Monday, June 30, 2008

More on continental philosophy of social science

I encourage interested readers to take a look at the very thoughtful and extensive comment provided by Nick from accursedshare on my earlier posting on continental philosophy of social science. Nick highlights a number of very important lines of thought that are making progress in contemporary discussions of these issues within continental philosophy of science. I am particularly intrigued at his description of "assemblages" -- quoting Nick, "assemblages look at the play of micro-level tools, intentions, habits, techniques, etc. They take these and look at how they spread throughout society (using Gabriel Tarde's work on imitation, for example)." This is a very interesting approach, and one that emphasizes the themes of contingency and heterogeneity in social processes that I find particularly compelling. Nick's comment makes it evident that there is a lot of fertile and imaginative work going on in this tradition. (He particularly mentions Foucault, Gilles Deleuze, Bruno Latour, William Connolly, Manuel DeLanda, Jane Bennett and Saskia Sassen.)

Nick is well into an extensive critical discussion of Fran├žois Laruelle's philosophy in his postings on accursedshare. Thanks, Nick!

Arguments for social holism

The topic of methodological individualism (MI) came up in a recent posting, and I underlined the connection between MI and some version of reductionism. Here I'd like to take a different approach and ask the question, what considerations can be offered in support of some version of social holism?

Here are a couple of arguments that avoid the accusation of "spooky holism". (By spooky I mean "disembodied.")

First is a very reasonable point deriving from pragmatic objections to reductionism. If we know on ontological grounds that the behavior of the whole depends upon the features and behavior of the constituent parts and nothing else -- the heart of the theory of supervenience -- but also know that it is entirely hopeless to attempt to calculate the one based on facts about the other -- then perhaps it is justified to consider the whole as if it embodied causal processes at the macro-level. So there is a pragmatic argument available that recommends the autonomy of social facts based on the infeasibility of derivability.

Second is the plausibility of the idea that there are large historical or social forces that are for all intents and purposes beyond the control of any of the individuals whom they influence. The fact that a given population exists as a language community of German speakers or Yoruba speakers has an effect on every child born into that population. The child's brain is shaped by this social reality, quite independently from facts about the child's agency or individuality. The grammar of the local language is an autonomous social fact in this context -- even though it is a fact that is embodied in the particular brains and behaviors of the countless individuals who constitute this community. But this is probably similarly true when we turn to systems of attitudes, norms, or cognitive systems of thinking. (See a posting on social practices on this subject.)

It is obvious but perhaps trivial to observe that the vector of influence flows through individuals who possess the grammar, norms, or folk beliefs -- this is the ontological reality captured by the microfoundations thesis. But perhaps a point in favor of a modest holism is this: the fact of the commonality of Yoruba grammar can be viewed as if it were an autonomous fact -- even though we know it depends on the existence of Yoruba speakers. But the point of the holism thesis here remains: that the social fact of the current grammar is coercive with respect to current Nigerian children in specific communities. And, perhaps, likewise with respect to other aspects of social cognition and norms. And this takes us some distance towards Durkheim's central view -- the autonomy of social facts.

Now what about social structures? Can some instances of social structures be treated as if they were autonomous with respect to the individuals whom they affect? Here is how the home mortgage system works -- we can specify a collection of rules and practices X, Y, Z that regulate the transactions that occur within this system. The individual who wants to borrow from a bank or other financial institution is simply subject to these rules and practices. He/she doesn't have the option of rewriting the rules in a more rational or fair or socially progressive way; at a given point in time the rules and practices are fixed independently from the wishes or intentions of the people involved in the institution. Once again it is trivially true that these rules are embodied; but they function as if they were autonomous. And this is true for institutions at the full range of scope, from the local to the global.

The advocate for a modest social holism might maintain two plausible positions: first, that all social facts are embodied in the states of mind and behavior of individuals; but second, that some social facts (institutions, social practices, systems of rules) have explanatory autonomy independent from any knowledge we might be able to provide about the particular ways in which these facts are embodied in individuals. The first is an ontological point and the second is a point about explanation.

