Saturday, November 29, 2008

Education and careers

Secondary and post-secondary education plays a crucial role in the economic activity of any complex society. Kathleen Thelen provides a very fine description of the different talent regimes of Germany, Britain, Japan, and the United States in How Institutions Evolve: The Political Economy of Skills in Germany, Britain, the United States, and Japan. She highlights the very significant differences that exist across countries with respect to the internal and external structure of educational and training institutions and their relations to industry. Young people acquire the knowledge and skills they will need in order to play a productive role in the economy in these institutions -- which is to say that these institutions perform the function of preparing young people for jobs. This implies, in turn, that schools ought to be well informed about the skill and talent needs of the economy within which they exist -- what basic and advanced skills young employees need to possess in order to fulfill expectations within the workplace and contribute value to the organizations they join.

However, this expectation of linkage between schools and firms seems to be somewhat over-optimistic in the United States. Educators and policy-makers appear to rely primarily on their own judgments about what a high school or college education ought to convey -- or what knowledge and skills a graduate ought to have achieved -- rather than gathering more systematic intelligence about what employers want and need in prospective workers. Sociologist James Rosenbaum argues in Beyond College For All: Career Paths For The Forgotten Half that this is an important weakness in the American system of secondary and post-secondary education -- in contrast to countries such as Germany or Japan, where such linkages are well established and effective. Better linkages in both directions -- from employers in designing curriculum, and towards employers, in recommending graduates for employment -- would result in a substantially more effective system of education and work in the United States, according to Rosenbaum.

In fact, some academic leaders take the view that "career preparation" is secondary to "development of the mind" as a priority in a college education. The educational philosophy in selective universities (in arts and sciences, anyway) is premised on the cultivation of the intellectual breadth and maturity of the student and the nourishing of fundamental skills such as reasoning, communicating, quantitative ability, cultural sensibility, and moral awareness. The underlying idea of this philosophy of liberal education is that these foundational skills, cultivated through a broad liberal education, will provide the intellectual resources necessary for the young person to succeed in a variety of careers and professions. Martha Nussbaum expresses this philosophy very eloquently in Cultivating Humanity: A Classical Defense of Reform in Liberal Education.

And, in fact, this is a good educational philosophy -- for a part of the total task of preparing all young people for work. University graduates in history, sociology, biology, chemistry, philosophy, or literature can make immediate productive contributions in many organizations -- so the educational system that prepared them is plainly working well for this segment of the population and the job market. This educational experience is best suited for preparing young people for additional study in graduate and professional programs, and for beginning jobs in professions where good analytical, reasoning, and communications skills are most important (e.g., consulting, banking, public relations, journalism, social justice organizations, non-governmental organizations, government agencies). The work associated with these careers usually involves research, writing, problem-solving, collaboration, communication, and leadership; and graduates with the general intellectual and personal skills associated with a liberal arts education are usually well prepared in most or all of these areas.

But it is perhaps a fallacy to imagine that this educational philosophy is suited to every individual. There are important differences across individuals -- personality, curiosity, determination, ambition, and intellectual capacity -- that imply that individuals will differ in the degree to which this educational philosophy will further their talents. Ideally, we would like to see an educational system that provides substantial realization of the talents and traits of each individual -- recognizing that there are substantial differences across individuals. And it is likely that the "liberal education" philosophy is poorly suited to some individuals.

Second, it is equally fallacious to imagine that the educational philosophy of liberal education is the best foundation for every possible career -- from professor to physician to welder to fire warden to real estate agent. And, in fact, this seems to be the central argument of Rosenbaum's book -- conveyed in his title, "Beyond College for All." This idea is unpacked in two related ways: first, that secondary schooling needs to improve substantially in order to achieve the outcomes it promises -- literacy, numeracy, and basic social skills of the workplace for all graduates. Here the point appears to be that there are still a large number of jobs in the modern economy that require only the skills of a well-educated high school graduate. And he believes that American secondary schools ought to have substantially tighter linkages with industry and employers. And second, the logic of Rosenbaum's argument leads to the idea that post-secondary education ought to be more differentiated, with opportunities for a wider range of personalities and talents. Here the theory of the "applied baccalaureate" is perhaps a natural extension of Rosenbaum's argument (see this report from the Higher Learning Commission). The applied baccalaureate is a four-year degree offered by a community college in a practitioner discipline (e.g., occupational therapy, nursing, computer-aided design, numerically controlled manufacturing). And the background theory is that the program of study is designed in order to achieve the degree of specialization needed for immediate inclusion in a technically demanding job, with the degree of background scientific and technical knowledge that will permit the worker to grow in the job.

