Saturday, February 28, 2015
There is an important ambiguity in the idea of social structure that needs to be addressed. The word is sometimes used to refer to functioning entities or units within society. The state is a structure within society; likewise is the system of public education. A corporation is a structure, and so is the feature of the economic organization of society that defines the role and possibilities of a corporation. This aspect of the concept of social structure as persistent entity with causal and functional properties was the subject of an earlier post (link).
There is a second meaning associated with "structure" as well: the idea that society possesses a structure of interconnected parts and systems, and that the parts influence each other in systematic ways. This aspect of the concept is discussed in an earlier post, focusing on Marx's view that a society possesses a mode of production (link). We might call this "system structure".
But the term can also be used to refer to the structure of society. Here we have statements like "the age structure of Egypt is X" and "the occupational structure of Great Britain is Y". In this usage, we are being directed to a descriptive or statistical feature of society -- the way that various elements hang together. In this case the structural feature is an outcome, not a functional part. Income stratification is a structural feature; the labor market is a structural entity. Other examples might include the rates of racial segregation that exist in different parts of the country; the wage gaps that exist between male and female workers; and gaps in college attendance rates between white and black students. In each case the structural feature is a statistical pattern that exists across socially meaningful groups, and that is presumably the effect of broad social forces and processes -- for example, the sorting mechanisms that influence residence, school, and work by race and gender.
Like the first two interpretations, this third component of the meaning of social structure possesses causal significance, both as effect and as cause. Take wealth stratification. The distribution of wealth in a society is the causal and systemic consequence of other structural features -- the rules determining which individuals and groups gain control of which components of the economic surplus. This is the heart of the definition of the field of structuralist economics in the hands of economists like Lance Taylor (Reconstructing Macroeconomics: Structuralist Proposals and Critiques of the Mainstream). Given how the economic structure works ("structure as system"), the current distribution of income and wealth ensues ("structure as outcome"). Structural characteristics in this sense are outcomes of the workings of the other kinds of structures.
But outcome structures have causal consequences of their own. The concentration of wealth in contemporary market democracies creates a group of people with both the means and the interest to influence political decision making. So the concentration of wealth and income that Thomas Piketty describes has a causal consequence for the politics of the democracies of countries like the United States and South Korea. Or take a different example, the age structure of Egypt. The fact that Egypt's age distribution is substantially skewed to a younger profile than that of the United States has economic and political consequences. There aren't enough job opportunities for the large population of teenagers and young adults in Egypt, which produces a potential for political instability as young disaffected Egyptians demand change. Or consider the economic consequences of China's skewed age distribution in the opposite direction: there aren't enough young workers to support the needs of the elderly population. In each case important social and political consequences are caused by the structural fact of the distribution of demographics or wealth. Consider the dramatically different age structures represented by the demographic pyramids of Egypt, China, and the United States:
These sorts of structural features represent features of society that are analogous to physiological parameters for a biological organism (body temperature, blood pressure, insulin levels). They are outcome parameters that are determined by the workings of other more fundamental forces and processes in society. And, like physiological parameters, there are some clear instances where homeostatic social processes react to correct the outcomes when values of the parameter go too far out of the range of the normal. (For example, extreme wealth inequality may stimulate political forces that lead to higher taxation rates on the rich.) That said, outcome structural features seem to play a less dynamic role in social processes than system and entity structures.
Thursday, February 26, 2015
Robert Brandom has just published a highly interesting book about the coherence of the philosophical thought of Wilfrid Sellars, From Empiricism to Expressivism: Brandom Reads Sellars. In reading the book I am brought back repeatedly to thinking about Roy Bhaskar. There is the affirmation of scientific realism that both endorse; there is the appeal to Kant over Hume; and there is in both philosophers a somewhat surprising and camouflaged pragmatism.
Realism. Sellars is a scientific realist, in the sense that he believes that what exists in a given domain is specified by the concepts of an adequately developed scientific set of theories of that domain. The language of extensively developed science delimits what is "real". Here is Brandom:
I think Sellars is simply and evidently correct in endorsing scientific realism about theoretical entities, as opposed to any sort of instrumentalism. He applies this view in the philosophy of mind to yield important conclusions. For he understands behaviorism as instrumentalism about mental or psychological entities. Among the initially theoretical, postulated entities that later become observable on Sellars's account are thoughts and sense impressions, according to the Myth of Jones at the end of Empiricism and the Philosophy of Mind. It is of the essence of his “philosophical behaviorism,” as opposed to Ryle's “logical behaviorism” (which requires strict definability of mental-theoretical vocabulary in terms of behavioral-observable vocabulary), to be realistic in this sense about theoretical entities postulated to explain observable behavior. (60)The role of Kant. Sellars' realism is closely intertwined with his appreciation of Kant's metaphysics. Brandom summarizes Sellars' most important effort as being a sustained attempt to move analytic philosophy from Hume to Kant. Here is a version of what that means in the context of Sellars' critique of the brand of empiricism embedded in analytic philosophy of the 1940s and 1950s:
Besides concepts used in empirical description and explanation, there are also concepts whose expressive role it is to make explicit necessary features of the framework that makes empirical description and explanation possible. (2)This is the "expressivism" of the title: the positivist idea that the vocabulary of science divides between empirical descriptive terms and logical connectives (synthetic and analytic) fails in a very important way. Instead, there are concepts that are substantive but non-empirical, and these concepts play a crucial role in science and philosophy.
Normativeness. Another of Sellars' central insights, according to Brandom, is his conviction that epistemic and semantic vocabulary is inherently normative. To assert that "I know that P" is to make a commitment to the listener: I have credible and compelling justification for believing that P. Epistemic and semantic assertions bring with them normative presuppositions on behalf of the claimant. Bhaskar too believes that philosophy, science, and normative commitments are intertwined. I don't claim that they come to similar conclusions, but Sellars too rejects the strong fact-value distinction that was characteristic of positivism and much analytic philosophy.
Pragmatism. A third important and original theme in From Empiricism to Expressivism is Brandon's discovery that pragmatism plays an important but seldom expressed role in Sellars' thought. The classic idea of language as use, and the symmetry between semantics,syntax, and pragmatics, play important roles in Sellars' reasoning and philosophical positions.
By ‘pragmatism' in this connection I mean that the project of offering a metalinguistic reading of framework-explicating nondescriptive concepts such as modal, normative, and ontological ones is conducted in terms of pragmatic metavocabularies: vocabularies for talking about the use of expressions, about discursive social practices. (5)Non-extensional properties and modalism. Another important part of Sellars' work, according to Brandom, is his effort to make a new kind of sense of modal philosophy and counterfactual semantics. This leads him to what Brandom refers to as a "broadly aristotelian metaphysical understanding of objects and properties" (70). This creates another potential dimension of relationship between Sellars and Bhaskar -- the metaphysics of powers and causal capacities. Sellars wants to create space for a kind of necessity that is distinct from logical necessity but stronger than Humean constant conjunction. Brandom refers to Sellars' concept here as "causal" modality (184). (This seems compatible with the argument made earlier for causal necessity; link.)