These points in favor of a modest holism are compatible with other important points about social entities -- the points about heterogeneity, plasticity, and opportunistic transformation that have been made elsewhere in this blog. In other words, we aren't forced to choose between "agent" and "structure"; rather, agents influence structures and structures influence agents.

These arguments suggest two things. First, holism and individualism are not so sharply opposed as perhaps they appear.

But more important, two styles of social explanation are validated and compatible: the compositional or aggregative model of explanation -- explain the outcome as the aggregative consequence of the behavior of large numbers of individuals -- and constraining or filtering explanations -- the structuring of individual behavior that is created by the workings of social institutions. The first model of explanation corresponds well to the assumptions of methodological individualism, while the second corresponds to the idea that structures and large social factors cause patterns of individual behavior. And neither has antecedent priority over the other. (Some of this variety of explanatory strategies is highlighted in an earlier posting on explanation.)


Saturday, June 28, 2008

Continental philosophy of social science


Making sense of the human world has always been a part of the continental tradition in philosophy. History, justice, and meaning are subjects that have played central roles in continental writings relevant to "understanding society" for three centuries, and dozens of philosophers have focused on these and related topics in deeply fertile ways -- Kant, Rousseau, Hegel, Montesquieu, Vico, Herder, Schleiermacher, Fichte, Feuerbach, Marx, Nietzsche, and Dilthey, to name an important dozen. I don't think it is wrong to say that history and society have been foundational questions in this tradition in ways they have not been in the Anglo-American tradition. So continental philosophy of social science (CPS) has much to draw upon.

Several strands of thinking have been particularly important.

First is the idea that the human world is a world of meanings and relationships. Human action is meaningful for the agent, and it is meaningful for the other humans who are affected or observe it. So an important part of understanding the social world is interpretation of the created meanings of actions, expressions, and artifacts. This line of thought brings us into the hermeneutic tradition, from Dilthey to Ricoeur, and the range of efforts in philosophy, theology, criticism, and psychology to provide a basis for interpretation. (See an earlier posting on this subject.)

A second important idea is the notion that the social world is constituted by relationships, not monads. Hegel's Phenomenology provides one clear instance of this perspective -- think of the logic of defining the subject through interaction with the object, or of the Master-Slave narrative. Marx's theories of alienation and class likewise place "human beings in relationships" at the ontological center. Nietzsche too places the relational at the center of many of his philosophical theories.

A third pillar of thinking in this tradition is the crucial role of history in human affairs. History matters; it is through history that humanity makes itself, and central social creations are the product of long historical evolution -- the state, language, religion. Vico and Herder offer good examples of this approach, and Hegel offers another. The philosophy of history is core to Hegel's thinking -- not only in his lecture notes on the philosophy of history but the Philosophy of Right and the Phenomenology of Spirit as well.

A fourth important theme in CPS is the idea of knowledge through criticism. Feuerbach's transformative criticism is a case in point; likewise Marx's method of critique as an intellectual method and a conception of rigor. The phrase "a critique of political economy" recurs in numerous of Marx's subtitles; Marx's thought often proceeds through critical rethinking of the works of others. Dialectical thinking is one version of this approach, but there are other species of criticism as well.

A fifth defining characteristic of CPS is the orientation it takes towards causation in the social world. In a nutshell, CPS doesn't attach much importance to causal relationships in the social world. Causation is a feature of the natural world, but CPS draws a sharp distinction between the natural and human worlds. The "human sciences" have to do with understanding rather than explanation, meanings rather than causes.

