Saturday, March 30, 2013

Critical theory in the Frankfurt School

An earlier post raised the question of the meaning of the word "critical" in Roy Bhaskar's theory of critical realism. The most extensive discussions of the epistemology of critical theory occurred in the post-Marxist debates within the Frankfurt School, and Raymond Geuss presents those debates with great clarity in The Idea of a Critical Theory: Habermas and the Frankfurt School (1981).

Here is the general definition that Geuss offers:
A critical theory, then, is a reflective theory which gives agents a kind of knowledge inherently productive of enlightenment and emancipation. (2)
Critical theories aim at emancipation and enlightenment, at making agents aware of hidden coercion, thereby freeing them from that coercion and putting them in a position to determine where their true interest lie. (55)
The idea of enlightenment here is related to achieving accurate knowledge of one's place in the world -- "to determine what [one's] true interests are". And emancipation in this context means having the epistemic tools necessary to make one free -- to change the world and the structure of governing social relations in ways that increase one's ability to live and develop freely. So critical theory is a body of knowledge that permits people to move in the direction of greater autonomy and self-definition. And it is a body of knowledge that penetrates through the obstacles and forms of mystification that prevent individuals in dominating social relations to accurately perceive their situation.

The paradigm case of a critical theory, according to Frankfurt School theorists, is Marx's presentation of the political economy of capitalism. Capital: Volume 1: A Critique of Political Economy provides a basis for understanding how exploitation takes place within the ostensibly free social relations of capitalism; how the class system works; how the fetishism of commodities works to systematically obscure th exploitation and inequality inherent in the property relations of capitalism; and how the dynamics of capitalist competition lead to central tendencies in capitalist society (industrial reserve army, falling rate of profit, immiseration).

The critique of ideology is a core function of critical theory. Ideologies are the systems of ideas and belief that class societies have developed to redescribe and conceal the real workings of the social order. Individuals in every historical period require mental frameworks in terms of which to understand and represent the social structures and relations within which they live. Human beings are reflective, cognitive actors. They need to make sense of the things that influence their lives -- the powers of others, the access they have to material resources, the forms of respect or disrespect that characterize interpersonal relations. Marx and the theorists of the Frankfurt School described these mental frameworks as ideologies; and they worked on the assumption that ideologies are tilted in favor of specific powerful groups in society. Religion and myth serve ideological functions; but so do large, pervasive social assumptions about how things work. In the United States there are certainly ideological systems of belief in terms of which many people understand immigration, race relations, and urban-rural inequalities.

Geuss provides a very careful and illuminating discussion of the nuanced ideas about ideology that were constructed by Frankfurt School theorists, including Jürgen Habermas. This is useful for a number of reasons. First, the concept of ideology is often brought forward without a very specific meaning, and Geuss's analysis is useful in this context. But Geuss's analysis is also a valuable contribution to an issue that has come up frequently in earlier posts in UnderstandingSociety: the need to have more nuanced and adequate theories of the subjectivity of the actor. The social frameworks of knowledge through which individuals make sense of their social relations are certainly an important component of this topic.

Critique of ideology is an essential part of critical theory in the definition offered above. When individuals are preoccupied with social beliefs and expectations that conform badly to the real nature of their social relations, they achieve neither enlightenment nor emancipation. Here is Geuss's analysis of ideological critique as developed by the FS.
  1. Radical criticism of society and criticism of its dominant ideology are inseparable; the ultimate goal of all social research should be the elaboration of a critical theory of society of which ideology critique would be an integral part.
  2. Ideology critique is not just a form of "moralizing criticism," i.e. an ideological form of consciousness is not criticized for being nasty, immoral, unpleasant, etc. but for being false, for being a form of delusion. Ideology critique is itself a cognitive enterprise, a form of knowledge.
  3. Ideology critique (and hence also the social theory of which it is a part) differs significantly in cognitive structure from natural science, and requires for its proper analysis basic changes in the epistemological views we have inherited from traditional empiricism (modeled as it is on the study of natural science). (26)
Geuss raises a key question about critical theory: what is the epistemic status of such theories? To what extent can evidence and logic allow us to argue for the truth or falsity of a given critical theory?
If a critical theory is to be cognitive and give us knowledge, it must be kind of thing that can be true or false, and we would like to know under what conditions it would be falsified and under what conditions confirmed. (75)
In other words, critical theories are aimed at furthering a set of fundamental human values (freedom, emancipation, enlightenment); but they are intended to have rational epistemic force as well. It is expected that theorists and users of theory will give an honest allegiance to evidence and logic, and will be prepared to abandon aspects of their theories if they are refuted. And Geuss admits that this set of epistemic values are in some tension with the democratic and enlightenment values embodied in the critical theory (78).

There is one more idea associated with the general definition provided above, the idea of a reflective theory. Here the idea is that a critical theory needs to pay attention to its subject matter; but it also needs to pay attention to the conditions of knowledge that surround the theory as well. The critical theory should give us some idea of how it could be arrived at in normal social circumstances.
A critical theory is structurally different from a scientific theory in that it is "reflective" and not a "objectifying", that is, it is not just a theory about some objects different from itself, it is also a theory about social theories, how they arise, how they can be applied, and the conditions under which they are acceptable. (79)
So reflective here means "attentive to the conditions and processes through which the theory itself is discovered and assessed".

This is an important set of ideas that helps the problem of better understanding and changing society. One way of thinking about the Frankfurt School is that they were post-positivist and provided some new ideas about how to think about social science and social theory in ways not chained to the assumptions of positivist philosophy of science. But many of these theorists presented ways of framing the nature of contemporary society that were post-Marxist as well. They continued to be concerned with key Marxian ideas like exploitation, alienation, and false consciousness. But they also sought out theoretical frameworks that went beyond economics and historical materialism.