Brandom extends these ideas further by constructing s view that he calls "modal realism":
This sketch of a program for extending the Kant-Sellars tradition of modal expressivism raises a myriad of questions, some of detail, others more substantial. Rather than beginning to fi ll in that sketch by addressing some of those questions, I want to confront the ideas that motivate it with a different set of intuitions: those that motivate a robust modal realism. By “modal realism” I mean the conjunction of the claims thatHere again, it seems that critical realism theorists are well advised to consider this intellectual relationship to Sellars. And Brandom's book is an excellent place to start.
MR1) Some modally qualified claims are true.
MR2) Those that are state facts.
MR3) Some of those facts are objective, in the sense that they are independent of the activities of concept users: they would be facts even if there never were or never had been concept users.
There are strong reasons to endorse all three of these claims. (194-195)
So I would be tempted to argue that Sellars should be added to the mix of arguments and positive efforts to extend the theories of critical realism and causal powers. What do you think, Ruth Groff, Stephen Mumford, and Rani Lill Anjum?
Saturday, February 21, 2015
Image: first organizational chart (link)
One mark of modernity is the fact that we swim in a sea of structures -- states, markets, militaries, employment systems, social networks, taxation systems, and systems of racial and gender disadvantage, to name several. In place of a perhaps mythical pre-modern society in which social life was mediated by personal relationships, the modern world is mediated by institutions, structures, and systems of impersonal rules. Relations of patron and client and the influence of the village priest illustrate the model of pre-modern personalism and particularism. The bureaucratic state that Hegel describes and the impersonal markets that Weber describes illustrate powerful examples of modern impersonal institutions. Essentially this is the story of traditionalists versus modernists -- Thomas Carlyle, Sartor Resartus, against GWF Hegel, Hegel's Philosophy of Right and Max Weber, The Theory of Social and Economic Organization.
The images above illustrate different aspects of the idea of a social structure as an entity. The first represents the ties of authority and information flow that exist within the organization, allowing executives to control the behavior and properties of the organization. The second illustrates the structuring of the labor force that results from the changing environment within which individuals confront the labor market.
In ordinary thinking, structures have enduring properties that are largely independent of the individuals whom they encompass; they affect the behavior of individuals within them, and they affect the outcomes that individuals achieve through their efforts; and they are causally influential in large processes of social change and social stability. Workers enter a labor market that is largely independent of their own choices and actions. Structures are things with sufficient fixity over time and sufficient firmness to permit them to be regarded as social entities.
First, many sociologists agree on the basic point that social structures exist with reasonably stable properties and that they influence the behavior of individuals. Examples include the government of the state of Michigan, the system of labor organization and representation in the United States, and the vertically organized corporation. In each case the social entity consists of a set of roles, regulations, and actors, along with a set of physical and financial resources, that confront the citizens and consumers who interact with them as objective realities. Developers go to the appropriate agencies for permits and conform to the requirements of state law and state and local inspectors. Criminals conform to the requirements of their organizations as well. Institutions and organizations regulate and constrain the lives of individuals. (For a brief treatment of the Black Panthers as a bureaucratic organization see this post on Mayer Zald's theories of organizational behavior; link.)
But second, it is evident that structures are populated and constituted by individuals. So whatever causal powers the structures may have and whatever persistent features they possess must somehow be embodied in the actions and states of mind of those individuals. The effects of the structure on individuals and other social entities and processes depend on the coordinated actions of individuals within the structure. Individual actions within the structure are constrained by the meanings, rules, meanings, and enforcement mechanisms that exist within the structure. And external individual actions and social arrangements are affected by the knowledge and representations that these external players have of the workings of the structure. Structures rest upon microfoundations (link). And there must be specific processes of inculcation, coordination, and enforcement through which the required forms of action transpire at the level of the actors. (Research on "institutional logics" helps to fill out this story; link.) Anthony Giddens puts the point this way in Central Problems in Social Theory: Action, Structure, and Contradiction in Social Analysis:
The term 'social structure' thus tends to include two elements, not clearly distinguished from one another: the patterning of interaction, as implying relations between actors or groups; and the continuity of interaction in time. (62)Third, structures are plastic and frangible (link). Zygmunt Bauman makes this point in a particularly provocative way by insisting the social world is "liquid" (link). The metaphor overstates the case, since many structures have significantly more stability than the image of liquidity implies; but the fundamental notion that social structures and other entities are subject to change is certainly a valid one. We can observe the drift in the functioning and roles of institutions in every aspect of life -- political, economic, educational, and ideological.
Several fundamental kinds of questions must be answered when we contemplate the idea of structures and organizations possessing persistent properties over time. First is the question of the conformant behavior of role players within the organization at various points of time. What are the microfoundations of compliance? Individuals do not conform simply because the employee handbook specifies that they should. Rather, they need to be incentivized, trained, motivated, supervised, and disciplined, in order to bring about the forms of orderly behavior that the organization requires. And this means that an organization depends on the existence of roles presenting incentives and constraints for supervisors and trainers as well.
Second is a larger question of accounting for the stability of the rules and roles themselves. What factors work against entropy and the conflicting interests of various internal actors, each of which tends to undermine the stability of the rules and roles? Are there forms of weak homeostasis that work to restore a social structure in face of minor deviations? The "entropic" forces that should be expected to push organizations towards incessant change are fairly obvious; most evidently, individuals in strategic positions within an organization often have interests that are well served by adapting, reconceptualizing, or disregarding the rules. (Michel Crozier makes this point in his analysis of organizations as strategic sites; link.) So a large question for the theory of organizations and institutions is that of stability. What are the features of an organization in an environment that lends stability to its current constitution? Kathleen Thelen considers both aspects of this question in much of her work, including especially How Institutions Evolve: The Political Economy of Skills in Germany, Britain, the United States, and Japan and (with James Mahoney) Explaining Institutional Change: Ambiguity, Agency, and Power (link).
Sunday, February 15, 2015
What is a community, and what forces exist to either preserve the strands of community or to erode those strands?
To start, a community is a population within a defined geographical space. It is a group of people who have their own interests, identities, and affinities. It is a group of people who act in a variety of ways — work, garden, vote in elections, raise children, join protest movements, support the government, steal cars, and attend public events. It is a group of people who are located within a space of social relationships — a set of social network graphs detailing their relations to family, friends, co-workers, fellow worshippers, fellow members of sports teams and civic associations. It is a group of people who have strong ties and weak ties to a range of other people and organizations. And it is a group of individuals who have ideas about how society should work, what is fair, who benefits from current social and political arrangements.
