exclusive social network mechanisms that permit the top segment of the society to retain its place through selection and limited opportunities for the rest of society.  So Tilly's historical analysis in Durable Inequalities is highly relevant to our current efforts to understand and address the widening inequalities that we see around us.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Readers' list of innovative social science writing

Image: graph of relationships among the social sciences, Eigenfactor.org

To the readers of UnderstandingSociety,

I am writing directly to you to ask your thoughts about innovative work in the social sciences today. What books or new areas of inquiry in the social sciences are you particularly excited about right now?

The context --

One of the goals I have in this blog is to take note of interesting new developments in the social sciences and philosophy.  It seems to me very consistently that the social sciences still have a lot of important work to do in establishing goals, methods, and theories for understanding the social world, and creative and innovative contributions to new issues as well as old are very exciting.

In recent months I've written about books that I probably wouldn't have run across without the advantage of many conversations with some very good sociologists and political scientists on a regular basis, and this is a real source of intellectual growth.  I think of Pickett and Wilkinson's theorizing about economic inequalities and social harms, Neil Gross's sociological biography of Richard Rorty, Andreas Glaeser's account of the cultural conditions of the collapse of the Stasi in East Germany, McCarty, Poole, and Rosenthal's analysis of political polarization, and John Levi Martin's new thinking about social explanations as good examples, and there are many others.


I've also enjoyed going back to classic texts from the social sciences of the 1960s for a second look. People like Erving Goffman, Chalmers Johnson, G. William Skinner, Steven Lukes, and Karl Popper have come in for a second look over the past several years on UnderstandingSociety. In each case I feel that I've come to see some features of their work that seem particularly pertinent today, fifty years after their primary research, that somehow didn't emerge in my first reading years ago.  (I was definitely not a fan of Popper's in the 1970s.)


The invitation --

What books or new pieces of research in the social sciences and philosophy are you particularly excited about? What are some areas of research that you think are shedding significant new light on how we understand the social world?

If enough readers are willing to make a suggestion or two, it would be very interesting to compile a list of topics and books that are making a difference in the social sciences -- a kind of "crowd-sourcing" approach to mapping out the areas of innovation that are making a difference in how we think about the social world.

If you are willing, please post a few suggestions of books in the social sciences that have you excited in the comments section. You can also make your recommendations on the UnderstandingSociety Facebook page or tweet me at @dlittle30.

I have created a page in the sidebar, Readers' Recommendations, as a way of organizing these recommendations.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Regulatory thrombosis

Charles Perrow is a leading researcher on the sociology of organizations, and he is a singular expert on accidents and system failures. Several of his books are classics in their field -- Normal Accidents: Living with High-Risk Technologies, The Next Catastrophe: Reducing Our Vulnerabilities to Natural, Industrial, and Terrorist Disasters, Organizing America: Wealth, Power, and the Origins of Corporate Capitalism. So it is very striking to find that Perrow is highly skeptical about the ability of governmental organizations in the United States to protect the public from large failures and disasters of various kinds -- hurricanes, floods, chemical plant fires, software failures, terrorism. His assessment of organizations such as the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the Department of Homeland Security, or the Nuclear Regulatory Commission  is dismal. Here is his summary assessment of the Department of Homeland Security:
We should not expect too much of organizations, but the DHS is extreme in its dysfunctions. As with all organizations, the DHS has been used by its masters and outsiders for purposes that are beyond its mandate, and the usage of the DHS has been extreme. One major user of the DHS is Congress. While Congress is the arm of the government that is closest to the people, it is also the one that is most influenced by corporations and local interest groups that do not have the interests of the larger community in mind. (The Next Catastrophe, kl 205)
The most alarming chapters of The Next Catastrophe concern the failures of US agencies to effectively and intelligently organize preparations that will genuinely make us safer. Perrow provides extended analyses of the Department of Homeland Security, FEMA, and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission in their respective functions -- securing the country against the consequences of terrorist attack, preparing for and responding to major environmental disasters like Katrina, and securing nuclear power plants and spent fuel storage dumps against accident and attack. In chapter after chapter he documents the most egregious and frightening failures of each of these agencies.

The level of organizational ineptitude that he documents in the performance of these agencies is staggering -- one has the impression that a particularly gifted group of high school seniors could have done a better job of responding to the Katrina disaster. ("You're doing a great job, Brownie!") And the disarray that he documents in these organizations is genuinely frightening. He walks through plausible scenarios through which a group of a dozen determined attackers could disable the cooling systems for spent fuel rods at existing nuclear power plants, with catastrophic release of radiation affecting millions of people within 50 miles of the accident. (These scenarios are all the more believable now that we've seen what happened to the cooling ponds at Fukishima.)

