Monday, September 1, 2014

Margaret Archer on social change


In Late Modernity: Trajectories towards Morphogenic Society Margaret Archer and several talented collaborators attempt to lay out a framework of thinking that will permit them to better conceptualize the nature of change the modern social world. The book continues a process of reflection and collaboration that began last year with the publication of Social Morphogenesis. Ultimately the aim is to create a full theory of "morphogenic society" based on Archer's concepts of morphostasis and morphogenesis. The idea of a morphogenic society is the notion that something important has happened historically to change the relationship between stasis and genesis (structure and agency) in the social world, and that the modern world embodies a significantly different kind of social change than earlier epochs. (Here is a discussion of Social Morphogenesis (link), and here is an earlier discussion of Archer's theory of morphogenesis (link).)

Here is a helpful statement of Archer's general approach in her current work:
Both the celebration of contingency and the importance attached to acceleration are hostile to the morphogenetic approach, as a framework for explanation that generically examines the sequence {structural / cultural conditioning → social interaction → structural / cultural elaboration or stasis}. This entails examining the specific ‘what’, ‘why’, ‘whom’ and ‘how’ of particular changes or instances of morphogenesis / morphostasis. Instead, both ‘liquidity’ and ‘acceleration’ theorists eschew such specification and the ultimate aim of detecting underlying ‘generative mechanisms’ in favour of talking metaphorically about ‘flows’ and ‘speed’. Thus, both ignore the growing predominance of positive feedback over negative feedback (morphogenesis over morphostasis) as the rock-bottom mechanism that makes considering the advent of Morphogenic society (in multiple forms) worthy of being entertained — the agnostic aim of this series of books. (Late Modernity, kl 178)
This passage captures the core of the morphogenetic approach. Archer is consistent in referring to these three "moments" of the M/M sequence, which she breaks into three phases T1, T2-T3, T4:
T1 structural / cultural conditioning → 
T2-T3 social interaction → 
T4 structural / cultural elaboration or stasis
At the risk of over-simplifying, we might summarize her view in these terms. Her view is that each phase involves constraints on action and interaction. T1 involves the large structural and cultural contexts in which individuals take shape and act. T2-T3 involves the interactions of individuals who bear interests and group identities and who strive to bring about outcomes that favor those interests and identities. And T4 represents a new formation (elaboration) of a complex of structural and cultural constraints. (It is striking how closely this summary resembles the theory of strategic action fields put forward by Fligstein and McAdam; link.)

An important line of criticism that comes through this volume is a persistent critique of unanalyzed ideas about speed and acceleration. "The modern world changes rapidly"; what does that tell us if we haven't specified the dimensions and clocks according to which we measure the speed of a process? So the language of speed is simply uninformative, according to Archer and her collaborators.

More specifically, Archer and her colleagues take issue with the metaphor of “liquid modernity" as a way of understanding the contemporary world.  (Here is my earlier discussion of Zygmunt Bauman’s development of this idea; link.) Archer takes aim at the intuition that the contemporary social world is highly contingent and plastic (a central theme of a number of earlier postings here). She criticizes "liquid modernity" in these terms:
Labile 'flows' comprehensively displaced and replaced the determinate (not deterministic) influences of social structure and cultural systems on tendential change or stability. As structure and culture were pulverised under the tidal bore of liquidity, so was agency condemned to serial self-reinvention. (kl 166)
Archer's complaint against liquid modernity (LM), then, is what she takes to be its extreme version of plasticity on the part of structures, cultures, and actors. LM views the individual as a free-styler, pursuing fleeting purposes and impulses within fast-changing circumstances, with the result of a form of chaotic Brownian motion in the social world.

She prefers substantive analysis of the social world organized around the poles of morphostasis (the mechanisms that preserve the properties of a social structure or cultural feature) and morphogenesis (the generative mechanisms of change that work to disrupt and change the existing structure and cultural elements). Both are critical and persistent features of the social world, and it is absurd (she believes) to imagine that modernity consists exclusively of morphogenesis unbound (7).

Archer puts the central question of her current work (and that of her active collaborators) in these terms:
Is some degree of enduring stability necessary amidst intensifying social change? Do agents and actors need this in order to plan their own lives and the courses of action they will take in the social order? (kl 152)
Of course the answer to this question, when considered in its most extreme version, is "yes", for reasons much the same as those that led Kant to believe that the categories of space, time, and causation were necessary synthetic apriori. If there were no continuing stability in the social world from one hour to the next, then planning and action would be impossible. The harder question is this: how much stability is necessary for intelligible action within the social world? And the answer seems to be, rather less than Archer believes.

An important complexity in Archer's account of stability is the fact that she believes that the processes of change (morphogenesis) can create their own conditions of stability and continuity that transcend the traditional forms inherited from the morphogenetic past. So the opposition is not between morphostasis and morphogenesis, but between activity and various forms of stability, both morphostasis and morphogenesis. "The alternative -- not always recognized -- is that there are forms of 'stabilization' produced by morphogenesis itself that furnish an equally adequate (and more consonant) basis for planning activities" (14). And this turns out to be a point to which Archer attaches a great deal of importance (19).

Several contributions to the volume are particularly noteworthy, in addition to Archer's own introduction and her substantive contribution on "The Generative Mechanism Re-configuring Late Modernity".

First, Douglas Porpora's contribution to the volume ("Contemporary Mechanisms of Social Change") is a valuable extension of the framework. Porpora relates the morphostasis/morphogenesis approach (MM) to Marx's famous aphorism concerning structure and agency (78). Here is my own reflection on Marx's aphorism in a post on actor-centered history (link):
In Marx's famous contribution to the philosophy of history, he writes that "men make their own history; but not in circumstances of their own choosing." And circumstances can be both inhibiting and enabling; they constitute the environment within which individuals plan and act. It is an important circumstance that a given time possesses a fund of scientific and technical knowledge, a set of social relationships of power, and a level of material productivity. It is also an important circumstance that knowledge is limited; that coercion exists; and that resources for action are limited. Within these opportunities and limitations, individuals, from leaders to ordinary people, make out their lives and ambitions through action.