So, CPS calls out a number of characteristics of the social -- history, meaning, hermeneutics, relationships, criticism, and dialogical thinking, to name several. What this picture does not emphasize is the set of ideas defining scientific rigor for the analytic tradition: an organized conception of theory, a theory of observation and evidence, the idea of the neutrality of scientific knowledge. This is systemic, because CPS is explicitly and implicitly anti-positivist. The implicit part is the more interesting. The continental tradition has a very different philosophical framework for epistemology and knowledge than the empiricist tradition, and a different conception about what constitutes rigorous knowledge. It is more inclined towards philosophical reasoning as a source of knowledge and generally less devoted to empirical inquiry.

We might ask, though, how these themes in the philosophy of society and history help us today in the problem of articulating better and more rationally justified theories or representations of the social world. Does CPS provide any clues about how to configure a better sociology for China or a better theory of social relationships in the Internet age? Does it improve our epistemology of social knowledge? Does it broaden the scope of our historical or sociological imaginations? Does it provide the basis for some salutary critique? Does it deepen needed critiques of positivism and naturalism? (See accursedshare for a current blog that takes this tradition and these questions seriously.)

What seems likely is that both traditions are needed as a foundation for understanding society. They emphasize different but important perspectives on the social world. And further, there are very few flat contradictions between the two traditions. So a fertile collaboration is entirely feasible.

Yvonne Sherratt's Continental Philosophy of Social Science asks us to initiate this reflection -- and she is right. Other titles I have appreciated for their treatment of Hegel's philosophy of society and history include Shlomo Avineri, Hegel's Theory of the Modern State; Joshua Dienstag, Dancing in Chains: Narrative and Memory in Political Theory, and Alexandre Kojeve, Introduction to the Reading of Hegel: Lectures on the Phenomenology of Spirit. These books illustrate how continental philosophy makes a substantial contribution to understanding society and history.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Higher education and social mobility

There is an appalling level of inequality in American society; and even more troubling, the multiple dimensions of inequality seem to reinforce each other, with the result that disadvantaged groups remain disadvantaged across multiple generations. We can ask two different kinds of sociological questions about these facts: What factors cause the reproduction of disadvantage over multiple generations? And what policy interventions have some effect on enhancing upward social mobility within disadvantaged groups? How can we change this cycle of disadvantage?

Several earlier postings have addressed some aspects of the causal question (post, post). Here I'd like to consider the policy question -- and the question of how we can use empirical evidence to evaluate the effectiveness of large policy initiatives on social outcomes such as mobility.

One social policy in particular seems to have a lot of antecedent plausibility: a policy aimed at increasing the accessibility of higher education to the disadvantaged group. The theory is that individuals within the group will benefit from higher education by enhancing their skills and knowledge; this will give them new economic opportunities and access to higher-wage jobs; the individuals will do better economically, and their children will begin life with more economic support and a set of values that encourage education. So access to higher education ought to prove to be a virtuous circle or a positive feedback loop, leading to substantial social mobility in currently disadvantaged groups.

It is a plausible theory; but are there empirical methods through which we can evaluate whether it actually works this way?

Paul Attewell and David Lavin undertake to do exactly that in Passing the Torch: Does Higher Education for the Disadvantaged Pay Off Across the Generations?, published in 2007. Their research consists of a survey study of a cohort of poor women who were admitted to the City University of New York between 1970 and 1972 under an open-admissions policy. Thirty years later Attewell and Lavin surveyed a sample of the women in this group (about 2,000 women), gathering data about their eventual educational attainment, their income, and the educational successes of their children. Analysis of their data permitted them to demonstrate that attenders were likely to enjoy higher income than non-attenders and to have children who valued education at levels that were higher than the children of non-attenders.

The benefits of higher education in increasing personal income were significant; they find that in the population surveyed in 2000, the high school graduate earned $30,000, women with some college earned $35,000, women with the associate's degree earned $40,783, women with the bachelor's degree earned $42,063, and women with a postgraduate degree earned $54,545. In other words, there was a fairly regular progression in income associated with each further step in the higher education credential achieved. And they found -- contrary to conservative critics of open-access programs in higher education -- that these women demonstrated eventual completion rates that were substantially higher than 4-6 year graduation rates would indicate -- over 70% earned some kind of degree (table 2.2). "Our long-range perspective shows that disadvantaged women ultimately complete college degrees in far greater numbers than scholars realize" (4).

