Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Forum on Rural Areas and Peasants

I've just spent an interesting several days in Wuhan at a conference on China's rural transformation. It was a genuinely productive conference, involving experts from Japan, Great Britain, United States, and China. The central topic was the process of agricultural modernization and urbanization currently underway in China, and some of the strategies the government is taking to steer this process.

The most interesting contributions for me were by Chinese researchers from leading universities and research units, who gave an insight into the ways that Chinese scholars and policy makers are thinking about these crucial processes. The largest takeaway was the degree of effort being given to alleviation of rural poverty, by both researchers and government agencies. I'll give more details on this in an upcoming post.

In addition to my own contribution to the conference on the crucial role of social science research during this process, I was invited to give related lectures to several large groups of students at two universities. As on similar occasions in the past, I was energized by the interest and reflection these students showed in the issues of social transformation in China that I was treating. The questions were very good. (All of my presentations were translated by two talented students from Central China Normal University.)

As part of this trip I was able to take a short excursion to Henan Province to get exposure to some important developments in Chinese agriculture. We visited two large commercial farms specializing in organic vegetables. The first farm occupies about two thousand acres, assembled through agreements with peasant farmers and local government. The corporation does not "own" the land but has rights of use for five-year periods. It employs about one thousand farm workers, often from the families of the original farms that gave been consolidated. (I estimated about two hundred people working in the fields we saw.) The produce is of high quality and farm management is highly professional. It also produces wheat on rotation with vegetable fields. This farm is one of about eight farms of similar size owned by the company in different provinces "to balance risk and seasonality". The company is actively exploring establishment of a similar farm in California. The other farm was similar in size but was described as a cooperative in which peasant farmers maintained a larger degree of involvement in the farm process. This farm will produce specialty items including fruit, vegetables, and blueberries.

This seems like a good indication of one likely future for Chinese agriculture: consolidated land, moderate level of mechanization, expert management, high productivity. Our group was able to talk with a local man in a nearby village, the uncle of one of the faculty hosts. He was a former headmaster of the village school who had returned to farming after retirement. His home in the village was concrete block, nicely furnished with five rooms and a small courtyard. We asked him whether the peasants whose land had been absorbed by the consolidation for these large farms were satisfied. He was adamant they were because it permitted some level of income from the lease while permitting young people to leave the village for higher income in the urban sector (as part of China's large class of migrant workers in urban industry and construction).

All in all, a very stimulating exposure to one of the most important processes underway in China today and for the next few decades.

Monday, May 20, 2013

Levels of the social

We can examine social life at many levels of granularity -- from ordinary individual social behavior to small groups to cities and regions to the global system of communication and extraction. Is there any basis for thinking one level is better than another for the social sciences?

There are two kinds of considerations that might be used as grounds for answering this question. One is about scientific feasibility and the other is about explanatory scope.

The feasibility line goes this way. It might be that higher level social phenomena are substantially less orderly than lower level phenomena. This means that we might be able to arrive at more confident and comprehensible analysis at the lower level than the higher level. Features of indeterminacy, contingency, and complexity might mean that we can't expect to have strong and empirically well supported analyses of ensembles like cities or trading systems. And we might find that studies of individual-level social behavior are more tractable and empirically defensible.

The explanatory scope consideration cuts in the opposite direction. We would like to be able to explain processes like urbanization, ethnic conflict, and the social role of religion. These processes are very interesting, and they are consequential as well. So we would like to have some reliable hypotheses about some of the causal dynamics that animate them. And studies that focus on individual-level processes may not shed much light on these higher-level processes.

So tractability perhaps pushes us towards the lower level, while an appetite for explanatory scope pushes us towards theorizing and investigating higher levels.

There is something appealing about a definition of the social sciences that tries to answer the actor-level kind of question: what are the drivers of real social behavior, in a variety of settings? What are the springs of individual action? How do environment and experience influence people's actions? This approach would fall within the sociological theory of the actor; it would largely overlap with social and developmental psychology, with a scoop of ethnomethodology on the side.

And this approach wouldn't be wholly limited to the individual. Some of the learning we do about cooperation, aggression, and social cognition might well provide a basis for explanation of high-level social phenomena such as ethnic conflict or the spread of agricultural practices.

But it also seems credible that we can learn some important things about the higher-level processes and structures as well. Political scientists have some robust ideas about how institutions work. Economists have succeeded in identifying some of the dynamics of trading systems and technology change. Urban sociologists are able to discern some of the processes of neighborhood transformation. So it is clear that there are higher level social processes, structures, and systems that are amenable to empirical and theoretical study.

