Friday, July 29, 2016

Survey research on right-wing extremism in Europe



European research and policy organizations have devoted a fair amount of attention to the rise of extremist movements and intolerance in European countries in the past ten years. Attention has been directed towards both aspects of the problem that have been mentioned in earlier posts -- rising public attitudes of intolerance, and the mobilization and spread of hate-based right-wing organizations. (The topic has also received a great deal of attention in the press -- for example, in the Guardian (link), the New York Times (link), and Spiegel (link).)

One useful report is Intolerance, Prejudice and Discrimination: A European Report (link), authored by Andreas Zick, Beate Kupper, and Andreas Hovermann (Friedrich Ebert Stiftung, 2011). The study is based on survey research in eight countries (Germany, Britain, France, Netherlands, Italy, Portugal, Poland, and Hungary). Particularly interesting are the results on anti-semitism, anti-muslimism, and homophobia (56 ff.). Here are the opening paragraphs of the authors' foreword:
Intolerance threatens the social cohesion of plural and democratic societies. It reflects the extent to which we respect or reject social, ethnic, cultural and religious minorities. It marks out those who are “strange”, “other” or “out- siders”, who are not equal, less worthy. The most visible expression of intolerance and discrimination is prejudice. Indicators of intolerance such as prejudice, anti-democratic attitudes and the prevalence of discrimination consequently represent sensitive measures of social cohesion.

Investigating intolerance, prejudice and discrimination is an important process of self-reflection for society and crucial to the protection of groups and minorities. We should also remember that intolerance towards one group is usually associated with negativity towards others. The European Union acknowledged this when it declared 1997 the European Year against Racism. In the 1997 Treaty of Amsterdam the European Union called for joint efforts to combat prejudice and discrimination experienced by groups and individuals on the basis of their ethnic features, cultural background, religion, gender, sexual orientation, age or disability. (11)
And here are a few of their central findings, based on survey research in these eight countries:
Group-focused enmity is widespread in Europe. It is weakest in the Netherlands, and strongest in Poland and Hungary. With respect to anti-immigrant attitudes, anti-Muslim attitudes and racism there are only minor differences between the countries, while differences in the extent of anti-Semitism, sexism and homophobia are much more marked. 
About half of all European respondents believe there are too many immi- grants in their country. Between 17 percent in the Netherlands and more than 70 percent in Poland believe that Jews seek to benefit from their forebears’ suffering during the Nazi era. About one third of respondents believe there is a natural hierarchy of ethnicity. Half or more condemn Islam as “a religion of intolerance”. A majority in Europe also subscribe to sexist attitudes rooted in traditional gender roles and demand that: “Women should take their role as wives and mothers more seriously.” With a figure of about one third, Dutch respondents are least likely to affirm sexist attitudes. The proportion opposing equal rights for homosexuals ranges between 17 percent in the Netherlands and 88 percent in Poland; they believe it is not good “to allow marriages between two men or two women”. (13)
These researchers find three underlying "ideological orientations" associated with these patterns of intolerance and discrimination: authoritarianism, "social dominance orientation", and the rejection of diversity. And the factors that work against intolerance include "trust in others, the ability to forge firm friendships, contact with immigrants, and above all a positive basic attitude towards diversity" (14).

The topic of the incidence of intolerance in European countries is also the subject of research in the Eurobarometer project. Here are two Eurobarometer reports from 2008 and 2012 that attempt to measure changes in levels of discrimination and prejudice (Discrimination in the European Union, 2008; link; 2012; link). 

Also from the Friedrich Ebert Stiftung is the report Is Europe on the "Right" Path?: Right-wing extremism and right-wing populism in Europe (link). This report provides country studies of the radical right in Germany, France, Britain, Netherlands, Italy, Switzerland, Spain, Bulgaria, Poland, Hungary, Denmark, Sweden, and Norway. Here is how Britta Schellenberg undertakes to synthesize these wide-ranging findings:
Taken as a whole, the contributions in the present volume clearly illustrate the common features and differences within the radical right in Europe. Analyses of the current phenomenon of the various radical-right movements and a differentiated analysis of their origins are fundamental for considering counter-strategies. Obviously, there is no single, generally valid strategy that guarantees an optimal way of combating the radical right. In fact, strategies can be successful only if they match up to the specific political and social context and if the maximum possible number of players from politics, the legal system, the media, educational institutions and civil society are agreed upon them.

However, we can identify general requirements for strategies against right-wing extremism and xenophobia that form a framework broad enough to allow a European perspective. For concrete work in a particular place, this framework must be filled out with individual measures and activities specific to the situation and location. But for now, we shall now proceed to take a bird’s eye view and answer the basic questions as to what preconditions have to be created for maximum success in combating radical-right-wing attacks, parties and attitudes. (309)
Each country study is detailed and interesting. The France study focuses on the Front National and Jean-Marie Le Pen's success (and later Marine Le Pen's success) since the 1984 European election in gaining visible support and electoral success with 10% to 15% of the vote (84). The Mouvement pour la France (MPF) and its leader Philippe de Villiers also receive attention in the report. And the resurgence of skinheads and direct action neo-fascists like the "violence-prone street brawlers of the Groupe Union Defense" are discussed (89-90).

The essay develops a handful of strategies for combatting right-wing movements:
  1. A comprehensive approach: Identifying and naming problems and strategically combating the radical right
  2. Political involvement: Confront, don’t cooperate
  3. Determining the focus: Protection against discrimination, and diversity and equality
  4. Allowing civil society to develop, and strengthening civic commitment
  5. Education for democracy and human rights
The Heinrich Boll Stiftung report authored by sixteen representatives from EU countries, "How to Counter Right Wing Populism and Extremism in Europe", summarizes current progressive thinking about how best to resist the rise of right-wing extremism (link). This document was the result of a conference held in Brussels and Antwerp in October 2015. Here are some key findings and recommendations:
  • The EU is being degraded into an enforcer of austerity measures across the continent. It is essential to restore the idea of the EU as a regional network of states that stand together in solidarity in order to promote mutual wellbeing, good living standards, tolerant societies, and democratic values that are shared by all. 
  • Furthermore it is vital to explain the local benefits of EU membership to ordinary people with a clear and understandable message. 
  • There need to be more efficient and accessible training and exchange programmes in order to decrease the distance between EU institutions and citizens. 
  • Diversity must be increased and a greater inclusiveness within EU institutions is required, with mechanisms to enable a much more accurate representation of the European population in EU institutions.
  • Progressives should be strident in defending greater global and European integration against the often empty criticisms of right-wing populists and extremists.
  • We recommend that different stakeholders collaborate with each other in a knowledge exchange in order to provide public officials with EU-wide training.
  • Establishing quotas for those who are elected as candidates, by increasing leadership in minority groups, and via private-public partnerships to help promote equality in business as well as the public sector.
  • Hate speech has to be monitored in the European Parliament by an independent body and the existing sanctions regarding hate speech need to be reviewed.
  • Social media should be used in this effort to confront the advocacy of hatred and that a dialogue should be promoted between internet providers and social media companies, examining among others the possibility of creating a new platform for non-governmental organizations and the civil society. (5-6)
Another FES study addresses the "massive challenges" faced by the EU in the context of citizens' expectations (link). Richard Himler's public opinion survey (2016) considers eight countries (Netherlands, Sweden, France, Germany, Slovak Republic, Spain, Italy, and the Czech Republic).

Here is a summary table based on results from all eight countries ranking the relative weight of EU priorities for EU citizens. Solving the refugee crisis dwarfs concern about other issues, though unemployment comes in as a substantial second.