So access to higher education works, according to the evidence uncovered in this study: increasing access to post-secondary education is the causal factor, and improved economic and educational outcomes are the effect.

This is an important empirical study that sets out some of the facts that pertain to poverty and higher education. The study provides empirical confirmation for the idea that affordable and accessible mass education works: when programs are available that permit poor people to gain access to higher education, their future earnings and the future educational success of their children are both enhanced. It's a logical conclusion -- but one that has been challenged by conservative critics such as Bill Bennett. And given the increasing financial stress that public universities are currently experiencing due to declining state support for higher education, it is very important for policy makers to have a clear understanding of the return that is likely on the investment in affordable access to higher education.

Monday, June 23, 2008

Explaining rodeos


Suppose we have visited quite a few rodeos in Arizona and Texas and have observed a couple of things: there are more injuries in rodeos than in stock car racing or football, the stakes for the winners are lower than in golf, the rodeo riders score higher than average on the "introverted" component of the Myers-Briggs personality profile, some rodeos are almost silent places, and the parking lots are filled with a higher percentage of beat-up F150s than a typical baseball park. What would count as "giving an explanation" of these features of this particular type of social activity? And what kinds of mechanisms might serve as a basis for explanations?

Rodeos are an instance of a broader category of social activity that we migh describe along these lines: "mass entertainment events featuring professional athletes/performers and drawing extensive numbers of paying customers." The comparative judments expressed above take the form of contrasts across several different sub-categories of this broad set -- e.g., baseball, stock car racing, football, golf, soccer, circuses. We might further analyze this group of events in terms of several structural features: the character of the audience, the character and recruitment processes of the performers, the rules of the event, the culture of the activity, the meaning of the activity within the broader society, and the business fundamentals of the event (sources and quantity of revenue).

Let's pull apart a few of the patterns noted above, and consider some social mechanisms that might explain them.

Personality profile of rodeo riders. Rodeo riders seem to have a different social psychology than baseball or soccer players; they are more solitary, introverted, and self-sufficient. This feature of rodeos presumably derives from the social selection processes through which an individual becomes a highly skilled rider; the personality features that are best suited to superior performance; and the cultural expectations of behavior within the activity and within the broader society. So an adequate explanation of this distinguishing feature of rodeos will probably invoke the processes of selection through which the performers are recruited, and the feedback and training they receive in the "minor leagues" of rodeo. Here the mechanisms are selection / filtering and training / inculturation.

Size of winnings. The size of the winner's purse depends primarily on the revenue structure of the sport, which depends in turn upon the popularity of the sport, the affluence of the audience, and the size of the national or worldwide audience for the sport on television. The purse serves as a primary incentive for the most talented performers; rodeo operators compete with each other for the top performers; and competition among operators pushes the purse to a level commensurate with the total revenues generated by the sport. The audience for stock car racing is much larger than that for rodeo, both regionally and nationally; and the purses are correspondingly higher. Here the mechanism is business competition.

Incidence of injuries. Riding a bull is a generally hazardous activity. So we would expect that riders will be injured. But so is driving a car at 180 miles per hour -- and yet the incidence of injuries in NASCAR racing is substantially lower than that in the rodeo circuit. So paying attention simply to the inherent danger of the activity probably doesn't explain the difference. Instead, it seems reasonable to ask whether there are institutional differences across these sports -- the structure of the safety systems that each embodies -- that account for different rates of injury in different types of performance. Industries that have developed genuine institutional commitments and rules governing safety generally demonstrate better safety records. So we might hypothesize that the culture of safety is less strenuous in the rodeo circuit than in professional football or stockcar racing. Here the mechanism is the institutional setting in which the activity takes place, including the presence or absence of penalties for operators with bad safety records.

