Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Mechanisms, experiments, and policies


The social mechanisms approach to the social sciences aligns well with two key intellectual practices, experiments and policies. In an experiment we are interesting in testing whether a given factor has the effect it is thought to have. In a policy design we are interested in affecting an outcome of interest by manipulating some of the background conditions and factors. In both instances having a theory of the mechanisms in play in a domain permits us to frame our thinking better when it comes to designing experiments and policies.

Let's say that we are interested in reducing the high school dropout rate in a high-poverty school. We may have a hypothesis that one important causal factor that leads to a higher likelihood of dropping out is that high-poverty students have a much greater burden of family and social problems than students in low-poverty populations. We might describe the mechanism in question in these terms:
H1: (a) high burden of social/familial problems => (b) student has higher likelihood of becoming discouraged => (c) student has higher likelihood of stopping attending => (d) student has a higher likelihood of dropping out of high school
We can evaluate this hypothesis about one of the mechanisms of dropping out of high school in several ways. First, we note that each clause invokes a likelihood. This means that we need to look at sets of students rather than individual students. Single cases or individual pairs of cases will not suffice, since we cannot make any inference from data like these:
A. Individual X has high burden of social/familial problems; Individual X does not become discouraged; Individual X does not drop out of high school.
B. Individual Y has a low burden of social/familial problems; Individual Y does become discouraged; Individual Y does drop out of high school.
Observations A and B are both compatible with the possible truth of the mechanisms hypothesis. Instead, we need to examine groups of individuals with various configurations of the characteristics mentioned in the hypothesis. If H1 is true, it can only be evaluated using population observations.
In theory we might approach H1 experimentally: randomly select two groups G1 and G2 of individuals; expose G1 to a high burden of social/familial problems while G2 is exposed to a low burden of social/familial problems; and observe the incidence of dropping out of high school. This would be to treat the hypothesis through an experiment based on the logic of random controlled trials. The difficulty here is obvious: we are harming the individuals in G1 in order to assess the causal consequences of the harmful treatment. This raises an irresolvable ethical problem. (Here is a discussion of Nancy Cartwright's critique of the logic of RCT methodology in Evidence Based Policy; link.)
A slightly different experimental design would pass the ethics test. Select two schools S1 and S2 with comparable levels of high-poverty students and high burdens of social/familial problems for the individuals at the schools and comparable historical dropout rates. Now expose the students at S1 to a "treatment" that reduces the burden of social/familial problems (provide extensive social work services in the school that students can call upon). This design too conforms to the logic of a random controlled trial. Continue the treatment for four academic years and observe the graduation rates of the two schools. If H1 is true, we should expect that S1 will have a higher graduation rate than S2.
A third approach takes the form of a "quasi-experiment". Identify pairs of schools that are similar in many relevant respects, but differ with respect to the burden of social/familial problems. This is one way of "controlling" for the causal influence of other observable factors -- family income, race, degree of segregation in the school, etc. Now we have N pairs of matched schools and we can compute the graduation rate for the two components of the matches; that is, graduation rates for "high burden school" and "low burden school". If we find that the high burden schools have a lower graduation rate than the low burden schools, and if we are satisfied that the schools do not differ systematically in any other dimension, then we have a degree of confirmation for the causal hypothesis H1. But Stanley Lieberson in Making It Count poses some difficult challenges for the logic of this kind of experimental test; he believes that there are commonly unrecognized forms of selection bias in the makeup of the test cases that potentially invalidates any possible finding (link).
So far we have looked at ways of experimentally evaluating the link between (a) and (d). But H1 is more complex; it hypothesizes that social/familial problems exercise their influence through two behavioral stages that may themselves be the object of intervention. The link from (b) to (c) is an independent hypothetical causal relation, and likewise the link from (c) to (d). So we might attempt to tease out the workings of these links in the mechanism as well. Here we might design our experiments around populations of high burden students, but attempt to find ways of influencing either discouragement or the link from discouragement to non-attendance (or possibly the link from non-attendance to full dropping out).
Here our intervention might go along these lines: the burden of social/familial problems is usually exogenous and untreatable. But within-school programs like intensive peer mentoring and encouragement might serve to offset the discouragement that otherwise results from high burden of social/familial problems. This can be experimentally evaluated using one or another of the designs mentioned above. Or we might take discouragement as a given but find an intervention that prevents the discouraged student from becoming a truant -- perhaps a strong motivational incentive dependent on achieving 90% attendance during a six-week period.
In other words, causal hypotheses about causal mechanisms invite experimental and quasi-experimental investigation.