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Michael Mann on power

In 1986 Michael Mann began a strikingly ambitious project -- to give a theoretical and historical account of the history of power in human history.  This effort came to closure in the past few months with the publication of volume 3 (The Sources of Social Power: Volume 3, Global Empires and Revolution, 1890-1945) and volume 4 (The Sources of Social Power: Volume 4, Globalizations, 1945-2011). (Two other titles were published as offshoots of this project, Fascists and The Dark Side of Democracy: Explaining Ethnic Cleansing.)

This is an amazing corpus, and I think it throws important light on both the theory and the history. It is historical sociology on a macro-scale; and yet Mann also provides careful, almost ethnographic details at the level of individual actors -- fascists, ethnic paramilitaries, legislators, colonial administrators. So I think Mann also offers a great example of a sociologist who is not prisoner to a single methodology or a single avenue of approach to these supremely complex social processes.

Another admirable dimension of Mann's approach to this long sweep of history is his insistence on the contingency and conjunctural character of that history.
We shall see that these structural crises had multiple causes and stages cascading on top of each other in unexpected and unfortunate ways. They were contingent because different causal chains, eacho f which we can trace and explain quite well, came together in a way that we cannot explain in terms of either of them, yet which proved timely for the outcome. (V3, 3)
This attention to contingency and heterogeneity of social processes is to be found through all four volumes. Here is an extensive statement of these ideas at the beginning of Volume 1:
Societies are not unitary. They are not social systems (closed or open); they are not totalities. We can never find a single bounded society in geographical or social space. Because there is no system, no totality, there cannot be "sub-systems," "dimensions," or "levels" of such a totality. Because there is no whole, social relations cannot be reduced "ultimately," "in the last instance," to some systemic property of it -- like the "mode of material production," or the "cultural" or "normative system," or the "form of military organization." Because there is no bounded totality, it is not helpful to divide social change or conflict into "endogenous" and "exogenous" varieties. Because there is no social system, there is no "evolutionary" process within it. (The Sources of Social Power: Volume 1, A History of Power from the Beginning to AD 1760, 1)
Mann doesn't try to reduce any of the periods he considers to a simple organizing theme -- "modernization," "colonialism," "resistance." Instead, he recognizes the degree to which the historical process is heterogeneous across space and time. Fascism had different dynamics in Spain than in Germany; and both were distinct from the fascist ideologies of France between the wars.

But this recognition of the contingency of historical processes does not mean that explanation and generalization are impossible. Instead, Mann takes an approach that is familiar from the social mechanisms approach, though on a more macro scale: he looks to trace causal mechanisms and sequences to show how various social structures and circumstances led to specific kinds of changes in the social order.

One of the generalizing frameworks that he uses throughout all four volumes is what he refers to as the "IEMP model" of social power: ideological, economic, military, and political. He believes that these aspects of social reality are largely independent sets of institutions and processes, and they create different though complementary sources of power for individuals and groups within a given state of society. Here is the thumbnail he offers for each of these four high-level features of social power in Volume 3:
Ideological Power derives from the human need to find ultimate meaning in life, to share norms and values, and to participate in aesthetic and ritual practices with others. (V3, 6) 
Economic Power derives from the human need to extract, transform, distribute, and consume the products of nature. Economic relations are powerful because they combine the intensive mobilization of labor with very extensive circuites of capital, trade, and production chains, providing a combination of intensive and extensive power and normally also of authoritative and diffused power. (V3, 8) 
Military Power. Since writing my previous volumes, I have tightened up the definition of military power to "the social organization of concentrated and lethal violence." (V3, 10) 
Political Power is the centralized and territorial regulation of social life. The basic function of government is the provision of order over this realm. (V3, 12)
Empire and globalization are central topics in the final two volumes of the work. This reflects Mann's historical judgment that the past century or so has been structured by the internationalizing pressures of economic and military interest to create broader systems of control.

I'm looking forward to reading these final two volumes carefully. In the meantime, though, I'm struck by an interesting parallel between Mann's approach to this set of histories and that offered by Eric Hobsbawm a generation earlier.

The Age of Revolution: 1789-1848

The Age of Capital: 1848-1875

The Age of Empire: 1875-1914

The Age of Extremes: A History of the World, 1914-1991

Hobsbawm was not a sociological theorist. But he was responsive to many of the same large issues as those raised by Mann: class, capitalism, state, colonialism, revolution, and war. And certainly Hobsbawm no less than Mann was very clear about the role that social power played throughout this global history.

One other observation that strikes me in looking through the four volumes as a group is that the books do not give much spotlight to Asia.  The Japanese empire is a central topic, and the Chinese Revolution comes in for some attention. But a key insight that historians of Eurasia like Bin Wong, Ken Pomeranz, and Prasannan Parthasarathi have arrived at, is that Asian history and politics need to be considered in their own terms. The institutions, politics, and ideologies of India, China, Burma, or Japan are not just pale versions of European equivalents; rather, they have their own logics and historical distinctiveness. So as large as this four-volume corpus is, it is still importantly incomplete. And it is a very interesting question to consider whether the IEMP framework that Mann develops works well as a basis for understanding the major turns of historical development in India or China over a comparable sweep of time.

Sunday, March 24, 2013

What is "critical" about critical realism?

Critical realism is an approach to the philosophy of social science advocated centrally by Roy Bhaskar. Other contributors include Margaret Archer and Andrew Collier. What, precisely, does this phrase mean?

The "realism" part of the label is fairly straightforward. Bhaskar maintains that the social sciences (sometimes, often, once in a while) succeed in discovering and describing the real properties and causal powers of social structures and systems. Social entities have real causal powers, and sociology can discover the details of these powers. The approach is anti-positivist, anti-covering-law, and anti-reductionist.

So far this is the familiar position of scientific realism, applied to the social sciences. Rom Harré laid out a version of this in his causal realism theory (Causal Powers: Theory of Natural Necessity). If there is a controversial part of the theory, it is the attribution of reality to higher-level social structures like states, modes of production, and classes; but this isn't in fact very controversial.

This realist theme about knowledge of the social world is also familiar from the "causal mechanisms" approach to social explanation, where theorists argue that there are real (though often unobservable) social causal mechanisms that constitute the motive force of social change.

