Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Sociology in China

Social investigation has a history in China that extends into the Ming-Qing dynasties and earlier, in the form of reports by scholar-officials on local conditions. Scholars undertook to provide descriptions of agricultural conditions, farming methods, famines, drought and flooding, the conditions of the poor, banditry, and many other topics of interest to the state or potentially of value to the people. These reports often show great attention to detail and concern for veracity, and they provide important sources of data for contemporary historians. They do not constitute “scientific sociology,” any more than the writings of Mayhew or the findings of Parliamentary commissions constituted a British sociology in the 18th century. They fall in the category of careful fact-gathering, with some efforts at diagnosing causes of some of the phenomena identified. We may also refer to the tradition called “evidential research” (kaoju), which emphasized “empirically rigorous methods” by historians and linguists to gather evidence for reconstructing China’s early history.

Sociology as a science involves several more specific ideas over and above simple descriptive reportage of social behavior: the idea of empirically rigorous methods of data gathering and analysis, the idea of providing explanations of the phenomena that are discovered, the idea of formulating theories about unobservable social processes or mechanisms, and the idea of identifying some level of patterns or regularities among and across groups of phenomena.

So what were some of the main turning points in the development of modern sociology in Chinese academic institutions in the twentieth century? How did sociology first appear in China? What were the primary influences? What assumptions about social theory and social research methodology were important, at what periods in time? When did the institutions of academic sociology develop—departments, associations, and journals?

As a European intellectual development, sociology took its shape in the 19th century as a result of several important currents of thought: the development of empiricism or positivism as philosophical theories of human knowledge, the development of “classical sociological theories” of modern societies (Weber, Durkheim, Marx, Tocqueville, Simmel); and the refinement of the methods of social description and analysis associated with public policy and reform efforts. Durkheim’s theories of social solidarity and cohesion, Weber’s theory of rationality and norms as causes of large historical developments such as the emergence of capitalism, and Marx’s theory of class conflict as the historical cause of social change—these classical theories constituted a first generation of sociological theory that twentieth century sociologists worked with in their efforts to deal with complex sociological phenomena. New theories in the twentieth century acquired classical standing as well: Parsons’ structural-functionalism as a general theory of social organization, the anthropologists’ formulation of theories of culture and language, and the Chicago School’s blend of pragmatism and policy provided a reservoir of theoretical ideas in the context of which more specific sociological inquiries could be framed.

Early in the twentieth century there were several important early Chinese sociologists who studied these theories in the west and brought them back to Chinese universities. There was a “founding group” of sociologists who studied in the US, in Chicago, California, and other universities in the 1930s and who created significant pockets of social research in China. The primary fields were rural development, ethnic groups, labor issues, gender and family. These founders published in English and Chinese. Yan Fu (1853-1921) was one of China’s first scholars of sociology, and translated Herbert Spencer’s Study of Sociology into Chinese in 1903). Quite a few Chinese students received Wisconsin, Columbia, USC, Chicago PhDs in the 1920s and 30s, and one students received a PhD from the University of Michigan in 1936.

Following the Communist Revolution, sociology went through several serious periods of crisis. In the 1950s the “socialist” character of the revolution led officials in China to ideological objections to the science of sociology.  The view was that sociology had to do with addressing social problems.  But this is a socialist society, so how can we have social problems?  Therefore, we don’t need sociology.  Departments of sociology were disbanded in the universities.  A few went to the Labor Cadre School.  Others went to statistics departments.  Quantitative and statistical methods were acceptable; but sociological theory and applied research were not.  This was described as “bourgeois science.”

In 1956-57 there was an attempt by some professors to revive sociological research.  Prof. Ma Yinchu wrote an article addressed to Chairman Mao about population issues.  He advocated for research on this question, arguing that population increase could interfere with China’s economic future.  There was some openness to this research, and Chairman Mao invited open thinking and ideas.  There had been an important meeting of a group of social scientists to re-start sociological research.  All the participants in this meeting were identified as “rightist”.  Participants included Yuan, Chen, Ma, and Fei.  Yuan was identified as “ultra-rightist” because he had done some organizational work for this small informal group.  He was sent to Northeast China for “labor re-education” in 1957.

Some opinions that emerged during the apparent thaw in 1956 were critical of one-party rule. There was an elite of scholars and officials from pre-1949 who were critical of one-party system. An important turning point was Wang Shengquan's “Big Character Paper” in 1956 or 1957. He criticized Leninism as contrary to Marxist theory. Marx believed that socialism could only occur when the world had developed to the point of socialism; not “socialism in one country. Lenin and Stalin deviated from this belief. Wang said that Lenin was untrue to Marxism. He was consequently labeled “rightist”.

The brief emergence of critical opinions among social scientists in 1956 led to a crackdown on “Rightist thinking” and the squelching of emerging social research.  The emerging sociology and social science, social reform, political reform thinkers were all identified as rightists. Even criticism from the left—e.g. “The Party is not doing enough for peasants” was identified as rightist and counter-revolutionary.  In the anti-Rightist campaign in 1957 about 100,000 people were labeled as “rightist”.  There were quotas for institutions to identify a certain number of rightists among them.  The anti-Rightist Movement by the CCP/Propaganda Department crushed the re-emergence of social science research at this time.  The fear was that social research would turn to criticism and lead to calls for changing the political system.

The period of the Cultural Revolution was also an unpropitious period for sociology as a discipline.  The universities were closed for much of the period of 1966-76, and when they reopened, sociology remained a suspect discipline.  It was only in the early 1980s that sociology began to regain its place in the university and in the field of social-science research in China.  "In 1980 the Institute of Sociology under the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences was established with Fei Xiao-tong as director" (Zheng and Li, 461).

Important Chinese sociologists

A particular leader in Chinese sociology was Prof. Fei Xiaotong.  He was educated in the 1930s and did field research in Jiangsu and Yunnan in the 1930s-1940s.  He was the first president of the Sociological Society of China, and he was a leading figure in re-establishing sociology after 1979.  He became a party official in a “democratic party”.  He died in 2005. Prof. Fei was a major influence after the Cultural Revolution in reviving sociology in China. An important book in English translation is Peasant Life in China: a Field Study of Country Life in the Yangtze Valley, based on his field survey in a village in Jiangsu province in 1930s (Google Books link).  Later he did field research in Yunnan.  After 1979 his best work was field research on the rise and roles of small market towns after the collapse of the people’s communes, focusing on Jiangsu Province.  (See David Arkush, Fei Xiaotong and Sociology in Revolutionary China.)  Fei became the first President of the Sociological Society after the CR in 1979. Yuan became the second president. (Here are obituaries from the New York Times (link) and ChinaDaily (link).)

Chen Da took a PhD at Columbia and became a specialist on Chinese labor.  He was a prominent sociologist in the 30s and 40s.  He became a key influence on the development of sociology at Tsinghua University, becoming founding director of the General Census Center there in 1939.  After the revolution he was prohibited from research and teaching and was eventually assigned to the Labor Cadre School.  His areas of research included survey methodology and surveys of workers’ households.  (Here is a brief history of sociology at Tsinghua University; link.)

Another important figure is Yuan Fang. He was educated at Kumming at Southwest Union University, a university that was relocated during the anti-Japanese War. He was a student of Chen Da.  He taught quantitative methods at a time that this was dangerous; “bourgeois science”.  Some professors disapproved of the workshops he organized.  People who participated were told to “be critical from a Marx-Mao-Lenin point of view.” After the anti-Japanese War, he went to Tsinghua as professor. He then went to Peking University as chair of sociology in 1984.

Lei Jieqiong.  USC 1932.  She advocated for the five-city survey. Family and marriage.  After the Cultural Revolution she became Vice Mayor of Beijing, representing a “showcase democratic party.”  She was also a Peking University professor.  Here is a ChinaDaily article on the occasion of her 105th birthday.