What makes a collection of people into a community rather than a jumble of unrelated individuals? There needs to be something in common, something that ties individuals together so they are to some degree willing to act in consideration of others in the group—a set of values, a set of shared purposes, a set of shared commitments to rules and laws of action in society. A strong community demonstrates a high degree of common respect for these values, rules, and laws. A weak community is the society that Hobbes feared—an agglomeration of self-interested actors competing for power and wealth, in which life is nasty, brutish, and short.
We might specify that sometimes a population embodies a plurality of sub-communities, each of which has a set of shared values and purposes—the Catholics and the Protestants, the Hindus and the Muslims, the bourgeois and the proles. Sub-groups may have very different cultural and religious beliefs, and they may also have very different positions in the social-property system and the political system. These sub-groups may have strong links among themselves but only weak links with individuals in the other sub-group. They may have strong adherence to a set of values and norms shared by their group but not across groups, and their norms may specify different behavior towards in-group and out-group individuals.
Crucially, a population with nested sub-communities may also possess an overarching unifying identity. That is, a mixed society may contain sub-groups that have their own norms and affinities, but that also share higher-level norms and commitments with other sub-groups. "We X’s live our lives differently from those Y’s; but we all accept the legitimacy of law and the freedom of worship." Those higher-level commitments might include items along these lines:
- recognition of the legitimacy of government
- commitment to the rule of law
- commitment to rights of association, speech, religion, movement
- commitment to the equal rights and worth of all members of the community
- a compassionate regard for the lives and flourishing of members of other communities
But all too often this ideal of a tolerant and stable community embracing multiple racial and ethnic groups is broken on the rocks of inter-group mistrust and violence. Groups polarize, individuals in one group develop mistrust or animosity against members of other groups, isolated instances of disrespect or violence escalate into conflict or pogroms. The civility that existed in one period breaks down into hostility and violence in another period.
It is important to understand the social mechanisms and strategies that exist in this arena in both directions: the strategies that exist for promoting mutual understanding and peaceful cooperation, and the mechanisms that exist that have the potential for undermining peaceful relations among groups in a population.
There are a number of familiar strategies and mechanisms that work in support of civility within a multi-ethnic or multi-religious community: organizations devoted to promoting inter-group understanding, institutions that encourage the formation of ties across group lines (like universities), leaders who promote the values of civility and mutual respect, effective law enforcement that quickly addresses violent actions by individuals in one group against those of another. The ways that these strategies work are also fairly plain. Equitable law enforcement enhances confidence that everyone will be treated fairly, no matter what group they identify with. Good leadership is exerted to make salient the unifying collective commitments that extend across all groups, and these commitments become motivationally effective. Cross-group organizations create new ties among individuals from different groups which gives them resilience in resisting the impulse of hostility when conflicts arise.
What are some of the mechanisms that come into play in multi-group populations that lead to instability and conflict? Here are some common factors that lead to the breakdown of community: mistrust, failures of assurance, political entrepreneurship, media incitement, rumor, and conflicts of interest over property and political arrangements. Some groups and leaders have a political interest in elevating tensions between groups. Rumors of bad actions by members of the other group lessen the resolve of group members to maintain their stance of solidarity. (Atul Kohli considers some of these mechanisms in India in Democracy and Discontent: India's Growing Crisis of Governability.)
It seems apparent that the mechanisms and impulses towards fission are perennial and need to be contained if a multi-ethnic or multi-religious community is to be sustained over time. Work by scholars like Donald Horowitz (Ethnic Groups in Conflict) and Ashu Varshney (Ethnic Conflict and Civic Life: Hindus and Muslims in India) illustrate the historical processes through which mixed communities have broken down into ethnic violence. It would be very interesting to attempt to use agent-based modeling to model the workings of pro- and anti-solidarity mechanisms in a mixed population, along the lines of a public health simulation of disease, to evaluate the conditions that favor or disfavor the survival of community in a population incorporating a number of groups.
Monday, February 9, 2015
There is a growing accumulation of evidence suggesting that individuals' performance in a wide range of activities is powerfully and insidiously affected by the expectations that are subtly conveyed to them by the people around them. If the people around a child or adult believe the individual will have particular difficulty with an upcoming task, this doubt is conveyed through cues the individual is able to sense. And, through cognitive mechanisms not fully understood, the subject's performance is affected, with results that are lower than otherwise possible.
The social psychologist Claude Steele was one of the first to study this phenomenon in the context of the SAT gap between white and black students. He introduced the concept of stereotype threat and documented its workings in a range of contexts (link; 1997). A crucial element of the research is the discovery that the negative cues do not need to be particularly overt or explicit; small elements of body language, verbal phrasing, or facial expression seem to be enough to significantly lower performance.
Negative stereotypes about women and African Americans bear on important academic abilities. Thus, for members of these groups who are identified with domains in which these stereotypes apply, the threat of these stereotypes can be sharply felt and, in several ways, hampers their achievement. First, if the threat is experienced in the midst of a domain performance -- classroom presentation or test-taking, for example -- the emotional reaction it causes could directly interfere with performance.... Second, when this threat becomes chronic in a situation, as for the woman who spends considerable time in a competitive, male-oriented math environment, it can pressure disidentification, a reconceptualization of the self and onf one's values so as to remove the domain as a self-identity, as a basis of self-evaluation. (614)Key in Steele's work is the role that "self-identification" plays in learning and performance: the way that the child or young person thinks about his or her capabilities and talents is itself a key element in determining the level of performance that he or she will achieve.
Social psychologist Carol Dweck has contributed a great deal to this field through her research on the social and emotional influences on cognitive development. She and colleagues argue for a new hybrid field of research, "social cognitive development". Her paper with Kristina Olson, "A Blueprint for Social Cognitive Development" (2008), lays out the central features of this approach. Particularly important in this approach is the importance these researchers give to the role of the mental frameworks through which people navigate the world and solve the problems they encounter.
At its core, SCD is a field concerned with how mental representations and mental processes relevant to social development change across development. It also involves the study of how these mental representations and processes may mediate or moderate the impact of particular antecedents (e.g., parental input) on children's outcomes (e.g., well-being). (193)Olson and Dweck highlight four key goals for research in social cognitive development studies:
- Identify and measure a social cognitive mental representation or process that is believed to be important in development.
- Manipulate the mental representation, and observe its impact on outcomes of interest over development.
- Investigate the antecedents of the mental representation or process of interest.
- Compare how the mental representation operates in the laboratory and in the real world. (195-196)
Another important body of research on this topic comes from the field of career and educational choices. An earlier post highlighted career choice -- the idea that certain professions or careers are "typed" for particular profiles of gender, race, and political beliefs (link). This typing is conveyed through broad cultural motifs, and it gets inside the heads of young people at a level that is almost below the level of conscious awareness. Elizabeth Armstrong and Laura Hamilton's work aimed at decoding of the educational choices made by women of different socioeconomic segments illustrates a related phenomenon (link). Armstrong and Hamilton demonstrate that women at MU are tracked into different pathways of education and career opportunity, depending on the socioeconomic status of their families.