The more difficult problem is to say what "critical" means in this context. And surprisingly, neither Bhaskar nor his circle is very explicit about this question. The idea of "critical" realism does not appear at all in Bhaskar's first major book, A Realist Theory of Science (1975).  The idea of critical philosophy is important and prominent in his second book, The Possibility of Naturalism: A philosophical critique of the contemporary human sciences  (1979). But it isn't used to qualify "realism" but rather "naturalism."

Here is how Bhaskar introduces the idea of critical naturalism in the preface to the first edition of PN:
The upshot of the analysis is a new critical naturalism, entailing a transformational model of social activity and a causal theory of mind. The transformational model necessitates a relational conception of the subject-matter of sociology and a series of ontological, epistemological and relational limits on (or conditions for) a naturalistic science of society." (kl 145)
When Bhaskar comes to qualify the "realism" of RTS later in his work, he uses the phrase "transcendental realism" to describe this formulation of his theory. The idea of "transcendental realism" is derived from Kant's Critique of Pure Reason, where a transcendental argument is introduced as one that seeks the conditions of the possibility of a certain kind of knowledge. What must be true of the social world and social actors in order that they may constitute the object of empirical knowledge?  Bhaskar's specific question is this:
To what extent can society be studied in the same way as nature? (kl 180)
Bhaskar and Tony Lawson explain this transcendental terminology in Critical Realism: Essential Readings:
Bhaskar sustains a metaphysical realism as a way of elaborating an account of what the world 'must' be like for those scientific practices accepted ex posteriori as successful, to have been possible. (3)
This all gives a strong clue to the reader that Bhaskar's intentions are philosophical and ontological from the start; he deliberately chooses to adopt the language of Kant's critical philosophy of knowledge for his own study of the social sciences.

So, again, what might be implied by attaching "critical" to "realism"?

Critical thinking as emancipatory. In the Marxist tradition the word "critical" has a fairly specific meaning. This meaning is reflected in Marx's eleventh thesis on Feuerbach. "The philosophers have sought to understand the world; the point, however, is to change it." Critical science is engaged science, committed science, emancipatory science. Critical science is committed to constructing bodies of knowledge that have substantial impact on the link long term best interests of humanity.

Critique as illusion-destroying.  Another dimension of the idea of criticism in the Marxist tradition is the idea of "critique" -- focused intellectual effort to uncover the implicit (and misleading) assumptions of various schemes of thought and policy. Marx's Capital is subtitled "A Critique of Political Economy", and this phrase is found in many other of his titles as well. This brings in the idea of laying bare the implicit (often dominating) assumptions of various systems of thought. Laying bare the partisan assumptions underlying ideology and false consciousness is an exercise of critique.

Critique as self-creation. Finally, there is a third connotation of "critical" that pertains to its use in the social sciences: the constant reminder that the social world is not independent and separate from "us". This involves the feature of "reflexiveness" that obtains in the social world. We constitute the social world, for better or worse. And the forms of knowing that we gain through the social sciences also give rise to forms of creating of new social forms -- again, for better or worse. So it is crucial to pay attention to the plasticity of the social relations in which we live, and the innovations we create in those relations through our own processes of knowing and doing. Margaret Archer refers to this fundamental aspect of the relationship between actors and the social world as "morphogenesis" (link).

I think each of these elements is involved in Bhaskar's evolving conception of "criticial" philosophy. In the preface to the Second Edition of PN Bhaskar makes most of the points highlighted above. He refers to the importance of critique of "philosophical ideologies," including positivism, where critique is understood in roughly the sense mentioned above. (An intended second volume of PN was planned but not completed, which would have been called Philosophical Ideologies.) And in the Preface to the First Edition of PN he makes reference to ideas originally expressed in the eleventh thesis on Feuerbach mentioned above, but this time quoted in Capital (part iv, section 10, p. 505), in explaining why sociology is important to epistemology: "Sociology is necessary if we are to avoid 'that kind of criticism which knows how to judge and condemn the present, but not how to comprehend it'" (kl 136).

The emancipatory character of Bhaskar's conception of the social sciences emerges as well in his critiques of the fact-value dichotomy in science. He rejects the idea that the scientist must remain ethically neutral with respect to the social and historical processes he or she studies.

But none of this amounts to a systematic exposition of what "critical" philosophy is. At most it gives the reader some clues about the features of thinking, reasoning, and acting that Bhaskar seems to have in mind when he advocates for critical realism as an approach to the philosophy of sociology.

So it seems that Bhaskar has chosen to allow connotation to replace analysis when it comes to explaining "critical". He is a careful and explicit philosopher in much of his writing; but on the subject of "critical" method, he is surprisingly elliptical. And to me, this suggests that the import of Bhaskar's system is more on the side of "realism" than its "critical" methodology.

Monday, March 18, 2013

Mechanisms of racial disparities

A fundamental fact about American society is the persistence of disparities between African-American and European-American populations. These disparities are manifest in the most important aspects of social life: income, wealth, education levels, health status, and incarceration rates. And several of these areas of disparity persist even when we control for income. Most observers interpret these disparities as the continuing legacy of facts of racial discrimination and oppression, including the racial system of the Jim Crow South. But often the mechanisms that perpetuate racial disparities are less visible and less intentional than they were in the 1940s and 1950s.

Here I want to consider what some of those mechanisms are in contemporary America. Chief among these is the continuing fact of residential segregation based on race. Elizabeth Armstrong makes this point strongly in The Imperative of Integration, and so did Massey and Denton in American Apartheid: Segregation and the Making of the Underclass. Access to social goods in the United States is highly dependent on where you live. And cities in the United States continue to be highly segregated by race. If poverty, crime, and poor schools are likewise concentrated, then it follows that the opportunities available to black Americans will be, on average, distinctly inferior to those available to white Americans. This is most evident in quality of schooling. But it also shows up in access to nutritional food, health services, and jobs, and vulnerability to heightened rates of crime. A young person's life prospects are very much affected by where he or she grows up. (Here is a good study by DataDrivenDetroit on the availability of grocery stores in Detroit; link.)