Pan Guangdan.  Sociology/anthropology.  He studied ethnic groups.  He was a professor of Fei.  He was the first translator of Darwin into Chinese and became China's leading promoter of eugenics.

Yan Yangchu [James Yen].  Another renowned sociologist in the 1930s.  See Charles W. Hayford, To the People: James Yen and Village China (Google Books link).

Li Jinghan. Ph.D. from Chicago (?) in the late 1920s. Social survey methods.  Statistical study of household surveys.  Both rural and urban. Major report of fieldwork: Dingxian shehui gaikuang diaocha (a general social survey of Ding county); first published in 1934 and recently reprinted.

Wang Shengquan.  Chen and Yuan educated him.  His “Big Character Paper” in 1956 or 1957 was a precipitating incident leading to the Anti-Rightist Campaign.  He was sent to the Cadre School.

A chronology

A History of Chinese Sociology, by Zheng Hang-sheng and Li Ying-sheng (China Renmin University Press) includes a fairly detailed appendix listing "Major Events in Chinese Sociology." Here are a few significant events from the early twentieth century:
  • 1921 Xiamen University established the department of history and sociology -- first department of sociology in universities run by the Chinese
  • 1922 Yu Tian-xiu set up "Association of Chinese Sociology" and started Journal of Sociology
  • 1923 Shanghai started the department of sociology; stipulated that the teaching took the theoretical basis of Marxism and Leninism, i.e. historical materialism as its guide.
  • 1924 The Fund Board of Chinese Education and Culture was established in Beijing and the Department of Social Survey was led by Tao Meng-he and Li Jing-han.  Published a large number of findings reports, including Rural Families in the Suburbs of Beiping.
  • 1926 Li Da published Modern Sociology.
  • 1928 Chen Han-sheng conducted three large-scale surveys of rural areas in Hebei, Jiangsu and Guangdong Provinces through the early 1930s.
  • 1930 The department of sociology in Yanjing University established an experimental base at Qinghe Town, where Xu Shi-lian and Yang Kai-dao directed students to survey the population trend, families, bazars, organizations of village and town in Qinghe Town (Google Books link)
The entry for 1957 is laconic:
1957   Inspired by the principle, "let a hundred flowers blossom and a hundred schools of thought contend" set forth by the Central Committee of the CPC led by Mao Ze-dong, Fei Xiao-tong published an article A Couple of Words about Sociology in Wenhuibao.  Chen Da, Wu Jing-chao and other distinguished sociologists also expressed their opinions about the restoration and reconstruction of Chinese sociology at Chinese People's Political Consultative Conferences and in influential newspapers or journals in Beijing and Shanghai.  The opinions of the former sociologists evoked big repercussions and attracted the attention of the leaders in departments responsible for the work.  However, when the Anti-Rightist Campaign began, the opinions about restoring and reconstruction of sociology were criticized as part of the plot to restore capitalism, and a number of former sociologists were mistaken for rightists and were persecuted.  From then on, sociology became a restricted academic zone.
The next entry is 1979, 22 years later.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Skilled synchronized cooperation

One kind of social behavior that is particularly interesting to observe is what we might call "small group skilled cooperation."  This kind of social action arises when --
  • there is a recurring task to be performed by a small defined group of actors;
  • success in the task requires effective performance of specialized actions by members of the group;
  • success in the task requires close coordination in time of the actions of the specialized actors;
  • success in the task requires extensive training of individuals and the group to enhance individual skill and inter-actor coordination.
Here is one example --

Here is another:

These examples come from athletics. But we could also think of examples from other time-sensitive, rapidly unfolding scenes of social coordination: fire fighting, jazz ensembles, urban warfare, and NASCAR pit crews provide others.  In each case two kinds of skillful performance are needed. Each individual needs to be highly skilled at his/her assigned activity; and the individuals need to be skilled at coordinating with other actors and handing off assignments to each other at the right time. Here are the Boston Celtics showing both kinds of skill in a playoff game against the Pistons in 1987:

So the questions here are these -- How do groups or teams get good at this kind of coordination and skilled performance?  And how common is this kind of coordination in everyday social life?

Part of the "how" question is fairly obvious.  The purpose of repetition and training in sports is precisely to allow players to run through possible game scenarios and perfect their individual skills and their timing and coordination.  The quarterback who throws well but consistently misjudges the speed of the receiver will not be successful; and through practice he can improve his timing of the flow of the play.  Each member of the team is expected to perfect his readiness to perform accurately and to do so at precisely the right moment.  Determining the "right moment" requires having a good mental representation of the play as it is developing in real time, to permit the player to make the block or make his cut at the moment needed to complete the play.  This emphasis on training and repetition seems to be uniform wherever a high degree of coordination is required; we don't rely on the spontaneous decision-making of the individuals, but instead try to lay down practiced routines that are invoked when the occasion arises.  And this in turn suggests the need for a sort of phenomenology of skill; we would want to explore the awareness and mental capacities that are associated with high-performance teamwork.

The fact that a team depends on both kinds of skills -- individual and coordinative -- explains why All-Star teams are not very good at basketball and are better at baseball.  All the players are highly skilled as individuals.  But they haven't had the practice together that would be needed for them to function at a high level as a team: recognizing each other's particular strengths and accurately judging their likely behavior and speed in the next several seconds.  In the Celtics video above, we see Dennis Johnson streaking to the basket before Larry Bird steals the inbound pass -- reflecting DJ's understanding of the game situation and his anticipation of the possibility of Bird's actions.  This doesn't seem likely in a team of talented strangers.  Baseball, by contrast, seems like a sport that reflects the sum of the talents of the individuals rather than a "value-added" component derived from close coordination of efforts.  (The double play is an exception to this point, of course.)

The "how common" question is more difficult.  I'm inclined to think that skilled time-sensitive cooperation is not very common in ordinary social life.  There seem to be relatively few examples of cooperative activities that require the high degree of coordination and timing specified here.  There is a lot of division of task in contemporary society, and therefore a lot of coordination and cooperation.  But this rarely requires the second-by-second synchronization that is found in the examples offered here.  Instead, a good sales team may depend on the individual talents of the members of the team, without requiring a high degree of coordination among them.  Sales is more like baseball than basketball.

Perhaps the most common example of an area of common social action that requires this kind of training, skill, and coordination is in the field of emergency response: firefighters, emergency rooms and surgical suites in hospitals, and emergency responders in large cities. By contrast, a newsroom, a factory floor, and a department store each require skill and specialization of task at the individual level; but they require little temporally precise teamwork. The teamwork required in these examples is more conceptual and communicative: one person's work product needs to be aligned with the goals and needs of the other person's work product; and this requires leadership and communication.

(A couple of earlier posts are relevant to this topic: "Acting, Deliberating, Performing;" (link), "Habits, Plans, and Improvisation;" (link), "Being Clumsy" (link), and "What Kind of Knowledge does a Football Coach Have?" (link).)

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

New contributions to the philosophy of history

I am pleased at the publication this month of a book I've been working on for quite a long time, New Contributions to the Philosophy of History (Methodos Series).  (Here is a link to a digital version of the book on the Springer website.)  The title is self-explanatory. The book is intended to jump-start a new round of conversations within analytic philosophy about the nature of history and historical explanation.  The philosophy of social science and the philosophy of biology have contributed enormously to the progress of research in both these areas, and I believe that new discussions in the philosophy of history can be equally valuable.

The book was inspired out of the thought that reflections on history and historical knowledge have not been as prominent within philosophy as they once were; and yet the issues raised under this rubric are interesting and important.  We need to have a better understanding of some of the conceptual and epistemic issues raised by the attempt to understand and explain human history.  So it seems timely to reopen the domain of the philosophy of history with some new questions and new approaches.