A nice conjunction of research projects that illustrate this point can be found in the study of modern cities. Al Young (The Minds of Marginalized Black Men: Making Sense of Mobility, Opportunity, and Future Life Chances) and Loic Wacquant (Urban Outcasts: A Comparative Sociology of Advanced Marginality) provide ground-level studies of the actors who make up the inner city. Robert Sampson's Great American City: Chicago and the Enduring Neighborhood Effect offers a meso-level account of how neighborhoods work, and some of the causal relations that can be discerned at the level of the neighborhood. Thomas Hughes' Networks of Power: Electrification in Western Society, 1880-1930 demonstrates how a major technology like electric power is both structured and structuring within the urban systems in which it is introduced. And Saskia Sassen's The Global City: New York, London, Tokyo provides an account of systematic interrelations among cities in a global network. Each of these studies sheds light on how cities work; they do so at different levels of granularity; and each study brings with it an admirable degree of empirical and theoretical rigor.  Each of them tells us something novel and non-trivial about how cities function. (There are prior postings on each of these authors: Young, Wacquant, Hughes, Sassen.)

This suggests something pretty moderate and pluralistic: that there is valid and important social research to be done at many levels of social organization. We won't find a unifying science of everything. But we can do social science research at many levels in ways that respect the heterogeneity of the social world while also shedding light on the workings of some important social and causal processes. There is no privileged level of research to which we should limit our social-science gaze.

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Observing character traits

The key idea of moral character is that the actions individuals choose are influenced by enduring features of their mentality. Unlike the situationist who looks at each situation of choice as a solution to achieving goals given current circumstances (Gilbert Harman, "Moral philosophy meets social psychology" link; John Doris, Lack of Character: Personality and Moral Behavior), a character theory maintains that choice derives in part by perduring features of the self. We might say that an individual's choices over time reflect a "style" of action that corresponds to these underlying features of personality and character.

An example will be helpful. Let's say that fidelity is the virtue of honoring one's commitments. A person who has acquired the habit of fidelity will be more likely to keep promises even in circumstances where there are short-term advantages in breaking them. So fidelity is a motivational counterweight to impulse and opportunism. There are other counterweights that also work -- for example, what Elster describes as foresight is also a bulwark against myopic opportunism. The foresightful person is able to take longterm interests into account and thereby avoid the error of myopia. But an embodied habit of fidelity does the work well.

This brief example suggests two kinds of questions. First, do individuals actually demonstrate the workings of such a virtue in their actual behavior, and are there observable differences in the strength of this factor across individuals and groups? And second, how does this character trait develop in the course of maturation in typical individuals? What circumstances or experiences either strengthen or weaken the trait?

Personality psychology and social psychology offer experimental means for exploring the first set of questions. Much of this research takes the form of behavioral experiments along the lines of the Milgram experiment, apparently demonstrating that human beings are more ready to behave badly than we would have expected. (This experiment is described in the Harman article mentioned above.)  These experiments involve selection of a set of volunteer subjects and a carefully designed task that will probe their behavioral dispositions. Here is a study that attempts to measure the distribution of trust across a population; link.

A different approach is offered by David Winter, a personality psychologist who studies personality traits at a distance -- historical figures and political leaders. Winter offers an accessible summary of his research in "Things I've Learned About Personality From Studying Political Leaders at a Distance" (link). Here is how he describes the "distance" point:
Denied direct access, those who study political leaders, past and present, have had to develop a variety of indirect means for measuring personality ‘‘at a distance'' (see, for example, the recent collections of articles in Feldman & Valenty, 2001, and Valenty & Feldman, 2002). Some researchers look for patterns in known bio-graphical facts (Post, 2003), perhaps using formal systems of clinical diagnostic categories (Immelman, 1993, 2002). Others ask experts to rate leaders by using standard personality rating scales (Rubenzer, Faschingbauer, & Ones, 1996, 2000) or Q-sorts (Kowert, 1996). There is, however, one kind of data from political leaders that is produced and preserved in abundance—namely, words. Thus, many at-a-distance researchers do content analyses of leaders' verbal or written texts: speeches, interviews, and even government documents (see Winter, 1992). It is thereby possible to measure a wide variety of personality characteristics of otherwise inaccessible people: for example, integrative complexity (Suedfeld & Rank, 1976), explanatory style (Satterfield & Seligman, 1994), nationalism, and internal control of events (Hermann, 1980)
The second question has been treated in very different ways. One aspect of character formation, we sometimes believe, stems from the strong experiences we have had in our lives. Another view is that our character took shape through exposure to the actions of role models. An interesting current approach to this question is provided by an interesting recent book in naturalistic ethics by Mark Alfano, Character as Moral Fiction.  Alfano repeats a call for what I refer to as a theory of the actor:
The clarion call of the revival of virtue ethics was Elizabeth Anscombe's feisty "Modern Moral Philosophy" (1958). She claimed that it is not worthwhile to do ethics until we possess a proper philosophy of psychology -- one that provides a theory of reasons, motives, and dispositions inter alia. (17)
He takes a provocative view on the status of virtues in real human actors. He argues that virtues are shaped in the individual by the commendations and criticisms that are offered by the individual's proximate community during development and adulthood.
Traits like callousness, courage, greed, dishonesty, generosity, and tact are dispositions to act and react in characteristic ways. (2-3)
I shall argue that though most people do not think, feel, and act in ways that traditional normative theory would describe as virtuous ..., we should still attribute the virtues ... to one another because these attributions tend to function as self-fulfilling prophecies. Calling someone honest ... will lead him to think, feel, and act more honestly in the future. (9) When this happens, I call it factitious virtue. (10)
What is clear is that there is a very large domain for empirical research that is created around the moral psychology associated with character and virtue, and that this research is important for the purpose of refining our theory of the actor. Philosophers, sociologists, and psychologists have an interest in arriving at the most illuminating research in this area possible.