The parking lot. We notice that the distributions of cars and trucks in the parking lots are quite different at rodeos compared to soccer matches. The vehicles come with their owners; so these differences must derive from differences in the audiences of the two sports. Here we have another example of selection: the composition of the parking lot corresponds to the selection of people who are interested in attending rodeos; this group has a set of tastes and preferences that favor F150s over other vehicles; and the result is -- a preponderance of pickup trucks in the rodeo parking lot. (And the trucks are in bad shape for several reasons -- the generally lower income level of the rodeo fan and the likelihood that he/she does a lot of back-country driving.) The mechanism here is -- social selection.

The silent audience. We observe once in a while that the audience at a small rodeo is plainly enjoying itself -- but there is almost no clapping or shouting. There is no roar of the crowd. Why so? Here we may find a cultural explanation in the background -- this rodeo is drawing an audience of Navajo people, and applauding and shouting are not the means by which Navajo fans express their appreciation and enjoyment. Here the mechanism is -- cultural practices.

What seems interesting to me about this example, is the fact that there are a number of quite different social mechanisms at work that lead to the particular characteristics of such a mundane activity as the rodeo. There is no single process we should point to as the explanatory foundation of rodeo phenomena; instead, there are selection mechanisms, business incentives, cultural practices, media promotions, and socialization processes for both participants and audiences that influence the activity as a whole. And, interestingly enough, these mechanisms can lead to some common characteristics across the set of what appear to be a fairly arbitrary set of activities -- public arenas where daring men and women ride large, dangerous animals for pay. The social characteristics of the audiences, the performers, and the local institutions defining the activity impress a unique stamp on these performances that distinguish them from other public entertainment activities such as circuses or NASCAR races.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Methodological individualism

Methodological individualism (MI) is a doctrine in the philosophy of the social sciences about the relationship between "society" and individuals. The idea can be formulated in several related but somewhat different ways: social facts are constituted by facts about individuals; social entities are composed of individuals and their properties and relations; social structures and entities are "nothing but" ensembles of individuals and their behaviors; social explanations must be derivable from facts about individuals; scientific statements about "society" must be reducible to statements about individuals and their properties and relations; social laws or generalizations must be derivable from general facts about individuals. And there are probably other possible formulations as well.

So the doctrine of methodological individualism often represents a form of reductionism from one area of scientific theory to another: theories about social entities and properties must be reducible to theories and statements about individuals and their properties. This line of thought is parallel to materialism in the philosophy of mind or anti-vitalism in the philosophy of biology. Mental states must be reducible to a set of facts about neurophysiology; statements about living organisms must be reducible to a set of facts about the molecular chemistry and physiology of cells. (See Ingo Brigandt and Alan Love's article in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy on reduction in biology.)

A somewhat less restrictive view than reductionism is the theory of "supervenience" between levels of scientific description. According to the theory of supervenience, facts at one level of description are fixed or determined by facts at a lower level of description. To say that X supervenes upon Y is to say that there is no difference between states of affairs concerning X for which there is not also a difference in states of affairs concerning Y. This is a less restrictive doctrine because it doesn't require that we provide derivations of the facts of X from facts of Y. (Jaegwon Kim is the primary innovator here; see Physicalism, or Something Near Enough for a recent formulation of the theory.)

Methodological individualism is the limit version of a family of perspectives on social explanation that we might refer to as "agent-centered" approaches to social explanation. Here the general idea is that we explain social outcomes as an aggregate result of the actions, choices, and mentalities of individuals. Individuals' behavior and choice constitute the causal dynamics of social outcomes. The idea of "microfoundations" has played an important role in recent thinking about the relationship between social facts and individual facts. (See Microfoundations, Methods, and Causation for more on the idea of microfoundations for social explanations.)