What this all suggests is that the U.S. government and our political culture do a particularly bad job of creating organizational intelligence in response to crucial national challenges. By this I mean an effective group of bureaus with a clear mission, committed executive leadership, and consistent communication and collaboration among agencies and a demonstrated ability to formulate and carry out rational plans in addressing identified risks. (Perrow's general assessment of the French nuclear power system seems to be that it is more effective in maintaining safe operations and protecting nuclear materials against attack.)  And the US government's ability to provide this kind of intelligent risk abatement seems particularly weak.

Perrow doesn't endorse the general view that organizations can never succeed in accomplishing the functions we assign to them -- hospitals, police departments, even labor unions. Instead, there seem to be particular reasons why large regulatory agencies in the United States have proven particularly inept, in his assessment. The most faulty organizations are those that are designed to regulate risky activities and those that are charged to create prudent longterm plans for the future that seem particularly suspect, in his account. So what are those reasons for failure in these kinds of organizations?

One major part of his assessment focuses on the role that economic and political power plays in deforming the operations of major organizations to serve the interests of the powerful. Regulatory agencies are "captured" by the powerful industries they are supposed to oversee, whether through influence on the executive branch or through merciless lobbying of the legislative branch. Energy companies pressure the Congress and the NRC to privatize security at nuclear power plants -- with what would otherwise be comical results when it comes to testing the resulting level of security at numerous plants. Private security forces are given advance notice of the time and nature of the simulated attack -- and even so half the attacks are successful.

Another major source of dysfunction that Perrow identifies in the case of the Department of Homeland Security is the workings of Congressional politics. Committee chairs resist losing scope for their committees, so the oversight process remains disjointed and disruptive to the functioning of the agencies. Senators from low-population states block the distribution of DHS funds to enhance the ability of first-responders to be effective in the first hours of an incident, in order to get higher levels of funding for their low-risk populations. So California receives only roughly 13% the per-capita level of funding for anti-terrorism functions that Vermont or Wyoming receive. And of course the funds available through Homeland Security become a major prize for lobbyists, corporations, and other interested parties -- with resulting congressional pressure on DHS strategies and priorities.

Another culprit in this story of failure is the conservative penchant for leaving everything to private enterprise. As Michael Brown put the point during his tenure as director of FEMA, “The general idea—that the business of government is not to provide services, but to make sure that they are provided—seems self-evident to me” (kl 1867). The sustained ideological war against government regulation that has been underway since the Reagan administration has had disastrous consequences when it comes to safety. Activities like nuclear power generation, chemical plants, air travel, drug safety, and residential development in hurricane or forest fire zones are all too risky to be left to private initiative and self-regulation. We need strong, well-resourced, well-staffed, and independent regulatory systems for these activities, and increasingly our scorecard on each of these dimensions is in the failing range.

Overall it appears that Perrow believes that agencies like DHS and FEMA would function better if they were under clear authority of the executive branch rather than Congressional oversight and direction. Presidential authority would not guarantee success -- witness George W. Bush's hapless management of the first iteration of Homeland Security within the White House -- but the odds are better. With a President with a clearly stated and implemented priority for effective management of the risk of terrorism, the planning and coordination needed would have a greater likelihood of success.

It often sounds as though Perrow is faulting these organizations for defects that are inherent in all large organizations.  But it seems more fair to say that his analysis does not identify a general feature of organizations that leads to failure in these cases, but rather a situational fact having to do with the power of business to resist regulation and the susceptibility of Congress and the President to political pressures that hamstring effective regulatory organizations. Perrow does refer to specific organizational hazards -- bad executive leadership, faltering morale, inability to collaborate across agencies, excessively hierarchical architecture -- but the heart of his argument lies elsewhere. The key set of problems spiral back to the inordinate power that corporations have in the United States, and the distortions they create in Congress and the executive branch. The risks that any sober and independent assessment would identify as highest priority are ignored in pursuit of more immediate political or personal gain. It is specifics of the US political system rather than general defects of large organizations per se that lead to the bad outcomes that Perrow identifies. There are strong democracies that do a much better job of regulating risky industries and planning for disasters than we do -- for example, France and Germany.  (Here is a discussion of nuclear safety systems in France published in Nature and a discussion of nuclear safety in Germany published by Nature Conservation and Nuclear Safety.)