Thursday, May 16, 2013

What about Marx?

At various points since the death of Karl Marx in 1883 his work has been regarded as a dead issue -- no longer relevant, too ideological, methodologically flawed, too rooted in the nineteenth century. And yet each of these periods of extinction has been followed by a resurgence of interest in Marx's ideas, as new generations try to make sense of the tough and often cruel social conditions in which they find themselves. What are the important dimensions of theory that Marx presented through his writings? And how can any of these be considered valuable in trying to come to grips with the global, capitalist, turbulent, unequal, violent world that we now inhabit?

We might say that there are a small handful of key theoretical frameworks that Marx advocated.

Materialism as a methodology for social science. Social change is driven by material circumstances, the forces and relations of production. This encompasses the property system and the ensemble of technologies present in a given level of society. Materialism denies that ideas and thought drive social change; so religion, patriotism, nationalism, and ideologies of patriarchy are epiphenomena rather than originating causes.

Emphasis on the primacy of property and class. Sociologists and historians want to explain processes of social change. Marx puts it forward that the economic interests created by the property system in a given society create powerful foundations for collective social action.  Those who occupy positions of advantage within a given set of property relations want to do what they can to preserve those relations; and those who are disadvantaged by the property relations have a latent interest in mobilizing to change those relations. Persons who share a location in the property system constitute a class, and their interests are systematically different from those in other such positions.

A sketch of a theory of consciousness and culture. Institutions of consciousness and culture play a role in stabilizing and attacking the most important relations of domination in a society. Educational institutions, it is argued, prepare young people for their specific roles in society -- workers, managers, elites, sub-proletarians. So struggles over the content and form of the institutions of enculturation can be expected to be polarized along class lines. Less directly, Marxists like Gramsci have postulated that worldviews reflect life experiences; so elites create cultural worlds that are quite distinct from those imagined by subordinate groups.

A diagnosis of social ills including exploitation, alienation, and dehumanization of social relations. Exploitation has to do with the flow of wealth and material goods through the property system from producers to property-owners. Alienation has to do with the loss of autonomy and self-control that individuals have within a capitalist structure. Marx's distinctive addition to this idea is that this loss of autonomy has psychic consequences -- disaffection, lack of self-respect, depression. The dehumanization of social relations follows from the structure of the capitalist workplace -- workers and bosses, each related to the other through the workings of a command system. Wittgentstein got it right when he described the "slab" language game: the boss says "slab", and the worker produces a slab. There is nothing "I-thou" about this relation (Buber, I and Thou).

A theory of several distinct modes of production. Marx believes that history takes the form of a succession of separable and structurally distinct modes of production: ancient slavery, feudalism, and capitalism differ by the structure of the production system, the property system, and the technologies that each embodied. Marx's most extensive analysis of social formations is his treatment of the capitalist mode of production in Capital: Volume 1: A Critique of Political Economy and the writings that were posthumously edited and published as volumes 2 and 3 of Capital.

A common thread through these framing ideas is the perspective of critique: a critical intelligence trying to understand why modern society produces such human misery. But even from the perspective of critique -- the perspective that tries to diagnose and understand the systemic flaws of contemporary society -- Marxism leaves quite a bit of terrain untouched: gender relations, racism, nationalism, and religious hatred, for example. Marxism doesn't do a good job of explaining a regime of sexual violence (rape in India); it doesn't have much to contribute to the rise of fascism; it doesn't have resources for understanding Islamo-phobia and hatred.  So Marxism is not a comprehensive theory of modern social failings; and we might say that its emphasis on economic conflict eclipses other forms of domination in ways that are actually harmful to our ability to improve our social relations.