These intuitive observations are very consistent with the arguments about neighborhood effects that Robert Sampson has put forward (link). Sampson documents that neighborhoods have significant effects on the behavior and outcomes of the people who live there. When we combine this finding with the facts of segregation in most American cities and the generally poor status of many inner city neighborhoods, once again we come to the conclusion that black individuals and families are likely to have lessened prospects relative to their white counterparts.

One of the most troubling and persistent disparities along racial lines is in the area of health status, including disease rates, infant mortality, and longevity. Black individuals have higher rates of disease and morbidity than their white counterparts.  And these differences across racial groups persist even when we control for income, so they are not simply a secondary effect of poverty. There has been a great deal of research in schools of public health as to why this is so. Some factors are obvious -- differential rates of health insurance, different levels of access to hospitals and clinics, and different levels of quality of neighborhood healthcare resources. But given that even affluent segments of the black community have higher rates of various diseases than their white counterparts, there must be more to the story. One possibility is that there are differential patterns of treatment by health providers across racial groups. Do black women receive mammograms at the same rates as white women? Not everywhere. Another possible mechanism is the factor of stress as a determinant of health. Some public health scholars have explored the possibility that daily lives for black people within a highly racialized society incorporate a background level of personal stress that impairs health (link).

Some observers attempt to explain the persistence of racial inequalities on the basis of cultural differences across white and black communities.  Different attitudes towards education, family, and work have been cited as causes of racial disparities across communities. These explanations, generally from a conservative political position, claim that there is a "culture of poverty" that holds back young black men and women from striving for success in school and work. Here is an earlier post on the pro's and con's of this approach (link). Generally speaking, I don't find it impossible that there are cultural factors that play a role in social inequalities; but it is too easy for conservatives to slide from this apriori possibility into a single-factor rant that absolves the structure of American society from continuing involvement in racial inequality. And yet it seems obvious that the situation of white and black America would be fundamentally different if educational and employment opportunities were genuinely equal for white and black young people -- which they are not. A much better approach to this complex of hypotheses about culture and structure in racial outcomes is that taken by Alford Young in his research on the ideas and horizons of young black men in The Minds of Marginalized Black Men: Making Sense of Mobility, Opportunity, and Future Life Chances (link).

What about inequalities of employment opportunities for white and black workers? Here there are at least three important mechanisms.  First is proximity to where the jobs are, and the availability of public transit. Second is the educational qualifications of the workforce. And third is the workings of discrimination at the point of hiring and evaluation. Each of these dimensions places poor black workers at a disadvantage. If transit from the inner city to the jobs in the suburbs is poor, then inner-city workers will have a harder time gaining access to those jobs. If the quality of education provided for inner city black students is poor, these young people will be disadvantaged when it comes to finding a job as well. And, of course, if black applicants are treated differently -- either consciously or unconsciously -- by the hiring process, they will be underrepresented as well. (Here is a review of the sociology of discrimination by Devah Pager and Hana Shepherd, sociologists at Princeton; link.) All these factors appear to be involved in the current disparities that exist when it comes to employment across racial groups.

In short, there seem to be a great number of mechanisms of racial differentiation that are at work in American society that don't generally presuppose explicit racial antagonism, but that work to channel black individuals into worse outcomes than their white counterparts. These are structural factors that the population faces, not personal factors; and they have pronounced effects when it comes to generating racial disparities in a number of crucial social dimensions.

Here is an earlier post that documents some current research on inter-generational social mobility for the black community (link).

Saturday, March 16, 2013

Moral emotions

Why do people act morally? Why do people act altruistically, keep their promises, or act fairly? It is sometimes held that a part of the answer is that people have "moral emotions", and these emotions play a key role in the creation of moral actions.

What is a moral emotion? I'm sure that there are specialists who would offer different definitions of this concept; but I suggest that a moral emotion is a feeling or affect that is responsive to the situation of other living beings. Sympathy, compassion, humor, affection, and respect are all examples of moral emotions; but so are antipathy, rivalry, envy, and racial animosity. This inventory shows that what I'm calling "moral emotions" are not necessarily "moral" -- taking pleasure in the suffering of others is morally unattractive, but falls in the category of a feeling that is responsive to the situation of the other.

There is a related category of emotion that philosophers sometimes refer to as "cognitive emotions." These are feelings that are dependent on possessing certain kinds of beliefs. Feeling grateful is a cognitive emotion; it doesn't make sense to attribute this mental state to someone without also attributing to the person some set of factual beliefs about what has occurred in light of which being grateful makes sense. (Andrew Ortony, Gerald Clore, and Allan Collins provide some theoretical discussion of this topic in The Cognitive Structure of Emotions.)

These two categories do not fully overlap. There are moral emotions that have a cognitive basis. But there are also moral emotions that do not have a cognitive foundation -- for example, the emotional response most people have to a smiling infant. And there are cognitive emotions that do not have a social component -- for example, fear of illness.

It is clear that normal human beings experience these kinds of emotions and feelings. How should we factor them into our theory of action? How do emotions affect behavior? Some emotions seem to have an immediate causal power to create dispositions to specific kinds of action (dispositions that can nonetheless be overridden by higher functions of self-control). An angry person is disposed to lashing out at others. A person experiencing sympathy is disposed to providing aid to people in immediate need. A frightened person is disposed to retreat from the frightening situation. A person experiencing sadness may be inhibited from any kind of action. So emotions have a fairly direct relationship to action.

It is a short step from recognizing the fact of these kinds of emotions, to asking whether there is an evolutionary basis for them. Were social emotions like sympathy psychological capacities that conferred reproductive advantage on early primates? Did these emotions create the possibility of forms of cooperation that permitted primates and early humans to achieve greater success in their environments than would otherwise have been possible? This is a topic that Allan Gibbard explores in Wise Choices, Apt Feelings: A Theory of Normative Judgment.