This idea is likely to encounter criticism from thinkers such as Samuel Bowles and Herb Gintis (Schooling in Capitalist America: Educational Reform and the Contradictions of Economic Life), who argued quite a few years ago that the American system of education was stratified by class, with "elite" education going to young people destined for professional (high-paying) jobs, and vocational education going to young people destined for working-class jobs. They argued, further, that the social psychology promoted by the two educational environments was itself class-specific: independence and creativity are encouraged in elite colleges, whereas docility and obedience are encouraged in vocational schools. But I suppose that the best remedy to this critique is to aggressively pursue real equality of opportunity for all young people, so that individuals find their way to the various sectors of education according to their own talents and characters rather than the markers of class origin that they bear. (Charles Sabel provides a different take on the relationship between class, education, and work in Work and Politics: The Division of Labour in Industry. Among other things, Sabel challenges the "elite/non-elite" distinction when applied to different kinds of work.)

Friday, November 28, 2008

Tempo of change

Think of some of the gradual processes of change that have important effects on human society: soil erosion, water pollution, loss of jobs, inflation, diffusion of innovation, a firm's decline in market share, and a nation's decline of naval power, to name a heterogeneous list. And think about the very different time scales associated with large processes of change, from days to months to years to decades and centuries. Think finally of the ability and readiness of human communities and leaders to recognize and address these processes of change through policy and change of behavior.

We like to imagine that organizations and states have at least an imperfect ability to perceive threats to important interests and to design appropriate actions that may reduce threats or ameliorate consequences. (Likewise, of course, for opportunities.) "Nimble" organizations are able to perceive threats or opportunities and take corrective actions to avoid harms or achieve gains, while other organizations simply lumber on towards ever-deeper problems. Does the scale over which a change unfolds make a difference in the ability of an organization to respond? It does, at both ends of the spectrum.

Changes that take place extremely slowly present special challenges for human societies. Examples include soil exhaustion, water pollution, and silting of waterways. First, there is the problem of visibility -- it may be difficult for individuals to recognize the small differences that accrue over a period of several years. Individual policy makers and office holders may simply not see enough of the process of change during their time of service to allow them to perceive the change and its likely consequences. Second is the problem of the perceived lack of urgency -- since the process is so slow, there may be an inclination to disregard it as unimportant. And third is the chronic problem of inter-generational planning -- the fact that longterm consequences will primarily only affect other people, not the current generation. Global climate change appears to fall in this category. The signs of harmful change were masked to some degree within the noise of random variation in climate and weather; the consequences are several generations in the future; and many states, including especially the United States, have found it difficult to come to grips with the scientific realities and design policies that ameliorate the negative consequences. (An interesting example of long, slow processes and social response is that of water control, silting, and flooding in Imperial China. This situation is discussed in an earlier posting.) So long, slow processes are difficult for a society, firm, or government to address effectively and prudently.

But almost as disabling to effective policy reaction are changes that occur very rapidly. Some processes of change move more quickly than the "reaction time" of the state or other policy-making bodies -- with the result that policy responses are designed for the situation at time T but are already out of date when time T+1 comes along. (This may be the case with the current financial crisis.) The familiar metaphor of "guiding an aircraft carrier through a narrow twisting strait" works pretty well here; the reaction time of the ship is longer than the interval between bends in the waterway, so it is all but impossible to steer the ship successfully. The fiscal crisis of Louis XIV may fall in this category; financial and social institutions were unraveling in 1787-89 more rapidly than state officials and political advisers could successfully react. So here again, the time scale of a process of change makes an important historical difference; very long and very short scales make it substantially more difficult for human and social agents to ameliorate harmful processes.

There is one other complication created by the tempo and scale of historical processes: the possibility of a damaging "harmonious vibration" of social processes. If there is a business cycle of eight years and a grain production cycle of five years, then every forty years the troughs of the two cycles will coincide -- with more harmful consequences than created by either cycle separately. (It was this kind of unanticipated harmonious vibration that brought down the Tacoma Narrows Bridge in 1940.) In this case it is the intersection of two tempos of change that creates the possibility of more severe social crisis and important historical consequences.

Paul Pierson's Politics in Time: History, Institutions, and Social Analysis raises some of the challenging research questions that are raised by the time scale of an historical process. He provides a very useful taxonomy of events in terms of "time horizon of cause" and "time horizon of outcome". This creates four categories of events around "long" and "short"; illustrations of each category include tornado (short-short), earthquake (long-short), meteorite (short-long), and global warming (long-long). And he points out that much research in the social sciences focuses on examples from the "short-short" category -- events with discrete causes and time-limited effects. The issue of time scale is also invoked in the history of the longue durée, including particularly writings by Fernand Braudel and Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie, where the historians of the Annales school paid particular attention to the long, slow changes in structures that influenced European history.

Segregation in France

The mix of race, poverty, and urban space has created intractable social issues in many American cities in the past sixty years. Residential segregation creates a terrible fabric of self-reproducing inequalities between the segregated group and the larger society -- inequalities of education, health, employment, and culture. As intractable as this social system of segregation appears to be in the cities of the United States, it may be that the situation in France is even worse. Sociologist Didier Lapeyronnie is interviewed in a recent issue of the Nouvel Obs on the key findings of his recent book, Ghetto urbain: Segregation, violence, pauvrete en France aujourd'hui. The interview makes for absorbing reading.