Geoff Boucher takes up the issue of the continuing relevance of Marx in the contemporary world in Understanding Marxism. Here is how he opens the book:
Today, radical thinking about social alternatives stands under prohibition. According to defenders of the neoliberal transformation of every facet of human existence into a market, Marxism has failed…. Marx is dead; Marxism is finished -- and it must stay that way. (1)
But Boucher rejects this neoliberal consensus.
Marxism as an intellectual movement has been one of the most important and fertile contributions to twentieth-century thought. The influence of Marxism has been felt in every discipline, in the social sciences and interpretive humanities, from philosophy, through sociology and history, to literature. (2)
Here are the core reasons that Boucher offers for thinking that Marxism is still relevant in the twenty-first century:
  1. Marxism is the most serious normative social-theoretical challenge to liberal forms of freedom that does not at the same time reject the modern world.
  2. Marxism is the most sustained effort so far to think the present historically and to reflexively grasp thought itself within its socio-historical context. (2)
And later:
Marxism is a distinctively historical theory that normatively challenges liberalism in a way no other modern theory does. (3)
Much of Boucher's book contributes to one of two intellectual aims: to give a clear exposition of the most important of Marx's theoretical ideas; and to explicate the several "Marxisms" that followed in the twentieth century. The successive Marxisms take up the bulk of the book, with chapters on Classical Marxism, Hegelian Marxism, The Frankfurt School, Structural Marxism, Analytical Marxism, Critical Theory, and Post-Marxism. So the book provides very extensive explication of the theoretical ideas and developments that have grown out of the Marxist tradition.

What Boucher doesn't really provide is a clear rationale, based on contemporary sociology and history, for the conclusions he wants us to share about the continuing utility of Marxism as a framework for understanding the present and future. We don't get the reasoning that would support the affirmative ideas expressed above. The best rebuttal to the neoliberal triumphalism mentioned above is a compelling collection of sociological studies grounded in the perspectives mentioned above. Michael Burawoy's sociology of factories is a good example (e.g. Manufacturing Consent: Changes in the Labor Process Under Monopoly Capitalism). But this isn't an approach that Boucher chooses to pursue.

So what about it? Is Marxism relevant today? Yes, if we can avoid the dogmatism and rigidity that were often associated with the tradition. Power, exploitation, class, structures of production and distribution, property relations, workplace hierarchy -- these features certainly continue to be an important part of our social world. We need to think of Marx's corpus as a multiple source of hypotheses and interpretations about how capitalism works. And we need to recognize fully that no theoretical framework captures the whole of history or society. Marxism is not a comprehensive theory of social organization and change. But it does provide a useful set of hypotheses about how some of the key social mechanisms work in a class-divided society. Seen from that perspective, Marxist thought serves as a sort of proto-paradigm or mental framework in terms of which to pursue more specific social and historical investigations.

RFP: Research on "understanding"

Here is an exciting RFP for researchers in psychology, philosophy, and religious studies who are interested in "understanding".

Funding Opportunity

Fordham University invites proposals for the “New Perspectives on the Philosophy of Understanding” funding initiative.

Our aim is to encourage research from both new and established scholars working on projects related to understanding in its many forms. This $500,000 RFP is intended to support work in the philosophy of science, epistemology, aesthetics, ethics, and hermeneutics, among other areas. Proposals can request between $40,000 and $100,000 for projects not to exceed one year in duration. We intend to make 7-8 awards.

For more information, please visit: www.varietiesofunderstanding.com

Letter of Intent Deadline: November 1st, 2013.

The Varieties of Understanding project is supported by a grant from the John Templeton Foundation, with additional support from the Henry Luce Foundation, Fordham University, and the University of California-Berkeley.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Hirschman on the passions

Numerous previous posts have emphasized the importance of having a theory of the actor when we do social science or history. Are people impulsive, emotional, envious, prudent, or moral -- or a mix of all of these things in different settings? We need to have some explicit and fact-based ideas about how and why people act as they do. This is not a new discovery for philosophers, and in fact much of the history of Western philosophy has wrestled with this question -- Aristotle, Augustine, Spinoza, Hume, Kant, and Hegel included.

Albert Hirschman is an important social theorist, generally classified as an economist, who often placed the varieties and sources of action at the center of his writings. (Here is an appreciation of Hirschman by Cass Sunstein in the New York Review of Books; link.) This interest in the actor is particularly evident in Hirschman's book, The Passions and the Interests (1977) -- with an interesting twist. The book is a contribution to the history of ideas rather than contemporary social theory. Hirschman wants to know how the pursuit of personal gain came to be viewed as the central human virtue, the foundational assumption of much of the social sciences, and the foundation of the liberal ideal of society. And implicitly, he wants to know if we can arrive at a more adequate theory of the good society by reconsidering some of those assumptions.