Given Brexit, it is interesting to see the relative levels of dissatisfaction with EU membership in other countries as well. An average of 34% of respondents found that "disadvantages exceed advantages" in EU membership for their country, with the Czech Republic at 44% on this question and Spain at only 22%.


These are interesting survey results describing the growth of right-wing extremism in Europe. But these studies are limited in their explanatory reach. They are largely descriptive; they give a basis for assessing the dimensions of the problem in terms of population attitudes and right-wing extremist organizations. But there is little by the way of sociological analysis of the mechanisms through which these extremist attitudes and processes of activism proliferate and grow. In an upcoming post I will review some recent work on the ethnography of right-wing movements that will allow a somewhat deeper understanding of the dynamics of these movements.

Sunday, July 24, 2016

Accident analysis and systems thinking


Complex socio-technical systems fail; that is, accidents occur. And it is enormously important for engineers and policy makers to have a better way of thinking about accidents than is the current protocol following an air crash, a chemical plant fire, or the release of a contaminated drug. We need to understand better what the systems and organizational causes of an accident are; even more importantly, we need to have a basis for improving the safe functioning of complex socio-technical systems by identifying better processes and better warning indicators of impending failure.

A long-term leader in the field of systems-safety thinking is Nancy Leveson, a professor of aeronautics and astronautics at MIT and the author of Safeware: System Safety and Computers (1995) and Engineering a Safer World: Systems Thinking Applied to Safety (2012). Leveson has been a particular advocate for two insights: looking at safety as a systems characteristic, and looking for the organizational and social components of safety and accidents as well as the technical event histories that are more often the focus of accident analysis. Her approach to safety and accidents involves looking at a technology system in terms of the set of controls and constraints that have been designed into the process to prevent accidents. "Accidents are seen as resulting from inadequate control or enforcement of constraints on safety-related behavior at each level of the system development and system operations control structures." (25)

The abstract for her essay "A New Accident Model for Engineering Safety" (link) captures both points.
New technology is making fundamental changes in the etiology of accidents and is creating a need for changes in the explanatory mechanisms used. We need better and less subjective understanding of why accidents occur and how to prevent future ones. The most effective models will go beyond assigning blame and instead help engineers to learn as much as possible about all the factors involved, including those related to social and organizational structures. This paper presents a new accident model founded on basic systems theory concepts. The use of such a model provides a theoretical foundation for the introduction of unique new types of accident analysis, hazard analysis, accident prevention strategies including new approaches to designing for safety, risk assessment techniques, and approaches to designing performance monitoring and safety metrics.
The accident model she describes in this article and elsewhere is STAMP (Systems-Theoretic Accident Model and Processes). Here is a short description of the approach.
In STAMP, systems are viewed as interrelated components that are kept in a state of dynamic equilibrium by feedback loops of information and control. A system in this conceptualization is not a static design—it is a dynamic process that is continually adapting to achieve its ends and to react to changes in itself and its environment. The original design must not only enforce appropriate constraints on behavior to ensure safe operation, but the system must continue to operate safely as changes occur. The process leading up to an accident (loss event) can be described in terms of an adaptive feedback function that fails to maintain safety as performance changes over time to meet a complex set of goals and values.... The basic concepts in STAMP are constraints, control loops and process models, and levels of control. (12)
The other point of emphasis in Leveson's treatment of safety is her consistent effort to include the social and organizational forms of control that are a part of the safe functioning of a complex technological system.
Event-based models are poor at representing systemic accident factors such as structural deficiencies in the organization, management deficiencies, and flaws in the safety culture of the company or industry. An accident model should encourage a broad view of accident mechanisms that expands the investigation from beyond the proximate events. (6)
She treats the organizational backdrop of the technology process in question as being a crucial component of the safe functioning of the process.
Social and organizational factors, such as structural deficiencies in the organization, flaws in the safety culture, and inadequate management decision making and control are directly represented in the model and treated as complex processes rather than simply modeling their reflection in an event chain. (26)
And she treats organizational features as another form of control system (along the lines of Jay Forrester's early definitions of systems in Industrial Dynamics.
Modeling complex organizations or industries using system theory involves dividing them into hierarchical levels with control processes operating at the interfaces between levels (Rasmussen, 1997). Figure 4 shows a generic socio-technical control model. Each system, of course, must be modeled to reflect its specific features, but all will have a structure that is a variant on this one. (17)
Here is figure 4:


The approach embodied in the STAMP framework is that safety is a systems effect, dynamically influenced by the control systems embodied in the total process in question.
In STAMP, systems are viewed as interrelated components that are kept in a state of dynamic equilibrium by feedback loops of information and control. A system in this conceptualization is not a static design—it is a dynamic process that is continually adapting to achieve its ends and to react to changes in itself and its environment. The original design must not only enforce appropriate constraints on behavior to ensure safe operation, but the system must continue to operate safely as changes occur. The process leading up to an accident (loss event) can be described in terms of an adaptive feedback function that fails to maintain safety as performance changes over time to meet a complex set of goals and values. (12) 
And:
In systems theory, systems are viewed as hierarchical structures where each level imposes constraints on the activity of the level beneath it—that is, constraints or lack of constraints at a higher level allow or control lower-level behavior (Checkland, 1981). Control laws are constraints on the relationships between the values of system variables. Safety-related control laws or constraints therefore specify those relationships between system variables that constitute the nonhazardous system states, for example, the power must never be on when the access door is open. The control processes (including the physical design) that enforce these constraints will limit system behavior to safe changes and adaptations. (17)
Leveson's understanding of systems theory brings along with it a strong conception of "emergence". She argues that higher levels of systems possess properties that cannot be reduced to the properties of the components, and that safety is one such property:
In systems theory, complex systems are modeled as a hierarchy of levels of organization, each more complex than the one below, where a level is characterized by having emergent or irreducible properties. Hierarchy theory deals with the fundamental differences between one level of complexity and another. Its ultimate aim is to explain the relationships between different levels: what generates the levels, what separates them, and what links them. Emergent properties associated with a set of components at one level in a hierarchy are related to constraints upon the degree of freedom of those components. (11)
But her understanding of "irreducible" seems to be different from that commonly used in the philosophy of science. She does in fact believe that these higher-level properties can be explained by the system of properties at the lower levels -- for example, in this passage she asks "... what generates the levels" and how the emergent properties are "related to constraints" imposed on the lower levels. In other words, her position seems to be similar to that advanced by Dave Elder-Vass (link): emergent properties are properties at a higher level that are not possessed by the components, but which depend upon the interactions and composition of the lower-level components.

The domain of safety engineering and accident analysis seems like a particularly suitable place for Bayesian analysis. It seems unavoidable that accident analysis involves both frequency-based probabilities (e.g. the frequency of pump failure) and expert-based estimates of the likelihood of a particular kind of failure (e.g. the likelihood that a train operator will slacken attention to track warnings in response to company pressure on timetable). Bayesian techniques are suitable for the task of combining these various kinds of estimates of risk into a unified calculation.

The topic of safety and accidents is particularly relevant to Understanding Society because it expresses very clearly the causal complexity of the social world in which we live. And rather than simply ignoring that complexity, the systematic study of accidents gives us an avenue for arriving at better ways of representing, modeling, and intervening in parts of that complex world.

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Ideologies and organizations as causes of political extremism


In a recent post I addressed the issue of the rise of mass intolerance and hate from the point of view of the public -- the processes through which sizable numbers of members of society come to be more intolerant in their attitudes and behaviors. This involves looking at the problem as being analogous to epidemiology -- the contagion through a population of the social psychology of hate and intolerance.