On this line of thought, history is a flow of human action, constrained and propelled by a shifting set of environmental conditions (material, social, epistemic). There are conditions and events that can be described in causal terms: enabling conditions, instigating conditions, cause and effect, ... But here my point is to ask the reader to consider whether this language of cause and effect does not perhaps impose a discreteness of historical events that does not actually reflect the flow of history very well. History is continuous and analog; causal structures are discontinuous and digital.
What all of this suggests to me is an alternative way of thinking about history that has a different structure from the idea of history as a stream of causes and effects. This approach might be called "actor-centered history": we explain an epoch when we have a story about what people thought and believed; what they wanted; and what social and environmental conditions framed their choices. It is a view of history that sounds more like composing a biography of a complex individual than it does telling the story of a bridge collapse. And it is a view that gives close attention to states of knowledge, ideology, and agency, as well as institutions, organizations, and structures. (Little, Understanding Society link)
This short reflection on actor-centered history seems to have significant affinities with the morphogenetic approach.

Porpora provides an analysis of four large causal mechanisms of social change in his piece:
  • capitalism
  • information, globalization, flows and networks
  • world inter-state dynamics
  • the environment and its effects
And he believes that these large causes work conjuncturally to bring about many of the large processes of change that we witness in the modern world: "Change derives from a conjuncture of different mechanisms, some but not all of which can be traced back to capitalist relations" (88).

Pierpaolo Donati's contribution, "Morphogenic Society and the Structure of Social Relations", is also of interest. Donati focuses on the nature of social relations as the "connectors that mediate between agency and social structure" (143). Though he does not use the terminology, it is possible to regard his work here as an effort to provide some of the microfoundations of the processes of morphogenesis that are postulated by Archer's approach. Donati refers to the social relation as the "molecule of the social" (153), a concept that I've turned to in my explication of the idea of methodological localism (link).

 This volume, like its companion, Social Morphogenesis, is an impressive demonstration of the value of collaborative research in social theory and the philosophy of social science. It is evident that the contributors to the two volumes have developed their ideas in interaction with each other, and the framework has acquired a great deal of substance and coherence as a result.

Saturday, August 30, 2014

Incarceration society

Source: The Wire

It is becoming increasingly clear that the criminal justice system is an important component of the system of race in the United States today. Michelle Alexander's important book The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness makes the case that the war on drugs and the war on crime have functioned disproportionately to incarcerate and control young black men in America's inner cities. Here is how she summarizes her position:
What has changed since the collapse of Jim Crow has less to do with the basic structure of our society than with the language we use to justify it. In the era of colorblindness, it is no longer socially permissible to use race, explicitly, as a justification for discrimination, exclusion, and social contempt. So we don’t. Rather than rely on race, we use our criminal justice system to label people of color “criminals” and then engage in all the practices we supposedly left behind. Today it is perfectly legal to discriminate against criminals in nearly all the ways that it was once legal to discriminate against African Americans. Once you’re labeled a felon, the old forms of discrimination—employment discrimination, housing discrimination, denial of the right to vote, denial of educational opportunity, denial of food stamps and other public benefits, and exclusion from jury service—are suddenly legal. As a criminal, you have scarcely more rights, and arguably less respect, than a black man living in Alabama at the height of Jim Crow. We have not ended racial caste in America; we have merely redesigned it. (kl 218-225) 
Now Alice Goffman takes the argument an important step forward in her ethnographic book, On the Run: Fugitive Life in an American City. The book records her observations and experiences of the intimate lives of a handful of young black men and women in inner-city Philadelphia during the early 2000's. Goffman formed relationships with this circle of men and women while she was an undergraduate sociology student at the University of Pennsylvania, and she made careful efforts to document her observations through extensive field notes. The book is an ethnographic study of "6th Street Boys" and the generally bad encounters that they had daily with the police, the courts, and the prisons and jails to which they were sent repeatedly. She highlights the massive consequences these facts have for the population of inner-city African-American young people:
By 2000, the US prison population swelled to five times what it had been in the early 1970s. An overwhelming majority of men going to prison are poor, and a disproportionate number are Black. Today, 30 percent of Black men without college educations have been to prison by their midthirties. One in four Black children born in 1990 had an imprisoned father by the time he or she turned fourteen. (kl 188)
The book is important reading for many concerned Americans as they try to make sense of recent police killings of unarmed young black men in several cities -- the shooting death of unarmed Michael Brown in Ferguson, the choking death by police officers of Eric Garner in New York, and the shooting death of Ezel Ford by police officers in Los Angeles. Alice Goffman's book sheds light on these specific incidents by documenting a consistent pattern of harsh treatment of young black men on the streets of Philadelphia by police officers. (In fact, Goffman herself witnessed the choking death of the boyfriend of one of her friends in the neighborhood.) In describing her own observations on 6th Street she writes:
Fourteen times during my first eighteen months of near daily observation, I watched the police punch, choke, kick, stomp on, or beat young men with their nightsticks. (kl 220)
The importance of the book goes beyond the important fact of incarceration as a means of social control -- the thrust of Michelle Alexander's book -- because it makes vividly clear the consequences for ordinary life that are created for the young men whom she studies of the patterns of surveillance, arrest, and probation revocation that they confront. She describes the necessity experienced by young Philadelphia men of needing to conceal one's personal relationships, get by without identification papers like driver's licenses, and run from the police when they show up on the block or at the front door behind a battering ram.
A central social fact about any person living in the community of 6th Street is his or her legal status; more specifically, whether the person is likely to attract police attention in the future: whether he can get through a police stop, or make it home from a court hearing, or pass a "piss test" during a probation meeting. Those who have no pending legal entanglements or who can successfully get through a police stop, a court hearing, or a probation meeting are known as clean. Those likely to be arrested should the authorities stop them, run their names, or search them are known as dirty. (kl 237)
These existential facts make the most ordinary parts of middle class life all but unattainable for many young men on the street -- getting a stable job, taking a plane, having a checking account, or making it through a police interrogation without being arrested. The risk of arrest itself -- even in the midst of entirely innocent activities of ordinary life -- is a constant perturbance for these young men.
Together, the chapters make the case that historically high imprisonment rates and the intensive policing and surveillance that have accompanied them are transforming poor Black neighborhoods into communities of suspects and fugitives. A climate of fear and suspicion pervades everyday life, and many residents live with the daily concern that the authorities will seize them and take them away. A new social fabric is emerging under the threat of confinement: one woven in suspicion, distrust, and the paranoiac practices of secrecy, evasion, and unpredictability. (kl 284)
Goffman's work in this book is an enormously valuable contribution to our (middle class, privileged) ability to see more clearly into the lives and circumstances of young people living only a few miles from our universities, businesses, or shopping malls. It is rare for privileged people (well educated, secure jobs, comfortable homes, safe environments for our children and grandchildren) to be in a position to gain insight into the equally important human realities of life on the street in poor inner-city communities. And yet we need to understand these social realities, if we are to be able to conceive of the kinds of changes that are needed in our society to allow for decent opportunities and outcomes for all the young people in our country.