What about the other side of the equation; how do hypotheses about mechanisms contribute to policy intervention? This seems even more straightforward than the first question. The mechanism hypothesis points to several specific locations where intervention could affect the negative outcome with which we are concerned -- dropping out of high school in this case. If we have experimental evidence supporting the links specified in the hypothesis, then equally we have a set of policy options available to us. We can design a policy intervention that seeks to do one or more of the following things: reduce the burden of social/familial problems; increase the level of morale of students who are exposed to a high burden; find means of encouraging high-burden students to persevere; and design an intervention to encourage truants to return to school. This suite of interventions touches each of the causal connections specified in the hypothesis H1.
Now, finally, we are ready to close the circle by evaluating the success of interventions like these. Does the graduation rate of schools where the interventions have been implemented work out to be higher than those where the interventions were not implemented? Can we begin to assign efficacy assessments to various parts of the policy? Can we arrive at secondary hypotheses about why this policy intervention ("reduce the burden of social/familial issues") doesn't succeed, whereas another policy intervention ("bolster morale among high-risk students") does appear to succeed?
The upshot is that experiments and policies are opposite sides of the same coin. Both proceed from the common assumption that social causes are real; that we can assess the causal significance of various factors through experimentation and controlled observation; and that we can intervene in real-world processes with policy tools designed to exert influence at key junctures in the causal process.

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Ethics as culture


Gabriel Abend has recently published The Moral Background: An Inquiry into the History of Business Ethics, a remarkable book on what seems initially to be a small subject -- a history of the academic field of business ethics. I say "seems", because in Abend's hands this topic turns out to be a superb subject for the emerging field of the sociology of culture. (I should explain that the subject might seem small to a philosopher, because the discipline of business ethics is low-prestige within philosophy and is generally regarded as too applied to count as "serious" philosophical ethics. For Abend, however, it is an important subject precisely because it is "applied" and because the activity to which it pertains is highly consequential in the contemporary world and the world of nineteenth century capitalism as well.)

Michele Lamont is often cited as the person who gave new impetus to the sociology of culture in the past decade (e.g. in Money, Morals, and Manners: The Culture of the French and the American Upper-Middle Classlink, link). (Lamont is one of the editors of the Princeton series in which this book appears). Lamont has given new energy to the study of how cultural values structure ordinary life in a variety of settings, and also has provided some powerful examples of how to approach this problem empirically. And Abend brings such great detail of focus to his investigation that his study sets a new standard for what is required in a study of public culture. One of the intellectual antecedents of Abend's approach is the micro-sociology of Erving Goffman. Like Goffman, Abend is interested in tracing the public manifestations of a cultural epoch -- not the subjective experience that may underly it.