A third relevant area of research on this topic comes from a different field, the study of the social components of blindness. Robert Scott, a sociologist who focused on the institutions supporting the needs of blind people in The Making of Blind Men, argued that a large part of the mobility limitations experienced by visually impaired people derives from the script of disability that sighted society insists upon. A fascinating case study is Daniel Kish, the blind bicyclist. (This story was highlighted in a recent episode of the podcast Invisibilia; link.) The key finding is this: if most of us, including the parents and teachers of sight-impaired children, believe that blindness means dependency and highly limited mobility, then this will be the reality for blind children and adults. But if the assumption is that sight-impaired people can develop alternative means of navigating their environments ( like the tongue-clicking system that Kish developed as a child) then a very different form of life will result for the sight-impaired.
In each of these areas of research, it is striking to find how sensitive capabilities and performance are to social expectations. Low or negative expectations cause poor performance. These findings underline how sensitive human beings are to the expectations other people have of us when it comes to development and performance. Second, these findings provide a basis for understanding some important differences in performance that exist along gender, racial, and ethnic lines. And they pose very tough challenges to teachers of young children; how can preschool and early childhood teachers assure themselves that their own hidden stereotypes about the children they teach do not wind up hampering the child's development? In a racialized and genderized society that is laden with stereotypes, how can we ensure that learning environments will bring out the best in every child?
But universities too need to worry about this phenomenon. Do engineering and math faculty give off subtle cues about their expectations of low performance by young women? Do programs aimed at supporting the academic success of educationally disadvantaged students -- often a racialized group -- give rise to diffuse assumptions among faculty that these students have lower potential for excellence? Does a visibly blue-collar student receive subtle cues that graduate studies are not a good choice for him or her? And, given the emerging research showing how stereotype and expectation dramatically influence performance and choice, how can we work to offset these mechanisms in order to provide a genuinely equal quality of education and career advice to all students?
Tuesday, February 3, 2015
Neil Gross stirred up a quite a storm a few years ago when he released a body of research findings on the political complexion of university professors. Conservative organizations and pundits have made hay by denouncing the supposed liberal bias of universities. Gross opens his most recent book, Why Are Professors Liberal and Why Do Conservatives Care?, by confirming that multiple measures demonstrate that faculty members are substantially more likely to be liberal than the general population. But he believes this is both indisputable and uninteresting. What is most interesting for a sociologist is the "why" -- how can we explain the skewed distribution of political identities across this professional group?
Gross positions his work as falling in a tradition of research that included two major survey-based studies in the past 75 years, Lazarsfield and Thielens (The Academic Mind: Social Scientists in a Time of Crisis) and Everett Karll Ladd and Seymour Martin Lipset (The Divided Academy: Professors and Politics). He also finds creative ways of incorporating the GSS surveys. In addition, Gross and Solon Simmons carried out their own substantial survey, the Politics of the American Professoriate survey (PAP).
It will be noted that this is a problem that calls out for a social mechanisms explanation, and a fairly simple one at that. Suppose marbles of two colors in equal numbers are raining down in a thoroughly mixed stream on a pair of urns. Occasionally a marble falls into one urn or the other. When we count the marbles in both urns we find that 65% of the marbles in the urn on the left are green, whereas the larger urn on the right has 50% of each color. How is it that there are a higher percentage of green marbles in the urn on the left? There are only a few possibilities, each corresponding to a different mechanism. (i) The marbles have a degree of choice about which urn they enter, and green marbles have a preference for the left urn. (Or a variant: red marbles have a preference for avoiding the left urn.) We could call this "selection bias by chooser". This is different from two other possible mechanisms: (ii) there is a filter on the left urn, bumping green marbles in and red marbles out ("selection bias by receiver"); or (iii) marbles have a slight tendency to shift color from red to green when they enter the left urn ("environment transformation").
Fundamentally the question is analogous to the "nature-nurture" conundrum in the study of personality. Are universities more liberal than average occupations because they cultivate liberal thinking (nurture)? Or are they more liberal because of some sort of selection mechanism, drawing liberal members more frequently than chance (nature), and liberal-tending new faculty members bring their political values with them? Gross makes a powerful empirical case for the latter possibility.
I develop an alternative account: for historical reasons the professoriate has developed such a strong reputation for liberalism that smart young liberals today are apt to think of academic work as something that might be appropriate and suitable for them to pursue, whereas smart young conservatives see academe as foreign territory and embark on other career paths. (p. 105)It might be speculated that this distribution exists because the faculty selection process is biased -- conservative candidates are turned away. Gross's explanation is different. He draws on a strong literature studying gendered occupations that finds that the reputation of the profession has a powerful influence on girls and women as they make educational and career choices. Gross extends this reasoning to liberals and conservatives contemplating an academic career. Essentially he explains the political composition of university faculties as a consequence of a powerful public reputation for being a liberal workplace and a distinctly skewed process of self-selection towards this career. The profession is "typed" as being a particularly good career for more liberal young people, and young people make their career choices in consideration of that assumption. Essentially he argues that universities are publicly perceived as being hospitable to people on the left, and liberal-leaning young people are drawn to the career because of this reputation.
The question of political bias within universities is treated using an interesting experiment that Gross and colleagues Joseph Ma and Ethan Fosse conducted to test whether conservative students have a harder time gaining entrance to graduate programs (164). The project involved sending fictitious letters of inquiry to directors of graduate studies in leading departments in a wide range of disciplines. The letters indicated the same level of preparation for the field. One batch indicated no political information about the student, while the other two batches included the phrases "Worked for the McCain campaign" or "Worked for the Kerry campaign." Responses were rated according to the degree of encouragement or discouragement they expressed. The experiment is ingenious but it indicates "no result". There is no statistically significant evidence of bias against applicants who self-identify as conservative. (Gross does report a strong negative response from some of the academics whose potentially discriminatory behavior was tested.)
The study should count as reasonably strong evidence that most social scientists and humanists in leading departments work hard to keep their political feelings and opinions from interfering with their evaluations of academic personnel. (165)I find Gross's treatment of this topic to be an exemplary use of quantitative survey data in theoretically informed ways. The PAP survey that Gross initiated (along with colleagues and research assistants) provides substantial new information about the political attitudes and social backgrounds of faculty in the United States. Gross makes deft use of this data source (as well as several others) to evaluate hypotheses about what causes the distribution of political profiles among faculty. Gross's question is about both groups and individuals, and the survey data helps to evaluate answers to both. And, incidentally, this appears to be a sterling example of the kind of theoretical work that John Levi Martin calls for (link): careful stipulation of various explanatory theories, accompanied by a rigorous effort to evaluate them using appropriate empirical data.