But this is only a part of the story. Right-wing political movements are fueled by ideologies and organizations, and when they come to power their success is at least partially attributable to these higher-level social factors. A movement can't succeed without gaining grassroots followers, to be sure. But it may be that the authoritarian and racist politics of a movement derive more from the higher-level factors of ideology and organization than the retail racism and social psychology of the populace. 

This is the heart of the approach taken by Fritz Stern in The Politics of Cultural Despair: A Study in the Rise of the Germanic Ideology, where he gives a careful and detailed accounting of the philosophies and mental frameworks that underlay the progress of reactionary and racist parties in Germany (link). It is also the approach taken by Janek Wasserman in Black Vienna: The Radical Right in the Red City, 1918-1938, where the ideas of conservative religious dogmas, anti-semitism, and a hatred of modern secularism fueled the rise of Austrofascism. Wasserman gives little attention to the street-level politics of the struggles and mobilizations of left and right in Austria (unlike Arthur Koestler's gritty accounts of the mobilizations and street fighting of communists and fascists in Berlin; link).

If we look at the problem from this point of view, then the rise of right-wing extremist movements needs to be analyzed in terms of the ideologies that lead them and the organizations through which they attempt to bring about their political ends. In the United States the ideology of the right has a number of leading values: religious fundamentalism, nativism, anti-government and anti-tax rhetoric, free market fundamentalism, suspicion, homophobia, and cultural conservativism. And these threads have been woven together into powerful and motivating narratives of American history and the political choices the country faces for tens of millions of Americans. 

In this light the writings of Richard Hofstadter, discussed in an earlier post, are quite important. Hofstadter traces the specifics of a fairly distinctive conservative ideology in the United States, a worldview of society and politics that has persisted in the organs of public expression -- newspapers, activists, professors, clergy -- over a very long time. And these tropes in turn find expression in the activism and mobilization of extremist groups like the armed groups who took over the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge last winter. These ideological strands become currents of extremist values around which individual entrepreneurs organize their appeals to potential followers. (Many of these themes are finding expression on the convention stage in Cleveland this week.)

It is a very interesting question to consider how mass consciousness in a population maintains a "folk" political philosophy over generations. How have American nativism and mistrust of government been sustained in the populace since 1900? Why does anti-semitism persist so strongly in some European countries where the Holocaust left almost no Jewish residents at all? What are the mechanisms of transmission and reproduction that make this possible? To what extent is this an organic process of popular transmission, and to what extent is it the result of ongoing ideological struggles? It is clear that ideologies have institutional embodiments. And it is an important task for political sociology to map out the ways these institutions work. Obviously newspapers, media, religious centers, and universities play key roles in the transmission of political frameworks to new generations of citizens; and the influence of family traditions and daily discussions of current events play a crucial role in the transmission of values and frameworks as well.

The organizations of the right include a range of configurations of groups in civil society -- right-wing political parties, religious organizations, anti-government groups, and cause-based organizations (anti-gay marriage, pro-gun groups, business advocacy groups, conservative student organizations). The hate groups tracked by the SPLC are the extreme fringe of this world. These kinds of organizations do their best to frame political choices and antagonisms around their core ideological tropes, and they do everything possible to stir up the emotions and angers of their followers and potential followers around these values.

Ideologies and organizations are clearly intertwined. Organizations have purposive agendas; and one important mechanism for furthering their agendas is to influence the content and nature of prominent expressions of social worldviews. So funneling cash into right-leaning think tanks, enhancing the visibility and credibility of their spokesmen, and turning up the volume on extreme right-wing media outlets are all understandable strategies of ideological conflict. (Naomi Oreskes' and Eric Conway's important book Merchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming documents these strategies in the case of climate science; link.) But likewise, the currency of a bundle of ideological beliefs and values in a part of the population is a huge boost for the ability of an organization to finance itself, draw followers, and exercise influence.

So we can look at the rise of large social movements, including those based on hate and suspicion, from two complementary perspectives. We can consider the micro-level processes through which beliefs and activism spread through a population, and we can look at the higher-level factors of ideology and organization within which these political processes unfold. In reality, of course, the kinds of causation involved in both levels are always involved in political transformation, and it may not be productive to try to sort out which level has greater causal importance.


Thursday, July 14, 2016

Making sense of ISA 2016


The International Sociological Association hosted its third major forum in Vienna this month. (ISA forums are organized every four years; previous forums took place in Buenos Aires and Barcelona.) Nearly five thousand sociologists (and researchers in cognate disciplines) came together from countries all over the world, contributing to over 700 sessions in five days. So one might look at this as a great opportunity for distilling a map of the topics that are the most urgent for social researchers in many countries today. The program provides a first-hand exposure to a point Gabriel Abend makes about national differences in the practice of sociology (link); attendance at multiple sessions makes it apparent that there are substantial differences in topics, methods, and vocabularies across national and cultural research communities in sociology.

There are 56 research committees represented in the ISA, and most of the five-day program was put together by these research groups. An overall theme of global crisis emerges from the gestalt of panels and papers -- refugees, radicalization, international terrorism, racial conflict, and environmental collapse, along with the conviction that public sociology can help lead to a better world. Topics of aging, youth, the body, race, and protest are also prominent. There are relatively few quantitative research projects on display. (It would be interesting to compare the frequencies of papers using qualitative, comparative, and quantitative methods at this conference to that found at the ASA.)

It would be fascinating to see a network graph of citation clusters or keywords from the full list of papers to identify central topics. (The 829-page PDF book of abstracts might allow for some initial topic analysis along these lines.) What methods emerges as particularly compelling? What theoretical approaches and concepts are favored?

The demographics of attendance would also be very interesting to study. What countries are represented? What is the gender composition of the attendees and panelists? What about age and rank in the profession? The ISA has provided a country breakdown for previous forums; I assume it will do so after the close of this event as well. Perhaps most difficult to assess, why did these individuals choose to participate? Is there a sense of deep engagement in a set of intellectual issues in the disciplines? Or is the dominant motivation one of career competition and progress?  It would have been very interesting if ISA had organized an "ethnographic corps" of volunteers who did short interviews with attendees to learn a little more about their interests and reasons for attending. 

My non-scientific impression, based on assessing the audiences in several small sessions and a large common session, is that the attendance is skewed to a younger set of scholars, relative to attendance at the ASA. There are a good number of senior scholars (>60 years), but this segment seems to be less than 15% of a typical audience. In sessions I have attended the gender ratio is about 2:1 male:female and sometimes much more skewed. The age distribution of panel participants is more difficult to assess, but my impression is that panel participants tend to be more senior than the audiences. Gender representation among speakers appears to be substantially lower than the 33% female audience would suggest.

Studying this extensive conference in sociology seems like a good topic for investigation by researchers in the new sociology of ideas (link). I'm sure that Neil Gross, Michelle Lamont, or Andrew Abbott would have dozens of interesting questions to pose about this assemblage of the field of sociology in the process of renewing itself (as of course every discipline does on a continuing basis). The concept of "field" is particularly relevant here; many of the topic areas are actively engaged in contesting the various fields and institutions that constitute the sociology knowledge industry today. And of course the disastrous state of the academic marketplace in almost all of European universities is relevant; young scholars face almost impossible odds in seeking continuing faculty positions in their fields of expertise.

In my view this forum has accomplished a lot of what we would want from an academic convening. Important topics were discussed with seriousness, and new ideas were shared with a world-wide audience of mostly younger scholars. At a time when anti-intellectualism seems to be at a high, ISA makes a strong case for the vitality of sociology and the likelihood that research in the disciplines of the social sciences can actually make a difference in achieving a better future. 