What Abend wants to understand is the actual history of the field of business ethics. He isn't trying to discover the patterns of behavior that are found among businessmen, or the ethical ideas they embrace. Rather, he wants to tease out the material and ideological content expressed by professional "business ethicists", largely found in schools of business. What has been the public expert discourse on business ethics over the past century, and what framing assumptions about the ethical field does this discourse presuppose?
The book scrutinizes the content of business ethicists' understandings and prescriptions -- taking into account their context, the audiences they were addressed to, and the cultural repertoires they drew upon. ... Much like sociologists and anthropologists of science, I am interested in the tools, devices, technologies, methods, and tactics business ethicists came up with and avail themselves of. Manuals of proper behavior, success manuals, pamphlets, biographies, obituaries, typologies, illustrations, and codes of ethics are not neutral, interchangeable containers of information. They are social things, with particular causal histories and social functions, and whose particular modes of operation, modes of existence, and materiality must be analyzed as well. (11)
He correctly observes that there are three levels of ethics that can be considered from a sociological point of view:
First, there is the level of behavior or practices. ... Second, there is the level of people's moral judgments in the least, and societies' and social groups' moral norms and institutions. ... In this book I introduce a third level, which up to now has not been recognized as a distant object inquiry: the moral background. (17)
His interest throughout the book is with the third level, the moral background. This refers, essentially, to the frameworks, concepts, and principles of reasoning that people have in mind when they think ethically or normatively.
Moral background elements do not belong to the level or realm of first-order morality. Rather, they facilitate, support, or enable first-order moral claims, norms, actions, practices, and institutions. (53)
Moral background includes six kinds of topics, according to Abend:
  1. Kinds of reasons or grounds that support first order morality
  2. Conceptual repertoires
  3. what can be morally evaluated
  4. what counts is proper moral methods in arguments
  5. whether first order morality is assumed to be objective
  6. metaphysical conceptions about what there is and what these things are like. (18)
He compares the moral background with the meta-scientific beliefs that scientists bring to the study of nature or society.
What is it that members of a scientific community share, exactly? For one, they likely share many social and demographic characteristics. That helps account sociologically for their having become members of that community in the first place. More important, they have common epistemological and ontological intuitions, dispositions, or assumptions. They agree on how you go about answering a scientific question, and what kind of evidence and how much of it you need to corroborate a hypothesis. (28)
This focus is particularly interesting to me because it provides additional leverage on the problem of offering a vocabulary for the background conceptual resources that are a necessary part of all social cognition. As has been noted several times in earlier posts, there is an important body of conceptual and factual presuppositions that human beings unavoidably use when they try to make sense of the world around them. And the framework itself is only rarely available for inspection. So it is a valuable contribution when sociologists like Abend, Gross, or Lamont are able to pinpoint the content and structure of such systems of tacit cognitive framework in action.

The discussion of conceptual repertoires is particularly detailed and helpful. Abend defines conceptual repertoires as "the set of concepts that are available to any given group or society, in a given time and place" (37). He makes the valid and important point that conceptual schemes are culturally specific and historically variable; "this repertoire enables and constrains their thought and speech, their laws and institutions, and, importantly, the actions they may undertake" (37). He offers as examples of moral concepts ideas like these: "dignity, decency, integrity, piety, responsibility, tolerance, moderation, fanaticism, extremism, despotism, chauvinism, rudeness, ..." (38), and makes the correct point that ideas like these show up in some cultural and historical settings and not in others. So the realities that can be "seen" and experienced by historically situated people depend on the schemes or repertoires they have available to them in those settings. (The topic of conceptual schemes has come up frequently here. Here are a few earlier discussions; linklink, link.)

Abend finds two thematic sets of beliefs and concepts that largely serve to characterize most approaches to business ethics, which he refers to as "standards of practice" and "the Christian merchant." The first approach works on the assumption that ethical standards like honesty are good for business, all things considered, and that the function of business ethics writings and teaching is to help business people come to see that their interests dictate that they should conform, even when there are strong incentives to do otherwise. The second principle argues that there are higher moral standards that govern behavior, and that prudent adherence to rules of honesty does not get to the heart of business ethics. Broadly speaking the first approach is scientific and consesquentialist (JS Mill), while the second is theological and deontological (Kant). (In Kant's memorable phrase, "tell the truth though the world should perish.")

Abend demonstrates that the field of business ethics is substantially older than it is usually thought to be, extending back at least a century. To demonstrate this point he makes interesting use of Google's Ngram tool, a research tool based on Google's massive collection of scanned books, and finds that the phrase "business ethics" begins to take off around 1900, passing "commercial morality" in 1912 and "business morality" in 1917. All the other phrases go into a sustained decline in books from 1920 forward, while "business ethics" takes off.



The Moral Background is a major contribution to the emerging field of cultural sociology. Especially important among the virtues of Abend's research is his ability to work through a huge body of historical material from the subject -- the founding of various business schools, speeches by public officials about business scandals, the utterances of pro-business organizations like chambers of commerce, newspaper cartoons about business scandals, philosophical writings about ethical theory -- and to find meaning in these disparate sources that point back to the "moral backgrounds" from which they emanate. This is a truly gigantic task of intellectual integration, and Abend's book sets a high bar for future studies of the cultural meaning of intellectual, practical, and normative social realities.

Sunday, March 15, 2015

Improving skilled performance


What can ordinary experience tell us about how skilled practitioners can be brought to a high level of competence and performance?

Let's say we are interested in teaching a child to play the violin at an advanced level, beginning at the novice level. The outcome we want to influence is the child's ability to play competently. This requires developing an ensemble of capabilities, both cognitive and motor, in virtue of which the child Is able to handle the bow and the instrument, interpret and perform the printed score, and give the performance appealing emotion. How does that process work?