For anyone who cares about universities as places of learning for undergraduate students, Gross's book is an encouraging one. He provides a clear and convincing explanation of the mechanisms through which a non-random distribution of political attitudes wind up in the population of university and college professors, and he provides strong evidence against the idea that universities and professors exercise discriminatory bias against newcomers who have different political identities. And finally, Gross's analysis and my own experience suggests that professors generally conform to Weber's ethic when it comes to proselytizing for one's own convictions in the classroom: the function and duty of the professor is to help students think for themselves (Max Weber, "The Meaning of Ethical Neutrality,", Methodology of Social Sciences.)
There is an interesting set of replies to Gross in Society here.
Wednesday, January 28, 2015
The deadline for paper and/or panel submissions is February 14, 2015.
The members of the Social Science History Association share a common interest in interdisciplinary and systematic approaches to historical research, and many of us find the SSHA one of the most stimulating conferences that we attend.
The thematic topic of the 2015 annual meeting is “Pluralism and Community: Social Science History Perspectives” – a theme that works very well with the research interests of many of the scholars involved in the Macrohistorical Dynamics network.
Macrohistorical Dynamics (MHD) is an interdisciplinary social science research field that focuses on problems of large-scale, comparative historical inquiry. Contributors to the field have brought perspective on a wide variety of problem areas, including macro- and historical sociology; comparative histories; world history; world-system analysis; comparative study of civilizations; philosophy of history; and studies of long-term socio-ecological, technological, demographic, cultural, and political trends and transformations. The Macrohistorical Dynamics network brings a rigorous perspective to bear on questions having to do with “large” history.
The list of MHD panel themes for 2015 is open, and we encourage you to submit proposals for paper topics or panel themes.
SSHA requests that submissions be made by means of its web conference management system. Paper title, brief abstract, and contact information should be submitted on the site www.ssha.org, where the general SSHA 2015 call for papers is also available. (If you haven’t used the system previously you will need to create an account, which is a very simple process.) The direct link for submissions is now available at:
NOTE: There is an SSHA rule concerning book sessions. For a book session to proceed, the author (or at least one of multiple authors) MUST be present. Proposals for book sessions should only be submitted if there is high confidence that the author will be able to travel to Baltimore November 12-15, 2015.
SSHA has set up a mechanism for networks to share papers, so even if you have a solo paper, send the idea along. It is possible and useful to identify a paper not only by the MHD network, but also by some other co-sponsoring networks--for example, Theory/Methods, Historical Geography, Politics, Culture, Economics, etc. Co-sponsored panels and papers are encouraged by the SSHA Program Committee as a means of broadening the visibility of the various networks.
Feel free to contact the network organizers for further information.
Prof. Daniel Little
University of Michigan-Dearborn
Prof. Peter Perdue
Department of History
Prof. James Lee
School of Humanities and Social Science
Hong Kong University of Science and Technology
Monday, January 26, 2015
Sociologists study social structure and the effects that structures have on individual behavior and life outcomes. But what do they have in mind when they refer to "structure"?
It turns out that there are important ambiguities in the idea of social structure. The word is sometimes used to refer to functioning entities or systems within society. The state is a structure within society; likewise is the system of public education. But the term can also be used to refer to the structure of society. Here we have statements like "the age structure of Egypt is X" and "the occupational structure of Great Britain is Y". In this usage, we are being directed to a descriptive feature of society -- the way that various elements hang together. Income stratification is a structural feature; the state is a structural entity.
There is a third meaning associated with "structure" as well: the idea that society possesses a structure of interconnected parts and sub-systems, and that the parts influence each other in systematic ways. To outline the structure of society is to provide a theory of how it works (in part, anyway).
This usage is illustrated in Marx's extended concept of the capitalist mode of production, in which various large elements -- technology and production, distribution, wage labor, property ownership, political authority, culture and ideology -- hang together in functional ways. Marx describes this system as one consisting of a base (forces and relations of production) and superstructure (state, ideology, culture), with the workings of class interest serving as the engine of stability and change. So Marx looks at capitalism as a system. Consider this statement from the Preface to A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy:
In the social production of their life, men enter into definite relations that are indispensable and independent of their will, relations of production which correspond to a definite stage of development of their material productive forces. The sum total of these relations of production constitutes the economic structure of society, the real foundation, on which rises a legal and political superstructure and to which correspond definite forms of social consciousness. The mode of production of material life conditions the social, political and intellectual life process in general.
Here and elsewhere Marx picks out the forces of production and relations of production as the basic determinants of social change. The mode of production represents a complex and objective reality to which individuals must adapt in their behaviors.
By mode of production we shall designate not what is generally marked out as the economic (i.e. relations of production in the strict sense), but a specific combination of various structures and practices which, in combination, appear as so many instances or levels, i.e. as so many regional structures of this mode. A mode of production, as Engels stated schematically, is composed of different levels or instances, the economic, political, ideological and theoretical: it is understood that this is merely a schematic picture and that a more exhaustive division can be drawn up. The type of unity which characterizes a mode of production is that of a complex whole dominated, in the last instance, by the economic. (13-14)
These texts serve to illustrate a specific and comprehensive view of the sense in which society has a structure. Each substantive term warrants analysis.
Definite relations of production -- property relations, relations of power and authority, relations defining the terms of economic interaction. The terms of these relations are essentially beyond the control of the individuals who fall within them; they represent a supra-individual reality to which the individual must accommodate. The system of wage labor is a clear example in Marx's theory. In a society in which wage labor is the dominant system of labor control, individuals gain the resources needed to satisfy life needs by selling their labor time which is then directed and managed by the purchaser. This is a structural condition that the worker confronts in the social environment around him or her.Marx and other scholars who work within the framework of historical materialism hold, as a large empirical hypothesis, that there are causal and systemic relations among these items, and the generic mechanism of class interest and class conflict is the transmission belt that conveys causal influence from one sector to another. They believe that the "needs" of the economic structure are secured by the political structure, through the mechanism of class interests; likewise, the ideological and theoretical structure is shaped by the interests of various classes, leading to a high degree of conformance between the content of "social consciousness" and the prerequisites of stability of the economic structure.
Material productive forces -- the level and implementation of productive technology, including locations of production, tools, machines, materials processing, mines, agriculture, and the forms of knowledge associated with each of these. The ensemble of these items constitutes another fixed aspect of the social environment within which human beings live and subsist.
Economic structure of society -- the system of property relations and material institutions and technology through which society produces goods and conducts the distribution of value and surplus value (income and access to goods).
Legal and political superstructure -- the institutions through which law and political power are exercised and maintained.
Forms of social consciousness -- the cognitive and epistemic frameworks through which ordinary members of society understand the forces that surround them and the roles that they play within those forces and institutions.
