Monday, October 23, 2017

Intergenerational social mobility


A crucial part of social cohesion is the prospect of social mobility across generations. A social order in which individuals are stuck in their social position as a result of the lack of social assets of their parents is one which lacks legitimacy for an important part of its population. (Here are a few earlier posts on social mobility in the United States; link, link.) This observation raises several crucial questions. How do we measure social mobility? What obstacles stand in the way of social mobility for some segments of a given population? And what mechanisms exist to increase the pace of social mobility for a given society?

Raj Chetty and his colleagues have profoundly changed the terrain for social scientists interested in these questions through a striking new approach. Their work is presented on the Equality of Mobility website (link). The map above shows that there are very sizable regional differences in social mobility rates, from the deep south to the plains states and upper midwest.

Of particular interest is the light their research sheds on the role that post-secondary education plays in social mobility. A summary of their findings is presented in an NBER research paper, "Mobility Report Cards: The Role of Colleges in Intergenerational Mobility" (link). Here is a statement of their approach:
We take a step toward answering these questions by using administrative data covering all college students from 1999-2013 to construct publicly available mobility report cards – statistics on students’ earnings outcomes and their parents’ incomes – for each college in America.1 We use de-identified data from federal income tax returns and the Department of Education to obtain information on college attendance, students’ earnings in their early thirties, and their parents’ household incomes.2 In our baseline analysis, we focus on children born between 1980 and 1982 – the oldest children whom we can reliably link to parents – and assign children to colleges based on the college they attend most between the ages of 19 and 22. We then show that our results are robust to a range of alternative specifications, such as measuring children’s incomes at the household instead of individual level, using alternative definitions of college attendance, and adjusting for differences in local costs of living.
Their research involves linking federal tax returns for two generations of individuals in order to establish the relationship between the parents' income group and the child's income group after college. (The tax data are de-identified so that the privacy of the individuals is protected.) The Equality of Mobility website includes downloadable datasets for the report cards for several thousand post-secondary institutions.

A highlight of this analysis is the very substantial impact on social mobility created by regional public universities.
The colleges that have the highest bottom-to-top-quintile mobility rates – i.e., those that offer both high success rates and low-income access – are typically mid-tier public institutions. For instance, many campuses of the City University of New York (CUNY), certain California State colleges, and several campuses in the University of Texas system have mobility rates above 6%. Certain community colleges, such as Glendale Community College in Los Angeles, also have very high mobility rates; however, a number of other community colleges have very low mobility rates because they have low success rates. Elite private (Ivy-Plus) colleges have an average mobility rate of 2.2%, slightly above the national median: these colleges have the best outcomes but, as discussed above, also have very few students from low-income families. Flagship public institutions have fairly low mobility rates on average (1.7%), as many of them have relatively low rates of access. Mobility rates are not strongly correlated with differences in the distribution of college majors, endowments, instructional expenditures, or other institutional characteristics. This is because the characteristics that correlate positively with children’s earnings outcomes (e.g., selectivity or expenditures) correlate negatively with access, leading to little or no correlation with mobility rates. The lack of observable predictors of mobility rates underscores the value of directly examining students’ earnings outcomes by college as we do here, but leaves the question of understanding the production and selection technologies used by high-mobility-rate colleges open for future work. (3-4)
These are by and large the institutions that constitute the membership of the American Association of State Colleges and Universities (link). AASCU institutions are distinguished by the commitment that they commonly share to enhancing access for under-serviced members of society, and to contributing to social mobility in the regions and states that they serve. These values are expressed in the American Democracy Project (link). The evidence of the Chetty project appears to validate the achievement of that mission.

There are additional questions that one would like to be able to answer using the kinds of data that Chetty and his colleagues have considered. Central among these have to do with other measures of social mobility. The definition of social mobility in use here is transition from the bottom quintile of income to the top quintile of income in one generation. But it would be illuminating to consider less dramatic social movement as well -- for example, from the bottom quintile to the middle quintile.

This research underlines the critical importance of public higher education in the United States. We need to do a better job of supporting public universities so that the cost of higher education is not so heavily skewed towards tuition revenues. The benefits of public universities are certainly of value to the individual graduates and their families. But the increased social mobility enabled by many public universities also enhances democratic legitimacy at a time when many institutions are under attack.

Sunday, October 8, 2017

Social consciousness and critical realism


Critical realism proposes an approach to the social world that pays particular attention to objective and material features of the social realm -- property relations, impersonal institutional arrangements, supra-individual social structures. Between structure and agent, CR seems most often to lean towards structures rather than consciously feeling and thinking agents. And so one might doubt whether CR has anything useful to offer when it comes to studying the subjective side of social life.

Take for example the idea of a social identity. A social identity seems inherently subjective. It is the bundle of ideas and frameworks through which one places himself or herself in the social world, the framework through which a person conceptualizes his/her relations with others, and an ensemble of the motivations and commitments that lead to important forms of social and political action. All of this sounds subjective in the technical sense -- a part of the subjective and personal experience of a single individual. It is part of consciousness, not the material world.

So it is reasonable to ask whether there is anything in a social identity that is available for investigation through the lens of critical realism.

The answer, however, seems to be fairly clear. Ideas and mental frameworks have social antecedents and causal influences. Individuals take shape through concrete social development that is conducted through stable social arrangements and institutions. Consciousness has material foundations. And therefore, it is perfectly appropriate to pursue a realist materialist investigation of social consciousness. This was in fact one important focus of the Annales school of historiography.

This is particularly evident in the example of a social identity. No one is born with a Presbyterian or a Sufi religious identity. Instead, children, adolescents, and young adults acquire their religious and moral ideas through interaction with other individuals, and many of those interactions are determined by enduring social structures and institutional arrangements. So it is a valid subject of research to attempt to uncover the pathways of interaction and influence through which individuals come to have the ideas and values they currently have. This is a perfectly objective topic for social research.

But equally, the particular configuration of beliefs and values possessed by a given individual and a community of individuals is an objective fact as well, and it is amenable to empirical investigation. The research currently being done on the subcultures of right wing extremism illustrates this point precisely. It is an interesting and important fact to uncover (if it is a fact) that the ideologies and symbols of hate that seem to motivate right wing youth are commonly associated with patriarchal views of gender as well.

So ideas and identities are objective in at least two senses, and are therefore amenable to treatment from a realist perspective. They have objective social determinants that can be rigorously investigated; and they have a particular grammar and semiotics that need to be rigorously investigated as well. Both kinds of inquiry are amenable to realist interpretation: we can be realist about the mechanisms through which a given body of social beliefs and values are promulgated through a population, and we can be realist about the particular content of those belief systems themselves.

Ironically, this position seems to converge in an unexpected way with two streams of classical social theory. This approach to social consciousness resonates with some of the holistic ideas that Durkheim brought to his interpretation of religion and morality. But likewise it brings to mind Marx's views of the determinants of social consciousness through objective material circumstances. We don't generally think of Marx and Durkheim as having much in common. But on the topic of the material reality of ideas and their origins in material features of social life, they seem to agree.

These considerations seem to lead to a strong conclusion: critical realism can be as insightful in its treatment of objective social structures as it is in study of "subjective" features of social consciousness and identities.


Wednesday, October 4, 2017

Community resilience


We know what is meant by saying that a physical system is resilient: for a given range of shocks, the system has the ability to recover its structural integrity. This does not mean that a resilient system is impervious to shocks, but rather that it is capable of recovery from a given range of shocks at a given level of severity (through redundancy, decentralized systems, or repair mechanisms). (Here is a discussion of urban resilience and fragility in face of natural disaster by Kathleen Tierney in The Social Roots of Risk: Producing Disasters, Promoting Resiliencelink.)