The approach that I've taken in this book is to take very seriously the innovations and intellectual turns that gifted historians have brought forward in the past thirty years. Writers such as Philip Kuhn, Jonathan Spence, Robert Darnton, Simon Schama, Peter Perdue, and Michael Kammen have brought strikingly new perspectives to the writing of history; and often their innovations suggest new ways of formulating some basic issues in the philosophy of history.  Good historians are often deeply insightful philosophers of history as well.  I've tried to approach the philosophy of history along the lines of how many philosophers have approached various of the special sciences (biology, psychology, physics, sociology, anthropology): to combine good philosophical analysis and reasoning with a careful and sympathetic reading of some of the best current research efforts in those disciplines.  When Simon Schama or Albert Soboul wrestle with the question, "What sort of thing was the French Revolution?", we can learn a lot about how to think about historical ontology.  And when Peter Perdue or R. Bin Wong propose a shift in thinking about Eurasia, we can get a much more precise understanding of the question of defining periods, regions, and civilizations.

The table of contents of the book gives a fairly good idea of the range of topics considered in the book: "History and Narrative," "Historical Concepts and Social Ontology," "Large Structures," "Causal Mechanisms," "History of Technology," "Economic History," "The Involution Debate," and "Mentalities."  These discussions circle around three different master questions:
  • How can we best define or conceptualize historical things (ontology)?
  • What issues arise in our effort to provide knowledge about the past (epistemology)?
  • What constitutes a good historical explanation (explanation)?
To these core questions, we can add another important one that emerges that perhaps falls closer to historiography than the philosophy of history:
  • What are some innovative ways that contemporary historians have invented as a basis for representing the past?
One aspect of New Contributions is especially novel: the effort I've made to combine an intellectual process of traditional academic research and writing with the work I've been doing for the past three years on this blog, UnderstandingSociety.  I announced in 2007 that "The blog is an experiment in thinking, one idea at a time," and New Contributions is my first effort to test out the viability of that idea.  Most of the chapters in the book began as conference presentations designed to contribute eventually to this new approach to the philosophy of history.  I had a book plan in mind as I wrote these papers and chapters over a ten-year period.  After the book was accepted by the excellent editors of the Springer Methodos series, Daniel Courgeau and Robert Franck, I undertook a major rewriting of the full manuscript; and I realized that I was also writing quite a few posts on various aspects of the philosophy of history in the blog.  So I undertook to integrate a lot of the new material into the manuscript.  In the end, roughly 40 postings have been integrated into New Contributions, which amounts to more than a third of the book. So this is a fairly extended test run to evaluate the notion that it is possible to make significant intellectual progress on a subject through a series of separate blog postings.

Here are a couple of key paragraphs of the book; they give something of a feel for the kind of analysis I'm trying to offer.
Why do we need a better philosophy of history? Because we think we know what we mean when we talk about "knowledge of history," "explaining historical change," or "historical forces and structures." But -- we do not.  Our assumptions about history are often superficial and fail to hold up to scrutiny.  We often assume that history is an integrated fabric or web, in which underlying causal powers lead to enduring historical patterns.  Or we assume that historical processes have meaning -- with the result that later events can be interpreted as flowing within a larger pattern of meaning.  Or we presuppose that there are recurring historical structures and entities--"states," "cultures," and "demographic regions" that are repeatedly instantiated in different historical circumstances.
I do not say that these assumptions are entirely wrong.  I say that they are superficial, misleading, and simple in a context in which nuances matter. Take the idea of recurring historical structures. Is there some state "essence" possessed in common among the Carolingian state described by Marc Bloch, the theatre state of Bali described by Clifford Geertz, and the modern Chinese party state described by Vivienne Shue? If so, what is this set of essential properties that states have? If not, what alternative interpretation can we provide to "state talk" that makes coherent sense? (2)
I certainly hope the book will wind up in enough libraries around the world to allow a range of readers to get a chance to consider it!  And the digital version made available by Springer is certainly a help; it allows readers to examine some of it online (link).

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Intangible services

Neoclassical economics presents a pretty simple theory of the equilibrium price of a manufactured good. This theory also extends to a theory of the wage for skilled and unskilled labor. We postulate production and demand curves, and the equilibrium price is the point where supply equals demand. The supply curve is influenced by factors governing the cost of production and therefore the level of profit created at a given production level and price, and the demand curve is influenced by subjective consumer preferences. An increase in demand for a good pushes up the price, thus triggering more production; and the price falls to a new equilibrium.

Wages are affected by this calculation because labor is a factor of production, and demand for labor at a given wage is influenced by the marginal product of labor. If the marginal product is greater than the wage the employer will hire another worker, increasing demand for labor and marginally increasing the wage. The equilibrium wage is the point at which the marginal product equals the wage.

Labor is not a homogeneous substance; the marginal product is affected by skill, intensity, and experience. So we should expect different wage curves for different segments of the labor force, with the wage rate for unskilled and inexperienced workers at the lowest level.  But because specialized labor is somewhat elastic in supply (through additional training) we would expect some degree of convergence between skilled and unskilled labor rates over moderate time periods.

How does this theory apply to intangible services where the quality of the product is difficult to measure? I'm thinking of a college education; how does a consumer decide between the education offered at a private university like Rice and the lower-cost alternative at UT-Arlington? But let's think of simpler examples -- for example, architectural services, family lawyers, or studio musicians. What are the factors that influence the price a supplier can charge in the marketplace?  Why do each of these sectors embody significantly tiered price structures?

Take architectural services. There is a wide range of fees charged by architectural firms, ranging from one-person firms designing single-family homes to multi-city firms charging much higher fees. There is demand for architectural services regionally and nationally. There is good information about suppliers and rates at the national level. And the supply of services is somewhat elastic -- more students will enter architecture school when the incomes they can expect are high. So why doesn't the simple logic of supply and demand imply convergence of prices for this service that is reasonably consistent and related to the cost of production of the service? Why are some elite firms able to retain a significant and permanent price premium? In other words, why don't we witness the commodification of architectural services along the lines of the auto industry, where firms compete aggressively on price?

I suppose some of the factors that stabilize this sort of multi-tier price system in services are fairly obvious. These might include brand and reputation; quality and prestige of professional service providers within the various firms; and depth and quality of referral networks.

Consider this thought experiment. RUNOFTHEMILL is an architectural firm of 30 professionals in the Rustbelt. TOPOFTHELINE is a firm of 200 professionals in San Francisco. Detailed quality assessment by the XYZ consulting firm estimates that RUNOFTHEMILL completes a wide range of midsize projects at roughly the same level of quality as TOPOFTHELINE. However, TOPOFTHELINE charges roughly twice what RUNOFTHEMILL charges for a project of comparable size. What are the mechanisms that preserve the price differential between the two firms? Why are rational business organizations willing to pay the premium to have their buildings designed by TOPOFTHELINE?

First, it is possible that TOPOFTHELINE has succeeded in positioning itself in the marketplace as a provider of superior quality. By hypothesis, this is untrue; but if potential buyers are persuaded of the quality advantage, they may choose TOPOFTHELINE over RUNOFTHEMILL in spite of the premium. This seems to be an inverted version of the "market for lemons": because the actual quality of the good is difficult to measure, the purchaser is forced to turn to other indicators as possible signals of quality. And this may lead the purchaser to pay more for the service than necessary.

Second, TOPOFTHELINE may have pursued a deliberate and successful strategy of recruitment of architects from the most respected schools in the world, whereas RUNOFTHEMILL may pay lower fees and may recruit equally capable but less prestigious professionals. Prospective clients may take the prestige of the staff as an indicator of the quality of the product, and may therefore be willing to pay the premium.  The observable prestige of the professional staff may serve as a surrogate for the inferred quality of the service.

Third, TOPOFTHELINE may have a brand that conveys significant prestige on its projects.  A company whose corporate offices are designed by TOPOFTHELINE may gain from that prestige, and the gain may justify the premium in spite of the additional cost.