(Many urban sociologists believe that The Wire serves a valuable function in teaching their discipline -- in ways in which most other television dramas do not. One reason for this is the realism and empathy with which the series depicts the life circumstances and choices of the children and young men who become the "corner boys" in Baltimore.)

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Eurasia Project on Population and Family History



The Eurasia Project on Population and Family History represents an innovative and important genre of comparative historical research. Lead scholars in this project include James Lee, Cameron Campbell, Tommy Bengtsson, Norika Tsuya, Satomi Kurosu, and George Alter, as well as many others. The first two volumes of research from the project, Life under Pressure: Mortality and Living Standards in Europe and Asia, 1700-1900 and Prudence and Pressure: Reproduction and Human Agency in Europe and Asia, 1700-1900, appeared in 2005 and 2010, and the most recent volume Similarity in Difference: Marriage in Europe and Asia, 1700-1900 is about to appear. The first volume addresses variations in mortality, the second addresses fertility, and the most recent addresses nuptiality. Taken together, the three volumes provide an encompassing treatment of the main parameters of demographic behavior. (Also of interest is Living Standards in the Past: New Perspectives on Well-Being in Asia and Europe (2005), which provides a rigorous analysis of what is known about real wages and living standards across many locations in Europe and Asia.)

The EAP project is an approach to historical demography that is intended to provide a substantially more detailed understanding of the historical trajectory of demography in different parts of the Eurasian land mass—population size, nuptiality, fertility, mortality, etc., as well as a more empirically constrained set of hypotheses about the causes of changes in these factors over time. This research represents an important example of collaborative “large science” in the historical social sciences, in that it involves research teams at a number of centers in Europe, Asia, and the United States who have agreed on a set of standards on the basis of which to represent and analyze the demographic data they have collected. In the aggregate, the study makes use of 2.5 million longitudinally linked individual records in over a dozen locations across Eurasia. Research teams are focusing on detailed demographic records in community-sized locations across Eurasia, including Sweden, Belgium, Italy, Japan, and China, and these researchers aim to provide analysis of their findings that is sufficiently structured as to permit rigorous comparison across cases.

​The researchers describe the project in these terms: "New data and new methods … have begun to illuminate the complexities of demographic responses to exogenous stress, economic and otherwise.… Combined time-series and event-history analyses of longitudinal, nominative, microlevel data now allow for the finely grained differentiation of mortality, fertility, and other demographic responses by social class, household context, and other dimensions at the individual level” (Bengtsson et al., 2004, pp. viii-ix). Their goals are ambitious -- to provide detailed, analytically sophisticated multi-generational studies of a number of populations across Eurasia. The studies are intended to permit the researchers to probe issues of causation as well as to identify important dimensions of similarity and difference across regions and communities.

​A key to this approach is to have assembled comparable micro-level longitudinal demographic data in different geographic locations across Europe and Asia. The research groups have attempted to arrive at a micro-picture of the individual-level demographic events with individual, relationship, and household characteristics; to put together a timeline of “stress”; and to see how outcomes for people’s demographic events behave in relationship to the patterns of change in environmental and economic characteristics. This allows them to probe the ways in which varying social and economic institutions—family structure, economic niche structure, state food subsidy practices—influence people in different places.

The project has also made important innovations in the statistical methods that can be used within historical demography. Alter (1988), Lee and Campbell (1997), and others have led the way in creating methods based on event-history analysis for allowing statistical analysis of demographic events at the individual-community level, and this is an important innovation relative to the techniques used to establish large population parameters of demographical behavior. George Alter's use of these methods is described in a prior post.

​An important historiographic feature of this work is the decision the researchers have made about the scale of groups to be studied. The work is not intended to tell the demographic story of the nations in which the communities under study exist, but rather to provide detailed snapshots of local populations over extended periods of time. Lee, Campbell, and Bengtsson write, “Our focus on comparison of communities, not countries, represents a new approach in social science history. While we generalize about certain aspects of human behavior, we do so within the cultural, economic, and historical contexts of specific communities, not at the national level” (Bengtsson et al., 2004, p. 7).

​This research is distinguished by several important features. First, it attempts to combine aggregate and individual levels, building aggregate conclusions from analysis of individual-level data. Second, it is deeply comparative, in that these groups deliberately attempt to identify similarities and differences at both extremes of Eurasia and within Europe and Asia. Third, this research project examines the “large-scale processes and implications of the fertility and mortality transitions,” and to do so in a way that permits comparison across regions. Finally, the research attempts to evaluate the large hypotheses (especially Malthusianism) concerning differences in demographic regimes between Europe and Asia. So the Eurasia Project on Population and Family History is both micro and macro, with a coherent method for joining the two levels; it is comparative; and it is intended to provide a basis for discovering causal relationships among factors that influence demographic outcomes.

​The Eurasia Project approach tends to downplay the “large” common institutions at the national level and to emphasize instead the local institutions that directly contact and constrain individuals. These researchers also emphasize the degree of variability that exists across societies and local settings with regard to demographic behavior. Some of the local and regional social and cultural regimes that the authors identify and explore as causal variables in explaining outcomes include family structure, public provisioning systems for food emergency, wealth and class, and land tenure.

​Another important implication of this research pertains to the viability of the Malthusian hypothesis about macro-demography. The authors find that their results refute the Malthusian conclusions and generalizations about positive and preventive checks and Europe versus Asia. They find that family practices, demographic institutions, and economic settings vary sufficiently across the map of Eurasia as to make it impossible to arrive at grand differentiating statements about European and Asian demography (or English and Chinese demography). In particular, they find that the evidence shows that Chinese demographic behavior resulted in fertility rates that were broadly comparable to those of Western Europe.