Lapeyronnie is an expert on urban sociology, poverty, and immigration in France and a frequent observer of the rising urban crisis in France. (I'm deliberately evoking here the title of Tom Sugrue's book, The Origins of the Urban Crisis: Race and Inequality in Postwar Detroit.) Lapeyronnie's view is grim: the isolation and despair characteristic of French ghetto and banlieue communities are worsening year after year, and the French state's promises after the disturbances of 2005 have not been fulfilled. Unemployment, limited educational opportunities, and poverty create an environment in which young people have neither the resources nor the opportunities to improve their social position, and they are largely excluded from the larger French society.

Lapeyronnie offers several important observations. These ghettos are largely populated by immigrant communities -- first, second, or third-generation immigrants from North Africa and former French colonies. Racism is a crucial element in the development and evolution of these segregated spaces. As he puts it:
The ghetto is the product of two mechanisms: social and racial segregation and poverty, which enclose people in their neighborhoods, leading to the formation of a veritable counter-society with its own norms, its economy (what one calls the black economy), and even its own political system. ... Poor and segregated, feeling ostracized by the Republic and plunged into a veritable political vacuum, they have organized a counter-society which protects them even as they are disadvantaged in relation to the exterior world.
Lapeyronnie makes the point that the development of segregated ghettos is more advanced and more harmful in the smaller cities of France. He describes the situation in these smaller cities as creating an almost total barrier between the ghetto and the surrounding city -- an environment where the possibility of economic or social interaction has all but disappeared.

Lapeyronnie notes the role that gender plays in the segregation system. Women of the ghetto can move back and forth -- if they accept the "dominant norms" of dress and behavior. And this means the head scarf, in particular. In order to pass across the boundary of ghetto and city, women must adopt the dress of non-Muslim French society. But, as Lapeyronnie points out, this creates a deeply ambiguous position for women, because modest dress and head scarf are all but mandatory within the space of the ghetto. "The veil is interpreted as a sexual symbol, affirmation of a sexual solidarity with Muslim men. It often engenders hostility outside the ghetto while providing protection within the ghetto." "Here one finds one of the central explanations of the formation of the ghetto ... which is organized around the articulation of the race of the men and the sex of the women."

Another interesting sociological observation concerns the nature of the social networks within and without the ghetto. Lapeyronnie distinguishes between "strong network ties" (liens forts) and weak network ties (liens faibles), and he asserts that social relationships in the ghetto fall in the first category: everyone knows everyone. As a network diagram, this would result in a dense network in which every node is connected to every other node. But Lapeyronnie makes the point that weak networks are a source of strength and innovation in the larger society that is lacking in the ghetto; people can "network" to strangers through a series of connections. So opportunities are widely available -- finding a job by passing one's CV through a series of people, for example. "Strong networks protect people, they are like a cocoon ... But they are also a handicap and a weight on each person. Not only is the individual deprived of resources, but many people don't know a single person outside the neighborhood." Moreover, this strong network characteristic is very effective at enforcing a group morality (along the lines of Durkheim): "There is a morality and set of norms in the strong network: don't betray, be faithful to one's friends, stay together."

Lapeyronnie concludes the interview with these words:
When a population is placed in a situation of poverty and lives within racial segregation, it returns to very traditional definitions of social roles, notably the roles of family, and on a rigid and often bigoted morality. This is what permits building the strong network.
This is a pretty powerful analysis of the social transformations that are created by segregation, racism, isolation, and poverty -- and it doesn't bode well for social peace in France. Lapeyronnie is describing the development of an extensive "counter-society" that may be more and more important in coming years. The social networks and social relationships that Lapeyronnie describes are a potent basis for social mobilization and new social movements, and there don't seem to be many pathways towards social progress to which such movements might be directed.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Narrative history

People sometimes imagine that history is narrative, full stop. This is not the case; there certainly are important forms of historical writing that do not take the form of narrative. But let's consider some of the logical features of narrative, since there is no disputing that this is one important variety of historical knowledge.

What is a narrative? Most generally, it is an account of how and why a situation or event came to be. A narrative is intended to provide an account of how a complex historical event unfolded and why. We want to understand the event in time. What were the contextual features that were relevant to the outcome -- the settings at one or more points in time that played a role? What were the actions and choices that agents performed, and why did they take these actions rather than other possible choices? What causal processes -- either social or natural -- may have played a role in bringing the world to the outcome of interest? (For example, the Little Ice Age pushed Europe's population into different patterns of cultivation and fishing, with major consequences for subsequent developments; Brian Fagan, The Little Ice Age: How Climate Made History, 1300-1850.)

So a narrative seeks to provide hermeneutic understanding of the outcome -- why did actors behave as they did in bringing about the outcome? -- and causal explanation -- what social and natural processes were acting behind the backs of the actors in bringing about the outcome? And different narratives represent different mixes of hermeneutic and causal factors. Bob Woodward's narrative of the Bush administration's decision to go to war against Saddam Hussein is primarily actor-centered and interpretive -- who said what, who influenced the decisions, the reasons and motives that ultimately prevailed with the president and top national security officials (Plan of Attack). Juan Cole's treatment of the same historical moment, on the other hand, gives more emphasis to hidden motives -- what the "real" objectives were (see his blog, InformedComment). But both authors aim to clarify the reasoning, motives, and dynamics among decision-makers that led to the outcome.