Finally, it may be that the market for architectural services is highly segmented as a result of the networks of referrals that exist involving the two firms. TOPOFTHELINE exists in a network of premiere organizations, both providers and purchasers; and referrals and endorsements for TOPOFTHELINE support premium prices for its services. RUNOFTHEMILL has completed equally high-quality projects, but for a second tier of companies and consumers; so its referrals more or less automatically steer its services towards a tier of companies that are more likely to compete on price. So RUNOFTHEMILL's referrals generate lower average fees.

Several of these factors are inherently irrational grounds for accepting a price premium.  If purchasers had full information about quality and price, they would not pay a premium for the pedigrees of the professional staff, and they would not restrict their purchasing horizon to suppliers recommended by other elite firms.  Instead, they would go with the Walmart strategy: get the best product for the lowest price. So far, however, it seems that the markets for advanced and specialized services are fairly sticky when it comes to price, quality, and prestige.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Did Rousseau have a sociology?

Political philosophers ask a small number of core questions: for example, what constitutes the moral basis of political authority?  How should the values of individual liberty and community wellbeing be balanced?  And we might imagine that the most insightful political philosophers work on the basis of an astute understanding of the social world.  Political philosophy, we might say, ought to be grounded in a good empirical understanding of how society works.  As Rousseau himself puts a similar point in the opening pages of "Considerations on the Government of Poland":
Unless you are thoroughly familiar with the nation for which you are working, the labour done on its behalf, however excellent in theory, is bound to prove faulty in practice; especially when the nation in question is one which is already well-established, and whose tastes, customs, prejudices and vices are too deeply rooted to be readily crowded out by new plantings.
Rousseau had a distinctive political philosophy -- but did he also have a sociology? What did he understand about how a society works? And why should we expect that a political philosopher might have something like a sociological theory of the society in which he/she lives? For that matter, what were some of the main characteristics of French and Swiss society in 1750?

Rousseau's political philosophy is well known (link).  Rousseau's conception of society in The Social Contract is grounded in a conception of the moral psychology of the individual and the constitutive relationship that exists between community and the individual.  Rousseau distinguished between the natural individual (motivated by direct natural emotions and desires, along the lines of Hobbes's conception of the individual); and the moral individual (constituted by an understanding of his relation to other moral beings).  The former is outside of society; whereas the latter is integrally integrated within a set of social relationships.  Rousseau is a theorist of freedom.  But freedom has these same two aspects: natural freedom and moral freedom.  And his conception of social relationships is simple: there is sovereignty (the relations of the polity) and there is property (the relations of the economy).

What this philosophy does not provide is anything like an empirical understanding of real, concrete social life in Rousseau's contemporary France or Switzerland: for example, the nature of the occupational segments of eighteenth-century French society, the ways in which the state exercises its power, the social practices of farming villages, or the ways in which wealth and power are accumulated by elites.  There is very little concrete empirical social detail in Rousseau's writings.

The central models of social life that Rousseau possessed fall in a couple of categories:
  • stylized examples of social behavior -- cooperation, for example
  • stylized examples of a legislative process (the constitution of Poland)
  • the romanticized example of the Greek polis
  • popular elite conceptions of the French court
  • stylized conception of the relation between the governed and the ruler; forms of government
So there is a political theory -- a theory of different forms of the state -- but not much of a theory of how social life works.  There is very little social description in Rousseau's work.  The only institution he describes in any detail is the process of legislation.  And there are only infrequent instances of hypotheses about social processes -- how social organizations work, for example.  So it is hard to avoid the conclusion that Rousseau did not have much of a sociological imagination or curiosity.  Unlike Tocqueville a century later, he was not a sociologist in the making.

We might expect sociological description in his A Discourse Upon the Origin and the Foundation Of The Inequality Among Mankind.  But this isn't the case.  He refers to the creation of property and the consequent emergence of inequalities of wealth; but he doesn't ask at all what the social processes are that preserve property.  And there is nothing historically specific about his descriptions of property, wealth, and inequality; they remain apriori and general.

What might we want from a sociology from an observer like Rousseau?  We would want a couple of fundamentals: an understanding of how power works in the contemporary society; an idea of how economic institutions work; an understanding of the major classes that exist in society -- and the forms of life and forms of social relations that exist within these.  There is a descriptive aspect of this picture -- what are the main social groups and processes?  And there is a theoretical part -- how do these institutions work?  What are some of the causal processes that can be identified within society?

Moreover, we might say that a political philosophy is seriously hampered if it is not grounded in a fairly good understanding of how society works -- how individuals behave in institutional settings, how organizations work, how public opinion and shared social values influence individuals.  Significantly, these are the sorts of concrete observations with which Tocqueville's work is filled (link).

We also find much more of a sociological eye in the writings of novelists.  We get more of a descriptive sociology from many of the French novelists of the nineteenth century than is to be found anywhere in Rousseau.  Balzac, Zola, and Stendhal all devote extensive attention to the lives and ways of the various segments of French society -- bourgeois, aristocrat, peasant, merchant, thief.

Robert Darnton describes a bit of sociological description in The Great Cat Massacre: And Other Episodes in French Cultural History in a fascinating chapter called "A Bourgeois Puts his World in Order: The City as a Text."  The object of the chapter is a highly detailed description of Montpellier written during Rousseau's lifetime.  Here is the opening paragraph of Darnton's essay:
If the grim folklore of peasants and the violent rituals of artisans belong to a world that seems unthinkable today, we might expect to be able to think ourselves into the skin of an eighteenth-century bourgeois.  The opportunity arises thanks to another document, as extraordinary in its way as Contat's account of the cat massacre: it is a description of Montpellier written in 1768 by an anonymous but solidly middle-class citizen of the city.  To be sure, the casual nonfiction of the eighteenth century was full of "descriptions," guidebooks, almanacs, and amateur accounts of local monuments and celebrities.  What set our bourgeois apart from others who dealt in the genre was his obsession with completeness.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Race and racism

Race has been a fundamental fact in American society for centuries, since the sixteenth century with the arrival of African slaves.  And many would observe that racism has been a part of that history from beginning to end.  These are distinct statements; it is possible for race to be a factor, without racism being present.  But our history does not suggest this separation.  Instead, the United States has embodied a pretty deep version of racial awareness, extending back to the period of slavery and its aftermath, and it continues to embody behaviors, attitudes, and outcomes that are best described as racist.

So what do we mean when we say that a society contains a substrate of racism? Can we observe and measure the social dimensions of racism?  And can we say with any confidence that there has been change over time?  Most fundamentally, a society is racist if members of one racial group despise, demean, mistreat, and discriminate against members of another racial group.  Assertions of racial superiority and inferiority, patterns of treatment that discriminate across individuals within different racial groups, and outcomes that show a distinct advantage to members of a dominant racial group all represent the markings of racism within a society.

We might say that there are several important social factors that represent different aspects of the social reality of racism: attitudes, behaviors, institutions, and outcomes.

The attitudes of racism include a bundle of emotions and beliefs: a belief in the inherent superiority or inferiority of one race relative to another; feelings of hostility, suspicion, or antipathy towards members of a different racial group; a set of stereotypes about the characteristics of the other group; and a readiness to discriminate against members of other groups when one is in a position to assign benefits, opportunities, or hardships.  There is such a thing as an "ideology" of race: a set of beliefs about people and the world that validates the assumptions of superiority and inferiority and the situation of privilege of the dominant group.  It is possible to use survey methodology, focus groups, and individual interviews to probe attitudes of a population, and perhaps it is possible to "map" the variations in racial thinking throughout a society.  So we might have some confidence in the possibility of developing an aggregate measure of "degree of racist attitudes" in a given society, and with effort we could monitor the direction of change of this measure over time.  This might give us a basis for concluding that "racial attitudes are improving (or worsening) during a specific period."