We also think we know something about individual resilience. It is a complex capacity of personality and character that permits the individual to regain equanimity after some of life's common hazards -- loss of a job, onset of a serious illness, death of a loved one. Here is how the American Psychological Association defines resilience (link):
Resilience is the process of adapting well in the face of adversity, trauma, tragedy, threats or significant sources of stress — such as family and relationship problems, serious health problems or workplace and financial stressors. It means "bouncing back" from difficult experiences. 
Research has shown that resilience is ordinary, not extraordinary. People commonly demonstrate resilience. One example is the response of many Americans to the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks and individuals' efforts to rebuild their lives. 
Being resilient does not mean that a person doesn't experience difficulty or distress. Emotional pain and sadness are common in people who have suffered major adversity or trauma in their lives. In fact, the road to resilience is likely to involve considerable emotional distress. 
Resilience is not a trait that people either have or do not have. It involves behaviors, thoughts and actions that can be learned and developed in anyone.
How does the idea of resilience work in application to communities -- in particular, multi-ethnic, multi-racial, and multi-religious communities? Shocks occur in all communities -- a violent crime is committed, a fiery speech is issued, a labor crisis occurs, a harvest fails. All of these incidents have the capacity to initiate a cycle of inter-group recrimination and separation. What features of community life and organization permit a multi-group community to regain its stability and inter-group harmony? What features exist that can stop the slide into escalation and eventual antagonism and violence across groups?

Historical experience in many parts of the world shows that communities of mixed populations sometimes degenerate into antagonism and violence across groups. The histories of ethnic and religious violence in India and the current tragedy of the Rohingya in Myanmar provide clear examples. Mixed communities that have lived peacefully and harmoniously are suddenly riven by mistrust, antagonism, and hate that lead to inter-group violence. (An earlier post dissected some of the pathways through which this process takes place; link.)

Here is how Paul Brass describes the emergence of violent collective action in India in The Production of Hindu-Muslim Violence in Contemporary India.
Most commonly, the rhetoric is laced with words that encourage its members not to put up any longer with the attacks of the other but to retaliate against their aggression. There are also specific forms of action that are designed to provoke the other community into aggressive action, which is then met with a stronger retaliatory response. (24)
Here Brass describes a dynamic process of provocation, escalation, and inter-group competition that leads quickly to antagonism and violence. And, as he makes clear throughout his book, this process is often stimulated and prodded by political entrepreneurs who have an interest in inter-group antagonism.

So the question here is this: what features of community life can be developed and cultivated that can serve as "shock absorbers" working to damp down the slide towards antagonism? What social features can make a multi-group community more resilient in face of provocations towards separation and mistrust?

Without pretending to offer a full theory of inter-group community stability, there are a few measures that seem to be conducive to stability.

First, the existence of cross-group organizations and partnerships among organizations originating in the separate groups, seems to be a strongly stabilizing feature of a multi-group society. The presence of a group of leaders who are committed to enhancing trust and cooperation across group lines provides an important "fire break" when conflicts arise, because these leaders and organizations already have a basis of trust with each other, and a willingness to work together to reduce tensions and suspicions across groups.

Second, person-to-person relationships across groups (through neighborhoods, places of work, or family relations) provide a basis for resisting the slide towards suspicion and fear across groups. If Chandar and Ismael are friends at work, they are perhaps less likely to be swayed by Hindu nationalist rhetoric or Islamic separatist rhetoric, and less likely to join in a violent mob attacking the other's home and community. Neighborhood and workplace integration ought to be retardants to the spread of inter-group hostility.

Third, policing and law enforcement can be an important buffer against the escalation of ethnic or religious tensions. If a Muslim shop is burned and the police act swiftly to find and arrest the arsonist, there will be a greater level of trust in the Muslim community that their security interests are being protected by the system of law.

Intergroup violence is the extreme case. But the separation of communities into mutually fearful and mistrustful groups defined by religion, race, or ethnicity is inherently bad, and it has the prospect of facilitating intergroup violence in the future. So discovering practical mechanisms of resilience is an enormously important task in these times of division and antagonism presented by our national political leaders.

Saturday, September 30, 2017

Refinements of social functionalism


Robert Merton is one of the most sophisticated exponents of a qualified functionalism in sociology (Social Theory and Social Structure). He finds that earlier versions of sociological functionalism were conceptually flawed. Here is how he characterizes the classic theory of functionalism:
We should attend first to the list of terms ostensibly referring to the same concept: purpose, function, motive, designed, secondary consideration, primary concern, aim. Through inspection, it becomes clear that these terms group into quite distinct conceptual frames of reference. At times, some of these terms — move, design, aim and purpose — clearly refer to the explicit ends-in-view of the representatives of the state. Others motive, secondary consideration — refer to the ends -in-view of the victim of the crime. And both of these sets of terms are alike in referring to the subjective anticipations of the results of punishment. But the concept of function involves the standpoint of the observer, not necessarily that of the participant. Social function refers to observable objective consequences, not to subjective dispositions (aims, motives, purposes). And the failure to distinguish between the objective sociological consequences and the subjective dispositions inevitably leads to confusion of functional analysis. (78)
And here is a fairly clear statement of the logic of functional analysis as practiced by social anthropologists like Evans-Pritchard and Malinowski, according to Merton:
Substantially, these postulates hold first, that standardized social activities or cultural items are functional for the entire social or cultural system; second, that all such social and cultural items fulfill sociological functions; and third, that these items are consequently indispensable. Although these three articles of faith are ordinarily seen only in one another’s company, they had best be examined separately, since each gives rise to its own distinctive difficulties. (79)
Merton offers careful critique of all three postulates.
In scrutinizing first, the postulate of functional unity, we found that one cannot assume full integration of all societies, but that this is an empirical question of fact in which we should be prepared to find a range of degrees of integration… 
Review of the second postulate of universal functionalism, which holds that all persisting forms of culture are inevitably functional, resulted in other considerations which must be met by a codified approach to functional interpretation. It appeared not only that we must be prepared to find dysfunctional as well as functional consequences of these forms but that the theorist will ultimately be confronted with the difficult problem of developing an organon for assessing the net balance of consequences if his research is to have bearing on social technology…. 
The postulate of indispensability, we found entailed two distinct propositions: the one alleging the indispensability of certain functions, and this gives rise to the concept of functional necessity or functional pre-requisites; the other alleging the indispensability of existing social institutions, culture forms, or the like, and this when suitably questioned, gives rise to the concept of functional alternatives, equivalents or substitutes. (90)
Merton draws an important distinction between manifest and latent functions -- between the directly observable beneficial consequences of a given social arrangement and the indirect and unobservable consequences that the arrangement may have.
But armed with the concept of latent function, the sociologist extends his inquiry in those very directions which promise most for the theoretic development of the discipline. He examines the familiar (or planned) social practice to ascertain the latent, and hence generally unrecognized, functions (as well, of course, as the manifest functions). He considers, for example, the consequences of the new wage plan for, say, the trade union in which the workers are organized.... There is some evidence that it is precisely at the point where the research attention of sociologists has shifted from the plane of manifest to the plane of latent functions that they have made their distinctive and major contributions. (120)
In the “organon” that Merton sketches for sociological functionalism in this book, he emphasizes the crucial role played by the search for mechanisms. We need to understand how functional properties of a feature are conveyed to the social arrangements that they affect. (Note that this is not the same as searching for the mechanisms through which the functional properties are brought about. Merton addresses this latter question under the topic of structural dynamics and change.)
Concepts of the mechanisms through which functions are fulfilled.. Functional analysis in sociology, as in other disciplines like physiology and psychology, calls for a “concrete and detailed” account of the mechanisms which operate to perform a designated function. This refers, not to psychological, but to social, mechanisms (e.g., role-segmentation, insulation f institutional demands, hierarchic ordering of values, social division of labor, ritual and ceremonial enactments, etc.). (106)
These passages demonstrate that Merton’s relationship to functionalism is complex, and the functionalism that he endorses is not the a priori methodology advocated by earlier theorists. However, he accepts the basic idea that we can explain (some) social features based on the positive consequences they create for the social system or important parts of the social system.