Sunday, July 10, 2016

Elias on figurational sociology




A premise shared by all actor-centered versions of sociology is that individuals and their actions are the rock-bottom level of the social world. Every other social fact derives from facts at this level. Norbert Elias raises a strong and credible challenge to this ontological assumption in his work, offering a view of social action that makes "figurations" of actors just as real as individual actors themselves. By figuration he means something like an interlocking set of individuals whose actions are a fluid series of reactions to and expectations about others. Figurations include both conflict and cooperation. And he is insistent that figurations cannot be reduced to the sum of a collection of independent actors and their choices. "Imagine the interlocking of the plans and actions, not of two, but of two thousand or two million interdependent players. The ongoing process which one encounters in this case does not take place independently of individual people whose plans and actions keep it going. Yet it has a structure and demands an explanation sui generis. It cannot be explained in terms of the ‘ideas’ or the ‘actions’ of individual people" (52). So good sociology needs to pay attention to figurations, not just individuals and their mental states.

Elias's most vivid illustration of what he means by a figuration comes from his reflections on the game of soccer and the flow of action across two teams and twenty-two individual players over extended episodes of play. These arguments constitute the primary topic of volume 7 of his collected writings, Elias and Dunning, Quest for Excitement: Sport and Leisure in the Civilising Process. (This is particularly relevant at a time when millions of people are viewing the Euro Cup.)
The observation of an ongoing game of football can be of considerable help as an introduction to the understanding of such terms as interlocking plans and actions. Each team may have planned its strategy in accordance with the knowledge of their own and their opponents’ skills and foibles. However, as the game proceeds, it often produces constellations which were not intended or foreseen by either side. In fact, the flowing pattern formed by players and ball in a football game can serve as a graphic illustration not only of the concept of ‘figurations’ but also of that of ‘social process’. The game-process is precisely that, a flowing figuration of human beings whose actions and experiences continuously interlock, a social process in miniature. One of the most instructive aspects of the fast-changing pattern of a football game is the fact that this pattern is formed by the moving players of both sides. If one concentrated one’s attention only on the activities of the players of one team and turned a blind eye to the activities of the other, one could not follow the game. The actions and experiences of the members of the team which one tried to observe in isolation and independently of the actions and perceptions of the other would remain incomprehensible. In an ongoing game, the two teams form with each other a single figuration. It requires a capacity for distancing oneself from the game to recognize that the actions of each side constantly interlock with those of their opponents and thus that the two opposing sides form a single figuration. So do antagonistic states. Social processes are often uncontrollable because they are fuelled by enmity. Partisanship for one side or another can easily blur that fact. (51-52; italics mine)
Here is a more theoretical formulation from Elias, from "Dynamics of sports groups" in the same volume.
Let us start with the concept of ‘figuration’. It has already been said that a game is the changing figuration of the players on the field. This means that the figuration is not only an aspect of the players. It is not as one sometimes seems to believe if one uses related expressions such as ‘social pattern’, ‘social group’, or ‘society’, something abstracted from individual people. Figurations are formed by individuals, as it were ‘body and soul’. If one watches the players standing and moving on the field in constant inter-dependence, one can actually see them forcing a continuously changing figuration. If groups or societies are large, one usually cannot see the figurations their individual members form with one another. Nevertheless, in these cases too people form figurations with each other — a city, a church, a political party, a state — which are no less real than the one formed by players on a football field, even though one cannot take them in at a glance.

To envisage groupings of people as figurations in this sense, with their dynamics, their problems of tension and of tension control and many others, even though one cannot see them here and now, requires a specific training. This is one of the tasks of figurational sociology, of which the present essay is an example. At present, a good deal of uncertainty still exists with regard to the nature of that phenomenon to which one refers as ‘society’. Sociological theories often appear to start from the assumption that ‘groups’ or ‘societies’, and ‘social phenomean’ in general, are something abstracted from individual people, or at least that they are not quite as ‘real’ as individuals, whatever that may mean. The game of football — as a small-scale model — can help to correct this view. It shows that figurations of individuals are neither more nor less real than the individuals who form them. Figurational sociology is based on observations such as this. In contrast to sociological theories which treat societies as if they were mere names, an ‘ideal type’, a sociologist’s construction, and which are in that sense representative of sociological nominalism, it represents a sociological realism. Individuals always come in figurations and figurations are always formed by individuals. (199)
This ontological position converges closely with the "relational" view of social action advocated by the new pragmatists as well as Chuck Tilly. The pragmatists' idea that individual actions derive from the flow of opportunities and reactions instigated by the movements of others is particularly relevant. But Elias's view also seems to have some resonance with the idea of methodological localism as well: "individuals in local social interactions are the molecule of the social world."

What seems correct here is an insight into the "descriptive ontology" of the social world. Elias credibly establishes the fact of entangled, flowing patterns of action by individuals during an episode, and makes it credible that these collective patterns don't derive fully in any direct way from the individual intentions of the participants. "Figurations are just as real as individuals." So the sociologist's ontology needs to include figurations. Moreover the insight seems to cast doubt as well on the analytical sociologists' strategy of "dissection". These points suggest that Elias provides a basis for a critique of ontological individualism. And Elias can be understood as calling for more realism in sociological description. 

What this analysis does not provide is any hint about how to use this idea in constructing explanations of larger-scale social outcomes or patterns. Are we forced to stop with the discovery of a set of figurations in play in a given social occurrence? Are we unable to provide any underlying explanation of the emergence of the figuration itself? Answers to these questions are not clear in Elias's text. And yet this is after all the purpose of explanatory sociology.

It is also not completely convincing to me that the figurations described by Elias could not be derived through something like an agent-based simulation. The derivation of flocking and swarming behavior in fish and birds seems to be exactly this -- a generative account of the emergence of a collective phenomenon (figuration) from assumptions about the decision-making of the individuals. So it seems possible that we might look at Elias's position as seeing a challenge to actor-based sociology that now can be addressed rather than a refutation. 

In this sense it appears that figurational sociology is in the same position as various versions of microsociology considered elsewhere (e.g. Goffman): it identifies a theoretical lacuna in rational choice theory and thin theories of the actor, but it does not provide recommendations for how to proceed with a more adequate explanatory theory.

(Recall the earlier discussion on non-generative social facts and ontological individualism; link. That post makes a related argument for the existence of social facts that cannot be derived from facts about the individual actors involved. In each case the problem derives from the highly path-dependent nature of social outcomes.)

Wednesday, July 6, 2016

Social psychology of largescale hate

 

Many countries are facing a detestable resurgence of racism and ethnic hostility in the current political environment, catalyzed in complicated ways by the refugee crisis in Europe, the Brexit vote in the UK, and the rise of trumpism in the United States. Animosity against black and brown people, immigrants, and Muslims is rising in many countries, and hate crimes and racist acts against excluded groups are on the rise as well. For many observers these developments are as surprising and as worrisome as the rise of virulent nationalism and anti-semitism in Germany in the 1930s -- a new politics of cultural despair (link). We thought perhaps we had moved to a democratic consensus in advanced democracies, moving beyond hatred and nativism, and we plainly have not.
 
What are the social and psychological dynamics at work that have unleashed these dark forces within democracies? (Here is an earlier post on hate; link.) What roles are played in these processes by some of the likely influencers: broadcast and print media, social media, political entrepreneurs with a political interest in cultivating hate and divisiveness, social networks, civic and anti-civic organizations, slow economic growth and mobility for some groups, and the fear of Isis violence around the world?
 
Some of these possible factors are external environmental conditions -- terrorism, economic crisis -- that influence individual political dispositions. Others are structural features of the societies we live in -- freedom of association for hate groups, dense social networks of like-minded people, information diffusion systems like media and transportation. And yet others are features of political intentionality -- leaders who deliberately foster fear, hate, and suspicion for their own political purposes, organizations that mobilize their members around divisiveness and suspicion. 
 