Narratives about the decision to go to war against Hussein's Iraq have an important feature on common: they single out a fairly brief historical moment and focus on the proximate actions and causes that created the outcome. This is an instance of "micro-history" -- an effort to explain and understand an important but bounded event. Is it possible to construct narratives of more extended historical processes?

Certainly it is. Consider histories of World War II, the Holy Roman Empire, or the Qing Dynasty. These are each large complexes including thousands of events and conditions over an extended period of time. Histories of these topics often take the form of chronologically organized presentations of occurrences and conditions, with a narrative storyline that attempts to hold these events together in a single story. There may also be an effort to break down the history topically or regionally -- "War in the Pacific; North Africa; Western Europe" or "Technology; Intelligence; Supply and Industry; Command; Genocide". But for the history to take the form of a narrative, there needs to be an organized effort to weave the account into a somewhat coherent story; a series of intertwined events and conditions leading eventually to an outcome.

A crucial and unavoidable feature of narrative history is the fact of selectivity. The narrative historian is forced to make choices and selections at every stage: between "significant" and "insignificant", between "sideshow" and "main event", and between levels of description. (Is World War II better described at the level of generals and policy-makers or infantrymen and factory workers?)

Another crucial feature of the genre of narrative history is the tension between structure and agency. Historians differ about where to set the balance between constraining structures and choosing agents. Partially this is a difference of opinion about the relative weight of various kinds of historical factors; but it is also a disagreement about what is interesting -- choices or background conditions.

What are the criteria of success for a historical narrative? To start, there is the issue of the factual claims included in the account. A narrative of Abraham Lincoln's presidency that gets the names of the members of his cabinet wrong will not do well in the New York Times Book Review. Second, there is the overall persuasiveness and foundation in evidence of the interpretations of actions that are offered. Third, the causal claims that the account advances will be tested for their empirical and logical foundations. If the claim is made that some aspect of Andrew Jackson's presidency was influenced by the fragility of current banking institutions, we will want to assess whether this financial feature could be judged to have this result in the circumstances.

These are criteria that relate directly to the epistemic status of the many claims that the narrative advances. In addition, it is plausible that we evaluate narratives according to non-evidentiary criteria: the coherence of the story that is told, the degree of fit between "our" interest in the historical moment and the content of the narrative, and the degree of "lean" comprehensiveness the author provides. Does the author provide enough of the right sorts of details to make the story comprehensible, without overwhelming the reader with a thicket of extraneous facts?

Some of these criteria are clearly epistemic, having to do with evidence and credibility. But others are more aesthetic and interest-based, having to do with how well the account fits our expectations and interests. And this fact seems to set a bound on the degree to which one account is objectively superior to another.

Monday, November 17, 2008

G. William Skinner

G. William Skinner, a distinguished China scholar who brought profound innovations to many aspects of the study of Chinese history, passed away on October 25, 2008. See a remembrance of his many contributions to the social scientific study of China at TheChinaBeat.

Why does unrest spread?

Why does social unrest occur and spread?

This is a little bit of a trick question. It really implies three questions: What are the circumstances that make unrest in a population possible or likely? What circumstances need to occur in order to precipitate expressions of unrest in particular places? And what circumstances are conducive to spreading (or damping out) these local expressions?

First, how might we define the concept of "unrest"? To my ear the concept involves grievance and activism. Grievance involves the situation where individuals and groups feel that they have been badly treated by someone. Activism implies a disposition to act visibly and politically to protest or alleviate this mistreatment. Grievance can exist without activism, and there are instances of activism that stem from emotions other than grievance. But when these emotional and behavioral states come together we can refer to the resulting stew of behavior as "unrest".

So let's start with the causes of grievance. Power relations create the emotions of grievance: excessive conscription or taxation, insufficient attention to the interests of an ethnic minority, abusive and disrespectful treatment by the police. When individuals and groups believe they are being treated in ways that unfairly harm their interests or reduce their dignity, they are likely to feel aggrieved.

Grievance is a propositional emotion; it involves a subject, a harm, and a perpetrator. And this means that grievance is not simply a reaponse to suffering. Take a population that is experiencing dearth in the early stages of famine. Individuals and sub-groups may differ in their experience of grievance; they may hold different social actors responsible for their suffering (landlords, lenders, city people, the military, or the state, for example). And these differences have implications for how and when these groups may be aroused to protest and action.

What about "activism"? What kind of psycho-political state is this? It is a propensity to make the transition from political emotion to action -- to go from resentment of the state's behavior to the choice of joining a street demonstration; to go from anger about conscription to joining an anti-draft organization; to go from frustration about the landlord's unwillingness to restore the heat to joining with others in a rent strike. "Activism" appears to be a complex characteristic of individuals and groups. For one thing, it seems to have a substantial component of culture and tradition baked into it. Cultures seem to differ in their responses to mistreatment; some communities seem to have resources for activist mobilization that others lack. Second, there appears to be a substantial degree of social learning through imitation involved in becoming "activist." So it is likely that there is a degree of positive feedback involved in the spread of activist psychology.