The idea of sociological functionalism has been substantially discredited in sociology. Functionalism maintains that social features -- institutions, values, laws -- have the characteristics they possess because they serve important needs of the social order. Or to put the point the other way around, a social order comes to have features that are functionally well adapted to serving the needs of society (or powerful groups within society). Marx makes such a statement when he asserts that the state is the managing committee of the bourgeoisie, or that the superstructure of capitalist society exists to stabilize the property relations of the economic structure. Jon Elster offered compelling critiques of functionalism in his discussions of Gerry Cohen's Karl Marx's Theory of History and Marx's theory of historical materialism (link). These criticisms were formulated with respect to historical materialism, but they are equally compelling for other functionalist theories as well.

Fundamentally the critique of sociological functionalism depends on discrediting an analogy between biology and sociology. The language of functional adaptation of organs to system finds its origin in biology; the heart serves to sustain the organism by pumping blood. But, as Elster and others point out, there is a crucial disanalogy between biology and sociology. This is the fact of natural selection and evolution in the biological case, which has no close analog in the social case. We have a very good understanding of the mechanism that leads the physiology of a species to be well adapted to serving the reproductive and survival needs of the organism; this is the mechanism of natural selection. But social entities are not subject to analogous selection pressures.

So the functionalist view of society is suspect because it depends on a fundamental mystery: how can the effects of a social features be thought to explain its emergence and structure? How can the fact that XYZ system of norms about marriage has the effect of creating a docile workforce explain the existence of that set of norms in society? Doesn't this get the temporal order of causation backwards? It is not impossible to provide answers to this question; but we cannot take it as a dogmatic assumption that society will unavoidably be organized in such a way that its needs are satisfied by well tuned institutions.

There is one answer to this question that makes perfect sense: the mechanism of purposive design. There is no mystery in the fact that a rudder exists to steer the ship; it was designed by the ship builder to do exactly that. And perhaps it is no less straightforward to assert that the audit function in a corporation exists to prevent dishonest behavior within the organization. Intelligent managers, foreseeing the temptation to fiddle accounts, designed a system for detecting and punishing fiddling.

What is more difficult to interpret is a claim about the social function of a feature where the postulated consequences of the workings of the features are obscure (latent, in Merton's terms), and where the feature took shape as the result of the independent actions of numerous actors over time. The first point makes intelligent design difficult to carry out, and the second makes it implausible to assume the existence of the intelligent designer at all.

It is not impossible to imagine social mechanisms that might bring about a functional adaptation of a social arrangement to the needs of the system. Here is a mechanism that complements the intelligent design mechanism. Call it the "slow accumulation of interested adjustments" mechanism. Suppose that a social arrangement is introduced through legislation -- a policy governing regulation of private activities to protect health and safety. And suppose that the details of the policy are open to modification over time by a legislative process. At any given time there will be groups and individuals whose interests are affected by the policy. When modifications are considered, groups can advocate for improvements that favor their interests. And if there are groups within society that world disproportionate power and influence, we can expect that the modifications that are selected will more often than not be ones favored by this group. This mechanism implies that the policy will be "tuned" over time to work in such a way as to serve the interests of the influential group.

This mechanism is different from the intelligent design mechanism because it assumes only local modifications over time -- not a unitary optimal planning and design process. It looks more like an evolutionary process -- myopic but directional. But the mechanism of innovation and selection is different from the biological case. Innovations survive because they are preferred by influential stakeholders. And the medium- and long-term result is a drift in the direction of fit between the working characteristics of the policy and the needs and interests of the influential groups.

This gives us a different and more sociologically credible way of defending the idea that important social arrangements will be "functionally adapted" to satisfying the needs of the powerful groups in society -- not because those groups directly designed the arrangements, but because they had influence on the process of refinement and adjustment that led to the present configuration.

This suggests that sociological functionalism is not fundamentally impossible. Instead, it shows that a functional claim must be complemented with an account of how the postulated correspondence between the characteristics of the arrangement and the needs of the system came to be -- how the arrangement was developed in ways that led it towards a higher degree of fittedness to the needs of some important social-systemic characteristic.

Thursday, September 28, 2017

Sustaining a philosophy research community


The European Network for Philosophy of Social Science (ENPOSS) completed its annual conference in Krakow last week. It was a stimulating and productive success, with scholars from many countries and at every level of seniority. ENPOSS is one of the most dynamic networks where genuinely excellent work in philosophy of social science is taking place (link). Philosophers from Germany, Poland, Norway, Spain, France, the Netherlands, the UK, and other countries came together for three intensive days of panels and discussions. The discussions made it clear that this is an integrated research community with a common understanding of a number of research problems and a common vocabulary. There is a sense of continuing progress on key issues -- micro-macro ontology, social mechanisms, naturalism, intentionality, institutional imperatives, fact-value issues, computational social science, and intersections of disciplinary perspectives, to name several.

Particular highlights were keynote addresses by Dan Hausman ("Social scientific naturalism revisited"), Anne Alexandrova ("Are social scientists experts on values?"), and Bartosz Brozek ("The architecture of the legal mind"). There were also lively book discussions on several current books in the philosophy of social science -- Chris Mantzavinos's Explanatory Pluralism, Lukasz Hardt's Economics Without Laws: Towards a New Philosophy of Economics, and my own New Directions in the Philosophy of Social Science. Thanks to Eleonora Montuschi, Gianluca Manzo, and Federica Russo for excellent and stimulating discussion of my book.

It is interesting to observe that the supposed divide between analytic and Continental philosophy is not in evidence in this network of scholars. These are philosophers whose Ph.D. training took place all over Europe -- Italy, Belgium, Finland, Germany, France, Spain, the UK ... They are European philosophers. But their philosophical ideas do not fall within the stereotyped boundaries of "Continental philosophy." The philosophical vocabulary in evidence is familiar from analytic philosophy. At the same time, this is not simply an extension of Anglo-American philosophy. The style of reasoning and analysis is not narrowly restricted to the paradigms reflected by Russell, Dummett, or Parfit. It is, perhaps, a new style of European philosophy. There is a broad commitment to engaging with the logic and content of particular social sciences at a level that would also make sense to the practitioners of sociology, political science, or economics. And there is a striking breadth to the substantive problems of social life that these philosophers are attempting to better understand. The overall impression is of a research community that has the features of what Imre Lakatos referred to as a "progressive research programme" in Criticism and the Growth of Knowledge -- one in which problems are being addressed and treated in ways that sheds genuinely new light on the problem. Progress is taking place.

There were two large topic areas that perhaps surprisingly did not find expression in the ENPOSS program. One is the field of critical realism and the ideas about social explanation advanced by Roy Bhaskar and Margaret Archer. And the second is the theory of assemblages put forward by Deleuze and subsequently elaborated by DeLanda and Latour. These topic areas have drawn a fair amount of attention by social theorists and philosophers in other parts of the philosophy of social science research community. So it is interesting to realize that they were largely invisible in Krakow. This leads one to think that this particular network of scholars is simply not very much influenced by these ideas.