But agent-centered approaches can give more "social-ness" to the individual than the founding statements of MI would permit. For example, the position of "methodological localism" identifies socially constituted and socially situated individuals as the foundation of social explanation; but this position explicitly denies the idea that all social facts are reducible to bare psychological facts about individuals. Rather, individuals are themselves constituted and constrained by previously established social conditions. (See "Levels of the Social" for more about methodological localism.)

The idea of methodological individualism is one that has appealed to philosophers and social thinkers for almost as long as there has been systematic thinking about social science. Modern philosophy of social science began in the nineteenth century, and John Stuart Mill's theories of social knowledge contained the assumption of methodological individualism (The Logic of the Moral Sciences). Max Weber also put forward the doctrine in The Methodology Of The Social Sciences. A classic statement was presented by J. W. N. Watkins (1968), "Methodological Individualism and Social Tendencies" in May Brodbeck, Readings in the Philosophy of the Social Sciences.

The logical contrary of MI is the idea of social holism, most explicitly advocated by Emile Durkheim in Rules of Sociological Method. Holism is a form of anti-reductionism; it maintains that there are facts about the social world that do not reduce to facts about individuals. Society is autonomous with respect to the individuals who "make it up". There are social forces (e.g. systems of norms) that exercise causal power over individuals, instead of norms being constituted by the psychological states of individuals. Other varieties of social holism are possible as well. Structuralism is the view that social structures exercise autonomous causal properties, as expressed in such authors as Levi Strauss, Althusser, and Foucault.

Arguments in favor of methodological individualism derive from several insights. First, there is the point that social facts are evidently constituted by the thoughts and behaviors of groups of individuals. Social movements are composed of individuals with specific psychologies and beliefs; organizations are composed of individuals; and, arguably, moralities and cultures are made up of individuals with specific beliefs and values. Second, there is the point that social "laws" are rare, exception-laden, and conditional; so there is a methodological reason to look for the more basic laws that may regulate social behavior -- at the level of individuals and their psychology. Third, there is a preference for ontological sparsity: if we can explain social facts in terms of facts about individuals, then we don't need to attribute ontological status to social facts and entities. Fourth, there is a "materialist" or anti-occultist preference that is appealing to many philosophers; the idea that social facts might be autonomous with respect to individuals gives an impression of occult causal powers or action at a distance. So there is a range of reasons to think that social outcomes are made up of or determined by the aggregate results of individuals and their interactions.

MI has been particularly appealing in certain disciplines of the social sciences -- especially economics and political science. In each case the perspective of "rational actor theory" has appeared to be a very promising line of explanation: explain the behavior of groups (consumers, voters) as the aggregate outcome of individuals making choices with a specific set of beliefs and preferences, within a specific set of constraints.

Other areas of the social sciences are less amenable to the theory of methodological individualism. Anthropology and sociology are disciplines that set the focus on the higher-level social conditions or causes that influence behavior -- a perspective that seems to be more comfortable with some form of holism. However, there is a range of opinion among practitioners of these disciplines as well, and there are anthropologists and sociologists who are more sympathetic to the impulses of methodological individualism.

It is important to highlight some points that MI does not entail. MI does not entail that individuals are egoists or purely self-regarding. It does not entail that individuals are not social. It does not entail that social facts do not have causal consequences -- for other social facts and for individual behavior. It is indeed possible to reframe almost all substantive sociological theory in terms that are consistent with the reasonable conditions implied by MI. Even Durkheim's central theories can be formulated in a way that is innocent with respect to the charge of "action at a distance". And, from the other direction, even a theorist with as clear a commitment to MI as Max Weber, is still able to make "macro" or "holistic" claims about the causal importance of factors such as religion or morality.

What causes college success?