So back to the original question: what causes the spread of unrest? There needs to be an issue that creates a grievance in a significant number of people. Something needs to happen to make this issue salient relative to other concerns. There needs to be a critical mass of people who share the grievance and possess the components of the social emotions of activism. And there needs to be a "spark" that allows activists to mobilize others.

Consider a hypothetical example -- a company with dozens of factories in different parts of the country that is imposing a unilateral change in its contributions to worker retirement accounts. Suppose each factory has several thousand workers; and suppose that there is a range of responses to the retirement changes in the various factories along these lines:
  • Quiescence and grudging acceptance
  • Widespread grousing but no organized action
  • Wildcat strikes
What factors might account for these different responses to essentially the same event?

Several possible explanations might be considered:
  • The presence/absence of effective rank-and-file leaders
  • The presence/absence of effective local managers' countermeasures (persuasion, cooptation, threats)
  • Strong/weak traditions of activism in different locations
  • Alternative narratives about what the changes mean ("inevitable in this business climate", "better this than a lot of layoffs", "higher management is taking this opportunity to stiff us", ....)
  • High/low impact of the management changes on the interests of workers in each location
  • Strong/weak channels of communication among workers in different factories
It is, of course, a matter for empirical investigation to determine whether some or all of these factors played a causal role. But we can give good theoretical reasons for thinking that these are socially possible mechanisms that may underlie the observed differences in behavior.

We might speculate, then, that unrest is most likely to occur and spread when there is an abuse that affects a large number of people; there is a generally shared understanding of the nature of the abuse; there are effective local activists capable of arousing the indignation of the rank-and-file; there are accessible communication vehicles permitting the spreading of messages of dissent; the population has a tradition of activism; and the state's managers are ineffectual in damping down the occurrences of protest. These conditions appear most favorable for the dissemination of unrest.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

How do new ideas get used?

Economic development and growth depend chiefly on innovation -- new products, processes, materials, and modes of organization that can create new opportunities in the marketplace. Business creation and economic growth depend upon innovation. This means creating new products that consumers want or need, improving the performance or safety of the product, or improving the cost and efficiency of the process of production and distribution. So a critical element in economic development is the discovery and development of new ideas -- often technical and scientific ideas. Google, Apple, and Pfizer are examples of industries that created brand new markets for products based on innovations in science and engineering (search technologies, user-friendly computing devices, cholesterol regulating drugs).

Universities are places where highly specialized and talented people are in the business of making discoveries and further developing or refining existing ideas. So we might expect that universities would also be potent sources of economic growth. New ideas surface in engineering, science, or medical research facilities; they are quickly recognized for their potential applications in the marketplace; and entrepreneurs or existing businesses capitalize on them and move them quickly to the marketplace. The basis for this expectation is a familiar one within an Adam Smith sort of framework: new ideas are a potential source of new wealth, and rational maximizers will quickly identify these new wealth opportunities and will quickly and efficiently develop them.

We might expect that this is the case. But surprisingly enough, this picture seems not to be born out in experience. What seems much more true as a description of the process of research and discovery, is that most ideas do not move into the process of commercialization and business development. In fact, it seems like a fairly believable guess that there exist today in the stock of university research discoveries, the makings of dozens of billion-dollar industries and hundreds or thousands of million-dollar industries -- and that these ideas are likely enough to remain dormant for a very long time. Most ideas are not fully developed as business ventures, not because they are not viable, but because the activity of recognizing the market potential of an idea and developing it commercially is itself an extended effort that requires imagination and creativity, and this is not usually either the strength or the priority of the working research scientist.

So what is the obstacle to the full and efficient development of potentially profitable new innovations? Part of the problem is the separation that exists between the research community and the business community. The person who understands the new technology or scientific innovation does not usually understand the commercial potential of the idea, and usually does not have much of a practical idea of what is involved in commercializing an innovation. The research scientist in a university is largely motivated by the rewards of academic progress: publication, the gaining of grants to support future research, and the rewards of prestige that go with academic success. The gap between the technical characteristics of the innovation and the steps that would need to be taken in order to transform this innovation into a business venture is also a very wide one. A research scientist may have developed a technique for coating metals that permits the metal to preserve an electrical charge. But it is not self-evident how this innovation might be developed into new products or processes that have the potential for creating substantial new markets or profits. The researcher who conducts the basic research leading to the innovation usually has little knowledge or interest in the applications that might be possible. And the challenge of bridging the gap between the innovation and some of its potential commercial applications may demand an equally creative and time-consuming period of intellectual and practical work as did the original discovery -- and this is likely to be a form of effort that is foreign to the research scientist.