Part of the dynamism of the ENPOSS conference, both in Krakow and in prior years, is the broad sense that these issues matter a great deal. There was a sense of the underlying importance of the philosophy of social science. Participants seem to share the idea that the processes of social change and periodic crisis that we face in the contemporary world are both novel and potentially harmful to human flourishing, and that the social sciences need to develop better methods, ontologies, and theories if they are to help us to understand and improve the social world in which we live. So the philosophy of social science is not just a contribution to a minor area within the grand discipline of philosophy; more importantly, it is a substantial and valuable contribution to our collective ability to bring a scientific perspective to social problems and social progress.

Next year's meeting will take place in early September at the University of Hannover and will be a joint meeting with the US-based Philosophy of Social Science Roundtable. The call for papers will be posted on the ENPOSS website.



Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Experiencing the Holocaust


When we think we know about an historical event -- the French Revolution, the Spanish Civil War, the Jim Crow years in America -- generally what we know is a limited and miscellaneous set of facts, impressions, interpretations, and summaries we have gathered through many avenues -- monographs, novels, films, poetry, historical lectures in college. No one now living has had direct experience of the French Revolution. And even if we came across a time-traveling Parisian from the relevant dates, we would probably quickly learn that this person's perspective on the events he or she lived through is highly limited and perhaps even misleading.

What do most American adults know about the Holocaust? Here are some core beliefs that most people could probably recite. It was a horrible crime. It was a deliberate program of extermination. Over six million Jewish men, women, and children were murdered. Other groups were also targeted, including Roma people, homosexuals, and Communists. It was the result of racist Nazi ideology. There were particular agents of this evil -- Hitler, Himmler, Göring, Hess, ... There were countless ordinary people across the face of Europe, in Germany and many other countries, who facilitated this evil -- the "banality of evil". There were some heroes who fought against the killing -- Wallenberg, Schindler, Bonhoeffer, Marc Bloch, the villagers of Le Chambron. There are noted tragic victims -- Anne Frank, Maximilian Kolbe. And the Allies could have done much more to disrupt the killing and to facilitate escape for the Jews of Europe.

But notice how thin this body of beliefs is. It is barely thick enough to constitute "knowledge of the Holocaust". It is encapsulated in just a few sentences. If it has emotional content it is a hazy version of the emotions of pity and sorrow. Is this knowledge adequate to the realities it represents? When we repeat the words, "Never again!", do we know what we are saying? And how can a more full and satisfactory level of knowledge of this horrifying and defining event in the twentieth century be achieved?

Here is one possible answer. There is a different way of gaining a more personal and nuanced understanding of the Holocaust -- an extended visit to Auschwitz and Birkenau (link). It is a museum, an historical site, a killing ground, a place where one and a half million people were systematically murdered.  A visit to the concentration camps is a very different avenue of knowledge -- knowledge through personal, empathic understanding of the vastness and horror of the crimes committed here.

So, for example, one can see the photographs of individual prisoners, their life stories encapsulated by the date and place of their arrest and the date of their death in the gas chambers. One can read a very personal family tragedy in these photographs.


There are mountains of human hair. There are piles of kitchen goods, shoe polish, clothing, combs, and other items of daily life, all carried through their final days of desperation and transit, all stolen from the dead. There are the drawings by child prisoners found on the walls of the barracks, depicting scenes of concentration camp life through the eyes of children. These children too mostly did not survive. 


This drawing by a child depicts something the child must have seen -- the arrival of prisoners and their separation at the platform into those who would perform slave labor and those who would die immediately.

So an intensive visit to Auschwitz is very powerful at the level of emotion and empathy. It makes the horror of the Holocaust both personal and particular. The visitor is led to imaginatively place himself or his loved ones on the platform, in the barracks, in the changing room. The Holocaust is no longer just a set of numbers and facts, but am invitation to vicarious empathic understanding -- and then a mental multiplication of that experience by a factor of millions. 


The museum and grounds of the death camps of Auschwitz-Birkenau receive over two million visitors a year, from dozens of countries. Some number of these visitors are perhaps unaffected by what they see. But surely large numbers of visitors are profoundly affected, and come to have a much more nuanced and personal understanding of what happened here. And surely this is a more important way of influencing our collective understanding of the Holocaust than any number of monographs.

There is a practical consequence of this kind of more personal experience of an historical horror. This experience strongly pushes the person to consider how the currents of hate that led to this historical crime are present in the world today. It leads one to care in a more particular way about the Rohingya people today, or about the resurgence of white supremacy and anti-Semitism in the United States at Charlottesville. And it brings one to see the danger implicit in anti-Muslim bigotry in the United States and other countries today.

In other words, we may speculate that the more particular experience of the Holocaust afforded by a meaningful visit to Auschwitz contributes to creating a different kind of twenty-first century citizen, one who has a deeper visceral appreciation of what these crimes of the Nazi period involved in human terms, and a better and deeper understanding of the enormity of this experience. Equally important, it helps to create a much more specific emotional experience of pity and sorrow that honors the humanity of these millions of human beings who were murdered during this period. 

(I offer special thanks to Teresa Wontor-Cichy, a senior researcher and educator at the museum, for the very intensive tour of Auschwitz and Birkenau that she provided.)

Sunday, September 17, 2017

Worker-owned enterprises as a social solution

image: Mondragon headquarters, Arrasate-Mondragon, Spain

Consider some of the most intractable problems we face in contemporary society: rising inequalities between rich and poor, rapid degradation of the environment, loss of control of their lives by the majority of citizens. It might be observed that these problems are the result of a classic conundrum that Marx identified 150 years ago: the separation of society into owners of the means of production and owners of labor power that capitalism depends upon has a logic that leads to bad outcomes. Marx referred to these bad outcomes as "immiseration". The label isn't completely accurate because it implies that workers are materially worse off from decade to decade. But what it gets right is the fact of "relative immiseration" -- the fact that in almost all dimensions of quality of life the bottom 50% of the population in contemporary capitalism lags further and further from the quality of life enjoyed by the top 10%. And this kind of immiseration is getting worse. 

A particularly urgent contemporary version of these problems is the increasing pace of automation of various fields, leading to dramatic reduction for the demand for labor. Intelligent machines replace human workers. 

The central insight of Marx's diagnosis of capitalism is couched in terms of property and power. There is a logic to private ownership of the means of production that predictably leads to certain kinds of outcomes, dynamics that Marx outlined in Capital in fine detail: impersonalization of work relations, squeezing of wages and benefits, replacement of labor with machines, and -- Marx's ultimate accusation -- the creation of periodic crises. Marx anticipated crises of over-production and under-consumption; financial crises; and, if we layer in subsequent thinkers like Lenin, crises of war and imperialism.

At various times in the past century or two social reformers have looked to cooperatives and worker-owned enterprises as a solution for the problems of immiseration created by capitalism. Workers create value through their labor; they understand the technical processes of production; and it makes sense for them to share in the profits created through ownership of the enterprise. (A contemporary example is the Mondragon group of cooperatives in the Basque region of Spain.) The reasoning is that if workers own a share of the means of production, and if they organize the labor process through some kind of democratic organization, then we might predict that workers' lives would be better, there would be less inequality, and people would have more control over the major institutions affecting their lives -- including the workplace. Stephen Marglin's 1974 article "What do bosses do?" lays out the logic of private versus worker ownership of enterprises (link). Marglin's The Dismal Science: How Thinking Like an Economist Undermines Community explores the topic of worker ownership and management from the point of view of reinvigorating the bonds of community in contemporary society.