Behaviors have something to do with attitudes; we generally believe that people's behaviors derive in some way from their underlying attitudes and ideologies.  But the evidence of racist behavior is more visible than inferences about attitudes.  Particularly visible are facts about the incidence of racially motivated violence; facts about discrimination in employment and housing; and patterns of social behaviors in interactions between members of different racial groups.  A situation in which members of a privileged group express dominance, superiority, and greater self-importance towards members of a different group is one that expresses behaviorally the logic of race relations in that society.  So we can ask the question of a given society: to what extent do members of a privileged racial group engage in harmful and discriminatory behaviors towards members of another group?  And we might attempt to estimate the degree of racism in a society by the relative frequency of racially motivated crimes over time (FBI hate crime statistics; link).  Consider this graph of the frequency of lynchings in the United States between 1865 and 1965 (Wikipedia link):

We might speculate that decades in which there is an exceptionally high incidence of lynchings are also peak periods of racism more generally.  (Though we might also explain the frequency of these acts of violence in more political-organizational terms.)

The third factor mentioned above is institutions: to what extent are the basic institutions in a given society "racialized"?  That is, to what extent do the basic institutions automatically and systematically treat members of different races differently?  The practices of real estate "steering" and mortgage redlining are clear examples of a racialized system for assigning home seekers to neighborhoods; and employment practices that disadvantage members of some racial groups are just as critical in the area of employment and wellbeing.  For example, facts about residential segregation and the availability of transportation make it extremely difficult for African-American applicants to pursue job openings in the suburbs. So this is a system that discriminates against one group in favor of another -- even though the employer's personal attitudes may not be the cause of the discrimination.  Here too it is plausible to imagine that we might arrive at some quantifiable judgments about the degree of discrimination and equality of basic institutions at a given time; and this would permit us to make comparisons over time as well.

The fourth factor is outcomes. The degree of racialization of a society might be measured by the breadth of the gap between races with respect to important life outcomes.  If blacks and whites differ significantly in life expectancy, incarceration rates, health status, income, wealth, and education, we have good reason to believe that there are racialized social processes that are leading to these outcomes.  So measuring the race gap with respect to important social outcomes is an important way of assessing the degree to which a given society is racialized; or in other words, to measure the degree to which racism is an important social factor in that society.  Racial gaps with respect to important life outcomes can be measured; and it is meaningful to find that racial gaps have narrowed (or widened) during a given period of time.

The fundamental test of a non-racist society is this: there should be no difference in the availability of opportunities across racial groups, and -- given a reasonable assumption about the fundamental equality of human beings -- there should be no gap in outcomes across racial groups when it comes to factors like health, education, income, or wealth.  In other words, a non-racist society is one whose basic institutions do not discriminate, consciously or unconsciously, across individuals from different racial groups.

The treatment of attitudes, behaviors, institutions, and outcomes offered here suggests that it is indeed possible to chart the degree of racial progress a society has made over a number of decades.  We can measure attitudes and behaviors over time, using rigorous social-science tools (survey methodology).  And we can assess the workings of institutions and the distribution of outcomes using the suite of tools available to the social historian more generally.  What is genuinely surprising, however, is the relative paucity of social-science research on this topic.

There is of course the crucial question of the social dynamics of racist attitudes and behavior.  Are there social or psychological factors that make the appearance of racist attitudes more likely?  Are there features of human nature that lead naturally to a social psychology of "in-group, out-group" discrimination?  Or is racism a purely contingent accident that results from some important historical events in the past -- the slave economy, for example?  What are the factors in contemporary American social life that are either conducive or inhibiting to the formation of racist attitudes and behaviors in individuals?

Tuesday, September 14, 2010


The concept of proto-industrialization became an influential one in economic history in the 1970s and 1980s. The term refers to a system of rural manufacture that was intermediate between autarchic feudal production and modern urban factory production. Variously described as rural manufacturing, domestic manufacture, cottage industry, and a "putting-out" system, it was a dispersed system of production that used traditional methods of production and extensive low-paid rural labor to produce goods for the market, both domestic and international. Unlike modern capitalist manufacturing, proto-industrialization did not depend on rising labor productivity as a source of higher profits; instead, merchants increased the scale of their businesses by extending production to additional households and workers.

One of the first to use the term was Franklin Mendels in 1970 (link), who applied the concept to extra-urban manufacturing in Flanders in the eighteenth century.  Peter Kriedte, Hans Medick, and Jurgen Schlumbohm's Industrialization Before Industrialization provided an extensive historical and theoretical treatment of the phenomenon in 1977.
It has long been known that industrial commodity production in the countryside for large inter-regional and international markets was of considerable importance during the formative period of capitalism. (1)
What are the chief economic characteristics of a stylized proto-industrialization system of production?
  • Rural labor, often sideline activities beside agricultural work
  • Production for a market, often through urban-based merchants
  • Extremely low returns to labor -- squeezed labor
  • Low technology, very low rate of technological change
  • Extensive rather than intensive growth
In order for rural industry to develop on a large scale in a region, several factors needed to be present: extensive demand for manufactured goods by concentrated populations and developed patterns of trade; a concentration of merchant wealth; and a population of under-employed rural householders who could be recruited into sideline manufacturing employment.  Peter Kriedte explained the regional pattern of emergence of proto-industrialization in terms of the different forms of power possessed by lords in different parts of Europe:
The power-constellations and their impact on the spatial expansion of industrial commodity production were different in east-central and eastern Europe.  Peasants were more directly and more firmly dominated by their lords, and there was little room for the development of rural industries....
But whether a region developed rural industries or not was determined not so much by the extent of feudal charges as by the form in which peasants paid them. And the form of payment was determined not only by the social relationship in the narrow sense between the feudal lord and his dependent peasants but also by the overall relations of production. (18)
This argument is similar to that offered by Robert Brenner in his explanation of different courses that agricultural development took in different parts of Europe (link).

The regions where proto-industrialization developed earliest, according to Kriedte, were in western Europe:
The first regions of relatively dense rural industry had developed in England, the southern Low Countries, and southern Germany in the late Middle Ages. The decisive thrust which brought about the phase of proto-industrialization came at the end of the sixteenth and in the seventeenth centuries.... Quantitative changes in supply and demand combined to produce a cumulative process which led to a new phase. (23)
Generally speaking, a region that has made the transition to commercial agriculture is barren soil for rural manufacturing, for the simple reason that commercial farmers earn a sufficient income through farming.  However, some areas of commercial agriculture also became significant concentrations of rural manufacturing:
When proto-industrialization gained a foothold in a region of commercial agriculture despite these basic assumptions, special circumstances are usually responsible.  First of all, commercial agriculture, generally, could only develop in a highly urbanized region.  The concentrated demand of a large town or a whole network of towns was necessary in order to induce the self-sufficient peasant family holding to enter on the path of specialization. (27)
Hans Medick emphasizes the micro-side of the equation -- the economics of the peasant household in the late Middle Ages.
The central feature of the 'rationality' underlying the family economy is the fact that its productive activity was not giverned primarily by the objective of maximizing profit and achieving a monetary surplus.  The maximization of the gross produce rather than the net profit is the goal of family labour. (41)
In other words, the peasant household is governed by the dynamic that leads to "self-exploitation" in the sense described by Chayanov -- use of family labor to the point approaching a marginal product of zero (The Theory of Peasant Economy). Under these circumstances, it is economically rational to expend some family labor on sideline manufacturing if there is some income associated with this activity -- no matter how low the wage.