Underlying it all is a profound set of questions about identity and political psychology. What are some key features of individual psychology that play into the dynamics of division and hate within a modern society? Are there common human psychological dispositions that leave people vulnerable to the appeal of hate against other groups in society? Is there a profile of democratic resilience that makes some people more tolerant and positive about their fellow citizens? (This resilience seems to be one of the characteristics deliberately cultivated by architects of European identity; link.) And are there known mechanisms of persuasion and inculcation that play up hate and reduce the impulse to resilience and tolerance -- an effective fascist rhetoric?
 
One such mechanism of social division seems apparent in contemporary events -- lies and aspersions against one group or another by leaders of divisive organizations (IKIP, the Trump campaign). And this in turn seems to reveal a central factor in the dynamics of hate in a mass society: the relative balance of trust and suspicion found in individuals and groups. Trust encourages tolerance and mutual respect; suspicion and fear encourage retrenchment, opposition, and hate. So a leader or party interested in bringing about a politics of hate will find it useful to raise suspicion about the target group.

Another plausible mechanism is the idea that people's thoughts and behaviors are calibrated to "normal", and when public figures begin using more explicitly racist language, ordinary followers begin to drift in that direction as well. (It seems evident that conservatives' public denunciations of President Obama in disrespectful and racist terms since his election in 2008 have loosened a broader public willingness to engage in racist speech as well.) There may be a positive feedback loop in which small racisms breed large racisms. 
 
A fairly compact narrative of the evolution of hate in a particular society might go along these lines, represented in the diagram above. Most individuals have a psychology that is capable of both tolerance and hate. This psychology can be activated in one direction or the other by intentional political actors. Large-scale shift of attitudes requires some external threat that can be exploited by the party of hate. Economic crisis and terrorism can play this role. Hateful messages can be constructed by leaders through a variety of avenues, including public media, covert organizations, and political parties. Skill at framing messages of division and suspicion has the potential of activating latent grievances into active grievances. A few provocative incidents have the potential to create a widening cycle of suspicion, mistrust, and hate. 
 
It seems clear that these processes could be modeled using an agent-based model if we liked; they have much in common with the mechanisms of pandemic disease. The cognitive and emotional processes influencing social trust and social suspicion could be modeled fairly simply as well.
 
The diagram above offers a simple view of a possible causal structure of the emergence of hate in a population. The standing conditions change over time but influence the mindset and dispositions of individuals in the population in a period of time. Individuals are subject to mobilization appeals and messages from leaders and organizations, and they interact with each other. Depending on the contingent contest of messages in the middle of the diagram, a climate of either hate or harmony ensues. 
 
The diagram also gives a basis for a theory of a "public health policies for inclusiveness" -- a set of interventions that could make the emergence of widespread hate less likely. Reduce the footprint of the organizations of hate and intolerance; build confidence across communities in the trustworthiness of each community; undermine and challenge the messages of exclusion and suspicion that are the nuts and bolts of racist mobilization; discredit the leaders of the divisive movement. In a democracy there are clear limits that restrict each of these strategies, but there are certainly legitimate ways of proceeding. 
 
There is a surprising lack of attention to these kinds of social processes within sociology today. Michael Mann's work on murderous ethnic cleansing in The Dark Side of Democracy: Explaining Ethnic Cleansing is relevant, but the core of Mann's theory doesn't fit very well the situations of Europe or North America today. Moreover, Mann doesn't have a lot to say about the spread of ethnic hostility -- the mechanics of ethnic mobilization -- in the cases he considers in detail. He believes that ethnic cleansing is a modern development, linked with emerging democracies. But he doesn't appear to be interested in the questions of political and cultural psychology -- the ways in which ordinary variations in personal attitudes and beliefs are sometimes transformed into rising levels of suspicion and animosity towards members of other groups in ambient society. 
 
So it seems as though a contemporary sociology of hate, nativism, and nationalism remains to be written. And it is urgent that we turn to that task, given the assaults on liberal, inclusive cosmopolitan communities currently underway in Britain, Western Europe, India, and the United States. 
 

Friday, July 1, 2016

Karl Polanyi as a critical realist?



In The Power of Market Fundamentalism: Karl Polanyi's Critique Fred Block and Peggy
Somers focus on a phrase that Karl Polanyi uses in The Great Transformation: The Political and Economic Origins of Our Time, the idea of treating society as “real”. They address this issue in the final chapter of the book. (This is in the context, it should be noted, of their conclusion that Polanyi was fundamentally a "failed prophet" -- the transformation that he expected in the next fifty years of market society following World War II has not in fact materialized.) What does this idea refer to in Polanyi’s thinking?
In the end, Polanyi is asking us to accept that we live in complex societies, the essence of which is the interdependence of persons and institutions. No person or action or institution is autonomous; every institutional movement or seemingly personal action will have consequences, often unknown, for people close and far…. A new public philosophy must be build from this foundational commitment to the reality of a complex and interdependent society. (227) 
To see the world as it is in reality, not as we might like it to be in the logic of economic thought, is for Polanyi the only way to fashion public and social policies on moral and ethical foundations. (228)
Block and Somers are insistent that "free market ideology" is very far from "realistic". The arrangements of a "free market" are by no means self-reinforcing; they require powerful institutions to stabilize them. And markets require powerful states -- governmental action -- to preserve their existential prerequisites. So free market ideology and economic liberalism are not realistic from a sociological point of view.

So what is the "reality of society", in Polanyi's meaning? For Block and Somers, Polanyi's realism is directly related to his distinction between formalism and substantivism. Formalists look at the social world as a pure market environment in which rational egoists seek to maximize utility, and neo-classical economics is the science of this realm. But Polanyi believes this is a fiction, and that real human beings are always embedded in concrete social, cultural, and ideational relations with each other. This is the "substantivist" view of the social world. When Polanyi refers to the "real" social world he is referring to this substantive, concrete set of relations. And it is the work of social scientists, historians, and ethnographers to map out the details of these relations in a particular social historical setting.

So the vision of the pure marketplace is a fantasy or a utopia, according to Polanyi. The real social world is constituted by normative and material relations between real human beings.

One feature of this substantive reality, in Polanyi's view, is recognition of the unavoidable interdependence of human beings in all social settings. Once again, reality is poised in contrast to fantasy -- now the fantasy of the wholly independent autonomous economic individual. Rather, real individuals are embedded in concrete social relations with each other that constrain and guide their actions.

So reality for Polanyi stands in direct opposition to the abstract social theory of economic liberalism, or what Block and Somers call "market fundamentalism".

Peggy Somers is an advocate of critical realism for sociology (link). Is Polanyi any kind of critical realist, on this interpretation of what he means by "real society"? There are certain affinities, to be sure. Like Bhaskar, he affirms that the social world possesses real structures and relations, and that these structures wield influence on individuals and outcomes. In Bhaskar's terms, they possess causal powers. And, like Bhaskar, he gives credence to some of Marx's basic social categories.

But there are contrasts as well. His theory is not at all philosophical or ontological -- in fact, Bhaskar might describe it as empiricist, given Polanyi's view that the real properties of the social world are amenable to direct empirical investigation. (That is my own view as well.) Perhaps the strongest affinity with critical realism is Polanyi's conviction that a realistic understanding of the social world brings with it a definite normative stance and program for progress -- realism and human emancipation.