The logic is pretty clear. When an enterprise is owned by private individuals, their interest is in organizing the enterprise in such a way as to maximize private profits. This means choosing products that will find a large market at a favorable price, organizing the process efficiently, and reducing costs in inputs and labor. Further, the private owner has full authority to organize the labor process in ways that disempower workers. (Think Fordism versus the Volvo team-based production system.) This implies a downward pressure on wages and a preference for labor-saving technology, and it implies a more authoritarian workplace. So capitalist management implies stagnant wages, stagnant demand for labor, rising inequalities, and disagreeable conditions of work. 

When workers own the enterprise the incentives work differently. Workers have an interest in efficiency because their incomes are determined by the overall efficiency of the enterprise. Further, they have a wealth of practical and technical knowledge about production that promises to enhance effectiveness of the production process. Workers will deploy their resources and knowledge intelligently to bring products to the market. And they will organize the labor process in such a way that conforms to the ideal of humanly satisfying work.

The effect of worker-owned enterprises on economic inequalities is complicated. Within the firm the situation is fairly clear: the range of inequalities of income within the firm will depend on a democratic process, and this process will put a brake on excessive salary and wage differentials. And all members of the enterprise are owners; so wealth inequalities are reduced as well. In a mixed economy of private and worker-owned firms, however, the inequalities that exist will depend on both sectors; and the dynamics leading to extensive inequalities in today's world would be found in the mixed economy as well. Moreover, some high-income sectors like finance seem ill suited to being organized as worker-owned enterprises. So it is unclear whether the creation of a meaningful sector of worker-owned enterprises would have a measurable effect on overall wage and wealth inequalities.

There are several ways in which cooperatives might fail as an instrument for progressive reform. First, it might be the case that cooperative management is inherently less efficient, effective, or innovative than capitalism management; so the returns to workers would potentially be lower in an inefficient cooperative than a highly efficient capitalist enterprise. Marglin's arguments in "What do bosses do?" give reasons to doubt this concern as a general feature of cooperatives; he argues that private management does not generally beat worker management at efficiency and innovation. Second, it might be that cooperatives are feasible at a small and medium scale of enterprise, but not feasible for large enterprises like a steel company or IBM. Greater size might magnify the difficulties of coordination and decision-making that are evident in even medium-size worker-owned enterprises. Third, it might be argued that cooperatives themselves are labor-expelling: cooperative members may have an economic incentive to refrain from adding workers to the process in order to keep their own income and wealth shares higher. It would only make economic sense to add a worker when the product of the next worker is greater than the average product; whereas a private owner will add workers at a lower wage when the new worker's product is greater than the marginal product. So an economy in which there is a high proportion of worker-owned cooperatives may produce a high rate of unemployment among non-cooperative members. Finally, worker-owned enterprises will need access to capital; but this means that an uncontrollable portion of the surplus will flow out of the enterprise to the financial sector -- itself a major cause of current rising inequalities. Profits will be jointly owned; but interest and finance costs will flow out of the enterprise to privately owned financial institutions.

And what about automation? Would worker-owned cooperatives invest in substantial labor-replacing automation? Here there are several different scenarios to consider. The key economic fact is that automation reduces per-unit cost. This implies that in a situation of fixed market demand, automation of an enterprise implies reduction of the wage or reduction of the size of the workforce. There appear to be only a few ways out of this box. If it is possible to expand the market for the product at a lower unit price, then it is possible for an equal number of workers to be employed at an equal or higher individual return. If it is not possible to expand the market sufficiently, then the enterprise must either lower the wage or reduce the workforce. Since the enterprise is democratically organized, neither choice is palatable, and per-worker returns will fall. On this scenario, either the work force shrinks or the per-worker return falls.

Worker management has implications for automation in a different way as well. Private owners will select forms of automation based solely on their overall effect on private profits; whereas worker-owned firms will select a form of automation taking the value of a satisfying workplace into account. So we can expect that the pathway of technical change and automation would be different in worker-owned firms than in privately owned firms.

In short, the economic and institutional realities of worker-owned enterprises are not entirely clear. But the concept is promising enough, and there are enough successful real-world examples, to encourage progressive thinkers to reconsider this form of economic organization.

(Here are several earlier posts on issues of institutional design that confront worker-owned enterprises (link, link). Noam Chomsky and Richard Wolff discuss the value of worker-owned cooperatives within capitalism here; link, link. And here is an interesting article by Henry Hansmann on the economics of worker-owned firms in the Yale Law Journal; link.)

Sunday, September 10, 2017

Responding to hate


The Southern Poverty Law Center documents that hate groups and hate-based mobilization are on the rise in the United States (link, link). Here is a current map of hate-based groups monitored by SPLC:


Through provocative epithets, slogans, and extremist demonstrations a variety of hate groups -- white supremacists, neo-Nazis, anti-muslim bigots, anti-immigrant activists, anti-LGBTQ extremists, and others -- are seeking to establish a broader foothold in various parts of the country. They seek to build distrust, hate, and antagonism towards various groups and to undermine the bonds of community that hold together the multi-ethnic, multi-racial communities that exist all over the country.

We have also seen that social media can be used very intentionally by hate groups to cultivate mistrust, fear, and antagonism. This is an unsolved problem: Twitter, Facebook, and other social media are deliberately used to spread and cultivate hate.

These facts are easy to observe. The question here is a harder one: what are some of the ways that organizations and individuals can resist the onslaught of division and hate? How can a multi-ethnic or multi-racial community inoculate itself against the spread and influence of hate? How can our communities maintain and increase their resilience in the face of this organized effort?

Several things seem clear. One is that racist appeals generally seek to cultivate fear and resentment in their intended audiences. They work by cultivating mistrust across groups, framing the "other" as an interloper and a dangerous threat -- a threat to safety, to jobs, and to the hegemony of one's own group. And there is a logic of escalation that is implicit here. When the out-group perceives the growing antagonism and mistrust aimed towards its members, it is likely enough that individuals and organizations will become defensive -- and in their defensive actions they may provide more basis for the hate-based organization to extend its efforts.

So how can a multi-cultural community prepare itself for these kinds of strategies of division and intolerance? It can work hard to cultivate cross-group knowledge, understanding, and trust. Progressive community-based organizations are key. When an ethnically-grounded CBO makes deliberate efforts to involve partners from other communities in its efforts, the organization furthers the knowledge of each other that is available to members of both groups, and it enhances confidence in both groups of the good intentions of the other. A higher level of knowledge across groups is an antidote to hate and mistrust. More deeply, a history of partnership, collaboration, and successful initiatives together provides a solid ground for confidence and trust across groups.

Community leaders have a key role to play in enhancing the resilience of a community. When the mayor of a city is clear in his or her commitment to the equal value of all groups in the city, when he or she maintains a high level of community engagement through city offices, the various social groups in the city are enabled to develop a higher level of trust in the institutions that surround them and the values of respect and equality that their polity embraces. A mayor can be an important source of community cohesion in the face of divisive events and extremist efforts.

Leaders and organizations in civil society are equally impactful in maintaining an environment of trust and respect. Hospitals, universities, faith-based institutions, social-service organizations, and civic clubs all have the capacity to influence the values and behavior of large numbers of people. By being explicit and clear in their commitment to civility, respect, and equality, they can have a major impact on social cohesion as well.

It is crucial that individuals, organizations, and leaders speak out when hate-based incidents occur. By doing so they signal their solidarity with the affected group, and they reaffirm the commitments of respect and equality that they have articulated in easier times.