One way of characterizing Hirschman's leading intuition in this book is the question of whether different kinds of society reflect different mentalities at the level of the ordinary actors within them. Is there a "spirit" of capitalism, a characteristic set of motives and ways of thinking that its denizens possess? Is this spirit different from those associated with feudalism or the socioeconomic system of the ancient world? And how would various passions be linked to various features of the social order? Here is a revealing passage from Vico that Hirschman thinks captures much of this agenda:
Out of ferocity, avarice, and ambition, the three vices which lead all mankind astray, [society] makes national defense, commerce, and politics, and thereby causes the strength, the wealth, and the wisdom of the republics; out of these three great vices which would certainly destroy man on earth, society thus causes the civil happiness to emerge. This principle proves the existence of divine providence: through its intelligent laws the passions of men who are entirely occupied by the pursuit of their private utility are transformed into a civil order which permits men to live in human society. (kl 240)
On this line of thought, we might say that greed and self-interest are the spirit of capitalism, honor is the spirit of feudalism, and power is the spirit of the ancient world. And it turns out that each of these ideas corresponds to a passion in traditional philosophy of action (greed for material wealth, quest for glory, thirst for power).

The central problem, according to Hirschman, was how to control the passions in action. Some theorists came to believe that the only way to control the passions was through the workings of other passions. Here is Spinoza on this idea:
An affect cannot be restrained nor removed unless by an opposed and stronger affect. (kl 294)
So how have reflective people (philosophers, social theorists) thought about the springs of human action in different epochs? Hirschman's essay offers a careful history and review of one important strand of thinking about action, the extended debate that has existed over the nature and role of the passions in human action. He looks at this idea through a careful reading of thinkers like Augustine, Machiavelli, Spinoza, Montesquieu, the Duke of Rohan, and others. He tries to piece together the meaning that the ideas of passions and interests possessed in medieval and modern thought, how the concept of interest changed over time, and how the ideals concerning society and government were refracted as a consequence. Hirschman goes into exegetical detail about how a series of thinkers in the history of philosophy have thought about the virtues and passions, and how these were thought to contribute to various kinds of society. Here he makes the historical point linking ideas to social forms:
With or without such sophisticated justification [as offered by St. Augustine], striving for honor and glory was exalted by the medieval chivalric ethos even though it stood at odds with the central teachings ... of a long line of religious writers, from St. Thomas Aquinas to Dante, who attacked glory-seeking as both vain and sinful. (kl 186)
It is Hirschman's view that there was a very interesting evolution in thought about the passions during the early modern period. The heroic ideal was replaced by the idea that it is best for people to follow their own best interests. And this transition occurred, in part, through the swing towards positive science in the treatment of the world as expressed by Galileo and Hobbes.

Eventually self-interest came to be thought of as the antidote to arbitrary, capricious action based on more unruly passions. David Hume plays a central role in Hirschman's account. Hume advocated for restraining the "love of pleasure" by the "love of gain" (kl 321). And "Hume similarly uses the terms 'passion of interest' or the 'interested affection' as synonyms for the ' avidity of acquiring goods and possessions' or the 'love of gain'" (kl 424). (It is significant to recall that Hume and Adam Smith were neighbors and friends in the Scottish Enlightenment.)

So the transition is more or less complete; the vice of avarice has become the virtue of the pursuit of self-interest.
Once money-making wore the label of "interests" and reentered in this disguise the competition with other passions, it was suddenly acclaimed and even given the task of holding back those passions that had long been thought to be much less reprehensible.  (kl 459)
It appears that the case for giving free rein and encouragement to private acquisitive pursuits was both the outcome of a long train of Western thought and an important ingredient of the intellectual climate of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. (kl 679)
The pursuit of gain (commerce) becomes the hidden hand that guides individual activities towards the collective good. And this idea does not originate with Adam Smith. Here is Montesquieu in the Spirit of the Laws on the advantages of commerce as a foundation for society:
The spirit of commerce brings with it the spirit of frugality, of economy, of moderation, of work, of wisdom, of tranquility, of order, and of regularity. In this manner, as long as this spirit prevails, the riches it creates do not have any bad effects. (kl 697)
And here is James Steuart about the advantages of a market society for the quality of government:
The statesman looks about with amazement; he who was wont to consider himself as the first man in the society in every respect, perceives himself eclipsed by the lustre of private wealth, which avoids his grasp when he attempts to seize it. This makes his government more complex and more difficult to be carried on; he must now avail himself of art and address as well as of power and authority. (kl 793)
The advantages that this shift in the theory of the actor made possible, according to Hirschman, were predictability and constancy (kl 520). Theorists like Machiavelli, Hobbes, Hume, and Smith argued that a science of man was possible if we postulate that action derives from an assessment of self-interest. And that science is -- political economy. And the social ideal that corresponds to it is what Hegel and Marx referred to as "civil society", where individuals pursued their own interests in their own ways. It is a liberal market society where the maximum amount of social coordination occurs through market mechanisms.