PI is described as transitional because its economic possibility was created by the political situation of feudal cities -- specialized manufacture in cities under a regulated guild system, self-production in the countryside.  And, it is sometimes claimed, proto-industrialization prepared the ground for a full modern systems of capitalist industry.  The "transition" scenario might be framed along these lines:

But it is also possible that proto-industrialization was an alternative to capitalist development -- a cousin rather than a grandparent.  Here the diagram would look differently:

Proto-industrialization is a significant historical phenomenon, we might say, because it represented a large and marked change in the organization and volume of production of goods from the medieval period to the early modern period.  Towns and cities were already economically active locations, representing both concentrated demand and concentrated production.  But the rural population was almost entirely involved in farming and sideline production for home use.  The emergence of a significant level of production in rural hinterlands was a shift, and so it is worth asking why this change occurred in the circumstances in which it did.  The change dynamics Kriedte, Medick, and Schlumbohm describe include population change; urban economic regulations; incentives for feudal rights-holders to transition to cash obligations; and the existence of inter-regional trade and markets that extend beyond the local village.

Several questions are especially pertinent to the study of this phenomenon.
  • Was proto-industrialization indeed a step on the path to modern manufacturing and capitalism?
  • What were the factors that led to the regional spread of rural manufacturing in parts of Europe?
  • What factors explain the geographical distribution of rural industry in the early modern period in Europe?
  • How did the economic and political institutions of the feudal order set the stage for the emergence of proto-industrialization?
  • What role did demographic factors play in this period of economic development?
  • Was PI a distinctive "system" or simply a predictable economic adaptation to rising demand for finished goods?
  • What is the connection between PI and the "modern world system" of trade?
Here are some relevant causal factors that might be invoked in formulating answers to these questions:
  • Rising population and population density
  • Rising volumes of inter-regional trade
  • Shifts in the political power of various collective actors
  • Changes in political institutions -- central state, local civic arrangements
  • Improvements in agricultural productivity
  • Emergence of new technologies
  • Persistence/change of the guild system
  • ...
It is tempting to frame this problem in the terms offered by Thunen and early economic geographers in "modeling" the economic changes that would be predicted on a featureless plane populated by economically rational agents (VON THUNEN'S ISOLATED STATE an English Edition of Der Isolierte Staat). Imagine a sort of "SimCity" simulation that begins with a sprinkling of mid-sized towns and cities with given levels of production and trade regulated by guilds, located within a countryside consisting of manors with serfs and small peasant farms.  There is trade between town and country, since the towns must import food for the urban population, and there are some goods needed in the countryside that cannot be produced there.  But trade is limited, labor mobility is limited, and the market economy is only a small fraction of all economic production.  The actors in this story are merchants, lords, bonded serfs, free peasants, and officials.  Now postulate that the actors respond rationally to some set of changing circumstances.  Which of various initial scenarios lead to a proliferation of rural manufacture?

We might postulate that merchants have only a few accessible strategies for achieving a return on their wealth.  Investing in production and trade is one such strategy.  Town-based production was heavily regulated, however, and the opportunities for profits were limited.  A large under-employed labor force was available in the rural periphery of the towns.  So a strategy of "putting-out" materials and paying low wages to rural producers was an attractive one.

This discussion relies heavily on a very specific set of historical and institutional characteristics -- the economic and demographic conditions of Western Europe in the early modern period. But it is interesting to compare these developments with some similar patterns in China's economic history. For example, consider Mark Elvin's description of merchant-based manufacturing in Ming China in The Pattern of the Chinese Past.  It is also interesting to compare the very different analysis in Charles Sabel and Jonathan Zeitlin's World of Possibilities: Flexibility and Mass Production in Western Industrialization. Sabel and Zeitlin describe a different alternative to factory production: high wage, high return artisanal production, surviving well into the era of modern factory production.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

System changes in healthcare

One of the largest and most interesting processes of change going on in the United States today is the rapid redesign and adjustment of the American healthcare system. A key driver is this spring's passage of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (PPACA), but the more fundamental causes are the twin crises we face for access and rising cost for health coverage. Somehow the country needs to find a way of including the whole population within the insured population, and we need to find ways of reducing the rate of growth of aggregate and per capita healthcare expenditures. PPACA is aimed at addressing both crises, and they are urgent.

Healthcare in the United States is provided through doctors, physician groups, and hospitals, organized into regional health systems. A given region typically has a number of hospital systems, non-profit and profit, and physician groups ranging in size from one to hundreds of physicians. And many experts describe existing health systems and hospitals as homebrew organizations that haven't changed fundamentally in thirty years. The current environment is forcing change for quality, health outcomes, and cost.

So who is forcing the changes? The requirements of the healthcare reform legislation (PPACA) are part of the answer. But other change drivers are large employers who are purchasers of healthcare services for their employees and the insurers who directly pay for services. A particularly important player is the Voluntary Employee Benefits Association trust (VEBA), a type of organization created by Federal law to administer large benefit pools. The United Auto Workers VEBA itself expends $4.6 billion annually in support of healthcare for its retirees, and it is actively managing plans and contracts so as to achieve sustainable spending for the 800,000 retirees in its pool (link). Health systems, hospital administrators, and physician group leaders are actively seeking ways of adjusting to the imminent future in the healthcare space.

The diagnoses of failure in the healthcare system often focus on a cluster of problems.
  • Poorly aligned incentives for patients, physicians, and hospitals
  • Incentives don't create behavior of all parties leading to greater health and lower cost
  • Lack of focus on health rather than illness
  • Lack of focus on the health of a population rather than a group of clients
  • Lack of standardization of process within healthcare systems
  • Lack of Electronic Medical Records
  • Failure to involve the patient in responsibility for his/her health
The problem from the health system's point of view often comes down to reimbursement and revenue. Medicare and Medicaid reimbursement levels don't cover the costs of care, and hospital systems have large obligations for indigent (non-reimbursed) care. So hospital administrators and physician leaders face the imperative of squeezing costs out of their system while maintaining and enhancing quality and patient safety.  More and more urban hospitals are approaching a critical financial status as a result.

Payers -- basically, the companies that pay for health insurance for their employees -- see the problem as one of rapidly rising costs and assuring quality. So their effort is to place pressure on providers and insurers to contain costs, to shift part of the cost to the employee, and to create effective wellness plans that incentivize employees to adopt healthier lifestyles. Payers and insurers are attempting to make highly focused use of data about providers, cost, and health outcomes to permit evaluation of health systems and doctors and their practices. That data is available in voluminous quantities, and it will allow payers to distinguish strongly between more and less efficient health systems.

So what are some of the strategies currently being pursued by system administrators to allow their systems to survive in the new fiscal and regulatory environment? The mantra is the patient-centered medical home. Systems are seeking improvements in coordination of health care for the patient, quarterbacked by the primary care physician; a shift of emphasis towards wellness for the population rather than disease intervention; improvements in process efficiency; close attention to cost centers; competition for patients and referrals within the region; development of recognized specialty areas with higher margins and reimbursement rates; and implementation of the Electronic Medical Record and all the processes that need to surround this technology. Another visible strategy around the country is consolidation, as more successful hospitals absorb or merge with less successful ones. The goal is to create a system of "integrated and accountable care," achieving both goals of quality and cost effectiveness.

One of the current areas of focus is the concept of an "Accountable Care Organization," a concept introduced through the PPACA legislation but not explicitly defined. (Here is a 2009 discussion paper by the Urban Institute.)  It is a level of organization that will figure crucially in the administration of future payment systems and regulations, and health systems are attempting to formulate their own ACOs. Here is a working definition:
An ACO is a group of providers working as a team taking fiscal responsibility for outcomes and costs for a defined population.
If one is interested in the fate of a particular regional healthcare system or hospital, now is the time to be paying close attention to the planning and reform its leaders and physicians are currently carrying out. The stakes are very high. Tthe business environment is changing rapidly and abruptly, and some community hospitals and health systems will not survive. Moreover, some experts expect a significant decline in the percentage of employers who offer health coverage -- bad news for currently insured workers.

So the next few years portend some very deep changes for almost all Americans when it comes to healthcare.

(Here's a link to a position paper by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.  Thanks to Maxine for the link.)