Levels or instances of social organization -- the clusters of institutions that make up the "economic, political, ideological, and theoretical "'levels'" of existing society. Factories, department stores, and banks fall in the economic level; the legislature, the police and military forces, and the agencies of the state fall in the political level; and the contents and institutions of transmission of beliefs about the world fall in the ideological and theoretical levels.
The template of historical materialism as a "Gray's Anatomy" for modern capitalism has often been criticized as being mechanistic, over-simplified, and even fictional. But in its heart the scheme is a perfectly intelligible hypothesis about how several aspects of contemporary society fit together. Property relations define individual interests, and the system of wage labor defines the opportunities available to working people. Legislative and governmental policies have effects on the property system, and the class that owns the bulk of this property is perfectly capable of recognizing the consequences of this policy or that. Having the means to influence government, the owning class is able to shape government policy and personnel in ways that are compatible with its interests. Likewise, owners of property are able to recognize the advantage of being in a position to influence public consciousness and the terms of public debate. So the components of the "ideological apparatus" -- think tanks, newspapers, publishing houses, television networks -- are intensely contested, and the power of the owning class to influence the content of these outlets is great. Here again we have a fairly simple empirical argument for the conformance of the organs of social consciousness to the needs of the propertied class. And if it seems far fetched to hold that the owners of wealth are very willing to exert their power in these ways, just look at the recent announcement of the 2016 election-year budget of the political network funded by the Koch brothers -- $889,000,000 (link)!
It is no longer common in sociology to find value in Marx's theory of capitalist society. But really, the structuralist view he arrived at in the 1850s and 1860s seems pretty prosaic today in the context of an economic system that systematically creates astronomical wealth for the one percent and stagnant poverty for the majority of society. Median household income in 2012 in the United States was $51,371, and almost all states showed a decline in median household income between 2000 and 2012 (link). And it is almost tautological to say that the property system explains both facts -- the explosion of the wealth and income of the one percent and the stagnant or declining incomes of the majority of the population.
Or as Marx concludes Chapter Six of Volume I of Capital:
On leaving this sphere of simple circulation or of exchange of commodities, which furnishes the “Free-trader Vulgaris” with his views and ideas, and with the standard by which he judges a society based on capital and wages, we think we can perceive a change in the physiognomy of our dramatis personae. He, who before was the money-owner, now strides in front as capitalist; the possessor of labour-power follows as his labourer. The one with an air of importance, smirking, intent on business; the other, timid and holding back, like one who is bringing his own hide to market and has nothing to expect but — a hiding.
Tuesday, January 20, 2015
I think of the results of the civil rights struggles of the 1950s and 1960s in the United States as the second American revolution, though a slow-moving one. And it is tempting to think of MLK as one of the founding fathers of this revolution. Is this an exaggeration or a legitimate historical and sociological judgment? Was this struggle comparable in any way to the experience of France in 1789, Cuba in 1953, or Teheran in 1979?
It is true that this period lacked some of the common attributes of a revolution -- in particular, it did not lead to regime change or fundamental change in the system of government. But it resulted in a fundamental realignment of power in the United States nonetheless. It profoundly changed the terms of inequality embodied in the race regime of the United States in the first half of the twentieth century. It decisively closed the door on the idea of second-class citizenship for African Americans in the United States, and ultimately for other social and ethnic groups, and it broke up forever the foundations of white power and white supremacy through which this subordination was maintained.
It is important to remember the brutality and comprehensiveness of the system of Jim Crow relations between white and black people that prevailed in much of the United States in the 1920s into the 1950s. The photo above captures this system for me: resistance to demanded forms of subordination was met with physical violence. Jerrold Packard provides a detailed and graphic inventory of the code of the Jim Crow system in American Nightmare: The History of Jim Crow, and Danielle McGuire's At the Dark End of the Street: Black Women, Rape, and Resistance--A New History of the Civil Rights Movement from Rosa Parks to the Rise of Black Power offers a focused look at the way the Southern racial system worked for women. This system of subordination extended to virtually all forms of ordinary life: employment, residence, politics, family life, education, and ordinary street behavior. And it was a durable system, reproducing itself through generations of assertive displays of white power. (See also C. Vann Woodward's 1955 book The Strange Career of Jim Crow and Anne Valk and Leslie Brown's moving collection of oral history interviews in Living with Jim Crow: African American Women and Memories of the Segregated South.)
The civil rights movement challenged every dimension of this system. African Americans of every level of society demanded equality and rights of access to all of the crucial activities of ordinary life: transportation, schools, voting rights, political participation, and the full expression of human dignity. And many thousands of black men and women showed their courage and commitment in standing up to the violence that enforced this system. This includes the famous -- King, Parks, Abernathy, Lewis, Malcolm; but it also includes the many thousands of ordinary people whose names are now forgotten but who accepted beatings to register to vote or enroll in segregated schools.
So if a revolution may be described as a fundamental change in the power relations in a society, brought about by the concerted effort of a large-scale collective movement, then indeed, the civil rights movement brought about a revolution in America. Doug McAdam's fine sociology of American race relations and the civil rights movement is right to call this an insurgency in Political Process and the Development of Black Insurgency, 1930-1970. It was an insurgency that was broadly based, passionately pursued, supported by effective regional and national organizations, and largely successful in achieving its most important goals.
It barely needs saying that this revolution is not complete. Tom Sugrue found a good phrase to capture the story in the title of his recent book, Not Even Past: Barack Obama and the Burden of Race. But further progress will build upon the cultural and structural changes brought about by these courageous and committed ordinary men and women in waging revolution against an oppressive social order.
Sunday, January 18, 2015
There are a variety of ways of valorizing individuals and institutions in our society. We can value contribution and productivity; effectiveness; talent and merit; honesty and integrity; and "elite status". Just watch the credits for Masterpiece Theater, including the promotions for a luxury cruise line and a luxury fashion house, and you will get a pretty good feel for the final category of value mentioned here, elite status. These promotions are clearly aimed at selling the product by selling the marks of elite standing with which they associate themselves. "If you too want to count yourselves among the elite, buy our clothes and travel on our cruise ships."
Many individuals seem to be motivated by the desire to be perceived as being exceptional, high-status, and, well, elite. This has a connotation of wealth and power, but it also connotes other forms of access and privilege in society -- able to gain the ear of elected officials, able to get a corner table at Elaine's, able to gain membership in exclusive clubs and organizations. So what is "elite"?
To start, "elite" is a social characteristic of meaning attributed to individuals by other individuals. And pretty clearly, it is a socially engineered characteristic. It is the product of specific social actions and institutional arrangements. The fact of a group of families possessing concentrated wealth and power doesn't automatically create an "elite" in society; rather, features of these individuals and families need to be marketed to the public in ways that lead others to recognize, admire, and respect them. Hierarchy needs to be cultivated.