Some philosophers of action (e.g. David Hume) have wanted to understand the emotions as the primary or even sole motivating forces that drive actions, and reason serves only to permit the actor to tailor action to circumstance. Others (e.g. Aristotle) have looked at reason as the master of the emotions: the rational being decides what to do no matter what emotions he or she is experiencing. The "passions" are not trustworthy guides to action, on this philosophy. Kant represented the extreme version of the reason-centric theory of action: only actions motivated by the recognition of duty are morally worthy.

Some philosophers have held that the moral emotions are a necessary ingredient of morally generated behavior. These emotions take the individual out of his/her particular interests and provide a basis for other-regarding action. The moral emotions are thought to provide the motive power underlying altruism, benevolence, and sympathy. Lacking these emotions, it is thought that the actor would be unmoved by the needs and cares of others. The most noteworthy exception to this line of thought is that provided by Tom Nagel in The Possibility of Altruism, where he argues that the cognitive act of recognizing the reality of other persons is sufficient to generate altruistic behavior.

These ideas highlight once again the point made in earlier posts: that a theory of action needs to be complex and needs to take into account the several ways in which consciousness drives behavior. It seems apparent that we do not yet have a theory of action that does justice to the nuance of thought and behavior. Habit, emotion, character, rules, and deliberation all play roles in the creation of actions, but we do not yet have good models for how they work together.

Here is a diagram offered by Ortony, Clore and Collins to help to classify emotions (19).

(Quite a few earlier posts are relevant to this topic. Searching for relevant keywords including altruism, sentiment, reciprocity, and cooperation will lead to some of these discussions.)

Saturday, March 9, 2013

What became of Detroit?

As Detroit approaches a new turn in its difficult journey over the past several decades, the imposition of an Emergency Financial Manager by the governor of Michigan (link), many people are asking a difficult question: how did we get to this point?

The features that need explanation all fall within a general theme -- the decline of a once-great American city. The city's population is now roughly 40% of its peak of almost two million residents in 1950 (link); the tax revenues for city government fall far short of what is needed to support a decent level of crucial city services; the school system is failing perhaps half of the children it serves; and poverty seems a permanent condition for a large percentage of the city. The decline is economic; it is political; it is demographic; it is fiscal; and it is of course a decline in the quality of life for the majority of the residents of the city. The poverty, unemployment, poor housing, poor health, and high crime that characterize the city must surely have an explanation.

There are several standard lines of interpretation that Michiganders offer each other -- the decline of manufacturing and the auto industry; the workings of race and white flight; the uprising of 1967; ineffective and corrupt city management; and a long and debilitating contagion of rustbelt-itis in common with Cleveland, Peoria, and Gary. Each of these has a role to play in the explanation, but it is complicated to see how these factors may have intertwined in the half-century of change that led to the Detroit of 2013.

The decline of manufacturing employment in Detroit and its inner suburbs is certainly a contributing factor to the economic decline of the city of Detroit, but these changes by themselves do not account for the major contours of Detroit's economic decline. In a careful review article on manufacturing employment in Michigan (link), Richard Block and Dale Belman show that the decline of vehicle manufacturing employment for the state of Michigan as a whole was measurable but slow between 1980 and 2001 (152). The loss of jobs has been much more significant since the beginnings of the 2007 recession; but Detroit's decline was well underway by 2007.

What about race and white flight? Certainly Detroit is a much more racially segregated city than it was in 1960, and this increase reflects the relocation of a substantial part of the white population to the affluent suburbs. So white flight is a fact. This racial demographic shift is often attributed to the aftermath of the 1967 uprising. But Tom Sugrue documents very convincingly that this process was already well underway by 1967. White flight predates the occurrence of the uprising by at least a decade (The Origins of the Urban Crisis: Race and Inequality in Postwar Detroit). This transformation of racial demography seems to reflect the vicious circle of urban change that characterizes several of the processes mentioned here. People care about the urban environment in which they live, and if they are unsatisfied and financially able, they will relocate to neighborhoods that provide better quality of life for them. But often their relocation leads to a slight worsening of the environment for others in the neighborhood, leading to a growing flow outward of the more affluent residents. Unfortunately in Detroit's history (like that of many other Midwestern cities) some of those preferences have to do with the racial composition of a neighborhood, resulting in out-migration that is disproportionately white and affluent. But this process has important consequences. Sustained shifting of patterns of residence that result in increasingly impoverished neighborhoods in the central city lead to decline quality of life and declining tax revenues for the city, and another round of relocation.

Another vicious circle in Detroit concerns schooling. The funding of the Detroit Public School system depends on the enrolled student count. Each year for at least the past ten years this count has been lower than the prior year. This means a continuing fiscal crisis for the schools, and a continuing downward spiral of funding and school population. Parents perceive lower quality as a result of reduced funding; they find alternative schools for their children; and the count declines further. But crucially, the quality of schools is a key determinant of the quality of life of a city and its attractiveness as a destination for young families. So declining school quality reinforces population loss.

Another important factor is the quality of housing and neighborhoods in the city. The city has a legacy of blight and decay that is very costly to deal with. The precipitous decline of population has left large parts of the city very sparsely populated, with a high number of abandoned buildings and vacant lots. This low density residential pattern makes it costly to deliver basic urban services like police, fire, sanitation, and infrastructure maintenance. So in addition to a declining tax base, the city has to deal with the challenge that its urban geography implies that services will cost more per capita than they do in more densely populated cities.

So what about the creation of new jobs as a way of combatting these downward spirals? Employers need a well educated workforce. Detroit's ability to educate its children and young adults is impaired; rates of basic literacy are low; and therefore it is difficult to persuade employers to establish new activities in the city. So it is predicable that job growth in the city will be slow.

Finally, what about waste, mismanagement, and fraud in city government? Is this a primary cause of Detroit's decline? Certainly there are examples of each of these problems in Detroit's history. The current trial of former mayor Kwame Kilpatrick lifts the veil from some of these practices. But the current mayor's administration has a good reputation, and it hasn't been possible for the city to make progress on its fiscal crisis during his administration either. Bringing the volume of waste, mismanagement, and fraud down to "normal" levels won't solve the city's fiscal crisis.