Monday, September 6, 2010

Goffman's programme

Erving Goffman has had wide influence on American and French sociology, and I find his work highly interesting.  But it is hard to characterize, because it doesn't fit easily into the standard categories of sociological research and theory.  It studies individuals, but it is not individualist.  And it is evidence-based, but it is not empiricist.  In earlier posts I've characterized it as a particular kind of local knowledge, a sort of ethnography for micro-sociology (link, link).  But there is certainly more to say than that.

One key part of his work can be described as "close observation of individual behavior in social context."  This has two ends -- individual behavior and social context.  And Goffman wants to shed light on both poles of this description.  In particular, he almost always expresses interest in the social norms that surround action -- the expectations and norms through which other people interpret and judge the individual's conduct.

Consider these programmatic statements from several of Goffman's books:
I mean this report to serve as a sort of handbook detailing one sociological perspective from which social life can be studied, especially the kind of social life that is organised within the physical confines of a building or plant.  A set of features will be described which together form a framework that can be applied to any concrete social establishment, be it domestic, industrial, or commercial. (The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, preface)
By and large, the psychiatric study of situational improprieties has led to studying the offender rather than the rules and social circles that are offended. Through such studies, however, psychiatrists have inadvertently made us more aware of an important area of social life -- that of behavior inpublic and semipublic places. Although this area has not been recognized as a special domain for sociological inquiry, it perhaps should be, for rules of conduct in streets, parks, restaurants, theaters, shops, dance floors, meeting halls, and other gathering places of any community tell us a great deal about its most diffuse forms of social organization.  Sociology does not provide a ready framework that can order these data, let alone show comparisons and continuities with behavior in private gathering places such as offices, factory floors, living rooms, and kitchens. (Behavior in Public Places: Notes on the Social Organization of Gatherings, 3-4)
Society establishes the means of categorizing persons and the complement of attributes felt to be ordinary and natural for members of each of these categories. Social settings establish the categories of persons likely to be encountered there. The routines of social intercourse in established settings allow us to deal with anticipated others without special attention or thought. When a stranger comes into our presence, then, first appearances are likely to enable us to anticipate his category and attributes, his 'social identity' – to use a term that is better than 'social status' because personal attributes such as 'honesty' are involved, as well as structural ones, like 'occupation'. (Stigma: Notes on the Management of Spoiled Identity, 11)
Within the terms, then, of the bad name that the analysis of social reality has, this book presents another analysis of social reality. I try to follow a tradition established by William James in his famous chapter "The Perception of Reality," first published as an article in Mind in 1896.  Instead of asking what reality is, he gave matters a subversive phenomenological twist, italicizing the following question: Under what circumstances do we think things are real?  (Frame Analysis: An Essay on the Organization of Experience, 2)
In 1945 Alfred Schutz took up James' theme again in a paper called "On Multiple Realities." ... Schutz's paper ... was brought to the attention of ethnographic sociologists by Harold Garfinkel, who further extended the argument about multiple realities by going on (at least in his early comments) to look for rules which, when followed, allow us to generate a "world" of a given kind. (Frame Analysis: An Essay on the Organization of Experience, 5)
I have borrowed extensively from all these sources, claiming really only the bringing of them together.  My perspective is situational, meaning here a concern for what one individual can be alive to at a particular moment, this often involving a few other particular individuals and not necessarily restricted to the mutually monitored arena of a face-to-face gathering. I assume that when individuals attend to any given current situation, they face the question: "What is it that's going on here?" (Frame Analysis: An Essay on the Organization of Experience, 8)
The study of face-to-face interaction in natural settings doesn't yet have an adequate name.  Moreover, the analytical boundaries of the field remain unclear.  Somehow, but only somehow, a brief time span is involved, a limited extension in space, and a restriction to those events that must go on to completion once they have begun.... The ultimate behavioral materials are the glances, gestures, positionings, and verbal statements that people continuously feed into the situation, whether intended or not.  These are the external signs of orientation and involvements -- states of mind and body not ordinarily examined with respect to their social organization. (Interaction Ritual - Essays on Face-to-Face Behavior, 1)
There are several orienting themes among these statements and within Goffman's work -- frames, we might call them.
  • There is the idea of face-to-face behavior, in private, in public, and in everyday life.  
  • There is focus on the social setting within which local behavior takes place -- the norms and constraints that are embodied in the group and constraining of the individual.  
  • There is emphasis on the particulars of the place -- the factory, the asylum, the hotel.
  • There is the social-cognitive situation of the individual -- the way in which he or she answers the question, "What is going on here?" 
So Goffman starts much of his work with fine-grained, detailed observations of behavior -- elements as subtle as the bodily signs of embarrassment in a conversation.  Second, he wants to discover some of the structures of mental processing through which individuals act in social settings -- the frames, scripts, and rituals that guide social perception and action for individuals.  Third, he wants to tease out the social judgments and norms that provide the normative and guiding context for the actor's movements -- the judgments surrounding "saving face," embarrassment, shame, pride, and proper performance.  

There is also a psychiatric dimension of Goffman's work: "abnormal behavior" and the description and contextualization of unexpected patterns of behavior are frequent elements of Goffman's discourse.  For example, in Stigma:
The term stigma and its synonyms conceal a double perspective : does the stigmatized individual assume his differentness is known about already or is evident on the spot, or does he assume it is neither known about by those present nor immediately perceivable by them? In the first case one deals with the plight of the discredited, in the second with that of the discreditable.  This is an important difference, even though a particular stigmatized individual is likely to have experience with both situations. I will begin with the situation of the discredited and move on to the discreditable but not always separate the two. (14)
And psychiatric examples permeate Behavior in Public Places: Notes on the Social Organization of Gatherings as well.

The Erving Goffman Archive at UNLV has some very useful materials relevant to Goffman's intellectual project (link). The site is of great value and is worth studying in detail.  Here is a link to one of Goffman's course reading lists from 1970.  The list is titled, "The Ethnography of Symbolic Forms: Frame Analysis," and is dated Fall 1970.  The list is very interesting, and particularly valuable is the first section on "Basic Materials."  This gives us an idea of some of the most important formative influences on Goffman.  Included on the list are several phenomenologists (Husserl, Kockelmans); several ethnomethodologists (Garfinkel, Schutz); a handful of analytic philosophers (David Shwayder, J. L. Austin, Nelson Goodman), and a playwright (Pirandello).

The 1960 reading list is also of interest; link.  This syllabus is titled Communication and Social Contact.  Goffman describes the course in these terms:
This course deals with face to face interactions in natural settings.  Interest will center on the components of the communicative act, the variables and models of interaction analysis, and the natural units of interaction for which a literature is available.
The syllabus breaks the course into a series of topics: Sign Processes, Expressive Behavior, Interaction, Substantive Areas, Conversation, Task Meetings, Two-Person Psychotherapy, Performances, Play-Games, Public Behavior, and Social Occasions.  This list has some of the surprising conjunctions evident in the 1970 list as well; for example, there is a significant amount of attention to game theorists (Von Neumann and Morgenstern, Schelling, Luce and Raiffa), as well as Freudian psychology.

Here is how Pierre Bourdieu distilled Goffman's originality (link):
The work of Erving Goffman is the product of one of the most original and rarest methods of doing sociology -- for example, putting on a doctor's white coat, in order to enter a psychiatric asylum and thus putting oneself at the very site of the infinity of minute interactions which combine to make up social life....  Goffman's achievement was that he introduced sociology to the infinitely small, to the things which the object-less theoreticians and concept-less observers were incapable of seeing and which went unremarked because they were too obvious, like everything which goes without saying.  These entomologist's minutiae were bound to disconcert, even shock, an establishment accustomed to surveying the social world from a more distant and more lofty standpoint. ("Erving Goffman, Discoverer of the Infinitely Small," Theory Culture & Society 2:1 1983, 112)
This is a nice description of Goffman's work.  It leaves out an important dimension, however, namely, the social and contextual side of Goffman's gaze. Goffman was always interested in the nuances of social expectation, norm, and script within particular social settings.  And this makes his work thoroughly sociological.