Here is an important statement of Polanyi's views of social change:
Nowhere has liberal philosophy failed so conspicuously as in its understanding of the problem of change. Fired by an emotional faith in spontaneity, the common-sense attitude toward change was discarded in favor of a mystical readiness to accept the social consequences of economic improvement, whatever they might be. The elementary truths of political science and statecraft were first discredited then forgotten. It should need no elaboration that a process of undirected change, the pace of which is deemed too fast, should be slowed down, if possible, so as to safeguard the welfare of the community. Such household truths of traditional statesmanship, often merely reflecting the teachings of a social philosophy inherited from the ancients, were in the nineteenth century erased from the thoughts of the educated by the corrosive of a crude utilitarianism combined with an uncritical reliance on the alleged self-healing virtues of unconscious growth. (35)
This passage clearly advocates taking change in hand and shaping it to the needs of ordinary people, not simply accepting the fatalism of economic necessity. And this perhaps has relevance for today's hot debates over globalization, from Bernie to Donald to Brexit. Here is Polanyi's treatment of the enclosure acts:
Enclosures have appropriately been called a revolution of the rich against the poor. The lords and nobles were upsetting the social order, breaking down ancient law and custom, sometimes by means of violence, often by pressure and intimidation. They were literally robbing the poor of their share in the common, tearing down the houses which, by the hitherto unbreakable force of custom, the poor had long regarded as theirs and their heirs'. The fabric of society was being disrupted; desolate villages and the ruins of human dwellings testified to the fierceness with which the revolution raged, endangering the defences of the country, wasting its towns, decimating its population, turning its overburdened soil into dust, harassing its people and turning them from decent husbandmen into a mob of beggars and thieves. Though this happened only in patches, the black spots threatened to melt into a uniform catastrophe. The King and his Council, the Chancellors, and the Bishops were defending the welfare of the community and, indeed, the human and natural substance of society against this scourge. With hardly any intermittence, for a century and a half—from the 1490s, at the latest, to the 1640s they struggled against depopulation. Lord Protector Somerset lost his life at the hands of the counterrevolution which wiped the enclosure laws from the statute book and established the dictatorship of the grazier lords, after Kett's Rebellion was defeated with several thousand peasants slaughtered in the process. Somerset was accused, and not without truth, of having given encouragement to the rebellious peasants by his denunciation of enclosures. (37)
Polanyi's realism has substantial implications for social policy and reform. If interdependence and reciprocity are real and permanent features of the social world, if a pure self-regulating market society is a plain fiction, then some programs for social change make a lot more sense than others. Social democracy, in particular, appears to be an almost unavoidable choice. (Or rather, the old opposition of "socialism or barbarism" seems like an unavoidable historical necessity. This is the thrust of Polanyi's anti-fascism.

It is interesting to recall that the brother of Karl Polanyi, Michael, was an anti-empiricist philosopher of science. Michael Polanyi's book Personal Knowledge: Towards a Post-Critical Philosophy amounted to a sustained critique of simple empiricist theories of social knowledge (link).

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Complementarity of thick and thin theories of the actor


There is a range of approaches to the social sciences that fall under the umbrella of "actor-centered" theories (link). The chief fissure among these theories is that between "thin" and "thick" theories of the actor -- theories which provide less or more detail about the mental frameworks and beliefs of the actors being described. The extremes of the two types of theories range from pure rational choice theory to social psychology and ethnography. The two types of theories have complementary strengths and weaknesses. Thin theories, including especially rational choice theory and game theory, make use of a particularly sparse theory of the actor’s decision framework. This approach provides a basis for representing the motives and decisions of actors that can be readily incorporated into powerful techniques of simulation and calculation. Thick theories, including pragmatist and ethnomethodological theories, offer a basis for investigating particular social settings of action in detail, and they provide an in-depth basis for explaining and understanding the choices, judgments, and behavior of the individuals they study. But thick theories are not so readily incorporated into simulation models, precisely because they do not provide abstract, general characterizations of the individual’s action framework.

These comments make the contrast sound like a familiar set of oppositions: nomothetic explanation versus idiographic interpretation; causal explanation versus hermeneutic interpretation. And this in turn suggests that rational choice theory will be good at arriving at generalizations, whereas pragmatist and ethnographic theories will be good at providing satisfying interpretations of the actions of individuals in concrete social and historical circumstances, but not particularly good at providing a basis for general explanations.

The situation is not quite so binary as this suggests, however. A central tool for actor-centered research is set of simulation techniques falling under the rubric of agent-based models. To date ABMs have tended to use thin theories of the actor to represent the players in the simulation. However, it is entirely possible for agent-based models to incorporate substantially greater levels of specificity and granularity about the action frameworks of the individuals in specific circumstances. An ABM can introduce different kinds of agents into a simulation, each of which embodies a specific set of beliefs and modes of reasoning. And it can be argued that this increase in granularity provides a basis for a better simulation of complex social processes involving heterogeneous kinds of actors.

For example, a simulation of the political appeal of a nationalistic politician like Donald Trump may benefit by segmenting the electorate into different categories of voters: white nationalists, aging blue-collar workers, anti-globalization young people, .... And the model should represent the fact that actors in these various segments have substantially different ways of making political judgments and actions. So ABM simulations can indeed benefit from greater “thickness” of assumptions about agents. (This was illustrated in the discussion of the Epstein rebellion model earlier; link.)

On the other hand, it is possible to use RCT and DBO theories to illuminate historically particular instances of action -- for example, the analysis of historically situated collective action along the lines of Margaret Levi's review in "Reconsiderations of Rational Choice in Comparative and Political Analysis" (link). These theories can be applied to specific social circumstances and can provide convincing and satisfying interpretations of the reasoning and actions of the agents who are involved. So narrative explanations of social outcomes can be constructed using both thick and thin assumptions about the actors.

Moreover, the explanatory strength of thick theories is not limited to the degree to which they can be incorporated into formal simulations -- what can be referred to as "aggregation dynamics". It is clear that real explanations of important phenomena emerge from research by sociologists like Michele Lamont in Money, Morals, and Manners: The Culture of the French and the American Upper-Middle Class (link), Al Young in The Minds of Marginalized Black Men: Making Sense of Mobility, Opportunity, and Future Life Chances (link), and Erving Goffman in Behavior in Public Places: Notes on the Social Organization of Gatherings (link). We understand better the dynamics of the French professional classes, inner city neighborhoods, and asylums when we read the detailed and rigorous treatments that micro-sociologists provide of these social settings.

What this suggests is that analytical sociology would be well advised to embrace pluralism when it comes to theories of the actor and methods of application of actor-based research. Thick and thin are not logical contraries, but rather complementary ways of analyzing and explaining the social worlds we inhabit.

Monday, June 27, 2016

Systems management and the War on Poverty


One of the important developments in engineering and management thinking since World War II is the value of approaching large problems as systems rather than simply as a sum of separable components. Designing a ballpoint pen is very different from designing an aircraft or a fire control system; in the latter cases there are multiple functionalities and components that need to be incorporated, each associated with specific engineering and material disciplines. It was recognized during World War II that it is much more effective to treat the product and the design and manufacturing efforts as systems so that it is possible to conform components to synergistic and mutually supportive inter-relationships.

Agatha Hughes and Thomas Hughes organized a group of leading researchers to reflect upon the history of systems engineering and management, and the chief results are included in their 2000 volume, Systems, Experts, and Computers: The Systems Approach in Management and Engineering, World War II and After. The contributors include experts (and participants) in the history of the development of complex military systems during World War II -- for example, radar-controlled fire control systems for anti-aircraft use (David Mindell); experts like Donald MacKenzie on the incorporation of computing into the control of complex technologies (for example, the pathbreaking SABRE system for airline reservations); and experts on expertise such as Gabrielle Hecht, who provides an essay on post-war French technology management.