On this genealogy, interest started out as one of the three primary passions -- love of power, lust, and avarice. The passions were thought to produce bad behavior; so a recurring question was how to harness the passions in more socially constructive ways. And many thinkers came to the conclusion that only the passions themselves could serve to regulate the passions -- not pure reason. In particular, it was maintained that a strong regard for one's own interests could lead to self-regulation. But the most interesting part of the evolution of meanings is that interests came to be normatively favored, and they came to be understood to be distinct from the passions.

We might call this the intellectual history of economic liberalism as a political ideology. And it is an ideology that Hirschman finds ultimately flawed. So did Tocqueville:
A nation that demands from its government nothing but the maintenance of order is already a slave in the bottom of its heart; it is the slave of its well-being, and the man who is to chain it can arrive on the scene. (kl 1141)
More generally, the anti-capitalist critiques associated with Marx, Durkheim, and the anarchists were powerful: the pure pursuit of gain has resulted in a society in which poverty, coercion, and anomie have become the lot of the majority of society.

This is very interesting work in the history of ideas and ideology. And Hirschman engages in the work for a very serious reason: to try to discern some of the sources of the systemic flaws in modern market-based society. In this regard it is interesting to compare Hirschman's analysis of the development of the theory of the actor based on self-interest with C. B. Macpherson's analysis of the development of the theory of "possessive individualism". Here is a discussion of Macpherson's theory (link).

(Here is Thomas Carlyle as anti-capitalist critic from the conservative side, on the topic of market society. He is contrasting the social order of aristocracy with the market order created by capitalism:
It was [Aristocrats'] happiness that, in struggling for their own objects, they had to govern the Lower Classes, even in this sense of governing. For, in one word, Cash Payment had not then grown to be the universal sole nexus of man to man; it was something other than money that the high then expected from the low, and could not live without getting from the low. Not as buyer and seller alone, of land or what else it might be, but in many senses still as soldier and captain, as clansman and head, as loyal subject and guiding king, was the low related to the high. With the supreme triump of Cash, a changed time has entered; there must a changed Aristocracy enter. We invite the British reader to meditate earnestly on these things. (Chartism, 58)
Carlyle is anti-liberal in more senses than one; he is reactionary and hierarchical, and he is a fierce critic of the ideal of a cash-driven market society.)

Sunday, May 12, 2013

Elster on Tocqueville

Jon Elster is one of the people whose thinking about society and the social sciences has made a consistently important contribution to the philosophy of social science. So Elster's treatment of Tocqueville as a social scientist in Alexis de Tocqueville, the First Social Scientist will be of interest to anyone who wants to know how we have come to analyze societies in the terms we have.

Elster demonstrates a deep familiarity with Tocqueville's writings, though he focuses in this book on L'Ancien regime and Democracy in America. So Elster's Tocqueville is textually well supported. At the same time, Tocqueville is not really a theoretical writer. Instead, it is necessary to infer his theoretical ideas from the comments he makes about historical events and actors. So Elster is forced to engage in a fair amount of rational reconstruction of the theories that underlay a variety of Tocqueville's observations about the politics of France and America.

There are several elements of Elster's interpretation of Tocqueville that seem particularly significant. One is Elster's view that Tocqueville operated on the basis of a conception of social explanation that depended on social mechanisms rather than general laws. Elster believes that the most important feature of Tocqueville's claim to being a sociologist is his consistent search for causes. The other key to Elster's analysis of Tocqueville is his focus on features of the actor -- reason, interests, and passions, or what Tocqueville refers to as "habits of the heart".

Among the social mechanisms that Elster focuses on are those that surround preference formation. This question is plainly key to having a theory of political psychology: why do people make the choices that they do? He singles out three distinct psychological mechanisms that Tocqueville alludes to: the spillover effect, the compensation effect, and the satiation effect (kl 292). Preference formation is a topic that has consistently interested Elster, and he spends much time on the question in his early writings, including the formal question of time preferences.

What is "enlightened self-interest"? Elster finds that Tocqueville contrasts "egoism" with "enlightened self-interest" as well as with altruism. Egoism means an exclusive attention to one's own interests in the moment. So it is opposed both to altruism (concern for the interests of others) and foresight (concern for one's future interests) (kl 1113). (This bears out Amartya Sen's comment in "Rational Fools" that the purely economic man is indeed close to being a social moron; link.)