​There are still some important generalizations to be made about Europe and about Asia with regard to demographic patterns; but there are also cross-cutting similarities in some regions of Europe with some regions of Asia, and there are important differences across both Europe and Asia. This finding illustrates a highly important common thread that emerges from comparative economic history in many areas—that regions contain substantial variation within their boundaries, and that these variations may sometimes be as significant as those across regions.

This body of research represents a pivotal contribution to the way that we think about the past and pursue its history. The contributors show the highly complex and diverse patterns of the standard of living and demographic behavior in the pre-industrial period. The general picture emerging from these studies is not one of a great divergence between East and West during early modern times, but instead one of considerable similarities. These similarities not only pertain to economic aspects of standard of living but also to demography and the sensitivity of population behavior to economic fluctuations. Perhaps once and for all we can put Malthus out of the center stage when we think about historical population behavior!

Percent of unmarried males by age . Source: Similarity in Difference, chapter 3

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Making sense of the ASA


The annual meeting of the American Sociological Association is taking place in San Francisco this week, and it is a tsunami of ideas, methodologies, research strategies, sections, and fields of study. Begin with the program: it is vast. Over five thousand names are listed in the index as presenters, discussants, and chairs; there are 600 sessions, numerous "tables" for smaller presentations, and an endless stream of "authors meet critics." And so many of the books, papers, talks, and discussions seem worth reading and thinking about.

But that poses a difficult problem: no one can possibly read all the books, think about all the methods, consider all the fascinating questions and problems raised. So how are we to think of the role of this annual meeting? Is it an effective way of bringing the profession together, nationally and internationally, senior and junior? Or is it more like a super-sized hardware store where you pretty much need to know what you need before you enter the door, or you will be lost among the nail guns, paints, nuts and bolts, plumbing equipment, and sand paper that confront you? Can we think of the ASA annual meeting as a place for genuine "browsing", where specialists can get exposed to innovative and unfamiliar thinking from other parts of the profession? Or is it a place where the Bourdieusians, the quants, the ethnographically inclined, and the historical comparativists largely keep to themselves, like a segmented social media flow? (One person tunes into the DemocracyNow flow with its associated twitter feeds and followers while the other gets her news from the firehouse of Fox and its online choirs.) Or in other words, does the ASA feed segment into the subdisciplines and their groups of practitioners, so that everyone gets more of what he or she already knows very well?

How would a real student of the discipline of sociology begin to make sense of this vast slice of the mosaic of the discipline? What does Andrew Abbott think? (He's here -- he could be asked.) One possibility is to look at the situation historically. Take the programs of the past ten years and see how they have changed, in a variety of ways: topics, status composition of the panels, gender and race composition of the presenters, heterodox and orthodox approaches to the methodology of sociology, etc. This could be done. We might be able to produce a number of frequency graphs -- the fall and rise of Marxism, the rise of feminist sociology, the frequency of mention of the emotions in titles and abstracts, ... 

Another approach might be to look at the program as the expression of the "field" of the extended discipline of sociology as a field of power and prestige (a sort of Bourdieusian approach). Here we might abstract from content and ask the question, what can we infer about power in the discipline by inspecting the program? What features do the officers and executives of the association have? Do a small number of research institutions seem to play a disproportionate role in decision making and the selection of topics (Berkeley, Yale, Michigan)? Here again questions of gender, race, status, and privilege come into the picture. 

We might also consider the question of the absolute size of the program -- the 4+ days and 600 sessions that were included. Is this a good size for the profession as a whole -- if so, why so? Does it give career opportunities for younger scholars, to help them get their work into the thought space of the more senior practitioners? Does it serve the intellectual goal of broadening the intellectual scope of the discipline and its practitioners? Is the jumbo size of the meeting really about the association's need to put together an annual meeting that is a big success in terms of attendance and revenue? What would invalidate the notion of reducing the program to 2+ days and 300 sessions, with only 2000+ presenters? Would this be seen as a retreat of the significance and health of "sociology" within American research universities?

Finally, what might be possible by way of mapping the knowledge, research, and theory represented by this ocean of research? It seems possible to do this, but it would be a daunting task. The most general possibility is to create a database of all sessions, papers, presenters, and books, and code each entry by several properties. For individuals the characteristics might include affiliation, rank, gender, and race/ethnicity/nationality. (If we could add the individual's PhD institution that would be useful as well.) For papers and books the characteristics might include: author [linked to author entry], topic, primary references, method, ASA section. Topic codes would need to be hierarchical -- perhaps something like this: "race / segregation / urban core poverty / Chicago".

With such a database we could pose a number of interesting descriptive questions: 

What topics and methods are most frequent? 
What is the distribution of contributors by gender and race? 
What is the representation of senior high-prestige researchers relative to junior middle-prestige researchers? 

We might also imagine representing this body of data in terms of network maps. We could present a network graph of papers linked by topics, which would presumably create a number of clusters of papers organized by affinity of research themes. This map might well provide a different outline of the "continents" of the ASA, relative to the mapping by sections of the organization. (That is, there may be many papers addressing race from different methodological points of view and deriving from different research traditions.)

In short, it seems that the annual meeting of a large discipline like sociology, political science, or psychology can potentially provide the basis for some very interesting analysis of how the discipline works and changes within the field of academic life.

(Here is a partial remedy for the problem of audience self-selection: make random, unannounced and surprising substitutions on the program at the last minute. Several hundred people came to an early-morning session on "Bourdieu, culture, and empirical research" expecting to hear Loic Wacquant -- a sympathetic practitioner of Bourdieu's sociology -- and found instead the substitute personage of Michael Burawoy, a sympathetic but orthogonal reader of Bourdieu. Burawoy offered a lively reconsideration of Bourdieu's framework in relation to that of Marxist historical materialism and theory of class. His central thrust was the difference in the ways that Bourdieu, Gramsci, and Marx think about class consciousness. Who, when, and how are the social participants who can come to understand the conditions of their domination? I very much enjoyed his presentation, not least because it was a surprise.)