Here is how Hughes and Hughes describe the systems approach in their introduction to the volume:
Practitioners and proponents embrace a holistic vision. They focus on the interconnections among subsystems and components, taking special note of the interfaces among the various parts. What is significant is that system builders include heterogeneous components, such as mechanical, electrical, and organizational parts, in a single system. Organizational parts might be managerial structures, such as a military command, or political entities, such as a government bureau. Organizational components not only interact with technical ones but often reflect their characteristics. For instance, a management organization for presiding over the development of an intercontinental missile system might be divided into divisions that mirror the parts of the missile being designed. (2)
Hughes and Hughes provide a narrative that is intended to show the origins of systems engineering in operations research during World War II, and in the rapid development of highly complex technology systems needed for weaponry during the war (automated fire control, for example). In their telling of the story, the development of the digital computer during and after the war was a critical component of the development of the systems approach and the increasingly complex technologies and systems that the approach stewarded into existence. (See earlier posts on the development of ENIAC; linklink.) Much of this research took place within government and military organizations such as OSRD (Office of Scientific Research and Development); but private companies like RAND and MITRE soon emerged to take on contracts from military agencies for large-scale systems projects (5). And the research and development process itself came to be treated as a "system", with new software developed to support project planning and management. One important example was the PERT (Program Evaluation Review Technique) software system, developed by Booz, Allen & Hamilton (10).

Of particular interest here is the light the volume sheds on the efforts by the Johnson administration to apply systems thinking to the large social problems the country faced in the early 1960s, including especially poverty and urban problems (16) (link). David Jardini's essay "Out of the blue yonder: The transfer of systems thinking from the Pentagon to the Great Society, 1961-1965" explores this effort to transfer these systems methods to the social field. "[The chapter] argues that the construction and implementation of the Great Society social welfare programs and their analytical methods can be found at the core of Great Society policy making" (312). 

It emerges that a central political and policy disagreement that determined the course of events was a fundamental disagreement about centralization versus community involvement in social welfare policy. Policy leaders like Robert McNamara preferred to see the nation's social welfare policies to be managed and monitored centrally; affected communities, on the other hand, wanted to have greater control over the programs that would affect them. These disagreements converged on the question of the role of CAPs (Community Action Program) in the implementation and management of policy initiatives on the ground. Should CAPs serve as effective venues for local opinions and demands, or should they be sidelined in favor of a more top-down administrative organization?
The first CAP program guide, for example, suggested that local organizations provide "meaningful opportunities for residents, either as individuals or in groups, to protest or to propose additions to or changes in the ways in which a Community Action Program is being planned or undertaken." In fact, protest and confrontation were viewed by many CAP organizers as at least therapeutic means for the poor to vent their frustrations. (339)
But Johnson's administration was not interested in providing a venue for community advocacy and protest, and quickly sought to find ways of managing social welfare programs to reduce the level of activism they stimulated. The solution was the extension of the PPB (Planning-Programming-Budgeting) model from defense systems administration to the Great Society. But, as Jardini observes, this hierarchical system of control is poorly adapted to the problem of designing and administering programs that affect vast groups of people who can see its effects and can have very different ideas about the appropriateness of the policies being conveyed. "In this sense, the DOD is a poor model for the democratic ideal many Americans hold for their government institutions" (341).

This example illustrates an important tension that runs through many of the essays in the volume concerning the political significance of systems engineering and management. The volume gives support to the idea that systems management is an expert-driven and non-democratic way of organizing complicated human activities. What Robert McNamara brought to Ford Motor Company and the Department of Defense was a hierarchical, analytical, expert-driven system of management that sought to replace decentralized decision-makers with an orderly process driven from the top. For some purposes this may be a reasonably effective way of organizing a large effort involving thousands of agents. But for purposes like social reform it has a fatal flaw; it makes it almost impossible to create the level of buy-in at the local level that will be crucial for the success of a large project.

(I remember asking Tom Hughes in 1999 or so what he thought about the massive "Big Dig" project in Boston, then approaching completion and affecting many neighborhoods and thousands of residents. He commented that he felt that we should not judge the success of the project on the basis of whether it came in under budget; in fact, he suggested that this would show that the project designers and managers had not done enough to modify and adapt the project to gain support from the communities that the project affected.)

Thursday, June 23, 2016

Errors in organizations


Organizations do things -- process tax returns, deploy armies, send spacecraft to Mars. And in order to do these various things, organizations have people with job descriptions; organization charts; internal rules and procedures; information flows and pathways; leaders, supervisors, and frontline staff; training and professional development programs; and other particular characteristics that make up the decision-making and action implementation of the organization. These individuals and sub-units take on tasks, communicate with each other, and give rise to action steps.

And often enough organizations make mistakes -- sometimes small mistakes (a tax return is sent to the wrong person, a hospital patient is administered two aspirins rather than one) and sometimes large mistakes (the space shuttle Challenger is cleared for launch on January 28, 1986, a Union Carbide plant accidentally releases toxic gases over a large population in Bhopal, FEMA bungles its response to Hurricane Katrina). What can we say about the causes of organizational mistakes? And how can organizations and their processes be improved so mistakes are less common and less harmful?

Charles Perrow has devoted much of his career to studying these questions. Two books in particular have shed a great deal of light on the organizational causes of industrial and technological accidents, Normal Accidents: Living with High-Risk Technologies and The Next Catastrophe: Reducing Our Vulnerabilities to Natural, Industrial, and Terrorist Disasters. (Perrow's work has been discussed in several earlier posts; linklinklink.) The first book emphasizes that errors and accidents are unavoidable; they are the random noise of the workings of a complex organization. So the key challenge is to have processes that detect errors and that are resilient to the ones that make it through. One of Perrow's central findings in The Next Catastrophe is the importance of achieving a higher level of system resilience by decentralizing risk and potential damage. Don't route tanker cars of chlorine through dense urban populations; don't place nuclear power plants adjacent to cities; don't create an Internet or a power grid with a very small number of critical nodes. Kathleen Tierney's The Social Roots of Risk: Producing Disasters, Promoting Resilience (High Reliability and Crisis Management) emphasizes the need for system resilience as well (link).

Is it possible to arrive at a more granular understanding of organizational errors and their sources? A good place to begin is with the theory of organizations as "strategic action fields" in the sense advocated by Fligstein and McAdam in A Theory of Fields. This approach imposes an important discipline on us -- it discourages the mental mistake of reification when we think about organizations. Organizations are not unitary decision and action bodies; instead, they are networks of people linked in a variety of forms of dependency and cooperation. Various sub-entities consider tasks, gather information, and arrive at decisions for action, and each of these steps is vulnerable to errors and shortfalls. The activities of individuals and sub-groups are stimulated and conveyed through these networks of association; and, like any network of control or communication, there is always the possibility of a broken link or a faulty action step within the extended set of relationships that exist.

Errors can derive from individual mistakes; they can derive from miscommunication across individuals and sub-units within the organization; they can derive from more intentional sources, including self-interested or corrupt behavior on the part of internal participants. And they can derive from conflicts of interest between units within an organization (the manufacturing unit has an interest in maximizing throughput, the quality control unit has an interest in minimizing faulty products).

Errors are likely in every part of an organization's life. Errors occur in the data-gathering and analysis functions of an organization. A sloppy market study is incorporated into a planning process leading to a substantial over-estimate of demand for a product; a survey of suppliers makes use of ambiguous questions that lead to misinterpretation of the results; a vice president under-estimates the risk posed by a competitor's advertising campaign. For an organization to pursue its mission effectively, it needs to have accurate information about the external circumstances that are most relevant to its goals. But "relevance" is a judgment issue; and it is possible for an organization to devote its intelligence-gathering resources to the collection of data that are only tangentially helpful for the task of designing actions to carry out the mission of the institution.