This sounds like a simple question. It sounds as if it is asking for us to discover a set of factors that influence the level of performance of individuals within a population when they get to colleges and universities. And we might speculate that there is a small group of potentially relevant factors: antecedent cognitive ability, attitudes, and values; location within a set of social relations that enhance or impede successful educational performance; quality of educational resources provided in K-12. We might reason that a given individual's performance is affected by his/her ability and motivation; enhancing or inhibiting circumstances; quality of educational "treatment"; and chance events or circumstances (a lucky break, an inspiring grandfather). And by examining antecedent conditions and outcomes across a large population of people, we might expect to be able to assess the degree to which various hypothesized factors in fact lead to differences in the performance of sub-populations defined by these factors. This analysis should shed light on the question, "What factors cause differences in university success?".

Sorting this out sounds like a straightforward empirical question. Consider this hypothetical study. First, identify a cohort of high school seniors -- let's say, all the seniors in 2000 in metropolitan Boston. Suppose this is 5,000 people. (1) Measure a set of features of their situation during high school: high school performance, family situation, features of the school attended, socioeconomic status, family status, racial-ethnic status. (2) Measure a set of psychological characteristics for each individual: motivation, determination, aptitude for mathematics, ... And, (3), measure college success five years following high school graduation (GPA, credit hours completed, degree attained).

Let's say that each individual is coded for ABILITY (1, 2, 3); MOTIVATION (1, 2, 3); SOCIOECONOMIC STATUS (1, 2, 3); RACE (A, B, C); FAMILY STATUS (A, B); HIGH SCHOOL QUALITY (1, 2, 3); HIGH SCHOOL PERFORMANCE (1, 2, 3); and a factor representing one particular educational or curricular theory -- let's say, PEER COUNSELING (T,F). And let's say that outcomes are coded as DEGREE (NONE, ASSOCIATES, BACHELORS, MASTERS, PROFESSIONAL) and GPA (1, 2, 3).

Now follow these individuals for 10 years: What further education do they pursue? Do they complete post-secondary education? What is their performance in post-secondary education? What occupations and jobs do they get? What income do they achieve by age 30? How much unemployment have they experienced?

Finally, we will do some basic statistics on this data set: compute the incomes and schooling for various sub-categories; test for correlations between outcomes and antecedent conditions; etc. Are there differences in outcomes when we cross-tabulate by ABILITY or MOTIVATION? What about if we cross-tabulate by RACE or SES? This analysis may produce statements like these hypothetical findings:
  • People who completed high school with high performance were 2.5 times as likely to complete a college degree as those with a low performance.
  • People whose family income was in the top quintile were 5 times as likely to complete a college degree as those from families in the bottom quintile.
  • The college completion rate for white students, Hispanic students, and African-American students were X, Y, and Z respectively.
  • High school graduates from high schools with peer counseling programs were X percent more likely to complete a bachelor's degree.
  • People living in single-parent households during high school had completion rates of X compared to Y for dual-parent households.

A study along these lines provides a first indication of how some of these social characteristics may be related to performance in college. If a factor is not causally related to the outcome, then the population possessing this factor should have the same performances as the population lacking this factor (the null hypothesis). So if we find that differences in family structure or performance in high school are associated with differences in college performance, then we can infer that these factors play some causal or structural role in the outcome.

However, these findings do not establish specific causal linkages among the factors. Take the hypothetical finding about family income: is this statistical discovery the result of this mechanism (greater family income provides more support for tutoring and academic support) or this mechanism (greater family income is associated with familial values that put strong emphasis on successful completion of university degree) or this mechanism (greater family income confers social advantages that make completion easier for affluent students)? In other words, the statistical discovery does not determine the nature of the causal relation between the antecedent condition and the outcome; it simply points the researcher towards investigating the concrete social mechanisms that might be at work here.

The example demonstrates an important lesson about social inquiry. Statistical study of a population can in fact point us towards some preliminary hypotheses about social causation. But these statistical discoveries are only the first step. In order to confidently assert causal relationships between things like income and race, to educational outcomes, we need to arrive at a nuanced analysis of the social relations and institutions through which these gross factors play into individual outcomes. We need to have an account of the mechanisms and processes through which the effects of concrete social settings characterized by differences in family structure, SES, race, or schools play out in the social psychology and educational opportunities that determine the ultimate outcomes of the young people who pass through them.