It is significant that even though Perrow endorses the need for strengthened regulatory agencies, he doesn't think this would be enough to prevent major catastrophes in the future. So he advocates strongly for reducing the concentration of hazards and populations. As a society, he argues, we need to come to grips with the fact that there are some kinds of activities we should simply not engage in anymore -- intensive residential building in hurricane and forest fire zones, placement of chemical and nuclear plants near cities, routing rail tankers of chlorine through cities like Baltimore and Chicago. (For that matter, a reasonable conclusion one can draw from his account of near-disasters at Indian Point in New York and Davis-Besse in Toledo, is that nuclear power is simply too high a risk to continue to tolerate.) Here is a clear statement of the gravity of culture change this would require:
But what if FEMA were given a mandate to deal with settlement density, escape routes, building codes, and concentrations of hazardous materials in vulnerable sites? We would need a change in out mindset to make basic vulnerabilities such as the size of cities in risky areas and the amounts of hazardous materials in urban areas as high a priority as rescue and relief. (kl 1141)
So who will provide the political will that is needed to reverse course on nuclear and chemical regulation? The public seems to believe (falsely, it would appear) that the NRC is a rigorous and independent agency and that nuclear plants are unlikely to melt down. There isn't much public concern about these risks, and legislators are therefore free to ignore them as well. (Here is an earlier post on "quiet politics" that is relevant.) So where will the political demand for strong regulation come from? Will we need to wait for the bad news we've managed by good fortune to have avoided up to this point?

Saturday, July 14, 2012

Path dependency and contingency

Historical outcomes are rarely determined by some set of antecedent conditions. Instead, the outcome that occurs is the result of an extended series of events and conditions, each stage of which is subject to substantial contingency and conjunctures. This is most visible in the occurrence of large, dramatic events like stock market crashes, peasant uprisings, and wars. But it is also true in more mundane occurrences -- scandals, resignations, and insolvencies, for example.

The idea of path dependency is chiefly relevant in application to particular events and happenings. But there are large social structures that display path dependency as well. These examples amount to structuring conditions that persist for a long time and further condition other historical developments. Their emergence is contingent, and other directions were feasible in the early stage. But once the structure is in place it creates its own conditions for persistence. Because the Interstate highway program privileged automobile transport over rail in the 1950s, it is now difficult to create a financially viable passenger rail system in the United States.

Examples of historical developments that display significant path dependency include the choice of major technologies (internal combustion engines versus electric vehicles, alternating current rather than direct current as the long-distance power transmission standard, the QWERTY keyboard versus other more efficient arrangements), major infrastructures (rail rather than canal in the late nineteenth century, personal automobile rather than passenger rail in the mid-twentieth century), and the division of tasks and specialization across adjacent professions (social workers, psychiatrists). In each of these cases there is a contingent first step that could have led in another direction, and then an accumulated resistance to reverting to the other choice (substantial social investment already committed to the first option, substantial development of the knowledge systems required for the first option but not the second, substantial social power invested in individuals and organizations that have a vested interest in maintaining the first option, etc.). (Tom Hughes refers to these factors as "technological momentum" in Networks of Power: Electrification in Western Society, 1880-1930.) It isn't impossible to retrace steps and adopt the alternative solution -- but it is very difficult and uncommon.

James Mahoney has done useful work in explicating this concept in "Path dependence in historical sociology" (link). Here is how he describes his own position:
In this article, I argue that path dependence characterizes specifically those historical sequences in which contingent events set into motion institutional patterns or event chains that have deterministic properties. The identification of path dependence therefore involves both tracing a given outcome back to a particular set of historical events, and showing how these events are themselves contingent occurrences that cannot be explained on the basis of prior historical conditions. (507-508)
Mahoney identifies two basic mechanisms that are associated with path dependency:
First, some path-dependent investigators analyze self-reinforcing sequences characterized by the formation and long-term reproduction of a given institutional pattern. (508)
A second basic type of path-dependent analysis involves the study of reactive sequences. Reactive sequences are chains of temporally ordered and causally connected event. (509)
Here are the three features Mahoney finds to be critical.
I suggest that all path-dependent analyses minimally have three defining features. First, path-dependent analysis involves the study of causal processes that are highly sensitive to events that take place in the early stages of an overall historical sequence. (510)
Second, in a path-dependent sequence, early historical events are contingent occurrences that cannot be explained on the basis of prior events or "initial conditions." (511)
Third, once contingent historical events take place, path-dependent sequences are marked by relatively deterministic causal patterns or what can be thought of as "inertia" - i.e., once processes are set into motion and begin tracking a particular outcome, these processes tend to stay in motion and continue to track this outcome. (511)
Mahoney's work here represents a great example of careful, detailed analysis that crosses the categories of methodology, theory, and philosophy. This is how we make progress in the social sciences -- by taking theories and concepts seriously and providing careful, logical analysis of the ways these concepts express important features of the historical process.