If I had to single out a single fact out of this complicated story as the most important factor that led to these toxic changes, I would identify the mechanisms of racial residential segregation that Detroit has embodied for almost a century. For decades Eight Mile represented a key racial division in the city, and a plethora of mechanisms of exclusion conspired to maintain this division. If the city could have settled into a racially and economically mixed pattern of residence in the 1940s, much of this story would have been different. Population exit would not have reached crisis proportions; businesses would have been less likely to relocate out of the city; and a schooling system that was very successful in the 1950s could have maintained its effectiveness. This implies that Detroit is victim to the continuing tragedy of America's inability to heal its racial divisions and antagonisms. Doug Massey and Nancy Denton got it right in their important book, American Apartheid: Segregation and the Making of the Underclass:
Segregation increases the susceptibility of neighborhoods to these spirals of decline. During periods of economic dislocation, a rising concentration of black poverty is associated with the simultaneous concentration of other negative social and economic conditions. Given the high levels of racial segregation characteristic of American urban areas, increases in black poverty such as those observed during the 1970s can only lead to a concentration of housing abandonment, crime, and social disorder, pushing poor black neighborhoods beyond the threshold of stability. (13)
So how can Detroit imagine reversing this downward spiral? It's easy to say, though not easy to implement. If Detroit could improve its ability to provide decent, effective education for its children through graduation from high school, and if it could create a process through which tens of thousands of new jobs were created for young people every year, then much of the rest of the picture would change as well. Detroit's young people need education and opportunity; with these assets, they can make their city sing again.

Thursday, March 7, 2013

Crozier on actors and organizations

I ran across a book by Michel Crozier and Erhard Friedberg I hadn't read before in a Dijon bookstore, L'acteur et le système: Les contraintes de l'action collective (French Edition).  (Yes, in France they still have great academic bookstores!) It was the book's title that caught my eye -- "actor and system". Crozier and Friedberg's premise is that actors within organizations have substantially more agency and freedom than they are generally afforded by orthodox organization theory, and we can best understand the workings and evolution of the organization as (partially) the result of the strategic actions of the participants (instead of understanding the conduct of the participants as a function of the rules of the organization).

In fact, they appear to look at organizations as solutions to collective action problems -- tasks or performances that allow attainment of a goal that is of interest to a broad public, but for which there are no antecedent private incentives for cooperation. Organized solutions to collective problems -- of which organizations are key examples -- do not emerge spontaneously; instead, "they consist of nothing other than solutions, always specific, that relatively autonomous actors have created, invented, established, with their particular resources and capacities, to solve these challenges for collective action" (15). And they emphasize the inherent contingency of these particular solutions; there are always alternative solutions, neither better nor worse.

This is an appealing point of view to me for several reasons. First, it is consistent with the view I've advocated for at various points about the plasticity of institutions (link). Second, it seems to fit very well with the ideas associated with methodological localism (link): Crozier and Freidberg seem to add support to the view that we can best understand a range of extended social phenomena as the result of the actions and thoughts of the socially situated and socially constituted actors who make up its various locales. Finally, though, the degree of freedom the authors attribute to actors seems to contradict another aspect of organizational theory that I've incorporated into my own thinking: the idea that there are in fact strong microfoundations for the workings of the regulative framework of an organization. On my account these microfoundations take the form of internally realized enforcement mechanisms like auditors, supervisors, and discipline administrators. The freedom of the actors is reduced by the mechanisms of enforcement through which their performance of their roles is overseen.

The authors use the idea of the "narrowing the field of play" ("champs d'interaction aménagés") frequently to describe the workings of an organization. Essentially this seems to imply that an organization commonly succeeds in ruling out certain strategies for the participants while leaving open others. And perhaps this converges with the point just mentioned: organizations succeed in limiting the freedom of choice of participants, though not down to a singleton set. For example: a junior faculty person may choose a strategy of flattering the department chair to increase the likelihood of receiving tenure; but he/she cannot threaten the chair with bodily harm unless support is provided.

So the framework and theory that Crozier and Freidberg offer seems to provide a good illustration of several insights into the nature of the social that have emerged from my own efforts to formulate a better approach to the philosophy of social science.  This is, of course, a somewhat personal reason for favoring a theory, but it gives me a motive to work through the book more carefully.

Here are a few passages that capture some of the unique perspective they offer.
Bref, ce mode de raisonnement ne vise pas tant les organisations, comme objet social spécifique, que l'action organisée des hommes. Celle-là constitue la véritable sujet de ce livre. (10)
"In short, this method is not so much aimed at organizations as a specific kind of social thing, as at the organized actions of people. This is the true subject of this book."
"This essay is ultimately a reflection on the relationships of actor and system. It is in effect concerning the existence of these two opposing poles that determines the method we follow. The actor does not exist wholly outside of the system which defines his freedom and the rationality that he can use in his actions. But equally the system does not exist except through the actor who sustains it and gives it life, and who alone can change it. It is the juxtaposition of these two logics which gives birth to the constraints on organized action that our method reveals."
"The reader should not misconstrue the significance of this theoretical bet. We have not sought to formulate a set of general laws concerning the substance, the properties and the stages of development of organizations and systems. We do not have the advantage of being able to furnish normative precepts like those offered by management specialists who always believe they can elaborate a model of "good organization" and present a guide to the means and measures necessary to realize it. We present of series of simple propositions on the problems raised by the existence of these complex but integrated ensembles that we call organizations, and on the means and instruments that people have invented to surmount these problems; that is to say, to assure and develop their cooperation in view of the common goals." (11)
There are resonances in this text of other voices on the topic of the power of organizations. Foucault is mentioned only four times, and then only in footnotes; but the authoritarianism that Foucault attributes to modern institutions seems to be very much the point of view that Crozier and Friedberg want to refute. The book to which they refer is Discipline & Punish: The Birth of the Prison, a work that emphasizes the total control to which modern organizations aspire. Crozier and Friedberg reject this view in favor of one that emphasizes the agency and freedoms of the actors situated within the organization. And they take this to be an empirical fact, not a normative one.