In the longer term, it is crucial to help children and adolescents understand the values of inclusion, respect, and acceptance of others. This means that it is very important for schools, places of worship, playgrounds, or youth organizations be attuned to the affirmative value of a democratic, multi-cultural society, and what goes into participating in an inclusive social world. Children are naturally open to each other without regard to differences; it is imperative to cultivate and extend that trust and mutual acceptance into adulthood.

Each of these social forces have the potential for signaling and advancing a set of values of inclusion that provide a powerful buffer against the toxic workings of hate. And in the end, we have the ability to stand together and affirm the values of solidarity, mutual respect, and democratic equality that are anathema to the purveyors of hate.

The Southern Poverty Law Center has compiled a report with some very useful strategies for combating hate at the community level; link. Here is a related post on social resiliency on Medium (link).

Sunday, September 3, 2017

Erik Olin Wright on real utopias


Erik Olin Wright is one of the genuinely important contributors to a progressive sociology in the United States. He was one of the first wave of social scientists and philosophers who created the movement of analytical Marxism in the 1970s and 1980s, and for more than thirty years he has organized much of his own thinking and the collaborations of a number of other scholars around the idea of a "real utopia." Essentially the idea is to make use of good social science research and theory to help to formulate visions of the future of society that incorporate an emancipatory vision of human community while imagining institutions and social arrangements that are feasible and attainable. Erik's book Envisioning Real Utopias provides a manifesto and extensive development of the ideas (link).

The general perspective that Wright has taken in the Real Utopias project is egalitarian and emancipatory. The project has focused on a number of key topics: universal basic income, market socialism, deliberative democracy, alternatives to capitalism, and gender equality, to name just a few. (Earlier posts on UnderstandingSociety have highlighted some of the goals of the real utopias project (link, link). Erik's webpage provides more details.)



Erik agreed to have a conversation with me about the rationale and central convictions that underlie the real utopias project, and the discussion is a valuable contribution to some of the hardest problems of social and political life that we now face -- rising inequalities of wellbeing and opportunity and the emergence of a politics of intolerance, division, and hate.

Thanks, Erik, for spending an afternoon with me thinking and talking about these important challenges. Progressives need new ideas and new imagination about what a future world can look like, and the real utopias project is succeeding in doing exactly that.

(I chose to illustrate this post with the cover of A. V. Chayanov's Theory of Peasant Economy because Chayanov too was a "real utopian," seeking to identify a feasible road to rural emancipation that was neither capitalist nor a version of centralized authoritarian communism. Chayanov was arrested and executed by the Stalinist Soviet secret police in 1937.)

Here is a link to the interview on YouTube (link). Readers who would like to view other interviews with innovative social scientists can click the "interview" page on the right (link).


Wednesday, August 30, 2017

New thinking about causal mechanisms


Anyone interested in the topic of causal mechanisms will be interested in the appearance of Stuart Glennan and Phyllis Illari's The Routledge Handbook of Mechanisms and Mechanical Philosophy. Both Glennan and Illari have been significant contributors to the past fifteen years of discussion about the role of mechanisms in scientific explanation, and the Handbook is a highly interesting contribution to the state of the debate.

The book provides discussion of the role of mechanisms thinking in a wide range of scientific disciplines, from physics to biology to social science to engineering and cognitive science. It consists of four large sections: "Historical perspectives on mechanisms", "The nature of mechanisms", "Mechanisms and the philosophy of science", and "Disciplinary perspectives on mechanisms." Each section consists of contributions by talented experts on genuinely interesting topics.

A good introduction to the general topic of mechanisms is the introduction to the volume by Glennan and Illari, and more especially their article, "Varieties of mechanisms." They directly confront one of the large issues in the field, the wide dispersion of definitions and applications of the idea of a causal mechanism. They correctly observe that the concept of mechanism is used fairly differently in various areas of science and philosophy, but they argue that there is a common core of elements that underlie most or all of these usages. The variety that exists is the result of differences in the nature of the phenomena across different areas of scientific investigation, and differences in methodology in use in various sciences. They provide a rather general definition of a mechanism:
A mechanism for a phenomenon consists of entities (or parts) whose activities and interactions are organized so as to be responsible for the phenomenon. (92)
They then attempt to provide a basis for classifying different kinds of mechanisms according to several different criteria. The dimensions of variation they identify include the kind of phenomenon produced, the kind of entities and activities constituting the mechanism, the way in which entities and activities are organized, and the etiology of the mechanism.

Also interesting is Petri Ylikoski's contribution, "Social mechanisms." Ylikoski structures his exposition of the theory of social mechanisms around the Coleman boat diagram (link). To provide a mechanism for a social phenomenon is to provide an account at the level of the actors of how a macro-level event or entity causally brings about another macro-level event or entity. Ylikoski insists that this is a matter of explanatory adequacy rather than reductive analysis, and is therefore not ontologically reductionist. But it does fundamentally imply that social mechanisms occur at the level of interactions among actors. In prior posts I have argued against this presupposition (link). I argue that it is perfectly intelligible to suggest that there are meso-level causal mechanisms. Ylikoski also underlines the affinity that exists between social mechanisms and agent-based modeling: a good ABM demonstrates the process through which a set of conditions at the micro-level aggregate to a certain kind of macro-level outcome. See this earlier post for a small amount of doubt about the adequacy of ABM models to perform this kind of social aggregation for realistic social scenarios; link. (Several of these points are developed in my New Directions in the Philosophy of Social Science.)

Povich and Craver address the topic of the relationship that exists between mechanisms, levels, emergence, and reduction in their contribution, "Mechanistic levels, reduction, and emergence". This is a key question within the philosophy of social science. And the idea of  mechanism seems to have great relevance to the idea of various levels of phenomena. At the level of the organization we see, perhaps, chronic inefficiency in the use of certain kinds of resources. In searching for the mechanisms that cause this inefficiency we may choose to drop down a level and examine the incentives and constraints that guide the behavior of individuals within the organization. And we arrive at a theory of the individual-level mechanism that produces the meso-level outcome. This is a mechanism that falls along strut 3 of Coleman's boat; it is an aggregative mechanism. But not all social mechanisms have this nature. If we want to know why rebellious segments of an agrarian society locate themselves in remote, mountainous areas, it is enough to know a few meso-level facts about the functioning of traditional military forces and the meso-level fact that mountainous terrain gives a tactical advantage to rebel commanders. This appears to be a meso-level mechanism from start to finish.

A particularly intriguing and original contribution is Abrahamsen, Sheredos, and Bechtel's "Explaining visually using mechanism diagrams." We tend to think of scientific explanations as mathematical demonstrations or text-based derivations of outcomes. Abrahamsen, Sheredos, and Bechtel point out that visual diagrams play a crucial role in the presentation of many scientific results; and these diagrams are not merely heuristic or illustrative. A visual presentation serves to designate how the hypothesized mechanism works: what its parts are, how the parts influence each other, and how the functioning of the mechanism over time produces the outcome in question. The authors make an admirable attempt to provide a philosophy-of-science analysis of the components and logic of a visual diagram as an expository device for presenting a causal mechanism or process. They highlight the logical problems of representing entities, spatial location, and temporal duration within a diagram in a way that permits the viewer to gain an accurate understanding of the hypothesized mechanism or process. And they note that it is a conceptually simple step to introduce computational modeling into the graphical representation described here, so the processes in question can step through their interactions on-screen.