The idea of path dependency invokes the intersection of two important intuitions which are in tension with each other. The first is the sense of contingency that study of important historical transitions instills. The second is the idea that explanation involves generalizing across cases. If a case is wholly particular, then it is hard to find anything explanatory in studying it. Careful analysis of the concept of path dependency has the potential of offering a higher-level resolution of these intuitions about the historical process.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Problems with causal mechanisms

There are a couple of problems with the theory of causal mechanisms that will be difficult to address. Jim Mahoney raises a general concern in "Beyond Correlational Analysis" -- there is no consensus about how to define a mechanism. But there are more specific problems as well.

One is the issue raised by Johannes Persson with respect to Jon Elster's formulation, and the apparent paradox that arises from Elster's epistemic definition: according to Elster's definition, if we learn more about a mechanism, it ceases to be a mechanism (link). This has to do with whether we understand mechanisms epistemically or realistically. In my reply to Persson I argue that we need to take the realist approach (link).

Second, there is the problem that Andrew Abbott raises in his critique of the social mechanisms approach (link), where he highlights the continuity rather than discreteness of social processes. This reflects Abbott's ontological preference for activity rather than actors, processes rather than discrete mechanisms. (I made a point somewhat similar to this in a post about the "discreteness" of causal mechanisms (link). I argued we should not look at mechanisms as atoms or molecules of causation. There I was inclined to push the action down to the level of the actor.)

A third problem may be even more serious. This derives from the condition of "regularity" that many definitions of a causal mechanism invoke. "A produces B" constitutes a CM if the real properties of A work to bring about B and if A is regularly associated with B. (I refer to these as pocket-sized regularities.) The basic idea here is that once the mechanism is triggered, it leads more or less inexorably to its result.

The first part concerns the idea of real causal efficacy. Here is Rom Harre, excerpted by Mahoney:
The structures, states and inner constitutions from which the phenomena of nature flow.... the permanent or enduring conditions under which a certain kind of phenomenon will occur." "The inner constitutions, structures, powers, encompassing systems, and so on, of which natural generative mechanisms are constituted, and of which the connection between cause and effect usually consists. Harre (1970, pp. 101,102, 104)
The second criterion expresses the idea that trigger and outcome are linked by a strong regularity or law. Here is Stuart Glennan:
A mechanism underlying a behavior is a complex system which produces that behavior by the interaction of a number of parts according to direct causal laws. (Glennan, "Mechanisms and the Nature of Causation," Erkenntnis 1996)
The problem is that these two criteria are likely to pull apart in many circumstances. There may be a real causal push from A to B, but it may result in a relatively low incidence of A followed by B. In this circumstance it is true that A is part of the cause of B, but it is not true that A->B represents a causal mechanism. And in fact we do refer to mechanisms where the likelihood of the consequent is low even when the antecedent occurs -- for example, "the mechanism of George's becoming ill is his close exposure to Alice who had the contagious illness." It may be that the likelihood of catching the flu is still low following exposure; but there is no other way of getting the flu.

This would entail that it is not the case that all causal linkages are transmitted by causal mechanisms, and we would be forced to refer to causal powers or processes instead. Further, the question of whether a given linkage represents a mechanism or not depends only on the relatively boring facts about the world that push up or down the probability of the linkage -- not some fundamental ontological distinction between mechanisms and other causal connections.

This seems to suggest that we have a difficult choice. Either we can drop the "regularity" criterion or we can acknowledge that "causal mechanism" does not capture all reasonably direct causal connections. If we take the second route, we are ill advised to define causation in terms of causal mechanisms per se; instead, we need a more comprehensive concept of "real causal structures and processes", of which a subset are causal mechanisms.

It may be that considerations surrounding the third issue are impossible to resolve without dropping the requirement that a mechanism corresponds to some sort of regularity.