Monday, August 11, 2014

Realism and methodology


Methodology has to do with the strategies and heuristics through which we attempt to understand a complicated empirical reality (link). Our methodological assumptions guide us in the ways in which we attempt to collect data, the kinds of data we collect, the explanatory hypotheses we bring forward for that range of empirical findings, and the ways we seek to validate our findings. Methodology is to the philosophy of social science as historiography is to the philosophy of history.

Realism is also a set of assumptions that we bring to empirical investigation. But in this case the assumptions are about ontology -- how the world works, in the most general ways. Realism asserts that there are real underlying causes, structures, processes, and entities that give rise to the observations we make of the world, natural and social. And it postulates that it is scientifically appropriate to form theories and hypotheses about these underlying causes in order to arrive at explanations of what we observe.

This description of realism is couched in terms of a distinction between what is observable and what is unobservable but nonetheless real -- the "observation-theoretic" distinction. But of course the dividing line between the two categories shifts over time. What was once hypothetical becomes observable. Extra-solar planetary bodies, bosons, and viruses were once unobservable; they are now observable using various forms of scientific instrumentation and measurement. So the distinction is not fundamental; this was an essential part of the argument against positivist philosophy of science. And we might say the same about many social entities and structures as well. We understand "ideology" much better today than when Marx theorized about this idea in the mid-19th century, and using a variety of social research methods (public opinion surveys, World Values Survey, ethnographic observation, structured interviews) we can identify and track shifts in the ideology of a group over time. We can observe and track ideologies in a population. (We may now use a different vocabulary -- mentality, belief framework, political values.)

There are several realist methodologies that are possible in the social sciences. The methodology of paired comparisons is a common part of research strategies in the historical social sciences. This is often referred to as "small-N research." (Here is a description of the method as practiced by Sid Tarrow; linklink.) The method of paired comparisons is also based on realism and derives from causal ideas; but it is not specifically derived from the idea of causal mechanisms.  Rather, it derives from the simpler notion that causal factors function as something like necessary and/or sufficient conditions for outcomes. So if we can find cases that differ in outcome and embody only a small number of potential contributing causal factors, we can use Mill's methods (or more general truth-table methods) to sort out the causal roles played by the factors. (Here is a discussion of some of these concepts; link.) These ideas contribute to methodology at two levels: they give the investigator a specific idea about how to lay out his/her research ("seek out relevantly similar cases with different outcomes"), and they embody a method of inference from findings to conclusions about causal relations (the truth-table method). These methods allow the researcher to arrive at statements about which factors play a role in the production of other factors. (This is a logically similar role to the use of multiple regression in quantitative studies.)

Another possible realist approach to methodology is causal mechanisms theory (CM). It rests on the idea that events and outcomes are caused by specific happenings and powers, and it proposes that a good approach to a scientific explanation of an outcome or pattern is to discover the real mechanisms that typically bring it about. It also brings forward an old idea about causation -- no action at a distance. So if we want to maintain that class privilege causes ideological commitment, we need to be able to tell an empirically grounded story about how the first kind of thing conveys its influence to changes in the second kind of thing. (This is essentially the call for microfoundations; link.) Causal mechanisms theory is more basic than either paired comparisons or statistical causal modeling, in that it provides a further explanation for findings produced by either of these other methods. Once we have a conception of the mechanisms involved in a given social process, we are in a position to interpret a statistical finding as well as a finding about the necessary and/or sufficient conditions provided by a list of antecedent conditions for an outcome.

It is an interesting question to consider whether realism in ontology leads to important differences in methodology. In particular, does the idea that things happen as the result of an ensemble of real causal mechanisms that can be separately understood lead to important new ideas about methodology and inquiry?

Craver and Darden argue in In Search of Mechanisms: Discoveries across the Life Sciences that mechanisms theory does in fact contribute substantially to contemporary research in biology, at a full range of levels (link). They maintain that the key goal for much research in contemporary biology is to discover the mechanisms that produce an outcome, and that a central component of this methodology is the effort to explain a given phenomenon by trying to fit one or more known mechanisms to the observed process. So working with a toolbox of known mechanisms and "problem-solving" to account for the new phenomenon is an important heuristic in biology. This approach is both ontological and methodological; it presupposes that there are real underlying mechanisms, and it recommends to the researcher that he/she be well acquainted with the current inventory of known mechanisms that may be applied to new settings.

I think there is a strong counterpart to this idea in a lot of sociological research as well. There are well understood social mechanisms that sociologists, political scientists, and other researchers have documented -- easy riders, prisoners dilemmas, conditional altruism -- and the researcher often can systematically explore whether one or more of the known mechanisms is contributing to the complex social outcomes he or she is concerned with. A good example is found in Howard Kimeldorf's Reds or Rackets?: The Making of Radical and Conservative Unions on the Waterfront. Kimeldorf compares two detailed case histories and strives to identify the concrete social mechanisms that led to different outcomes in the two cases. The mechanisms are familiar from other sociological research; Kimeldorf's work serves to show how specific mechanisms were in play in the cases he considers.

This kind of work can be described as problem-solving heuristics based on application of a known inventory of mechanisms. It could also be described as a "normal science" process where small theories of known processes are redeployed to explain novel outcomes. As Kuhn maintains, normal science is incremental but creative and necessary in the progress of science.

A somewhat more open-ended kind of inquiry is aimed at discovery of novel mechanisms. McAdam, Tarrow and Tilly sometimes engage in this second kind of discovery in Dynamics of Contention -- for example, the mechanism of social disintegration (kl 3050). Another good example of discovery of mechanisms is Akerlof's exposition of the "market for lemons" (link), where he lays out the behavioral consequences of market behavior with asymmetric knowledge between buyer and seller.

So we might say that mechanisms theory gives rise to two different kinds of research methodology -- application of the known inventory to novel cases and search for novel mechanisms (based on theory or empirical research).

Causal-mechanisms theory also suggests a different approach to data gathering and a different mode of reasoning from both quantitative and comparative methods. The approach is the case-studies method: identify a small set of cases and gain enough knowledge about how they played out to be in a position to form hypotheses about the specific causal linkages that occurred (mechanisms).

This approach is less interested in finding high-level generalizations and more concerned about the discovery of the real inner workings of various phenomena. Causal mechanisms methodology can be applied to single cases (the Russian Revolution, the occurrence of the Great Leap Forward famine), without the claim to offering a general causal account of famines or revolutions. So causal mechanisms method (and ontology) pushes downward the focus of research, from the macro level to the more granular level.