Elster is particularly interested in Tocqueville's treatment of the passions. He specifically discusses Envy, Fear, Hatred , Enthusiasm, Contempt, and Shame as emotions (passions) that often drive behavior in opposition to both interests and reason. This brings his discussion into intersection with that of Albert Hirschman in The Passions and the Interests. (The Kindle edition includes a very interesting introduction by Amartya Sen; link.) Hirschman's book looks at the ways that early political economists and philosophers such as Smith and Hume thought about the relationships among reason, passion, and interest, with a view toward the generally moderating effects of interests on behavior in many historical settings. Elster finds a very similar line of thought in Tocqueville.

Elster addresses the topic of the micro-macro relationship in the conclusion. He finds that Tocqueville is interested in both directions of influence -- from micro to macro and from macro to micro. He provides a diagram that looks a lot like an inverted version of Coleman's boat:

Elster doesn't put his views in these terms, but much of what he has to say about Tocqueville can be put in the category of piecing together Tocqueville's theory of the actor: why people behave as they do. His discussions of preferences, individualism, norms, and passions all fall in the domain of a theory of the actor.

Elster's treatment of Tocqueville is of interest in part because of its direct relevance to the explication of Tocqueville's thought. But I find it more interesting for what it shows about Elster's own thinking about sociological investigation. It is plain that Elster favors an actor-centered sociology. In some writings he explicitly describes his view as methodological individualism. Here the approach is somewhat more tolerant of schemes of explanation that are not directly reductionist. But it is focused on the varieties and sources of human action, and the ways that these features of action compound into unexpected social outcomes.

(Here is an earlier post where I discussed Tocqueville's status as a founding sociologist; link.)

Friday, May 3, 2013

Urban futures

I recently spent a half day visiting Detroit with some very perceptive university colleagues. We visited the university's center on Woodward Avenue, the Riverfront Conservancy, and the Madison Building -- all places where exciting signs of change are underway. Along the way we heard a lot of enthusiasm about the progress Detroit is making: more professional jobs downtown, residential and commercial real estate at 95%+ occupancy, entrepreneurial companies, $75 million invested in a spectacular river walk along the Detroit River, some very talented high school students coming out of several of Detroit's best high schools.

The most common reaction in the group to what we saw was a positive one. Detroit is better off than the media portrays it. There are powerful processes of renewal underway that will change the future of the city for all its inhabitants for the better. The reinfusion of businesses and middle-class residents will improve the tax base and the city's fiscal sustainability. And somehow these benefits will trickle out to the neighborhoods.

Or not. Like others, several of us noticed that these developments in downtown Detroit (Campus Martius, the Woodward Corridor) have had very little effect on the neighborhoods where 80-90% of the city lives. The sports, arts, and dining destinations are great -- but they don't have much to do with Detroit's blighted neighborhoods. Unemployed high school dropouts aren't going to be offered jobs in the high tech startups.

So what is the future for the impoverished and undereducated youth of this city? The theory I was testing in my mind was Loic Wacqant's concept in Urban Outcasts: A Comparative Sociology of Advanced Marginality of fundamental marginalization--a sub-population of people with no avenues of opportunity and no hope for the future (link). This view implies that the segregated urban enclaves of American cities like Chicago, Washington, or Detroit offer virtually no prospect of social mobility for the young men and women who grow up there. Is that too bleak? Does it overlook or underestimate pathways of mobility that can bring substantial improvement for life expectations for this community after all? Or is permanent impacted poverty and disaffection the more likely outcome?

I talked with two other participants in this visit who disagreed with the "permanent marginalization" view in interesting ways. Both of these people were African-American men who had grown up in metro Detroit. One, born in 1970, took issue with the youth-hopelessness part of the picture. His view is that Detroit is significantly different from Chicago (the city Wacquant studied most closely), because Detroit is a majority black city. So he thinks teenagers in Detroit have an optimism their counterparts in Chicago lack. He also thinks the lower residential density of Detroit is an advantage. Young people are less oppressed by racism because they are part of a population that governs the city. By contrast, he argues that the black population of Chicago looks at the city as a white city and they feel powerless. So urban despair is deeper in Chicago.

The other person in the conversation had what is in someways a view even bleaker than mine. He is a distinguished social scientist born in 1940. He too grew up in the Detroit metro area. He commented that the developers' vision is really a picture of a white city. "This is a white vision of Detroit's future." He predicted that in 25 years the black population of Detroit will be largely gone, replaced by a more affluent white population. Wow!