In its essentials the violin coach works with a set of rules of thumb: demonstrate bow technique, motivate the child to emulate and practice, offer corrective feedback to which the child attempts to respond; more practice, more coaching, more performance.

This is a simple process for an individual child and a coach, for several important reasons. The performance and its defects are visible. The sound from the string is squeaky? Hold the bow less tightly and concentrate on a straight stroke across the string. Further, the necessary component skills are largely independent from one another. So the coach can concentrate on the bow stroke for several lessons without worrying that the new proficiency with the bow will interfere with the fingerboard or the sight reading.

Moreover, neither child nor coach needs to be a cognitive psychologist or a physicist. It isn't necessary to have a theory of the underlying cognitive processes or the physics of the violin in order to help the pupil improve. Playing the violin capably isn't easy, but it is largely incremental and separable into progress in the several component skills.

Now consider a moderately more complex example of expertise, becoming a good writer. Here the problem for the coach is somewhat more difficult. The quality of the performance itself is no longer entirely visible. The coach has to make some interpretive judgments about the student's efforts. The skills are not so discrete, allowing coach and learner to workbook them separately. And crucially, the skills are not so independent from one another. Enhancing logical narrative skills may detract from the skills associated with poetic expression or emotional directness. So a coaching strategy that focuses on skills A, B, and C may succeed in improvement of the components but lead to a degradation of performance overall.

Now consider a highly complex and non-transparent performance -- becoming an excellent test pilot, let us say. An excellent pilot requires a high level of excellence in a wide range of skills, including both motor skills and intellectual skills. So how should a coach approach the problem of transforming the 18 year old into an excellent pilot? A major part of the answer is that we have now exceeded the capacity of individual coaching. The pilot needs a whole curriculum of training, in which coaching plays an occasional role. Significantly, it may be the case that coaching is most pertinent for pilots at the high end of expertise, to help them go from capable to exceptional. But the question of enhancing performance shifts from the techniques and rules of thumb used by individual coaches, to the components and pedagogy of the flight training curriculum.

I find this an interesting topic because it focuses attention on one of the fundamental features of human capacity -- our ability to become highly skilled at various challenging tasks -- and asks how this process unfolds. What is it about the pupil's cognitive and motor potential that makes it possible for him or her to gain skill? And what features of coaching and training help to cultivate this potential?

But second, I find the topic interesting because of how distant it seems to be from a traditional university curriculum. Universities organize the learning process around formal courses and the mastery of content. A large part of skill cultivation, however, seems to require a more practical engagement with a coach or a teacher who encourages, corrects, and demonstrates.

(Here is an interesting bit of physics on why the violin is difficult; link.)

Sunday, March 8, 2015

Coleman's house-of-cards theory of structures

image: Henri Bonaventure Monnier, Crowded Restaurant 1860

image: James Coleman, Foundations of Social Theory, p. 245

James Coleman offers a skeptical position on the question of the reality of social structures in his landmark book, Foundations of Social Theory (1990). Coleman advocates for a view of research and theory in sociology that emphasizes the actions of situated purposive individuals, and he deliberately avoids the idea of persistent social structures within which actors make choices. His focus is on the relations among actors and the higher-level patterns that arise from these relations.
The social environment can be viewed as consisting of two parts. One is the “natural” social environment, growing autonomously as simple social relations develop and expand the structure. A second portion is what may be described as the built, or constructed, social environment, organizations composed of complex social relations. The constructed social environment does not grow naturally through the interests of actors who are parties to relations. Each relation must be constructed by an outsider, and each relation is viable only through its connections to other relations that are part of the same organization…. The structure is like a house of cards, with extensive interdependence among the different relations of which it is composed. (43-44)
This is a fascinating formulation. Essentially Coleman is offering a sketch of how we might conceive of a social ontology that suffices without reference to structures as independent entities. We are advised to think of social structures and norms as no more than coordinated and mutually reinforcing patterns of individual behavior. The emphasis is on individual behavior within the context of the actions of others. As he puts the point later in the book, “The elementary actor is the wellspring of action, no matter how complex are the structures through which action takes place” (503). Essentially there is no place for structures in Coleman’s boat (link).