Friday, September 3, 2010

The public sphere

The current issue of Social Science History is devoted to a series of articles in honor of Charles Tilly (link), around the general theme of the "public sphere" (the theme of the Social Science History Association annual meeting in 2007). Tilly was an active presence in the Social Science History Association, and this issue recognizes Tilly's originality and influence.  The volume contains contributions by several distinguished historical sociologists, including Tilly, Andreas Koller, Craig Calhoun, Andrew Abbott, and Elisabeth Clemens.

The concept of the public sphere isn't a subject to which Tilly gave a lot of explicit attention; in fact, there is very little research on the social reality of the public sphere within comparative historical sociology quite generally.  The most directly relevant discussion of some of these topics in Tilly's work probably occurs in his 2007 book, Democracy.  But the topic is ripe for consideration by comparative and historical sociologists, and for this reason the current SSH issue is a welcome start.

Andreas Koller formulates the general research question about the public sphere in his introductory essay in these terms:
Despite its central relevance for the members of modern societies for determining the course of their own history through reasoned debate and public choice, the study of the public sphere is not an integrated research field. ... This introduction seeks to provide an overview of analytic and historical dimensions that enables one to decipher a number of discussions that are spread out over many disciplines and often proceed in multiple disciplinary terminologies.  Such a quest for an integrative framework is a necessary condition for well-defined comparative and historical research. (262-63)
Before a comparative historical sociologist could begin to investigate a phenomenon such as the "public sphere," it is necessary to have a preliminary conception of what we are talking about.  As Koller points out, most discussions of the concept begin with the ur-text in the study of the public sphere: Jurgen Habermas's 1962 book, The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere: An Inquiry into a Category of Bourgeois Society.  Here are some preliminary descriptions of the public sphere offered by several of the contributors to this special issue of SSH:
Andreas Koller: [The public sphere] refers to a public of speaker(s) and audience that organizes itself and determines its own future by the force of the better argument, and it refers to its object, the public good. (Koller, 263)
 Charles Tilly: No one has so far developed crisp measures of the public sphere's expansion and consolidation in one regime or another.  In that regard, comparative-historical research faces gigantic conceptual, technical, and empirical challenges.  But surely one indicator worth tracing is change in the frequency and character of gatherings in which people make collective claims on others, including public authorities. (Tilly, 292)
Craig Calhoun: It is instructive to situate the idea of the public sphere in this context.  This gives the influential account of Jurgen Habermas its central pathos: the public sphere arises as part of civil society, incorporating adults who have gained maturity and intellectual autonomy in another of its parts, the family.  It is oriented to forming rational-critical opinion on matters of universal interest to citizens, and through this to informing state policy. But it is debased and corrupted when the state-society division collapses amid bureaucratization, organized interest-group politics, and mass society in the twentieth century. (Calhoun, 302)
Craig Calhoun: The notion of the political public sphere centered on the idea that private persons might come together through reasoned communication to consider public issues and inform public policy. (Calhoun, 303)
Andrew Abbott: In this article I take this last as my definition of public spheres: public spheres are symbolic spaces within which a group's normative affairs are discussed in some sense for themselves.... So I shall take public spheres as an empirical possibility while making no detailed claims about their characteristics. (Abbott, 338)
Elisabeth Clemens: At the core of the philosophical legacy of the Enlightenment lies a vision of rational individuals governing themselves through collective deliberation.  By means of critical discourse, self-interested or private individuals reflect on common concerns and discover the nature of the public good, justice, and truth. (Clemens, 374)
What these snippets have in common is the idea of a public consisting of deliberative individuals engaging in debate over policies and legislation, in relation to conflicting ideas of the public good. (There is an evident connection between this definition and Rousseau's theories of the general will; link.) There is the idea here that a collectivity can arrive at a publicly shared conception of its good, through open and public debate.  And, in common with theorists of deliberative democracy, there is the idea that public debate can transform individual citizens' conceptions of themselves and the public good.  So debate is not merely expressive of current opinions and preferences; it is potentially transformative.

These ideas are expressed in the language of political philosophy and the theory of democracy.  But the subject matter becomes an object of study for sociologists when we realize that each aspect of the definition refers to a social reality that is highly variable across time, space, and culture.  So it is an empirical question, to consider to what extent Qing China, pre-revolutionary Iran, or medieval England had social realities that corresponded to any of these categories: the public intellectual, the engaged citizen, public debate, or public policy.  Was there a Qing public? Were matters of common concern debated openly or publicly, or were they decided behind closed doors by an Imperial bureaucracy?  Did subjects of the Qing state regard themselves as public individuals?

Tilly's essay in this volume focuses on one aspect of this sociological topic: to what extent did new forms of public debate and agitation begin to emerge in England in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries?  He treats this as an empirical matter:
My collaborators and I gathered the evidence to examine how the development of British capitalism, transformation of the British state, and popular political struggle itself shaped changes in the ways that ordinary Britons made collecdtive claims -- changes in their repertoires of contention. (292)
He finds that there was a marked increase in the frequency of contentious gatherings, which he attributes to a rise in mass-based organizations and a mass-based public media.  (Much of this research is presented in his more extensive contribution to Social Movements and Networks: Relational Approaches to Collective Action, "Contentious Connections in Great Britain, Britain, 1828-34", with Lesley Wood.)

So this is one empirical approach that a comparative historical sociologist could take to the problem of trying to assess the scope and growth of the public sphere.  A very different approach is offered by Andrew Abbott in his contribution to the SSH volume, "Pragmatic Sociology and the Public Sphere: The Case of Charles Richmond Henderson."  Abbott moves from meso to micro in this piece.  He too counts things in order to assess the scope of the public sphere.  But in this case, what is counted is appearances in the Chicago Tribune.  Abbott attempts to gauge Charles Richmond Henderson's prominence in the public sphere by counting and classifying Henderson's presence in Chicago's leading newspaper.  How frequently does Henderson's name appear in the Tribune, in comparison to other prominent professors?

Henderson was chaplain and professor of sociology at the University of Chicago between 1892 and 1915, and it turns out that he had a remarkably high level of visibility in the Tribune.  He was a prominent public figure.  Abbott attempts to make sense of the public persona of Anderson through a brief intellectual and professional biography of the man; and he tries to arrive at some judgments about the causes and impact of his prominence.  "Over his quarter century at the University of Chicago, Henderson became one of Chicago's and even America's most visible reform figures" (342).  And much of his prominence was deliberate: Henderson sought out opportunities for bringing his convictions to the attention of a broader public than the university.  Clubs and conferences were a frequent venue; Henderson was deeply interested in bringing his ideas to the public through these venues.  And Abbott makes the important point that Chicago consisted, not of one public, but of an archipelago of publics: business elites, religious communities, immigrant communities, professional groups, ... (351).

Both of these empirical studies of certain aspects of the public sphere are intriguing and engaging.  Taken as a whole, the SSH volume provides a diverse palette of work, and it plainly does no more than scratch the surface of the kinds of sociological research that are suggested by the topic of the public sphere.  Abbott, Calhoun, Tilly, and the other contributors give an intriguing sense of the kinds of investigations that can be undertaken; there is much work to do in this area.  Consider this variety of questions that need to be posed about the public sphere from a comparative sociology point of view:
  • How did the public sphere evolve in England between 1600 and 1900?
  • How does the public sphere differ in France, Germany, and England?
  • Did China have a public sphere in the late Imperial period?
  • What are some important differences in repertoire and performance within the public spheres of different countries and periods?
  • How do intellectuals participate in the public sphere in different times and places?
  • What role does organized public protest play in the public sphere?
(The photo above captures two historical ends of the idea of the public sphere: the polis and the protest. It captures a major protest in Athens following the 2009 financial crisis of the Greek state.)

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