It might be thought that innovation-oriented investors are among the important mechanisms that help to identify potentially valuable ideas and innovations and move them to successful businesses. "Angel" investors and venture capital firms are certainly filling part of the role of "innovation spotters" in the modern economy. But even this mechanism seems incomplete, in the sense that potentially valuable engineering and scientific research activity generally remains invisible to the investor community until an entrepreneurial researcher brings it forward along with a business plan. So there is a wide information gap between the researcher, the investor, and the business entrepreneur.

These observations suggest two things. First, our economy could be strengthened if we had a substantially more efficient system of identifying innovations as they occur in laboratories throughout the country, and moving these innovations into productive applications. And second, the story seems to suggest that there is a niche available in our economy that would provide profitable opportunities for businesses that are specifically designed to seek out these innovations and innovators and facilitate the transition from idea to product.

Thomas Hughes' detailed history of electric power is a very important illustration of several aspects of this complex story (Networks of Power: Electrification in Western Society, 1880-1930). Hughes demonstrates how long the chain of development is between basic science and useable technology; he also highlights the many contingencies that occur along the way, as electric power generation technology is developed into a mass industry using alternating current. One of the most frequently discussed examples of technology innovation and business development is the story of how the innovations in computer interfaces (the mouse, WYSIWYG editing, Windows-style interface) that were created by Xerox PARC found their way into the multi-billion dollar industry of personal computing. Douglas Smith and Robert Alexander emphasize the business mistakes that many people attribute to Xerox in this story in Fumbling the Future: How Xerox Invented, Then Ignored, the First Personal Computer, while Michael Hiltzik's Dealers of Lightning: Xerox PARC and the Dawn of the Computer Age provides a more favorable version of the story.

Friday, November 7, 2008

Causing public opinion

It is interesting to consider what sorts of things cause shifts in public opinion about specific issues. This week's national election is one important example. But what about more focused issues -- for example, the many ballot initiatives that were considered in many states? To what extent can we discover whether there is a measurable effect on public opinion by the organized efforts of advocacy groups through advertising and other strategies for reaching the minds of voters?

In these cases we might imagine that voters have a prior set of attitudes towards the issue -- perhaps including a large number of "don't know/don't care" people. Then a set of advocates form to lobby the public pro and con. They mount campaigns to influence voters' opinions towards the option they prefer. And on the day of the election voters will indicate their approval -- often in ratios quite different from those that were measured in pre-campaign surveys. So something happened to change the composition of public opinion on the issue. The question here is whether it is possible to estimate the effects of various possible influencers.

This seems like potentially a very simple area of causal reasoning about social processes. The outcome variable is fairly observable through polling and the final election, and the interventions are also usually observable as well, both in timing and magnitude. So the world may present us with a series of interventions and outcomes that support fairly strong causal conclusions -- for example, "each time ad campaign X hits the airwaves in a given market, there is an observed uptick in support for the proposition." It is unlikely that the correlation occurred as a result of random variations in both terms; we have a theory of how advertising influences voters; and we conclude that "ad campaign X was a causal factor in shaping voter opinion in this time period." (It is even possible that X played a role in both segments of opinion, resulting in an up-tick in both yes and no responses. Then we might also judge that X was effective at polarizing voters -- not the effect the strategist would have aimed at.)

This is an example of singular causal reasoning, in that it has to do with one population, one issue, and a specific series of interventions. What would be needed in order to arrive at a conclusion with generic scope -- for example, "advertising along the lines of X is generally effective in increasing support for its issue"? The most straightforward argument to the generic conclusion would be a study of an extended set of cases with a variety of strategies in play. If we discover something like this -- "In 80% of cases where X is included in the mix it is observed to have a positive effect on opinion" -- then we would have inductive reason for accepting the generic causal claim as well. This is basic experimental reasoning.

Take a hypothetical issue -- a referendum on a proposal for changing the system the state uses for assessing business taxes. Suppose that a polling firm has done weekly polling on the question and has recorded "yes/no/no opinion" since October 2007. Suppose that two organizations emerged in December to advocate for and against the proposal; that each raised about $5 million; and that each included an advertising campaign in its strategy. Suppose further that the "no" campaign also included a well-organized effort at the parish level to persuade church members to vote against the measure on religious grounds and the "yes" campaign included a grassroots effort to get university students and staff to be supportive of the measure on pro-science and pro-economy grounds. And suppose each organization mounted a "new media" campaign using email lists and web comminication to make its case. Finally, suppose we have good timeline data about the occurrence and volume of media spots throughout the period of June through November.

This scenario involves three types of causes, a timeline representing the application of the interventions, and a timeline representing the effects. From this body of data can we arrive at estimates of the relative efficacy of the three treatments? And does this set if conclusions provide credible guidance for other campaigns over other issues in other places?

There is also the question of the efficacy of the implementation of the strategies. Take the ad campaigns. Whether a specific campaign succeeds in changing viewers' opinions depends on the content, message, and production quality. Does the message resonate with a target segment of voters? Does the production design stimulate emotions that will lead to the desired vote? So evaluating efficacy needs to be done across instances of media as well as across varieties of media. (This is the function of focus groups and snap polls -- to evaluate the effects of specific messages and production choices on real voters.)