Coleman takes a similar approach to the topic of social norms, one of the engines through which social structures are generally thought to wield influence on action:

Much sociological theory takes social norms as given and proceeds to examine individual behavior or the behavior of social systems when norms exist. Yet to do this without raising at some point the question of why and how norms come into existence is to forsake the more important sociological problem in order to address the less important. (241)
Coleman offers an example of the house-of-cards interdependence in question here in his discussion of problems arising within bureaucracies as a result of the cost of oversight and policing:
Many kinds of behavior in bureaucracies derive from this fundamental defect: stealing from an employer, loafing on the job, featherbedding (in which two persons do the work of one), padding of expense accounts, use of organizational resources for personal ends, and waste. (79)
These kinds of behavior will swamp the organization, unless there are other actors within the organization who will undertake the costly activity of observing and punishing bad behavior. This might come about because of a formal incentive -- people are paid to be auditors. Or it might come about from internalized but informal motives acting in other persons -- envy, a sense of fairness, or loyalty to the organization.

The best illustration I can think of in this context is the category of conventional practices of behavior. Let's say that a study finds that Americans over-tip in small local restaurants. Here is a possible explanation. There is no rule or enforcement mechanism that punishes poor tippers. But because the restaurant is local, the client knows he or she will be returning; and because it is small, he or she knows that today's behavior will be noted and remembered. Further, the server recognizes the dynamic and reinforces it by providing small non-obligatory extras to the client -- a free dessert on a birthday, a good table for a special occasion, a larger pour from the wine bottle. This is an example of social behavior that fits Coleman's description of a "house of cards" pattern of interdependency between client and server. If the server stops playing his or her role, the client is less inclined to over-tip the next time; and if the supererogatory tip is not forthcoming, the server is less likely to be generous with service at the next visit. The pattern is stable and it can be explained fully in Coleman-like terms. Each party has an interest in continuing the practice, and the pattern is reinforced. (David Lewis does a great job of showing how conventions emerge from intentional behavior at the individual level; Convention: A Philosophical Study.)

Anyone who accepts that social entities and forces rest upon microfoundations must agree that something like Coleman's recursive story of self-reinforcing patterns of behavior must be correct. But this does not imply that higher-level social structures do not possess stable causal properties nonetheless. The "house-of-cards" pattern of interdependency between auditor and worker, or between server and client, helps to explain how the stable patterns of the organization are maintained; but it does not render superfluous the idea that the structure itself has causal properties or powers. The microfoundations thesis does not entail reductionism (link). (I offered a similar argument in response to John Levi Martin's parallel arguments in a previous post; link.)

Friday, March 6, 2015

Structures, diagrams, rules, and flows


When we refer to the structure of some complex entity, we often intend to capture one of the following ideas:
  • the parts and their arrangements
  • the parts and their interactions
  • the flow of content -- information, money, value, ideas -- through a set of interconnected parts
Clouds and monads lack structure -- monads because they have no internal parts, and clouds because there are not orderly relations among the constituents (water droplets).

In each case it is significant that there is generally a diagram that serves as a direct and legible way of capturing the claims we want to express. This appears to be a deep fact about the idea of structure: structures have constituent parts that are arranged in significant relationships to each other, and diagrams serve to represent the analysis of part and whole.

Here are some strong examples of the use the idea of structure and associated diagrams.

1. Chomsky's Syntactic Structures --
Sentences are structures (ordered arrangements of syntactic particles), and grammars are structures (sets of generative rules that dictate how the syntactic particles combine to form sentences).

2. Levi-Strauss's The Elementary Structures of Kinship --


Levi-Strauss's ideas too can be represented as diagrams of synchronic relations among individuals in a village or social setting, and Levi-Strauss is also interested in the rules that generate these arrangements, the rules of family formation and kinship.

3. Wassily Leontief's matrix of input-output relations in a market economy in Input-Output Economics --


4. Castell's model of the The Rise of the Network Society --


5. Freud's representation of the structure of the human mind in The Ego and the Id --


6. Marx's theory of the class structure of capitalist society in Capital: Volume 1: A Critique of Political Economy


7. G. William Skinner's analysis of the core-periphery structure of the lower Yangzi region.



These examples are largely synchronic representations of stable arrangements of parts within wholes. There are two associated ideas that need to be incorporated as well. One is the idea of flow or transmission across the nodes of a given structure. Income flows from proletarians to the bourgeois class; products of one sector flow through multiple other sectors before emerging as a finished good; ideas and emotions flow from subconscious to conscious levels of the mind. A static diagram can represent a flow among elements of the structure, represented by directional arrows as represented in Charles Minard's famous nineteenth century maps.