One thing that came out of the evening is an intriguing idea: invite a group of Detroit 18-year-olds, some in high school and some dropouts, to have a conversation about the future of their neighborhoods and their city, and what they think about their own futures. These are the kinds of conversations Al Young reports in The Minds of Marginalized Black Men: Making Sense of Mobility, Opportunity, and Future Life Chances. This would shed some light on all the major theories of urban futures. And conversations like these would be an important reality check for people who think that there is a general process of improvement that is going to bring everyone up through some kind of hidden-hand process of market successes.

The "permanent marginalization" view is a dark one, but it is not passive. Rather, it undergirds the idea that the structures of race and segregation still present in our society have embodied enduring and intractable inequalities, and only deliberate, sustained, and committed efforts will allow us to resolve these problems. Our cities need structural change and substantial public investment, deliberately aimed at breaking the circles of poverty, race, inferior education, and disaffection, and sustained over decades rather than years.

The developments we looked at during our visit are certainly important steps forward for the city. And the business leaders who are stimulating these developments are committed to improving Detroit's future. But I'm not yet convinced that these developments can lead by themselves to the transformation of the lives of the whole population of the city, black and white, without other initiatives that are directly aimed at breaking down the barriers of race and poverty that imprison so many of Detroit's young people.

("Imprison" is probably the right word in this context, given the epidemic of incarceration our cities have witnessed in the past thirty years. Michelle Alexander's The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness documents the harm done to urban communities by the mass incarceration of young black men.)

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Skilled work

Watch an active construction site for a few minutes and you will see some amazing examples of skilled work and deft problem solving. That was true today in Ann Arbor where I happened to see one complicated step in the construction of a new wing of a five-storey building. The problem was this. A fifty-foot girder was lifted by crane to its intended location within the vertical steel frame. Already I was impressed with the skill of the crane operator, who deftly maneuvered the beam into position where two steel workers were waiting on the existing beam. The crane suspended the beam in place and the steel workers bolted the near end to the frame. So far so good. But the far end was to attach to an isolated vertical beam fifty feet away, and I couldn't picture how that end would be attached. The steel worker answered that question quickly. He scuttled the length of the beam to the isolated vertical while the beam was suspended by the crane cable and the attached end. But now the resistance of the material world intervened -- the beam was a little too long to fit. The worker used two crow bars he'd brought with him to lever it into place -- no good. It was just half an inch too long given the position of the vertical. So are we stymied? Need to send it back? No. The worker stood up on the beam and started gently rocking the vertical. After two or three oscillations he was able to lever the beam into place, and quickly bolted it down.

It's not a completely amazing instance of problem solving on the job, but it is impressive nonetheless. Certainly the users' manual doesn't have a section on what to do in this circumstance. But given his prior training, experience, and embodied skills, the worker was able to come up with a solution that worked.

Richard Sennett describes this kind of artisanal intelligence in The Craftsman. He describes craftsmanship as "the skill of making things well" (8). Further,
The Craftsman explores these dimensions of skill, commitment, and judgment in a particular way. It focuses on the intimate connection between hand and head. Every good craftsman conducts a dialogue between concrete practices and thinking; this dialogue evolves into sustaining habits, and these habits establish a rhythm between problem solving and problem finding. The relation between hand and head appears in domains seemingly as different as bricklaying, cooking, designing a playground, or playing the cello— but all these practices can misfire or fail to ripen. (9)
A part of the interest of Sennett's work here is the help it provides in redressing the idea that mental work is professional and cognitive, while manual work is repetitive and rote. Sennett gives many contemporary examples of work that is both head and hand, both cognitive and skilled, both creative and manual. Sennett gives many examples of this kind of artisanal intelligence. Here is one from the construction of a large shopping mall in Atlanta.
The lighting in these aboveground car-houses turned out to be uneven in intensity, dangerous shadows suddenly appearing within the building. Painters had added odd-shaped white strip lines to guide drivers in and out of irregular pools of light, showing signs of improvising rather than following the plan. The craftsmen had done further, deeper thinking about light than the designers. (44-45)
Sennett's point here is that the implementation of a complex space is not simply the translation of a computer-generated architectural drawing into material form. Rather, it is a process that requires real workers to find solutions to the inevitable fact of gaps and inconsistencies in the plan--in this case, the fact that the lighting didn't fully illuminate the space, leading to risks for pedestrians and drivers.

A dominant tradition of philosophy identifies our human essence with our ability to think and reason. Descartes represents this line of thought ("cogito ergo sum"). But there is another tradition that places labor and our capacity to transform the material world at the center of the human essence. Hegel represented this line of thought, as did Marx. It is the homo faber tradition -- man the creator -- and all in all, it seems to do a better job of defining us. Labor and skilled intelligence lie at the core of human capacities. And that is a good thing to remember on May 1, the international day celebrating labor.