Another possibility is to weaken the regularity criterion so that it encompasses causal relevance rather than high probability of succession. The causal relevance test offered by Wesley Salmon would handle this approach for a mechanism like "contagion through exposure" along these lines: illness | exposure > illness | ~ exposure. Would this suffice as a corrective to the current definition? Might we reframe the definition along these lines:

A => B represents a causal mechanism if
(i) the real properties of A produce B
(ii) B | A > B | ~A
(Gambetta takes something like this approach.)

But if we take this approach, we lose the ability to infer from cause to effect through the mechanism. In alternative language, we move from thinking of mechanisms as sufficient causes to necessary conditions (or rather their probabilistic equivalents).

Saturday, July 7, 2012

Polarization of American politics

If anything seems self-evident about recent American politics, it is the fact that our discourse and policy debates have become more polarized. Commentators and politicians seem to have moved to more extreme positions over time so that bipartisanship and compromise are all but impossible. As for rational, honest and fact-based debate about policies like taxes, healthcare, or Social Security in the Congress -- forget it. Instead we have strident conspiracy theories, ignorant birthers with funny hair, and hateful shrieking about the President -- all intended, presumably, to whip up the faithful.

That's how things look to us as participants in the American scene. Is it possible to study this question with some degree of scientific objectivity and clarity? Can we measure polarization? Somewhat surprisingly (to me anyway) it is possible, and political scientists Nolan McCarty, Keith Poole, and Howard Rosenthal present their often surprising findings in Polarized America: The Dance of Ideology and Unequal Riches (Walras-Pareto Lectures).

The biggest surprise in the research for me is that it is possible to create an instrument for "measuring" the political positions taken by legislators over their elected careers based on the totality of their voting records. It is then possible to observe the process of separation and polarization of individuals, groups, and parties over time. Along with other researchers in the field, the authors have applied a comprehensive statistical measure of relative positions on one (or two) dimensions, based on a complete set of roll call votes. Using roll call data, they compute an "ideal point" for each legislator along a scale of -1.0-1.0. This approach is a powerful one that permits calculation of a legislator's score from liberal to conservative. This permits comparison of the liberalness / conservativeness of legislators, including those whose careers did not overlap, and it allows an aggregate assessment of the relative positions of the parties over time.

A second dimension of political ideology they consider is race and civil rights issues. They find that adding this dimension increases the classification success of the system -- but only by a few percent. The salience of the race dimension peaked in the late 1960s, adding 6% and 8% classification success for the House and Senate respectively in 1965, but then declined sharply to under 1% for both houses by 2005.

Their results are very striking. Here are a couple of graphs that tell the main story of their results. The first graph measures the standard deviations of the Chamber, the Democrats, and the Republicans. The graph demonstrates the widening separation of the Chamber as a whole and the narrowing of division within the parties, culminating a process of separation that began in the seventies. The parties become more unified and the Chamber becomes more sharply divided between them. And the second graph demonstrates the complete separation between the parties on ideological grounds. There are no cross-over politicians.

Once the authors have worked out a measure of political ideology for each legislator and party, they are also interested in assessing causes. Why has the ideological distance between the parties increased so dramatically since the 1970s? The most important cause they consider over time is degree of income stratification present at a point in time (national inequalities).

The results are genuinely striking. Through a series of graphs they demonstrate a very high degree of correlation between polarization and inequalities. And they argue that this is causal: politics has become more polarized as the stakes rise for those at the upper part of the distribution.

They also argue strongly that the polarization of politics tracks relative income levels: more conservative policies are supported by higher-income voters and more redistributive policies are supported by lower-income voters. More bluntly: the higher the income of the voter the greater the likelihood of conservative voting behavior.

Policy appears not to have followed this logic, given that median income has fallen in recent years as inequalities have ramped up. In chapter 4 they argue that this has to do with the increasing numbers of poor non-citizens. Non-citizens can't vote, and therefore their interests are not reflected in policy competition between members of Congress. So immigration has an unexpected consequence for policy: though the percent of poor people in the country increases, policy becomes more anti-poor.

The book is a remarkable and complex argument in which the authors use sophisticated statistical tools to tease out connections between their core data set -- the ideological scores of virtually all national-level legislators since the 1870s -- and other factors (constituency characteristics, party, personal characteristics, etc.). They succeed in cutting through the seemingly crazed rhetoric of conservative extremists in and out of Congress and reveal what it's really all about: protecting the economic interests of the wealthy. For all its quiet restrained tone, it's an important contribution to the Occupy argument.