A second feature of complex wholes is the fact of change. Structures are not fixed in time; rather, they sometimes undergo processes of change, evolution, or abrupt alteration. A static diagram doesn't work well to represent the dynamics of change. But this is an unimportant feature of the printed page. We can represent a structure in a process of dynamic change by introducing time into the representation -- by using a simulation or animation that provides a series of snapshots of the state of the relationships among the parts and the changing characteristics of the parts themselves.

Here is a simulation by Burt Simon of the evolution of cooperative groups in extended competition with non-cooperative groups (link). The simulation succeeds in depicting the changing structure of this population of small groups over time, from all groups possessing a high majority of defectors to a large set of groups that have a majority of cooperators.



So perhaps there is a simple heuristic we can bring to bear to the task of interpreting claims about social structures: what is the diagram or animation that corresponds to the claim? If we cannot provide such a sketch, then perhaps the claim is too indefinite to be taken seriously.



Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Globalization and the planetary knowledge business


It is a commonplace that modern social and economic systems are intensely knowledge-based, and that the centers of knowledge production are no longer exclusively located in the industrialized north and west. Further, anyone who follows a Twitter feed knows that knowledge centers around the world are connected at the speed of light (more or less), with reactions to new blog posts or journal articles coming from Dhaka, Mumbai, and Beijing about as rapidly as from London and Boston. (There seems to be more interest in the writings of Marx in Mumbai than Cambridge, at the moment!)

How do these modern realities of knowledge production and diffusion work out when it comes to the structure of inequalities that have historically existed between North and South and East and West? Who are the producers and consumers of knowledge today? How does the interest currently expressed by many universities to "internationalize" their curricula contribute to (or possibly impede) a globalizing system of knowledge? And through what mechanisms and networks of conduction do knowledge systems move across the planet?

Michael Kennedy's Globalizing Knowledge: Intellectuals, Universities, and Publics in Transformation seeks to answer some of these questions. He begins with an important observation: information and knowledge are not the same. Information, like the price of grain on the Chicago Commodities Exchange, is available globally and instantly. An understanding of the factors that influence the price of grain -- theories of agricultural markets, transportation bottlenecks, corporate interests, and other obscure causal factors is more difficult to create and more difficult to share. The creation of this kind of knowledge is primarily the work of universities, and the diffusion and transmission of this knowledge depends on expertise and educational sophistication in other parts of the world as well.

Kennedy frames his goal in this book in these terms:
I hope to stimulate an approach and methodology with which intellectuals and their institutions and networks can rearticulate a culture of critical discourse around global public responsibility. (xv)
One complication for the task is grammatical: are we interested in one knowledge or multiple knowledges? How do the mental frameworks and knowledge systems of different communities relate to each other? Is there a characteristically Indian form of economic science that distinguishes it from parallel work by English or American economists (Sen versus Arrow)? (See an earlier discussion of Gabriel Abend's treatment of "global sociology" and the differences that exist between North American and Mexican sociology; link.)

Here are the key challenges that Kennedy identifies for a legitimate sociology of "globalizing knowledge":
First, the sociology of globalizing knowledge demands that we explain how globalizers recognize learning offered by other times and places.... Second, sociologists should explain how globalizers fuse horizons, building on those distant recognitions. They should explore how a new common sensibility across planes of difference is cultivated. Finally, as translation occurs across multiple dyads simultaneously, if unequally, synthetic elaborations develop. These articulations are often implicit, but they can become explicit and thus subject to more rational critical discussion. (9-10)
Experts and the creators of knowledge represent one pole of Kennedy's analysis -- scholars, researchers, theorists, creators, intellectuals, critics. But to identify expertise is itself a sociologically loaded task. Expertise is socially constructed.
Recognizing intellectuality works at many levels. We might try to decide who is, and who is not, an intellectual based on the quality and autonomy of his work. We might also figure the relationship between the intellectual and her judges, to see whether their assessment reflects an audience sufficiently intellectual to judge. (44)
(See Michelle Lamont (How Professors Think: Inside the Curious World of Academic Judgment) and Marion Fourcade (Economists and Societies: Discipline and Profession in the United States, Britain, and France, 1890s to 1990s) on the sociology of expertise; linklink.)