Taken together, the essays collected here constitute a valuable contribution to the literature on mechanisms and explanation. The handbook also gives the reader a concrete experience of how deeply varied the mechanisms literature is, leading to very interesting questions about cross-disciplinary communication. It appears to be genuinely challenging to formulate an abstract analysis of the idea of a causal mechanism that will mean approximately the same thing to researchers trained within significantly different research traditions. Unlike many handbooks, this collection warrants reading cover to cover. Researchers who believe that the mechanisms approach provides a valid way of understanding the metaphysics of causal inquiry and explanation will find every article stimulating and helpful.

(Here are a couple of prior posts on the challenge of providing a classification scheme for social mechanisms; link, link.)


Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Guest post by Dave Elder-Vass


[Dave Elder-Vass accepted my invitation to write a response to my discussion of moral realism (link). Elder-Vass is Reader in sociology at Loughborough University and author of Profit and Gift in the Digital Economy, The Causal Power of Social Structures: Emergence, Structure and Agency and The Reality of Social Construction, discussed herehere and here. Dave has emerged as a leading voice in the philosophy of social science, especially in the context of continuing developments in the theory of critical realism. Thanks, Dave!]


Moral realism and explanatory critique
By Dave Elder-Vass

Daniel Little's latest blog post "Moral progress and critical realism" raises some important issues for critical realists and indeed social scientists more generally. I'm sympathetic to the general orientation of his piece, and have made similar arguments elsewhere (summarised in this blog post). I thought it would be useful, though, to add some further discussion of how Daniel's argument relates to critical realism itself.

While critical realists agree that there is a real world that exists independently of what we think about it, they need not - and do not - agree on exactly which classes of things exist within that world. Moral realism is a case in point. Roy Bhaskar explicitly identified himself as a moral realist, and offered several different justifications for this in the course of his work. Some critical realists accept all of those justifications, some are ambivalent or selective about which they accept, and others like Andrew Sayer and myself, for example, reject moral realism outright.

I'd like to focus here on one of Bhaskar's arguments: the theory of explanatory critique. Technically this is an argument for ethical naturalism rather than moral realism (I'll come back to that), although it is sometimes regarded as supporting both. The classic statement of the theory can be found in his book Scientific Realism and Human Emancipation:
Let a belief P, which has some object O, have a source (causal explanation) S. I am going to contend that if we possess: (i) adequate grounds for supposing P is false; and (ii) adequate grounds for supposing that S co-explains P, then we may, and must, pass immediately to (iii) a negative evaluation of S (CP); and (iv) a positive evaluation of action rationally directed at the removal of S (CP). (SRHE, p. 177)
This argument can be read and/or employed in a number of different ways. Let me discuss three. First, it is a variation on the classic Marxist critique of ideology - it suggests that there are social institutions (S) which generate false beliefs (P) about other (or the same) social institutions (O) and that we ought to get rid of them. For example: if capitalist-controlled media sources mislead us about the nature of capitalism then we should replace those media sources (note that Bhaskar is careful to qualify the argument with a ceteris paribus clause (CP), and thus acknowledges that other factors must also be taken into consideration). As a critical ethical claim this seems reasonable and attractive, and it gains some of its appeal by being rather more direct than most versions of ideology critique.

But this is not the point of the theory of explanatory critique, which brings us to the second reading. On this reading, the purpose of Bhaskar's statement is to support his advocacy of ethical naturalism: the claim that we can derive ethical conclusions from purely factual premises. Bhaskar maintains that the premises (i) and (ii) are purely factual, and lead logically ("we may, and must, pass immediately to...") to the ethical conclusions (iii) and (iv). But as a number of people have pointed out, there is a flaw in this argument. The premises are indeed purely factual, and the conclusions are indeed ethical, but the premises are not sufficient to entail the conclusions. To arrive at these conclusions, we need a further premise: we must also believe that it is wrong to generate, advocate, or support false beliefs. Of course, most of us DO believe that, and if so we may well be happy to accept the conclusion in reading one. But that doesn't mean that Bhaskar has shown us how to derive an ethical conclusion from purely factual premises: his argument for ethical naturalism is false.

One also finds critical realists who think that the theory of explanatory critique provides a justification for moral realism: the claim that there are moral facts that are objectively right, good, or true regardless of what people may think about them. As far as I am aware Bhaskar himself does not claim that the theory of explanatory critique entails moral realism, and when he does advocate moral realism explicitly in his later work he offers other arguments to support it. But most critical realists are uncomfortable with those later arguments, and so it is important to establish whether or not the theory of explanatory critique does support moral realism. Let me call this a third reading of the argument, although it also depends on the second. On this reading, the argument for ethical naturalism establishes that we can indeed derive ethical claims from non-ethical facts, and this further implies that those ethical claims must therefore be objectively true. The logic is pretty straightforward: if it is objectively true that there are social institutions (S) which generate false beliefs (P) about other (or the same) social institutions (O), and if we can logically derive an ethical claim from these objective facts, then it would seem to be objectively true that we ought to get rid of those social institutions, irrespective of what any person or social group might believe about the issues. But it is quite clear that this is not a tenable conclusion, because reading two is itself false: the ethical conclusions of Bhaskar's explanatory critique depend on ethical as well as factual premises, so even if the factual premises are objectively true there is no basis to conclude that the ethical conclusions are also objectively true.

While this argument may have been a little technical for a blog post, I think it is important to clarify these distinctions. I regularly encounter (and read) fellow critical realists who cite Bhaskar's theory of explanatory critique as support for ethical naturalism and moral realism. I suspect that some of them have been seduced by the attractiveness of the argument in the first reading discussed above into believing that this justifies the second and third readings as well. It does not!

Saturday, August 12, 2017

Moral progress and critical realism


Critical realists share a rejection of the fact-value distinction as a fundamental criterion of scientific rationality -- and rightly so (link). They believe that social research and theorizing involve value commitments all the way down. Further, they commonly believe that good social science should lead to improvement in the world and in our system of moral judgments.

So far, so good. But some critical realists think that this points to "moral realism" as well as scientific realism. Moral realism maintains that there are objective and timeless answers to the questions, what is justice? what should we do? what rights do people have? Moral realists hold that the moral facts are out there and waiting for discovery; there is a domain of "moral facts" that ultimately goes beyond the limits of rational disagreement.

This impulse towards moral realism is a problem. Moral realism and scientific realism are not analogous. There is no philosophical or theological method that will resolve moral questions into an unquestionable foundation or set of universal moral truths. Neither Kantianism, nor Aristotelianism, nor utilitarianism, nor traditional religious systems have the capacity to establish universal and unquestionable moral conclusions. The impulse towards moral realism has the perilous possibility of morphing into a dogmatic view of morality that substitutes one's own convictions for eternal moral truths. In my view, this is farfetched and ultimately implies an unreflective dogmatism about values. Fortunately there is a better and more modest position available that derives from the same pragmatist origins that are inspiring other advances in critical realism.

The better approach is based on a coherence epistemology. This approach is explicitly anti-realist when it comes to moral values. Ethical reasoning always has to do with conversation, disagreement, and sometimes progress. Moral practices have social reality, to be sure; but there are no "moral facts" consisting of moral principles and values that are beyond the possibility of further rational debate. This approach to moral theory emphasizes corrigibility and pragmatic debate about ends, means, and values. It converges with coherence epistemology along the lines of Quine and Rawls; it deliberately replaces a foundationalist approach to moral thinking with a corrigible ongoing series of discussions by moral equals. This allows for an epistemology based on dialogue, and it comes out of the pragmatist tradition.