What is really interesting about this analysis is that it implies that the sizzling rhetoric coming from the right -- personal attacks on the President, anti-gay rants, renewed heat around abortion and contraception -- is just window dressing. By the evidence of voting records, what the right really cares about is economic issues favoring the affluent -- tax cuts, reduced social spending, reduced regulation of business activity, and estate taxes. This isn't to say that the enraged cultural commentators aren't sincere about their personal belief -- who knows? But the policies of their party are very consistent, in the analysis offered here. Maybe the best way of understanding the extremist pundits is as a class of well-paid entertainers, riffing on themes of hatred and cultural fundamentalism that have nothing to do with the real goals of their party.

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Meso powers and causal mechanisms

I've argued in earlier posts for several ideas:
  1. Meso-level social structures have causal powers.
  2. Meso-level social structures must have microfoundations.
  3. Causal relations are carried out by causal mechanisms.
Are these claims consistent with each other?  An earlier post argues for the consistency of (1) and (2).  Here I will address the relation between (1) and (3): what kinds of causal mechanisms are available to mediate the causal powers of meso-level structures? Are there meso-level mechanisms as well as meso-level causes?  Or are the mechanisms that mediate meso causal powers themselves necessarily located at the micro level?

It is evident that there are micro-level mechanisms for meso-level causal powers. The mechanisms of a run on the bank or a self-fulfilling prophecy are both micro-level; they show how a meso-level event disaggregates onto the beliefs and actions of the individuals involved, leading to collective behavior that results in the meso-level effect. These are This is exactly the kinds of mechanism that analytical sociologists, including Thomas Schelling, want to be the exclusive kind of causation in the social realm. So the hard question is this: Are there meso-level causal mechanisms?

I addressed one aspect of this question in an earlier post, where I considered whether causal mechanisms can be complex and multi-staged.  There I focused on the idea that most theories of causal mechanisms require that there be a reasonably strong regularity between input and output.  This implies that a multi-step causal process will probably not qualify as a mechanism, because the intervening causal steps will imply a low association between initial condition and output condition.  (See the post for more details.)  And this in turn implies that a social mechanism needs to consist of one step: the instigating condition occurs and then the output condition occurs. The diagram illustrates the point. Scenario I represents a single-step causal mechanism; scenario II represents a three-step causal process composed of three component mechanisms.  Scenario II does not qualify as a mechanism itself, because the compound probability of D given A is only 50%.

So this would seem to answer the question for the case in which the putative meso-level causal mechanism involves multiple steps of causation. For example: {[Distracting work environment] => [low productivity] => [low profits] => [downsizing]} is a multiple-step causal process entirely at the meso level; but it doesn't establish a meso-level mechanism {[Distracting work environment] => [downsizing]} because the intervening steps imply new contingencies and a subsequent low conditional probability between antecedent and consequent.

There is another possible case to consider as well, however: the case in which a given meso-level structure or occurrence itself gives rise with high probability to a given meso-level result.  Are there such examples?

It would appear that there are.  Social isolation (referred to in an earlier post) is a meso-level characteristic of a population.  And Alford Young argues that decreasing social isolation causes rising inter-group hostility, another meso-level characteristic of a population.  This seems like a clear and uncontroversial example of a meso-meso causal link that is also a meso-level causal mechanism. It looks like Scenario I above.  Moreover, this mechanism can be employed in explanations of more complex social events like race rebellions.  It would seem that there are similar examples in the work of Robert Sampson on neighborhood effects (link).

And here is a third possibility. A meso-level structure S's causal powers may result from the causal powers of its component systems Ti, and the causal mechanisms that embody the causal powers of S may be found at the level of mechanisms at the level of Ti.  For example, a certain type of police organization S may have a high level of corruption C among its street officers.  So S has the causal power to bring about C. The mechanisms that establish this power may reside at a lower level of organization: the processes for giving assignments and the processes for checking incident reports. The diagram might look something like this.

The dashed line indicates the causal power. The solid arc lines on the left indicate "composition". The solid arrows indicate meso-meso causal mechanisms.  And the dotted lines indicate the aggregate consequences of "poor orientation to goals" and "weak incentives for conformance", which is an elevated level of officer corruption. So the meso-level power depends on sub-meso level mechanisms and actor-level mechanisms.