The inference and validation component associated with CM looks like a combination of piecemeal verification (link) and formal modeling (link). The case-studies approach permits the researcher to probe the available evidence to validate specific hypotheses about the mechanisms that were present in the historical case. The researcher is also able to try to create a simulation of the social situation under study, confirm as much of the causal internal connectedness as possible from study of the case, and examine whether the model conforms in important respects to the observed outcomes. Agent-based models represent one such set of modeling techniques; but there are others.

So the methodological ideas associated with CM theory differ from both small-N and large-N research. The search for causal mechanisms is largely agnostic about high-level regularities -- either of things like revolutions or things like metals. It is an approach that encourages a more specific focus on this case or that small handful of cases, rather than a focus on finding general causal properties of high-level entities. And it is more open to and tolerant of the possibility of a degree of contingency and variation within a domain of phenomena. To postulate that civil disorders are affected by a group of well-understood social mechanisms does not imply that there are strong regularities across all civil disorders, or that these mechanisms work in exactly the same way in all circumstances. So the features of contingency and context dependence play an organic role within CM methodology and fit badly in paired-comparisons research and statistical modeling approaches.

So it seems that the ontology of causal-mechanisms theory does in fact provide a set of heuristics and procedures for undertaking social research. CM does have implications for social-science methodology.

Friday, August 8, 2014

The status of women in India


Sociologists are often interested in making sense of processes of change that radiate along the axes of the great tectonics of social life, including class, race, and gender. These features of social life are particularly fundamental because they denote powerful determinants of opportunity, life-course, and personal outcomes for all of us. The positions into which individuals are born within the property system have great influence on the ways their lives unfold. The social filigree of race and ethnicity, and the ways in which these categories are socially constructed and projected, likewise creates determinative pathways of development and action for individuals in many social settings. And the social freight of gender and family creates opportunities and obstacles, expectations and stereotypes, for boys and girls, women and men. There are other large dimensions of social embeddedness that might be brought forward as well -- religion, culture, normative communities, power and authority, for example. But class, race, and gender are especially profound. And each has given rise to movements of emancipation in reaction to the oppressions that they represent for specific groups in society.

Kenneth Bo Nielsen and Anne Waldrop have assembled an excellent volume on the status of women in contemporary India in their recent book Women, Gender, and Everyday Social Transformation in India. The collection brings together contributors who approach the topic using the tools of ethnographic research to better understand the everyday realities of experience of women in India today. The volume focuses on three large areas of life in contemporary India -- technology and work, political institutions, and feminist activism. There is a valuable effort to attempt to understand the current upsurge of public violence and rape against women in terms of the social changes that are occurring in these areas.

The editors introduce the focus of the volume in these words:
The pace of socioeconomic transformation in India over the past two and a half decades has been formidable. In this volume we are concerned with examining how these transformations have played out at the level of everyday life to influence the lives of Indian women, and gender relations more broadly."
Readers of Understanding Society will find the volume especially interesting because it approaches the realities of gender, class, and caste in a micro- and meso-level way, looking at specific individuals and groups of women within the concrete social relations within which they find themselves. A rich understanding of the socially constituted realities of "agency" and "structure" plays an important role in the approaches these investigators bring to their research. 
People can never act outside of the multiplicity of social relations in which they are enmeshed; ... the exercise of individual agency aiming for change is thus always conditioned, and human agency is both enabled and limited by those social structures within which change is sought. (7)
Several chapters are especially interesting.

Kenneth Nielsen's contribution on the Singur movement in West Bengal against the proposed Tata factory favored by the ruling CP/M government of the state is very interesting. He illustrates how the status rise of a caste group (Chasi Kaibartta in transition to Mahishya) also reflected a fairly deliberate effort to redefine and control the role of women. "Notably, the Mahishya caste movement for higher status entailed an appropriation of upper-caste norms and values including the Hindu elite male concern for harnessing female sexuality" (207). This account suggests a Bourdieu-like struggle within a "field", making strategic adjustments so as to gain advantage over time. Intra- and inter-caste struggles played out into a redefinition of the nature and role of women in village society. Nielsen's central interest is the micro-processes through which women in these villages made the transition from their traditional roles to the role of part-time activist. This is a familiar question from social movements research. (Here is a causal diagram representing the recruitment process taken from Doug McAdam, "Beyond Structural Analysis" (link).)


But Nielsen's treatment is not theoretical; it is ethnographic, attempting to discover through interviews and participant-observation the concrete steps that occurred from household to street demonstration for some of these women.

Another interesting observation Nielsen offers concerns the question of “issue escalation”. It is often observed in the study of contentious politics that a movement around a specific issue often broadens its focus to include a more comprehensive set of issues. In this instance the natural progression would be from the specific issue of land confiscation to a broader concern for gender equity in rural society. But this escalation did not occur in the case of the West Bengal/Singur movement.
In contrast [to movements in Karnataka and Maharashtra], the Singur movement did not spawn reflections on the gendered nature of landownership and inheritance, even though inheritance patterns in Singur followed the broader West Bengal pattern where land is fragmented and customarily inherited through the line of male descendants. (215)
And Nielsen seems to have uncovered the root of an explanation for why this escalation did not occur: the involvement of women in the Singur movement was actually quite consistent with the patriarchal values governing women's roles that were current in rural society in West Bengal. "The mobilization of women into the Singur movement was facilitated by the fact that it was successfully embedded in a gendered discourse and imagery in which Shantipara's Mahishya women appeared as defenders of the common good of the family and the village" (215). (Kimberly Springer describes the complicated relationship between feminist activism and the US civil rights movement in Living for the Revolution: Black Feminist Organizations, 1968–1980.)