(A similar line of thought can be found in this posting on the problem of sorting out the data establishing correlations between race and asthma.)

Saturday, June 21, 2008

Tributaries of the philosophy of the social sciences


The philosophy of the social sciences is largely focused on questions about the nature of our knowledge, representation, and explanation of social phenomena. There is an ontological side to some of the questions in this field -- for example, what is the nature of social phenomena? But many of the questions are epistemological, having to do with the conditions of knowledge and representation that obtain when it comes to social facts. I think it is useful to sketch out a map that indicates the topography of some of the fundamental questions and approaches that have contributed to a better understanding of social science. And this effort will demonstrate that there is no single, coherent field that is the "philosophy of social science"; instead, there are overlapping and intertwined efforts by several traditions to arrive at better and more justified representations of social knowledge.

The fruitful ideas in this field derive from several separate tributaries, it seems to me. One important source is the group of "founders" of the social sciences who themselves thought very hard about the question of the conditions of establishing a social "science". Max Weber, Emile Durkheim, Georg Simmel, William Thomas, and George Herbert Mead all had original and insightful ideas about what a scientific study of social reality might consist in. And, in most instances, these ideas were driven by their acquaintance with the richness of social life rather than by philosophical presuppositions. So these founders forged a philosophy of social research along the way as they constructed their models of what theory and research ought to look like in the study of the social world.

Another important source for current philosophy of social science is the tradition of empiricism that led to twentieth-century analytic philosophy of science. Here we can highlight John Stuart Mill, Moritz Schlick, Carl Hempel, and Ernest Nagel as philosophers who brought the machinery of positivist epistemology to a conception of what the social sciences ought to look like. As suggested in an earlier posting, there are profound problems with some of these ideas; but there is no doubt that they have been influential. And this influence shows up very explicitly in social science writings concerned with the logic of quantitative social research.

There is another source for contemporary philosophy of social science that has something in common with both these but is nonetheless distinct. This is the impulse that comes from rational choice theory and the idea that social patterns are the expression of individual rational choices. Mill's writings suggest this idea, and it is a very strong component of the classics defining microeconomic theory as well (Walras, Pareto, the Austrian school). The effort to bring decision theory and game theory into play in explaining concrete social developments is a manifestation of this approach -- for example, Samuel Popkin's work on peasant rebellions (The Rational Peasant: The Political Economy of Rural Society in Vietnam). What makes this framework philosophical is the implicit idea of reductionism that it offers as a strategy of explanation: high-level social facts need to be decomposed into logical compounds of lower-level facts at the level of individuals. (This is the doctrine of methodological individualism.)

The intellectual framework of "scientific realism" is also an important tributary to contemporary philosophy of social science. Against the instrumentalism associated with positivism, this approach maintains that the social or natural worlds possess an objective set of characteristics, and it is possible to know the approximate outlines of these characteristics. When brought into contact with the social sciences, realism leads us to expect that there are real social structures, conditions, and causes, and that it is one of the functions of social science to describe those real circumstances and their relationships with each other. The recent emphasis on "social-causal mechanisms" is a version of scientific realism in application to the social world -- for example, Social Mechanisms: An Analytical Approach to Social Theory.

There are two other tributaries that are important contributions but that have been less influential for analytic philosophers of social science, one deriving from Marx and the other from thinkers like Dilthey and Gadamer. The first is materialism and an emphasis on social structures, and the other is the hermeneutic tradition. The materialist tradition attempts to organize social reality around a set of structures with causal properties (modes of production, property relations, forms of technology). The hermeneutic tradition takes "social action" as the fundamental social fact, and looks at the challenge of interpreting social action as the fundamental problem in social research. Yvonne Sherratt's Continental Philosophy of Social Science is a very useful study of the influence of these traditions, and I will return to her discussion in a later posting.

 
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