So the conclusion I'd like to tentatively offer is this: Meso-level causal powers are created as a consequence of specific causal mechanisms triggered by the properties and changes of the meso-level structure. Those mechanisms may be at the actor level; they may be at a sub-meso level; or they may be at the meso level.

Sunday, July 1, 2012

Thinking poverty in the inner city

I find the question of how other people think to be one of the most interesting angles we can raise about the social world. By "thinking" I mean breaking down the world of experience into useful categories, reasoning about cause and effect among these items, and organizing one's activities around how he/she understands the world.  What are the mental frameworks through which people conceptualize and organize their daily social experiences? This is pertinent to the notion of an actor-centered sociology, and it is resonant as well with the social-ethnographic research done by people like Erving Goffman. (Here is an earlier post on the topic of social cognition, and here is a thread of posts on Goffman.)

This set of questions is particularly important across the lines of division that separate us in modern US society. The question of how poor Appalachian women think about America, or young black inner city men do, or how white suburban teenagers think about their futures, are all deeply interesting questions. And I fully expect that there are interesting and profound differences across and within the mental frameworks of these various groups.

A sociologist who breaks new ground on this kind of question is Alford Young, a sociologist at the University of Michigan.  His work falls within the field of "cultural sociology", and he works on issues of race and poverty in urban America. His recent book The Minds of Marginalized Black Men: Making Sense of Mobility, Opportunity, and Future Life Chances is a brilliant effort to get inside the mental frameworks of poor young black men in Chicago.  As he points out, most of American society has a pretty simple theory of the consciousness of inner city young men, and it fears what it sees.  Violence, drugs, and disaffection are the main correlates.  And Young demonstrates that these ideas are wrong in a number of important ways.
Rather, this work aims to show that research that focuses on these men’s anger and hostility hinders a more complex exploration of how they take stock of themselves and the world in which they live. (8)
Young's book builds a case on the basis of twenty-six interviews he conducted in 1993 and 1994 in the West side of Chicago. Young emphasizes the value of conversation:
What stayed with me over the years, especially as I went to the University of Chicago for graduate studies, was that a great deal could be learned about other people from extended conversations about mundane, everyday matters. (preface)
This is, obviously, a work of qualitative research. It is based on interviews with a relatively small number of individuals. Young's research hypothesis is that these individuals, while not statistically representative, can shed a great deal of light on the lived experience of young black men in their circumstances and the ways in which these individuals come to think about those circumstances.

Young wants to probe the worldviews of these young men; and he also wants to develop some theories about how they acquired these worldviews.  What were the factors -- structural, cultural, familial -- that led to these fairly different bundles of assumptions, frameworks, and beliefs about how society works?  And he is particularly interested in probing how these young men conceptualize stratification, inequality, racism, and discrimination.  If there is one major surprise in the book, it is the fact that for many of Young's respondents, these topics are not important and not much thought about.

Young argues at length that the mentalities he discovers through these conversations defy stereotypes. He rejects the idea of a "lower-class sub-culture" with a distinctive set of ideas about consumption and favors instead the idea that there are significant and interesting variations within the population of young black urban men.
Thus, it is important to pay attention to what people articulate as their own understanding of how social processes work and how they as individuals might negotiate the complex social terrain, rather than simply looking at their actions.... In order to advance this type of understanding, this study seeks to elucidate these men’s worldviews about a particular range of issues and concerns related to socioeconomic mobility. (10)
One thing that is particularly interesting that emerges from Young's analysis is the fact that these men turn out to have fairly different ideas about their own possibilities for mobility and a better life. And Young finds that these differences correspond to the extent of experience the individual has had outside the neighborhood.
The degree of exposure that the men have had to the world beyond the Near West Side emerges as key to understanding the differences in the breadth and depth of their worldviews. Such exposure might have come about for some through a few months of work in a downtown fast food restaurant, for others, through incarceration in a penal institution. Whatever the circumstances, such exposure provided opportunities for these men to interact across racial and class lines. Overall, interaction with other worlds led to the acquisition of a more profound understanding of the inequities in social power and influence, and how these forces can affect individual lives. Quite often it led to intimate encounters with racism. (14)
In addition to the inherent ethnographic importance of better understanding of this segment of our society, Young believes that this kind of inquiry can shed light on important social mechanisms that influence mentality.  He singles out social isolation and poverty concentration.
Social isolation refers to the lack of contact or sustained interaction with individuals or institutions that represent mainstream society.... Poverty concentration refers to the social outcomes resulting from large numbers of impoverished people living in great proximity to each other.... The introduction of the concepts of social isolation and poverty concentration created an analytical space for including and assessing the effects of an enduring lack of social and geographic connection between the urban poor and other, more affluent people. (31-32)
This connects to Young's other recurring theme, the idea of the importance of social capital and social networks for the formation of one's cognitive frameworks and for the horizon of opportunity that presents itself.
Cultural capital is the knowledge of how to function or operate in specific social settings in order to mobilize, generate responses from, or affect others such as social elites. Finally, social capital has a twofold definition. On one hand, social capital depends on the degree to which an individual is embedded in social networks that can bring about the rewards and benefits that enhance his or her life. In this way, social capital is seen as a precursor to the acquisition of other forms of capital (money, information, social standing, etc.). On the other hand, social capital has been identified as the package of norms and sanctions maintained by groups so that positive or desired outcomes occur for all members, especially those that no single member could achieve on his or her own. (59)
The extracts from interviews that Young provides -- on home life, school, work, life in the streets, and other topics -- are superb, and you feel like you've had a rare opportunity yourself to talk with these young men.