The other major pole of Kennedy's work is the idea of a public -- a national public and a global public. A public is by definition not a group of experts. But in Kennedy's view a public is not just a set of disconnected consumers of information either. It is "a secondary association formed by the communicative practices that constitute it, not derived from anything preformed. ... Publics are above all social relations made through communications" (25). Publics are dynamic, not passive. One implication of this approach is fairly radical; it implies that we can create new publics through new communicative practices. (Is this what we find in the viewership of Fox News and associated web resources?) And so the creation of a democratic and tolerant public in a nation or region is itself a large challenge in social construction. In part this is the task of "public sociology" -- to articulate values and factual frameworks that can bring together an extended population of individuals into a "public" with commitments to values like fairness and tolerance of difference.

Universities play a critical role in both the creation and the dissemination of knowledge. Universities are home to experts, and they are also the place where large numbers of the "public" gain the tools necessary to understand and deploy the findings of expert knowledge. But universities are not outside of society or immune from social and economic pressures. Recent coverage of the pressures that have been exerted against geophysicists who criticize the geological assumptions of the fracking industry is a case in point. Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway's Merchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming demonstrates how conservative and industry think tanks (e.g. the George C. Marshall Institute) have worked very hard to discredit the scientific credentials of scientists whose work threatens their interests.

Kennedy has an interesting notion that seems to help with his broad task, the idea of "engaged ethnography". He describes this idea in these terms:
... research that seeks through its study and elaboration of vernaculars [local knowledge] greater clarity of the ways in which power relations work so as to facilitate greater claims to justice and normative goods among those engaged as well as among those informed by those actions and its study. (18)
This is an important clarification, because it shows that Kennedy recognizes that there are some kinds of knowledge that are substantively different (perhaps epistemically sounder) when framed at the local level. And this in turn suggests that we should think as well of James Scott's arguments on this subject in Seeing like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed; (link).

Kennedy seeks in this book to contribute to a new kind of sociology of knowledge -- what is intended specifically to be a sociology of globalizing knowledge. This requires more than just noting that ideas and findings circulate through the cities, universities, and media more rapidly and more fully than in earlier decades. Kennedy attempts to go beyond the commonsensical ideas we all have of "globalizing knowledge" by focusing on several dynamic activities: flows, network influences, and processes of framing. These are some of the mechanisms and plumbing through which globalizing knowledge is shaped. And he also seeks to identify some of the social influences of privilege and power that shape both the mechanisms and the content of knowledge.

Kennedy is a participant-observer on this set of topics, having served as director of major centers for international studies at several universities and having participated in processes of rapid expert-directed change in Eastern Europe. His efforts to make sense of the ways in which interconnectivity and cultural difference are affecting the creation and diffusion of knowledge world-wide provide an innovative contribution to the debate.

Saturday, February 28, 2015

Three concepts of social structure



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

Sellars and Bhaskar


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 that

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)
Here 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.

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

Social structures as entities



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.

These are the ideas of ordinary commonsense about structures -- the contents of folk sociology. But how have gifted sociologists theorized this crucial element of the social world? It turns out that things are less simple than commonsense would have it.

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

Fissioning community


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
It is very appealing in our multi-cultural world to conceive of a mixed community — a city or a region, say — as a harmonious and stable set of relationships among groups who differ in many important ways but who recognize the basic legitimacy and rights of the other groups, and who strive towards better inter-group understanding and cooperation. And we do in fact have good examples of such 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

Expectations and performance


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:
  1. Identify and measure a social cognitive mental representation or process that is believed to be important in development.
  2. Manipulate the mental representation, and observe its impact on outcomes of interest over development.
  3. Investigate the antecedents of the mental representation or process of interest.
  4. Compare how the mental representation operates in the laboratory and in the real world. (195-196)
This is a crucial theoretical innovation, because it insists on what we have previously called an "actor-centered" approach to behavior. What is the mental framework on the basis of which the individual acts? Olson and Dweck consider examples of aggression and achievement motivation and demonstrate how beliefs and mental frameworks influence the child's dispositions to behavior in various circumstances.

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?