(Here is a link to some information about the process leading up to a positive vote on the Michigan Stem Cell initiative this month. A good general introduction to the social psychological theories about the formation of attitudes and opinions is Stuart Oskamp and P. Wesley Schultz, Attitudes and Opinions.)

Sunday, November 2, 2008

Are there "social kinds"?

Philosophers of science sometimes define the idea of a natural kind as "a group of things that share a fundamental set of causal properties." Examples might be "gold," "metal," and "protein molecule." And some philosophers assume that scientific realism means being realist about natural kinds. Do the typical concepts used in the social sciences succeed in identifying a social analog to natural kinds, which might be referred to as "social kinds"? And if not, is it possible to be realist about the social world but anti-realist with respect to "social kinds"?

First, what is involved in being “realist” in connection with the historical and human sciences? It is to assert several independent things: first, that there is the possibility of (fallibly) objective knowledge of social facts; second, that there are “social facts” to be known – that is, there are some mind- or interpretation-independent things that happen and can be the subject of knowledge; and third (questionably), that there are categories of higher-level social entities that “really” exist in the way that some philosophers say that natural kinds exist. It is entirely defensible to be a scientific realist in the social sciences, and I want to support the first two ideas but to argue against the third.

Concepts are of course essential to social knowledge. The heart of social inquiry has to do with coming up with concepts that allow us to better understand social reality: for example, racism, patterns of behavior, free market, class consciousness, ethnic identities. Theory formation in the social sciences largely consists of the task of constructing concepts and categories that capture groups of social phenomena for the purpose of analysis. But even the most successful social concepts do not identify groups of phenomena that could be called a "social kind." High-level social concepts that serve to pick out groups of social phenomena—states, riots, property systems—generally do not refer to causally homogeneous bodies of social phenomena; instead, each of these is composed of individual social formations with their own history and circumstances. There is no uniform causal constitution that underlies all states or riots. The philosophical notions of “family resemblance” and “cluster concepts” serve better to characterize these high-level social concepts than does “natural kind”.

Examples of what might have been thought to be social kinds might include concepts such as these: proletariat, underclass resentment, revolutionary situation, racism; liberal representative states; fascism; feudalism; bureaucratic state. But I hold that these are not kinds in the strong sense that philosophers of the natural sciences have in mind. Rather, they are plastic, variable, opportunistic, individually specific instantiations across a variety of human contexts. We need to be able to identify some topics of interest, so we need language and concepts; but we must avoid reifying the concepts and thinking they refer to some underlying discoverable essence. (Think of how Chuck Tilly conceptualizes riot, rebellion, and resistance in terms of “contentious politics.” Rightly, he avoids the idea that there is one common thing going on in these instances across time, history, and place; his goal is to identify a medium-sized body of causal mechanisms that bundle together in various contexts to give rise to one signature of contention or another.)

The discovery of causal processes is essential to social explanation -- not the discovery of high-level uniform categories of social events or structures. We explain social outcomes best when we can uncover the causal mechanisms that gave rise to them. However, most social ensembles are the result of multiple causal mechanisms, and their natures are not common, simple, or invariant. “States” embody mechanisms of social control. But as Tolstoy said about unhappy families, every state manages its contention in somewhat different ways. So we can’t and shouldn’t expect common causal properties across the class of “states”. And this is directly relevant to the central point here: the "state" is not a social kind, and there is no simple theory that encapsulates its causal properties.

This approach has specific implications for the conduct of the social sciences. For example, political science and the study of different types of states: we can identify common mechanisms, sub-institutions, building blocks, etc., that recur in different political systems. And we can offer causal explanations of specific states in particular historical circumstances -- for example, the Brazilian state in the 1990s. But we cannot produce strong generalizations about “states” or even particular kinds of states -- for example, “developing states”. Or at least, the generalizations we find are weak and exception-laden. Rather, we must build up our explanations from the component mechanisms and institutions found in the particular cases.

So here is a moderate form of scientific realism that is well suited to the nature of the social world: be realist about social mechanisms but not about social kinds. Be realist and empiricist in epistemology: we can arrive at rationally justified beliefs about social mechanisms. And be a skeptic or nominalist about social kinds. There are no macro or molar-level social kinds.

What is "methodological localism"?

Quite a few of the posts in the blog are grounded in a theory of social ontology that I refer to as methodological localism. This theory of social entities affirms that there are large social structures and facts that influence social outcomes. But it insists that these structures are only possible insofar as they are embodied in the actions and states of socially constructed individuals. The “molecule” of all social life is the socially constructed and socially situated individual, who lives, acts, and develops within a set of local social relationships, institutions, norms, and rules.

With methodological individualism, this position embraces the point that individuals are the bearers of social structures and causes. There is no such thing as an autonomous social force; rather, all social properties and effects are conveyed through the individuals who constitute a population at a time. Against individualism, however, methodological localism affirms the “social-ness” of social actors. Methodological localism denies the possibility or desirability of characterizing the individual extra-socially. Instead, the individual is understood as a socially constituted actor, affected by large current social facts such as value systems, social structures, extended social networks, and the like. In other words, ML denies the possibility of reductionism from the level of the social to the level of a population of non-social individuals. Rather, the individual is formed by locally embodied social facts, and the social facts are in turn constituted by the current characteristics of the persons who make them up.