Turn now to another contribution that also focuses on West Bengal, Sirpa Tenhunen's "Gender, Intersectionality and Smartphones in Rural West Bengal." Tenhunen's question is how this innovative communication technology affected the opportunities and agency of women in this region. (One thing I appreciate about the volume as a whole is the care that the researchers take to make it clear that their findings do not represent "India" as a whole.)
I argue that to understand how mobile phone use is shaped by and reshapes gender, it is necessary to explore how the physical properties of phones determine technical affordances -- that is, the possibilities for action -- according to the users' gender, but also such parameters of identity as class and education. (33)
Tenhunen's ethnography focuses on women's use of the technology -- the conversations they conduct in specific times and places. She had observed this village in 1999 (before the cell network had been built out), and again in 2005, 2007-08, 2010, and 2012-13. So her observations permitted her to have a perspective on the socially constructed ways in which adoption of telephony was carried out. One of her most basic observations is that the adoption of telephony initially followed caste lines (37), with upper castes adopting cell phones earlier than other caste groups. She also finds that cell phone ownership tended to be concentrated among male villagers in the early period, and that diffusion to women was often the consequence of marriage relationships. "Fathers and brothers gave phones to ensure that women could stay in touch after marriage" (37). And she finds that women's calling patterns are different from male users in the village. Here is a table of calling patterns based on call diaries from 2008.



This is interesting material, and could be interpreted as a map of the patriarchal and domestic orbits of women and men in the village. Tenhunen argues that cell phones facilitated a broadening of social contacts that had favorable effects on gender opportunities for women in the village.
In rural India, the introduction of phones offered rural women a new, unobstrusive avenue to extend their contacts and space without moving out of their neighbourhood. Women's increased contact with their natal village and female relatives in other villages forms part of the broader changes evident in the village's gender relationships. The most pronounced of these changes are the increase in education for females, women becoming visible in formal politics, and a few high-caste women taking up white-collar jobs. (41-42)
What is particularly interesting about this research is the strength of the case Tenhunen establishes for the differential adoption and consequences of the new cellular technology. "Technology is gendered" -- this is a slogan in the sociology of technology, but it is a simple and important reality in this study.

These are only two of the fifteen chapters of Women, Gender and Everyday Social Transformation in India (Anthem South Asian Studies). But every chapter is worth reading, and the book represents an important contribution to understanding the dynamics under way in India today for half of its population.

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

What is methodology?



As social science researchers, we would all like to have an excellent methodology for carrying out the tasks we confront in our scientific work. But what precisely are we looking for when we aspire to this goal? What is a methodology, and what is it intended to allow us to do?

A methodology is a set of ideas or guidelines about how to proceed in gathering and validating knowledge of a subject matter. Different areas of science have developed very different bodies of methodology on the basis of which to conduct their research. We might say that a methodology provides a guide for carrying out some or all of the following activities:
  • probing the empirical details of a domain of phenomena
  • discovering explanations of surprising outcomes or patterns
  • identifying entities or forces 
  • establishing patterns
  • providing predictions
  • separating noise from signal
  • using empirical reasoning to assess hypotheses and assertions
Here is what Andrew Abbott has to say about methods in Methods of Discovery: Heuristics for the Social Sciences:
Social scientists have a number of methods, stylized ways of conducting their research that comprise routine and accepted procedures for doing the rigorous side of science. Each method is loosely attached to a community of social scientists  for whom it is the right way to do things. But no method is the exclusive property of any one of the social sciences, nor is any social science, with the possible exception of anthropology, principally organized around the use of one particular method. (13)
So a method or a methodology is a set of recommendations for how to proceed in doing scientific research within a certain domain. Sometimes in the history of philosophy there has been a hope that science could proceed on the basis of a pure inductive logic: collect the data, analyze the data, sift through the findings, report the strongest regularities found in the data set. But scientific inquiry requires more than this; it requires discovery and imagination.

What form might a methodology take? The simplest idea is that a methodology is a recipe for arriving at justified scientific statements with respect to a domain of empirical phenomena. A recipe is a set of instructions for treating a number of ingredients in a sequential way and producing a specific kind of output -- a soufflé or a bowl of pad thai. If you follow the recipe, you are almost certain to arrive at the soufflé. But it is clear that scientific methodology cannot be as prescriptive as a recipe. There is no set of rules that are certain or likely to lead to the discovery of compelling hypotheses and explanations.

So if a scientific methodology isn't a set of recipes, then what is it? Here is another possibility: a methodology consists of a set of heuristics that serve to guide the activities, data collection, and hypothesis formation of the scientist. A heuristic is also a set of rules; but it is weaker than a recipe in that there is no guarantee of success. Here is a heuristic for consumers: "If you are selecting a used car to purchase, pay attention to rust spots." This is a good guide to action, not because rust spots are the most important part of a car's quality, but because they may serve as a proxy for the attentiveness to maintenance of the previous owner -- and therefore be an indication of hidden defects.

Andrew Abbott mentions several key topics for specification through methodology -- "how to propose a question, how to design a study, how to draw inferences, how to acquire and analyze data" (13), and he shows that we can classify methods by placing them into the types of question they answer.

types of data gathering

data analysis
posing a question
History
Direct interpretation

Case study analysis
Ethnography
Quantitative analysis

Small-N comparison
Surveys

Formal modeling
Large-N analysis
Record-based analysis





Abbott suggests that these varieties can be combined into five basic approaches:
  • ethnography
  • historical narration
  • standard causal analysis
  • small-N comparison
  • formalization
And he arranges them in a three-dimensional space, with each dimension increasing from very particular knowledge at the origin to more abstract knowledge further out the axis. (Commonsense understanding of the facts lies at the origin of the mapping.) The three axes are formal modeling (syntactic program), pattern finding (semantic program), and cause finding (pragmatic program) (28). 


Abbott is a sociologist whose empirical and theoretical work is genuinely original and important, and we can learn a lot from his practice as a working researcher. His meta-analysis of methodology, on the other hand, seems fairly distant from his own practice. And I'm not sure that the analysis of methodology represented here provides a lot of insight into the research strategies of other talented social scientists (e.g. Tilly, Steinmetz, Perrow, Fligstein). This perhaps illustrates a common occurrence in the history of science: researchers are not always the best interpreters of their own practice. 

It is also interesting to observe that the discovery of causal mechanisms has no explicit mention in this scheme. Abbott never refers to causal mechanisms in the book, and none of the methods he highlights allow us to see what he might think about the mechanisms approach. It would appear that mechanisms theory would reflect the pragmatic program (searching for causal relationships) and the semantic program (discovering patterns in the observable data).

My own map of the varieties of the methods of the social sciences suggests a different scheme altogether. This is represented in the figure at the top of the post.