But "elite" also applies to institutions and practices. Institutions can be perceived as being elite in and of themselves; and they can be perceived as the kinds of places where wannabes can gain the marks of the style and membership that will permit them too to be classified as "elite". Private schools in New York and Philadelphia compete for both forms of elite status. The New York Yacht Club is elite; the Brooklyn Bowling League is non-elite. Princeton University is elite; LaGuardia Community College is non-elite. Medical school is elite; cosmetology school is non-elite. And, like the cruise line and the fashion house mentioned above, the elite status of the institutions is something that is deliberately cultivated and marketed. Princeton, Harvard, Johns Hopkins, and Berkeley are all very concerned about maintaining their elite status and reputation.
Status and privilege are social products; so it is an important task for sociology to decode their workings in contemporary society.
Pierre Bourdieu's theorizing of various forms of social and cultural capital is directly relevant here. Bourdieu is particularly astute in tracing the markings and features of various kinds of privilege in French society, and the workings of the institutions that reproduce those features. Having elite status is a very tangible form of power and influence, independent from the personal qualities of talent, education, and experience that the individual may possess. Bourdieu traces how this mechanism works in France in The State Nobility: Elite Schools in the Field of Power. The markers of elite status -- school, manners, dress, clubs, friendship circles -- are forms of social capital that greatly contribute to the influence and power of the young people who are introduced into these practices. Here is a brief statement of Bourdieu's approach:
One cannot get an accurate picture of the educational institution without completely transforming the image it manages to project of itself through the logic of its operation or, more precisely, through the symbolic violence it commits insofar as it is able to impose the misrecognition of its true logic upon all those who participate in it. Where we are used to seeing a rational educational enterprise, sanctioning the acquisition of multiple specialized competences through certificates of technical qualification, we must also read between the lines to see an authority of consecration that, through the reproduction of the technical competences required by the technical division of labor, plays an ever-increasing role in the reproduction of social competences, that is to say, legally recognized capacities for exercising power, which are absolutely essential if the social division of labor is to endure. (116)Bourdieu uses the language of "consecration" -- the quasi-religious anointment of young men and women into the ranks of the elite holders of power in twentieth-century France.
The processes of social separation that Bourdieu describes for France seem to have close counterparts in North America as well. Elizabeth Armstrong and Laura Hamilton, Paying for the Party: How College Maintains Inequality and Shamus Rahman Khan, Privilege: The Making of an Adolescent Elite at St. Paul's School offer sociological studies of how very different educational institutions work to create the distinction between elite and non-elite. Armstrong and Hamilton study a mid-rank Midwestern research university, and Khan studies the St. Paul's School, an ultra-elite boarding school in New England. Armstrong and Hamilton's central finding is that the institution they study embodies institutional arrangements and practices that "track" students into outcomes that are closely correlated with the socioeconomic status of their families. Students from affluent families have a high likelihood of attaining degrees and future opportunities that support their own affluent careers upon graduation, whereas students from mid- and low-socioeconomic status families are led into educational pathways that result in lower rates of completion, less marketable degrees, and less career success. Here is the diagram they provide describing the flow of their argument:
What they mean by "class projects" is a bundle of activities and educational goals that characterize different groups of students. They find three large class projects at work among the women students whom they study: reproduction via social closure; mobility; and reproduction via achievement (table I.1). And they find that the institutional arrangements of the university and the organizational imperatives that embody these arrangements work fairly well to convey different socioeconomic groups onto different outcomes. The pathways that correspond to these projects include the party pathway, the mobility pathway, and the professional pathway; and they find that the class resources and assumptions of the young women they study have a powerful impact on the choices they make across these various pathways.
Khan's reading of St. Paul's School emphasizes a different set of processes, at a more elevated level of the American upper crust. And he uncovers an important feature of the past fifty years: the elitist institutions have become simultaneously more diverse and more inegalitarian. It is what he calls a democratic conundrum:
All of this is to say that the 'new' inequality is the democratization of inequality. We might call it democratic inequality. The aristocratic marks of class, exclusion, and inheritance have been rejected; the democratic embrace of individuals having their own fair shake is nearly complete. (conclusion)The fundamental impact of this institution, Khan believes, is to increase the concentration of wealth and power in America, even as a certain number of non-traditional candidates are incorporated.
And so my optimism is heavily tempered. If our economic trends continue, if the spoils produced by the many are increasingly claimed by the few, then the transformations among the elite may be durable. That is, we may have a diverse elite class. And this I imagine will no doubt be trotted out by the elite to suggest that ours is an open society where one can get a fair shake. But diversity does not mean mobility and it certainly does not mean equality. Ours is a more diverse elite within a more unequal world. The result of our democratic inequality is that the production of privilege will continue to reproduce inequality while implying that ours is a just world; the weapons of the weak are removed, and the blame for inequality is placed on the shoulders of those whom our democratic promise has failed. (Conclusion)These are important features of the contemporary social world. But they raise an important parochial question as well: can public universities truly serve the democratizing role that is so deeply important in our highly unequal world today? Or is there a creeping elitism across many top public universities that undercuts the democratizing effects they ought to have for people on the bottom three or four quintiles of the population?
Monday, January 12, 2015
Is there any reason to think that a course in philosophy of social science can be helpful for a graduate student in sociology or political science (or education, public health, or public policy)? Is this part of philosophy a useful contribution to a PhD education in the social sciences?
I think there are several reasons to support this idea. I believe that a good course in this area can help the aspiring researcher extend his or her imagination and modes of inquiry in ways that can make the first years of research particularly fruitful. In what ways is this so? There are several, in my view.
First, though, I must confess that it wasn't always so. The courses I took in philosophy of science and philosophy of social science as an undergraduate were in fact stultifying and discouraging rather than eye-opening and expanding. There was the idea that the nature of "science" had been settled by the Vienna Circle, that there was an all-encompassing model for explanation and justification (the hypothetico-deductive method), and that the significant problems facing young social scientists had to do with forming adequate concepts and finding ways of operationalizing these concepts to test them against the world of observable data. Essentially, then, the work of the social scientist was simply to fill in the blanks in a schema that had already been prepared. (I'm thinking in particular of two textbooks, Hempel (Philosophy of Natural Science) and Rudner (Philosophy of Social Science).)
And the anti-positivist reaction to this kind of philosophy of science wasn't much more helpful. Kuhn, Lakatos, Feyerabend, and Hanson pointed out the shortcomings of the theory of science contained in logical positivism. But they didn't have much to say that was very specific or helpful when it came to the task of formulating theories and hypotheses that would serve to explain social outcomes. So I wouldn't have said that the typical course in philosophy of science in the 1980s was particularly valuable for the young researcher either.
But the situation in this field changed in the 1990s and after. Most important, many philosophers who took up the philosophy of social science embraced the idea that the field needed to be developed in tandem with the real problems of research and explanation that sociologists and political scientists grappled with. PSS could not remain an apriori discipline; instead, the philosopher needed to gain expert understanding of the disputes and problems that were under debate in the disciplines of the social sciences. (This switch occurred even a little earlier in the philosophy of biology and philosophy of psychology.) Philosophers needed to work as peers and colleagues with social scientists.