This is the approach that John Rawls adopted in his theory of reflective equilibrium. Rawls explicitly links his approach to the anti-foundationalist thinking of philosophers like Quine. (Here is a 1985 paper in which I tried to summarize Rawls's moral methodology of reflective equilibrium; link.) Moral reasoning involves a back-and-forth between a set of considered judgments (current moral judgments about concrete issues) and more abstract moral principles. Both considered judgments and abstract principles are adjusted until the system of beliefs is reasonably consistent and coherent. Here is how Rawls describes this process of moral navigation with respect to the idea of the original position in A Theory of Justice 2nd edition:
In searching for the most favored description of this situation [the hypothetical original position] we work from both ends. We begin by describing it so that it represents generally shared and preferably weak conditions. We then see if these conditions are strong enough to yield a significant set of principles. If not, we look for further premises equally reasonable. But if so, and these principles match our considered convictions of justice, then so far well and good. But presumably there will be discrepancies. In this case we have a choice. We can either modify the account of the initial situation or we can revise our existing judgments, for even the judgments we take provisionally as fixed points are liable to revision. By going back and forth, sometimes altering the conditions of the contractual circumstances, at others withdrawing our judgments and conforming them to principle, I assume that eventually we shall find a description of the initial situation that both expresses reasonable conditions and yields principles which match our considered judgments duly pruned and adjusted. This state of affairs I refer to as reflective equilibrium. It is an equilibrium because at last our principles and judgments coincide; and it is reflective since we know to what principles our judgments conform and the premises of their derivation. At the moment everything is in order. But this equilibrium is not necessarily stable. It is liable to be upset by further examination of the conditions which should be imposed on the contractual situation and by particular cases which may lead us to revise our judgments. Yet for the time being we have done what we can to render coherent and to justify our convictions of social justice. We have reached a conception of the original position. (TJ 18)
This approach leads to two important features. (i) There are no fixed and final moral facts; moral facts are not part of the furniture of the world. But (ii) our moral frameworks have the potential of improving over time, as we grope reflectively with our moral responses, sympathies, and principles. There is a bootstrapping kind of progress here.

What Rawls adds is the idea that our efforts to move toward reflective equilibrium permit us to increase the overall adequacy of our system of beliefs and considered judgments. And this ties directly to his treatment of Political Liberalism 
-- an ongoing discourse allowing us to refine and reform our convictions on the basis of communication with fellow members of our communities and groups. (Habermas and the public communicative process converges here as well.)

It is clear enough that no group is likely ever to reach full unanimity in a discussion like this. This is implied by Rawls's own conception of a liberal society including people with conflicting conceptions of the good. And ultimately a society can be very stable even as it embraces multiple conceptions of the good and other important questions of value.

These considerations suggest that we should abandon the idea of absolute moral truth (moral realism) and embrace instead the goal of securing a respectful, thoughtful dialogue that creates a possibility of moral progress. We may have the optimistic hope that a community or society improves its ability to make moral perceptions and distinctions over time, through the practice of debating and testing the normative ideas that are shared and those that divide the population.

The ongoing work by various theorists on deliberative democracy sheds some light on the concrete ways in which this kind of moral clarification can work within a group of citizens and otherwise unrelated people. (Here is a programatic statement from the Center for Deliberative Democracy and Global Governance; link.) Everyone brings a moral and value sensibility to their interactions and reactions to the world, and sometimes those sensibilities can change through interaction with other individuals. Consideration of facts, complications, and alternative ways of stating various value commitment permit the individuals to honestly reflect on their commitments and social reactions and perhaps adjust them. (Here is a discussion of deliberative democracy; link. And here is a recent paper by Archon Fung on deliberative democracy and progressive social change; link.)

(Richmond Campbell's entry in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy on "Moral Epistemology" is excellent as background on this topic; link.)

Tuesday, August 8, 2017

Time for a critical-realist epistemology


The critical realism network in North America is currently convened in Montreal in a three-day intensive workshop (link). In attendance are many of the sociologists and philosophers who have an active interest in critical realism, and the talks are of genuine interest. A session this morning on pragmatist threads of potential interest to critical realists, including Mead, Abbott, and Elias, was highly stimulating. And there are 29 sessions altogether -- roughly 85 papers. This is an amazing wealth of sociological research.

Perhaps a third of the papers are presentations of original sociological research from a CR point of view. This is very encouraging because it demonstrates that CR is moving beyond the philosophy of social science to the concrete practice of social science. Researchers are working hard to develop research methods in the context of CR that permit concrete investigation of particular social and historical phenomena. And this implies as well that there is a growing body of thinking about methodology within the field of CR.

CR theorists began with ontology, and a great deal of the existing literature takes the form of theoretical expositions of various ontological theses. And this was deliberate; following Bhaskar, theorists have argued that we need better ontology before science can progress. (This seems particularly true in the social realm; link.) So ontology needs to come first, then epistemology.

I believe the time has come when CR needs to give more explicit and extended attention to epistemology.

What is epistemology? It is an organized effort to answer the question, what is (scientific) knowledge? It attempts to provide a justified theory of empirical justification. Epistemology is an attempt to articulate the desired relationship between evidence and assertion; more specifically, it is an attempt to uncover the nuances of the domain of "evidence" across the realm of social research. Most fundamentally, it is an attempt to articulate how the practices of science are "truth-enhancing": a given set of epistemic practices (methodologies) are hoped to result in a higher level of veridicality over time.

Like a left handed quarterback, CR has a disadvantage in formulating an epistemology because of its blind side. In the case of CR, the blind side is the movement's visceral rejection of positivism. CR theorists are so strongly motivated to reject all elements of positivism that they are disposed to avoid positions they actually need to take. For example, The two following statements sound very similar:

A "Sociological claims must be evaluated on the basis of objective empirical evidence"

B "Sociological claims need to be confirmed or falsified"

And so the CR theorist is inclined to reject A as well as B. But this is a philosophical misstep caused by fear of the blind side. A is actually a perfectly valid requirement of epistemological rationality.

So what do we need from a developed epistemology for CR? Essentially we need three things.

First, we need an explicit commitment to empirical evaluation.

Second, we need a nuanced discussion of the complications involved in identifying "empirical evidence" in social research; for example, the impossibility of theory-independent or perspective-independent social data, the constructive nature of most historical and social observation, and the problem of selectivity in the collection of evidence.

Third, we need a discussion of the modes of inference -- deductive, inductive, statistical, causal, and Bayesian -- on the basis of which social scientists can arrive at an estimate of likelihood for a statement given a set of evidence statements.

Finally, our CR epistemology needs to give an appropriate discussion of the fallibility of all scientific research.

The epistemological frame that I currently favor is the coherence methodology described by philosophers like Quine and Goodman. The social sciences constitute a web of belief, and provisional conclusions in one area may serve to establish a method or valuation for findings in another area of the web. both ontological positions and epistemological maxims may require adjustment in light of future empirical and theoretical findings. Rawls's conception of reflective equilibrium illustrates this epistemology in the moral field. This approach has an unexpected affinity for CR, because there is an emerging interest in the pragmatist philosophy from which this approach derives.

Epistemology allows us to place various specific methodological approaches into context. So we can locate the method of process tracing into the context of justification, and therefore into epistemology. It also validates the idea of methodological pluralism: there are multiple avenues through which researchers can create evidence through which to prove and evaluate a variety of sociological claims.

Critical realism seeks to significantly influence the practice and content of social science theory and research. In order to do this it will need to be able to state with confidence the commitments made by CR researchers to empirical standards and evidence-based findings. This will help CR to fulfill the promise of discovering some of the real structures and processes of the social world based on publicly accessible standards of theory discovery and acceptance.