Monday, August 4, 2014

System safety engineering


Why do complex technologies so often fail, and fail in such unexpected ways? Why is it so difficult for hospitals, chemical plants, and railroads to design their processes in such a way as to dramatically reduce the accident rate? How should we attempt to provide systematic analysis of the risks that a given technology presents and the causes of accidents that sometimes ensue? Earlier posts have looked at the ways that sociologists have examined this problem (link, link, link); but how do gifted engineers address the issue?

Nancy Leveson's current book, Engineering a Safer World: Systems Thinking Applied to Safety (2012), is an outstanding introduction to system safety engineering. This book brings forward the pioneering work that she did in Safeware: System Safety and Computers (1994) with new examples and new contributions to the field of safety engineering.

Leveson's basic insight, here and in her earlier work, is that technical failure is rarely the result of the failure of a single component. Instead, failures result from multiple incidents involving the components, and unintended interactions among the components. So safety is a feature of the system as a whole, not of the individual sub-systems and components. Here is how she puts the point in Engineering a Safer World:
Safety is a system property, not a component property, and must be controlled at the system level, not the component level. (kl 263)
Traditional risk and failure analysis focuses on specific pathways that lead to accidents, identifying potential points of failure and the singular "causes" of the accident (most commonly including operator error). Leveson believes that this approach is no longer helpful. Instead she argues for what she calls a "new accident model" -- a better and more comprehensive way of analyzing the possibilities of accident scenarios and the causes of actual accidents. This new conception has several important parts (kl 877-903):
  • expand accident analysis by forcing consideration of factors other than component failures and human errors
  • provide a more scientific way to model accidents that produces a better and less subjective understanding of why the accident occurred
  • include system design errors and dysfunctional system interactions
  • allow for and encourage new types of hazard analyses and risk assessments 
  • shift the emphasis in the role of humans in accidents from errors ... to focus on the mechanisms and factors that shape human behavior
  • encourage a shift in the emphasis in accident analysis from "cause" ... to understanding accidents in terms of reasons, that is, why the events and errors occurred
  • allow for and encourage multiple viewpoints and multiple interpretations when appropriate
  • assist in defining operational metrics and analyzing performance data
Leveson is particularly dissatisfied with the formal apparatus in use in engineering and elsewhere when it comes to analysis of safety and accident causation, and she argues that there are a number of misleading conflations in the field that need to be addressed. One of these is the conflation between reliability and safety. Reliability is an assessment of the performance of a component relative to its design. But Leveson points out that systems like automobiles, chemical plants, and weapons systems can all consist of components that are highly reliable and yet that give rise to highly destructive and unanticipated accidents.

So thinking about accidents in terms of component failure is a serious misreading of the nature of the technologies with which we interact every day. Instead she argues that safety engineering must be systems engineering:
The solution, I believe, lies in creating approaches to safety based on modern systems thinking and systems theory. (kl 88)
One important part of a better understanding of accidents and safety is a recognition of the fact of complexity in contemporary technology systems -- interactive complexity, dynamic complexity, decompositional complexity, and nonlinear complexity (kl 139). Each of these forms of complexity makes it more difficult to anticipate possible accidents, and more difficult to assign discrete accident pathways to the occurrence of an accident.
Accidents are complex processes involving the entire sociotechnical system. Traditional event-chain models cannot describe this process adequately. (kl 496)
Leveson is highly critical of iterative safety engineering -- what she calls the "fly-fix-fly" approach. Given the severity of outcomes that are possible when it comes to control systems for nuclear weapons, the operations of nuclear reactors, or the air traffic control system, we need to be able to do better than simply improving safety processes following an accident (kl 148).

The model that she favors is called STAMP (Systems-Theoretic Accident Model and Processes; kl 1059). This model replaces the linear component-by-component analysis of technical devices with a system-level representation of their functioning. The STAMP approach begins with an effort to identify crucial safety constraints for a given system. (For example, in the Union Carbide plant at Bhopal, "never allow MIC to come in contact with water"; in design of the Mars Polar Lander, "don't allow the spacecraft to impact the planet surface with more than a maximum force" (kl 1074); in design of public water systems, "water quality must not be compromises" (kl 1205).) Once the constraints are specified, the issue of control arises; what are the internal and external processes that ensure that the constraints are continuously satisfied? This devolves into a set of questions about system design and system administration; the instrumentation that is developed to measure compliance with the constraint and the management systems that are in place to ensure continuous compliance.
Also of interest in the book is Leveson's description of a new systems-level way of analyzing the hazards associated with a device or technology, STPA (System-Theoretic Process Analysis) (kl 2732). She describes STPA as the hazards analysis associated with the risks identified by STAMP:
STPA has two main steps:
  1. Identify the potential for inadequate control of the system that could lead to a hazardous state.
  2. Determine how each potentially hazardous control action identified in step 1 could occur. (kl 2758)
Here is an example of the process through which an STPA risk analysis proceeds for NASA (kl 2995).


It would be very interesting to see how an engineer would employ the STAMP and STPA methodologies to evaluate the risks and hazards associated with swarms of autonomous vehicles. Each vehicle is a system that can be analyzed using the STAMP methodology. But likewise the workings of an expressway with hundreds of autonomous vehicles (perhaps interspersed with less predictable human drivers) is also a system with complex characteristics.



Each individual vehicle has a hierarchical system of control designed to ensure safe transportation of its passengers and the vehicle itself; what are the failure modes for this control system? And what about the swarm -- given that each vehicle is responsive to the other vehicles around it, how will individual cars respond to unusual circumstances (a jack-knifed truck blocking all three lanes, let's say)? It would appear that autonomous vehicles create the kinds of novel hazards with which Leveson begins her book -- complexity, non-linear relationships, emergent properties of the whole that are unexpected given the expected operations of the components. The fly-fix-fly approach would suggest the deployment of a certain number of experimental vehicles and then evaluate their interactions in real-world settings. A more disciplined approach using the methodologies of STAMP and STPA would make systematic efforts to identify and control the pathways through which accidents can occur.

Here is a simulated swarm of autonomous vehicles:

But accidents happen; neither software nor control systems are perfect. So what would be the result of one disabling fender-bender in the intersection, followed by a half dozen more; followed by a gigantic pileup of robo-cars?