There are many surprises in Young's findings; for example, the less contact residents of the Henry Horner Homes had with the rest of Chicago, the less concerned they seemed to be about racial discrimination and injustice. Here is an exchange with Barry:
When I asked him “Do you think you are treated fairly in society?” he paused for a moment and then said, “I guess so. I guess I’m treated fairly, I guess.” I waited to see what else he might say, but nothing was forthcoming. After some gentle prodding Barry told me that he “just didn’t know no white people,” and that was why it was so hard for him to say more in this part of our discussion. (113)
Here is how Young understands Barry's responses about race:
Barry’s life history involved extreme social isolation not only from labor markets and other institutions relevant to upward mobility, but also from some of the most mobile and connected people in his own neighborhood, such as gang members, college-bound athletes and other students, and other individuals who maintained social ties beyond neighborhood boundaries. Barry’s lack of social ties denied him much-needed experience with people in different positions along the social hierarchy of American life. Barry’s social world included few people other than the low-income residents of the Near West Side. These are the same people he went to school with, sold drugs to, and lived amongst. The scantiness of Barry’s social networks paralleled the narrowness of his views on mobility and opportunity. (115)
Barry was highly isolated, but Devin was not. And here is how Devin answers similar questions:
Devin amplified his earlier remarks by making the following point about black-white relations in America:
I think they [white people] look at me as the, not my people, but to the racists, they look at me like the enemy. They feel that we all blacks is out to get them. Which I believe like this here, I’m is out to get them. . . . Yes. . . . Because they getting too much money. We fight for, we fought for the United States, not them. We went to war. We got to stand up for our rights. We not getting treated right. We’re not even getting equal rights.
Having lived lives that involved either the most interpersonal conflict or the most intimacy with people of high social status and wealth, it is not surprising that Ted, Casey, Peter, and Devin had the most conflict-oriented worldviews about stratification and inequality in American life. (131)
How does this research help with the practical challenges of moving forward in a more just way?  Young addresses this question too:
If a better day is to come for poor black men, then researchers and other parties who are sensitive to their plight must commit themselves to a new perspective on these men. In order for their lives to truly improve, increased employment and job-training opportunities need to be brought into their lives. These men certainly would benefit from an expanded and more secure labor market, but, as we have seen, there is much more that must occur for them to improve their lives. As the men’s testimonies about work make clear, however, increased employment opportunities alone will not deliver them from socioeconomic disadvantage. Information about municipal labor market opportunities, including the options and possibilities in the modern urban world of work and the means and mechanisms for accessing better employment, are as important as the jobs themselves.
Of course, this is the utopian vision of change. The current public view of these men is perhaps best conveyed by the “three-strikes and you’re out” rationale of recent governmental initiatives on crime and delinquency, increased incarceration rates for nonviolent offenders, and other law enforcement initiatives that have resulted in the removal of many low-income black men from the public landscape. This approach goes hand in hand with the public reaction to notions of the underclass, which centers on control and containment of an apparently troubling constituency. (202)
Economic development is of course needed in our cities.  But Young makes a crucial point that I would paraphrase in different terms. The extreme residential segregation that most American cities contain is itself a major obstacle to social mobility -- not only in terms of economic opportunities, but in the very fabric of how different groups understand the social world around them. Segregation is epistemic as well as economic.