This account begins with the socially constituted person. Human beings are subjective, intentional, and relational agents. They interact with other persons in ways that involve competition and cooperation. They form relationships, enmities, alliances, and networks; they compose institutions and organizations. They create material embodiments that reflect and affect human intentionality. They acquire beliefs, norms, practices, and worldviews, and they socialize their children, their friends, and others with whom they interact. Some of the products of human social interaction are short-lived and local (indigenous fishing practices); others are long-duration but local (oral traditions, stories, and jokes); and yet others are built up into social organizations of great geographical scope and extended duration (states, trade routes, knowledge systems). But always we have individual agents interacting with other agents, making use of resources (material and social), and pursuing their goals, desires, and impulses.

Social action takes place within spaces that are themselves socially structured by the actions and purposes of others—by property, by prejudice, by law and custom, and by systems of knowledge. So our account needs to identify the local social environments through which action is structured and projected: the inter-personal networks, the systems of rules, the social institutions. The social thus has to do with the behaviorally, cognitively, and materially embodied reality of social institutions.

An institution, we might say, is an embodied set of rules, incentives, and opportunities that have the potential of influencing agents’ choices and behavior. An institution is a complex of socially embodied powers, limitations, and opportunities within which individuals pursue their lives and goals. A property system, a legal system, and a professional baseball league all represent examples of institutions. Institutions have effects that are in varying degrees independent from the individual or “larger” than the individual. Each of these social entities is embodied in the social states of a number of actors—their beliefs, intentions, reasoning, dispositions, and histories. Actors perform their actions within the context of social frameworks represented as rules, institutions, and organizations, and their actions and dispositions embody the causal effectiveness of those frameworks. And institutions influence individuals by offering incentives and constraints on their actions, by framing the knowledge and information on the basis of which they choose, and by conveying sets of normative commitments (ethical, religious, interpersonal) that influence individual action.

It is important to emphasize that ML affirms the existence of social constructs beyond the purview of the individual actor or group. Political institutions exist—and they are embodied in the actions and states of officials, citizens, criminals, and opportunistic others. These institutions have real effects on individual behavior and on social processes and outcomes—but always mediated through the structured circumstances of agency of the myriad participants in these institutions and the affected society. This perspective emphasizes the contingency of social processes, the mutability of social structures over space and time, and the variability of human social systems (norms, urban arrangements, social practices, and so on).

How the calendar matters

It is interesting to consider how the timing of a routine social event can have a major effect on outcomes. Malcolm Gladwell observes that the most talented Canadian hockey players in the NHL are disproportionately likely to have birthdays in the months of January or February in his recent book, Outliers: The Story of Success. Observers of the current US presidential election may speculate that, if the financial crisis of September had occurred in May, the outcome of the election might have been different. The generation of Americans born around 1915 are much like those born around 1945 -- except for the searing experience their generation had of the great depression.

The lesson to be drawn here might seem to be the obvious and trivial one -- context matters in human affairs. Because youth hockey leagues define the age of a player based on his age on December 31, the January children have a major advantage in size and physical development over the November children. And this advantage creates a small headstart that amplifies over time. The fact that the financial crisis of 2008 created a major disadvantage for the McCain ticket less than 60 days ahead of the election made it very difficult for the candidate to recover in the polls. The cohort experience of poverty and insecurity made the 1920 generation much more risk averse than the 1950 generation. So context and the timing of contextual events matters.

But perhaps the importance of the calendar goes deeper than this. In an earlier posting I discussed Victor Lieberman's discovery of an unexpected synchronicity of political change at the far ends of Eurasia, over the course of a millenium. We tried to understand this pattern in terms of hypothetical social mechanisms that might have produced these parallels. But what is striking about the example is not simply the fact that there must have been underlying causal mechanisms; it is that the result is a weakly synchronized system of events -- that is, a system of events with a regular temporal association -- that might never have been noticed.

What this suggests to me is that the social sciences can profitably give more attention to the temporal features of social phenomena -- the simultaneous experiences a group of people would have had in virtue of being part of the same age cohort, the temporal parallels that might exist between the rise of a mass ideology and the sales of particular books, the accidents of simultaneity that have major repercussions decades later. Causal analysis implicitly imposes a temporal structure on events (causes precede effects). But often the research goal is to strip away the particular timing and temporal context, and to treat causal structures purely abstractly. And this means deliberately taking causal pairs out of their particular temporal contexts and comparing them with temporally disconnected alternative examples.

Andrew Abbott takes up some aspects of these issues in "Conceptions of Time and Events in Social Science Methods" in Time Matters: On Theory and Method. And William Sewell's critique of some forms of causal reasoning in comparative historical sociology in "Three Temporalities" in Logics of History: Social Theory and Social Transformation is highly relevant as well.

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