And once philosophers began to step away from the dogmas of received formulations of philosophy of science, they began to ask new questions. What is a good explanation? How does social causation work? What is a causal mechanism in the social world? What kind of thing is a social structure? How do structures maintain their causal properties over time? How do individual actors contribute to social causation? These are all questions that are intertwined with the ordinary reasoning that talented sociologists and political scientists are led to through their own efforts at theory formation. And philosophers found helpful mid-level locations from which to address questions like these in ways that made substantive contributions to the concrete work of social research and inquiry.
Here are some concrete results. Philosophers have worked productively to help arrive at better ways of treating social causation. They have clarified the nature of social causal mechanisms. They have brought new clarity to questions about the relationships among levels of social and individual activity. They have highlighted the centrality of the idea of microfoundations. They have helped to dissolve the apparent contradiction between structural causation and actor-centered social processes. They have problematized the assumptions we sometimes make about social kinds and social generalizations. They have directed new attention to the ways that we characterize the actor in the social world. And it seems to me that each of these kinds of insights makes a difference to the researcher in training.
So, indeed, it makes good sense to offer a challenging course in the philosophy of social science to PhD students in the social sciences. This isn't because there is a new set of verities that these young researchers need to master. Rather, it is because the nature of the current discussions in the philosophy of social science parallels very nicely the process of theory formation and development that we would like to see take place in sociology and political science. We would like to see the exercise of intelligent imagination by social researchers, unconstrained by the dogmas of methodology or ontology that a discipline is all too ready to provide. The social world is strikingly and permanently surprising, with novel conjunctions of processes and causes leading to unexpected outcomes. we need new ways of thinking about the social world and the social sciences, and philosophy of social science can help stimulate some of that thinking.
Here are the books I'll be discussing in my graduate course in philosophy of social science this semester:
Friday, January 9, 2015
What are some of the factors that influence the ideas, values, and models of life of young inner-city African-American men today? There are the everyday conditions of life in the neighborhoods of segregated American cities, which Elijah Anderson considers in Code of the Street: Decency, Violence, and the Moral Life of the Inner City (link). But there is also the increasingly violent and misogynist output of hip hop music and video. It is apparent that the images, values, and modes of behavior presented in hip hop music and videos find their way back onto the street and into the lives of young black men and women. Hip hop doesn't simply mirror the street -- it helps to create the street. So the content and identities portrayed in the music makes a difference.
Byron Hurt's very interesting 2006 PBS documentary on violence and sexism in hip hop music and videos, Hip Hop: Beyond Beats and Rhymes, addresses these issues. (The video is posted at the top.) Hurt does a great job of reading the role that violence and misogyny play in hip hop lyrics and videos. "Why are so many rappers preoccupied with violence and gunplay" (6:30). The basic idea that he puts forward is that this major aspect of hip hop culture is a commercial exploitation of a cartoonish version of masculinity—hard, tough, unafraid, ready to kill, ready to exploit and sexualize women. (Hurt calls it “hyper-masculinity”.) The representation of women in much of this music is hyper-sexualized and brutalizing. And there is a recurring theme of homophobia and homophobic slurs.
Hurt asks penetrating questions about the relationship between the street, the music industry, and youth culture. The documentary takes on a powerful strand of popular culture and the pop culture industry that creates it and undertakes to piece together an interpretation of the meanings this system of lyrics and images has. Hurt wants to know how this medium influences the young men and women who follow it. But he also asks how the content of the medium itself is shaped by the profit imperatives of the music industry. And it becomes clear that this is a complicated mix of commercial interests and some young men’s distorted ideas of masculinity.
This is real social criticism, in the Frankfurt School sense. The documentary raises a crucial question: Why is it that the music industry gives the lucrative contracts to the most violent, misogynist, and degrading rappers? And why has it been increasingly difficult for more radical and critical rappers to get contracts and distribution in the past fifteen years? A young rapper offers a striking theory: it is preferable for white America to have hip hop music glorifying violence and sex in the hood than the messages of anti-racism and class-sensitized anger that are found in Public Enemy.
And in fact there is a segment of hip hop that has a very different orientation -- political rather than violent, expressing strong messages about economic and racial justice, and largely immune from the homophobia and misogyny of mainstream rap. Artists like Public Enemy, Poor Righteous Teachers, the Coup, the X Clan, KRS-ONE, and Digable Planets fall in this category, and The Roots is a more contemporary version. (Thanks, Ahmad!) But here is the key point: this stream of work doesn't often result in the giant contracts and public acclaim of the other stream, and with a few exceptions the music and videos don't make it into the mainstream. (Yes, Public Enemy is an exception.)
Hurt asks several other key questions in the video: Why is it that black men are aiming their violence against each other, and overlooking the forces that create the degradation of inner city neighborhoods in the first place? And why is it so hard to find a positive message in hip hop lyrics? One of the on-screen voices places the responsibility squarely on the profit interests of the music industry: “Media and the corporations are defining what hip hop is.” Here is how one of the young rappers puts the point on camera:
That’s nice but nobody wanna hear that right now … They don’t wanna hear that right now … [Narrator: Who’s they?] The industry … they don’t wanna hear that right now. They don’t give us deals when we speak righteously or things of that nature. (40:00)And this perception is born out by Carmen Ashurst-Watson, former DefJam president: "The time when we switched to gangster music was the same time when the majors bought up all the labels, and I don't think that's a coincidence.... The music became less and less conscious" (43:30).
Imani Perry's Prophets of the Hood: Politics and Poetics in Hip Hop is a very thoughtful reflection on hip hop. She is an advocate for hip hop as a cultural expression. But she also feels that it risks being poisoned by the commercial interests of the industry. She writes:
The combination of democracy ("speak your piece") and meritocracy ("be the best MC") that exists in hip hop is threatened at every turn. The manipulations of capital, media, and record company distribution, the ruthless promotion of some acts to the disadvantage of often musically superior ones, the commodification of black female bodies, and the grotesque marketing of racist images of black male violence threaten to completely overwhelm the public face of hip hop. (Reunion)This is a complex set of issues, with causation going in many directions. The commercial interests of the major music companies drive the content of the videos and recordings; the content of the music influences the behavior and practice of young men and women in the neighborhoods; events in the street reflect back into the content of hip hop art; and realities in the neighborhoods are determined by the larger structures of power and race in our society. It is possible to see the formative power of popular culture on behavior; the media on popular culture; the business of music on the content of popular culture; the extreme behaviors that seem to result on the street; and the ideological forces that permeate all of this.
(Here is an interesting piece by Solomon Comissiong that analyzes the music industry and the fate of progressive rappers.)