Errors occur in implementation as well. The action initiatives that emerge from an organization's processes -- from committees, from CEOs, from intermediate-level leaders, from informal groups of staff -- are also vulnerable to errors of implementation. The facilities team formulates a plan for re-surfacing a group of parking lots; this plan depends upon closing these lots several days in advance; but the safety department delays in implementing the closure and the lots have hundreds of cars in them when the resurfacing equipment arrives. An error of implementation.

One way of describing these kinds of errors is to recognize that organizations are "loosely connected" when it comes to internal processes of information gathering, decision making, and action. The CFO stipulates that the internal audit function should be based on best practices nationally; the chief of internal audit interprets this as an expectation that processes should be designed based on the example of top-tier companies in the same industry; and the subordinate operationalizes this expectation by doing a survey of business-school case studies of internal audit functions at 10 companies. But the data collection that occurs now has only a loose relationship to the higher-level expectation formulated by the CFO. Similar disconnects -- or loose connections -- occur on the side of implementation of action steps as well. Presumably top FEMA officials did not intend that FEMA's actions in response to Hurricane Katrina would be as ineffective and sporadic as they turned out to be.

Organizations also have a tendency towards acting on the basis of collective habits and traditions of behavior. It is easier for a university's admissions department to continue the same programs of recruitment and enrollment year after year than it is to rethink the approach to recruitment in a fundamental way. And yet it may be that the circumstances of the external environment have changed so dramatically that the habitual practices will no longer achieve similar results. A good example is the emergence of social media marketing in admissions; in a very short period of time the 17- and 18-year-old young people whom admissions departments want to influence went from willing recipients of glossy admissions publications in the mail to "Facebook-only" readers. Yesterday's correct solution to an organizational problem may become tomorrow's serious error, because the environment has changed.

In a way the problem of organizational errors is analogous to the problem of software bugs in large, complex computer systems. It is recognized by software experts that bugs are inevitable; and some of these coding errors or design errors may have catastrophic consequences in unusual settings. (Nancy Leveson's Safeware: System Safety and Computers provides an excellent review of these possibilities.) So the task for software engineers and organizational designers and leaders is similar: designing fallible systems that do a pretty good job almost all of the time, and are likely to fail gracefully when errors inevitably occur.

Friday, June 17, 2016

Capitalism 2.0?


Capitalism is one particular configuration of the economic institutions that define production and consumption in a society. It involves private ownership of firms and resources, and a system of wage labor through which individuals compete for jobs within the context of a labor market. In its nature it creates positions of substantial power for owners of capital, and generally little power for owners of labor power -- workers. In theory capitalism can be joined with both democratic and authoritarian systems of government -- for example, France (democratic) and Argentina 1970 (military dictatorship). (Here is an earlier post on alternative capitalisms; link.)

As Marx himself noted, capitalism brought a number of powerful and emancipatory changes into the world. But it is plain that there are substantial deficiencies in our contemporary political economy, from the point of view of the great majority of society. For example:
  • Rising inequalities of income and wealth
  • Disproportionate power of corporations in political and economic life
  • Persistence of racial and ethnic segregation and discrimination 
  • Slow rates of social mobility
  • Pervasive inequalities of opportunity
  • Overwhelming influence of money in electoral politics
  • Inability to address the causes of climate change
  • Inability of the state to effectively regulate products and processes to ensure health and safety
  • Manipulation of culture and values for the sake of profit
What kinds of institutional changes might we imagine for our current political economy that do a better job of satisfying the demands of justice and human wellbeing?

A number of philosophers, political scientists, and economists have addressed the question of how to envision a more just form of capitalism. Kathleen Thelen considers the prospects for an "egalitarian capitalism" (Varieties of Liberalization and the New Politics of Social Solidaritylink); Jon Elster had an important contribution to make on the question of alternatives to capitalism (Alternatives to Capitalism; link); and John Rawls put forward a view of a preferable alternative to capitalism, which he referred to as a property-owning democracy (O'Neill and Williamson, Property-Owning Democracy: Rawls and Beyond; link).

So what might capitalism 2.0 look like if we want a genuinely fair and progressive society in the 21st century? Several features seem clear.
  • Something like decentralized markets in labor and capital seem unavoidable in a large modern society. So the 21st-century economy will be a market economy.
  • Rawls is right that extreme inequalities of property ownership lead to unacceptable inequalities of political participation and human capability fulfillment. So the 21st century will need to find effective ways of distributing wealth and income more broadly.
  • Market mechanisms generally leave some disadvantaged sub-populations behind. A key goal of the 21st century state must be to find effective ways of improving the prerequisites of opportunity for disadvantaged groups. This means that a substantial equality of availability and access to education, nutrition, housing, and other components of quality of life need to be secured by the state.
  • Existing market institutions do not automatically guarantee fair equality of opportunity. So the political economy of capitalism 2.0 will need to use public resources and authority to ensure equality of opportunity for all citizens.
What kinds of political and economic institutions would serve to advance these social goals?

One approach that is gaining international attention is the idea of a universal basic income for all citizens. Belgian philosopher Philippe van Parijs makes a powerful case for the need for universal basic income (link) in the world economy we now face. Here is his definition in the Boston Review article:
By universal basic income I mean an income paid by a government, at a uniform level and at regular intervals, to each adult member of society. The grant is paid, and its level is fixed, irrespective of whether the person is rich or poor, lives alone or with others, is willing to work or not. In most versions–certainly in mine–it is granted not only to citizens, but to all permanent residents. 
The UBI is called "basic" because it is something on which a person can safely count, a material foundation on which a life can firmly rest. Any other income–whether in cash or in kind, from work or savings, from the market or the state–can lawfully be added to it. On the other hand, nothing in the definition of UBI, as it is here understood, connects it to some notion of "basic needs." A UBI, as defined, can fall short of or exceed what is regarded as necessary to a decent existence. (link)
Swiss voters defeated such a proposal for Switzerland this spring (link), but serious debates continue. 

Another approach results from politically effective demands for real equality of opportunity. Equality of opportunity requires high-quality public education for everyone. So capitalism 2.0 needs to embody educational institutions that are substantially better and more egalitarian than those we now have -- ranging from pre-school to K-12 to universities. Consider this fascinating county-level map of the United States combining per capita income, high school graduate rate, and college graduate rate (link):



The map makes clear the strong association between county income and educational attainment, which implies in turn that children born into the wrong zip code have substantially lower likelihood of attaining high-quality educational success. A more just society would show little variation with respect to educational attainment, even when it also shows substantial variation in per-capita incomes across counties. Achieving comparable levels of educational attainment across rich and poor counties requires a substantial public investment in schools, teachers, and educational resources.

Another determinant of equality of opportunity is universal access to quality healthcare. Poor health affects both current quality of life and future productivity; so when poor people are in circumstances in which they cannot afford or gain access to high-quality healthcare, their current and future life prospects are at risk.

All of these ideas about a more just capitalism require resources; and those resources can only come from public finance, or taxation. The wealth of a society is a joint product which the market allocates privately. Taxation is the mechanism through which the benefits of social cooperation extend more fully to all members of society. It is through taxation that a capitalist society has the potential for creating an environment with high levels of equality of opportunity for its citizens and high levels of quality of life for its population. The resulting political economy promises to be the foundation of a more equitable and productive society. (Here is a post on the moral basis for the extensive democratic state; link.)