The other voice that seems to be in the background in this argument is that of Bourdieu, who is mentioned not at all. Here the relationship is more ambiguous. The emphasis on agency within constraints that Crozier and Friedberg insist upon seems resonant with Bourdieu's theory of practice in Outline of a Theory of Practice (1972). But Bourdieu also advocates for some of the themes of domination and control that Foucault highlights; and to this aspect C&F are equally opposed.

This isn't to say that C&F deny the facts of power and exploitation that are so important to Marxist theory as well as Foucault and Bourdieu; in fact, chapter two is dedicated to an analysis of power.

So they don't reject the facts of power and constraint. Rather, they reject the idea that these social systems of power leave actors with no alternative choices. In this respect I would put C&F in league with the position taken by James Scott in Domination and the Arts of Resistance: Hidden Transcripts. Agents are capable of forming their own perceptions of the social relations in which they find themselves; and they are capable of acting strategically in trying to gain advantage within those relations.

The final relationship that seems both important and somewhat invisible in the text is to Raymond Boudon, one of the primary advocates of rational choice theory in French sociology. C&T are interested in strategic action on the part of deliberative agents, and this brings their theorizing into a degree of alignment with game theory and the work of Boudon. This is not to say that they uncritically accept the premises of formal game theory. In fact they offer their own interpretation of the prisoners' dilemma, with a summary conclusion that it is an error to look at actors as socially disconnected individuals lacking ties to each other that would facilitate cooperation. But the broad framework suggests the importance of reasoning about the choices individual actors make, which leads to a degree of parallel with enlightened versions of rational choice theory.

In short, this is a highly stimulating book with complex relationships to other strands of contemporary French sociology. And its insights still seem important more than forty years after publication.

Sunday, March 3, 2013

Decline of French universities

France has 83 state-supported universities and well over a million undergraduate students in university. After visits over several years to one of these universities and conversations with faculty and students, however, I have come away with some troubling impressions, especially in the humanities. The crux of the apparent problem is a pervasive lack of concern for undergraduate students' learning outcomes on the part of the universities and many of the regular faculty.

Part of this problem derives ultimately from a chronic lack of funding for the universities. Facilities on many campuses are decrepit, and the ratio of students to faculty is quite high. Students are admitted to the university and are charged very low tuition; but sufficient public resources are not made available to allow the university to offer them a high-quality, challenging education.

Another part of the problem is an over-emphasis on research over teaching. Research achievement is certainly an important national goal. But there is a degree of research fetishism that seems sometimes to overwhelm the other values of the university in France, including quality of teaching and learning. This over-emphasis on research within the university is found at the level of the ministry. And it seems to percolate downward as well, to individual campus administrations and to individual faculty. The impression one gets is that only research accomplishment is valued, and there is very little value given to effective teaching, either institutionally or individually. High-prestige research publications are the ticket for career advancement for the faculty member; and nationally visible research achievement is the coin of the realm for university leaders. This value scheme leaves out the undergraduate student almost entirely. But this gives woefully short shrift to the project of creating the next generation of creative, skilled, rigorous thinkers who will constitute the main source of innovation and new knowledge in the France of tomorrow. Currently the universities do not appear to be succeeding in focusing on this crucial task.

And then there is the problem of the turbo prof. This is a very broad phenomenon in the university world of France today that was largely created by the extension of the TGV network of fast trains connecting many secondary cities to Paris with 90 minute journeys. This has helped create the phenomenon of the "turbo prof" -- academics who live in Paris and commute to Tours, Dijon, Strasbourg, or other regional centers. There is a long history of French academics preferring Paris to the regional cities. But now it is possible to live in Paris and spend a day and a half on the regional campus where the academic has an academic appointment.

This phenomenon would not be troubling if the turbo prof kept up his or her part of the bargain: committed teaching, adequate time on campus to advise and assist students, and a reasonable degree of involvement in the intellectual and institutional life of the university. But this is all too often not the case, it appears. Instead, the amount of time spent on the university campus is often reduced to a two-day period of intensive lecturing. The prof travels from Paris on a Monday morning; reaches the campus by 11:00 am; lectures six hours on Monday; stays in a pied-a-terre or hotel room Monday night; lectures another six hours on Tuesday; and returns to Paris in time for dinner on Tuesday evening. It is easy enough to forget about those undergraduates in Tours, Strasbourg, or Dijon by the time the TGV slides into the Gare de Lyons or the Gare de Montparnasse or the Gare de l'Est.

This is very worrisome for the economic and civic future of France. University is a time during which students need to be stretched, challenged, and deepened in their intellectual capacities. But this isn't likely to happen when they have essentially zero contact with faculty, very limited writing assignments, and a very low sense of accountability for their progress on the part of the university.

This is also a hazardous reality for the permanent faculty of these universities. If it becomes apparent that their very limited efforts in their teaching roles make almost no difference in the process of development and maturation that their students achieve, then it is a very short step to concluding that their services are not needed. The few who are genuinely important research scholars may find alternative employment in research institutes, of which France has a fair number. But the idea of a teacher-scholar will be dead. And the next rank of less accomplished researchers will need to look for work outside of academia -- not a very encouraging prospect in France today.

The institutions governing higher education in France need to take these problems seriously. Universities need to refocus their attention on effective, transformative undergraduate education. Faculty need to be re-enculturated to give sincere adherence to the importance of their teaching responsibilities and contact with students. The turbo profs need to extend their work weeks on their regional campuses to a reasonable level -- at least three full days and preferably four. And the Ministry of Higher Education and Research needs to impose real standards of accountability on universities and departments, along the lines of the accreditation processes that exist in North America. And it goes without saying -- those accountability standards need to be focused on the primary values of the university, not the market value of this degree or that.

It is ironic to me that the sociology of education is a much more prominent part of the sociology profession in France than it is in the United States. Much attention has been given to the effects that the educational system has on class stratification, beginning with Bourdieu and Passeron, Les Heritiers: Les etudiants et la Culture, and extending through Mohamed Cherkaoui's École et société : Les paradoxes de la démocratie (French Edition). And yet I haven't been able to locate anything that focuses on the question of educational quality, the educational progress that undergraduates make, and the institutional and individual practices that interfere with educational progress in the universities.

Here is an OECD quality assessment report compiled in cooperation with Universite Louis Pasteur in Strasbourg (link). This document has many of the dimensions of an accreditation report in North America. And it illustrates several of the problems mentioned above. The report gives substantially more attention to research activities than teaching effectiveness; the university's response to this issue when raised in 1985 was essentially nil; and the one effort at implementing measures of teaching quality assessment that was undertaken -- student surveys of educational satisfaction -- was evidently discontinued. The report highlights continuing issues having to do with the effectiveness of undergraduate education: "the excellence of teaching in the postgraduate cycle and the shortcomings of the other cycles, with emphasis on the lack of performance indicators, especially as regards graduate employment; ...".

Here is a recent news story on the funding issues in French universities (link).

French readers -- what are your observations about undergraduate education in French universities?

Saturday, March 2, 2013

New thinking about social systems

There is a great deal of important international work underway today within the philosophy of social science on the general topic of social ontology. How do social structures relate to the actions of socially situated actors? How does causation work in the social realm? Can we say anything rigorous about the nature of "levels" of the social world -- micro, meso, and macro? And is there such a thing as an "emergent" social property or entity?

Sociologists and philosophers in Germany, Scandinavia, the UK, Belgium, France, Italy, and North America have undertaken serious work on these topics, and they constitute a dynamic network of thinking and debating. Some of the longstanding dualities in philosophy and sociology are questioned: individualism versus holism, micro versus macro, analytic versus continental, structure versus agent. Sociologists whose dispositions incline towards the importance of social structures are convening with rational choice theorists and game theorists; analytic sociologists are debating ontology with emergentists; and the field is displaying an energetic and productive degree of ferment.

The people whose work I am thinking of here are a motley group: Peter Hedstrom, Hans Joas, Petri Ylikoski, Bert Leuridan, Margaret Archer, Gianluca Manzo, Philippo Barbera, Pierre Demeulenaere, Julian Reiss, Rainer Greshoff, Dave Elder-Vass, Jeroen Van Bouwel, Mohamed Cherkaoui, ... And it is roughly as challenging to keep clearly in mind the manifold debates that are unfolding as it is to watch the Indianapolis 500 as the cars rocket by at 200 miles an hour. Some of these contributors are long-established scholars with huge reputations; others are young scholars with wickedly sharp minds and awesome work habits. And frankly, I'm at least as impressed with the younger generation as the elder.

One recent book that stands out as a key contribution that permits a degree of geolocation within these tangled debates is Poe Wan's Reframing the Social: Emergentist Systemism and Social Theory. Wan seems to have read every word of the debates, and he is ready to help interested parties take stock of the various theoretical perspectives.

The key axis in Wan's work -- here and elsewhere -- is that defined by Niklas Luhmann and Mario Bunge on the topic of emergent social systems. Wan is persuaded that social properties are "emergent" in some important sense, and he also seems to believe that the ideas of system and complexity are important components of our vocabulary for social ontology. But how should we understand these ideas? Luhmann's theory tends towards the position of holism, whereas Bunge's position allows that there is an intelligible connection between upper-level properties and micro-level facts and he focuses his theory of explanation on finding underlying mechanisms of various social outcomes. Wan refers to Bunge's approach as "rational emergentism" (68). Wan is respectful towards each of these theories, but he clearly favors that put forward by Bunge. Like Bunge, Wan too favors the focus on mechanisms; he admires Bunge's insistence on paying attention to the details of existing research in the natural and social sciences; and most importantly, he endorses Bunge's view that our theories of "emergent" social phenomena must be grounded in a theory of the actor.

Here is how Wan characterizes Bunge's systems theory and its relationship to a theory of the actor:
Bunge's emergentist systemism is best construed as a version of action-systems theory ..., because Bunge states explicitly that "the features of a social system depend upon the nature, strength, and variability of social relations, which in turn are reducible to social actions." (6)
And Wan believes that Bunge's approach provides a robust way of conceptualizing the nature of the social realm:
In Chapter 5 I argue for a systems approach that is ontologically sound (that is to say, transcending both holism [macro-reductionism] and individualism [micro-reductionism]), with due consideration given to the role of human factors and their actions in designing, maintaining, improving, repairing or dismantling social systems. (10)
Wan also believes that Bunge's CESM model is a helpful one for thinking about social ontology and explanation.  This model incorporates composition, environment, structure, and mechanisms. For a given social entity we want to know what it is composed of; what are the features of the environment within which it functions; how is it arranged internally; and how does it work (55).

Another important part of Wan's approach is his affinity with the social theories of the critical realists -- Bhaskar, Archer, Elder-Vass. Fundamentally this comes down to the view that social structures have real causal powers, along the lines of Rom Harre's meaning of this term (110, 119, 121).

Reframing the Social is an important contribution to current debates about the nature of the social. And I agree with him that the question of social ontology is a fundamental one; perhaps more so than the issues of the epistemology of the social sciences that have generally played first violin. Further, Wan does a good job of showing how these debates are relevant to the emerging framework of analytical sociology -- sometimes in ways that cast doubt on some of the guiding presuppositions of that field. In particular, the aggregative strategy of explanation that is favored by AS is questionable once we give credence to the idea that social structures possess autonomous causal powers. Along with Dave Elder-Vass's The Causal Power of Social Structures: Emergence, Structure and Agency, this book stands as an important alternative to Hedstrom's Dissecting the Social: On the Principles of Analytical Sociology.

Here is a nice passage from Durkheim's Rules of Sociological Method that Wan quotes on the subject of emergence: