Conflicts of interest

The possibility or likelihood of conflict of interest is present in virtually all professions and occupations. We expect a researcher, a physician, or a legislator to perform her work according to the highest values and norms of their work (searching for objective knowledge, providing the best care possible for the patient, drafting and supporting legislation in order to enhance the public good). But there is always the possibility that the individual may have private financial interests that distort or bias the work she does, and there may be large companies that have a financial interest in one set of actions rather than another.

Marc Rodwin’s Conflicts of Interest and the Future of Medicine: The United States, France, and Japan is a rigorous and fair treatment of this issue with respect to conflicts of interest in the field of medicine. Rodwin has published extensively on this topic, and the current book is an important exploration of how professional ethics, individual interest, and business and professional institutions intersect to influence practitioner behavior in this field. The institutional actors in this story include the pharmaceutical companies and medical device manufacturers, insurers, hospitals and physician partnerships, and legislators and regulators. Rodwin shows in detail how differences in insurance policies, physician reimbursement policies, and gifts and benefits from health-related businesses to physicians contribute to an institutional environment where the physician’s choices are all too easily influenced by considerations other than the best health outcomes of the patient. Rodwin finds that the institutional setting for health economics is different in the US, France, and Japan, and that these differences lead to differences in physician behavior.

Here is Rodwin’s clear statement of the material situation that creates the possibility or likelihood of conflicts of interest in medicine.

Physicians earn their living through their medical work and so may practice in ways that enhance their income rather than the interests of patients. Moreover, when physicians prescribe drugs, devices, and treatments and choose who supplies these or refer patients to other providers, they affect the the fortunes of third parties. As a result, providers, suppliers, and insurers try to influence physicians’ clinical decisions for their own benefit. Thus, at the core of doctoring lies tension between self-interest and faithful service to patients and the public. The prevailing powerful medical ethos does influence physicians. Still, there is conflict between professional ethics and financial incentives. (kl 251)

Jerome Kassirer is a former editor-in-chief of the New England Journal of Medicine, and an expert observer of the field, and he provided a foreword to the book. Kassirer describes the current situation in the medical economy in these terms, drawing on his own synthesis of recent research and journalism:

Professionalism had been steadily eroded by complex financial ties between practicing physicians and academic physicians on the one hand and the pharmaceutical, medical device, and biotechnology industries on the other. These financial ties were deep and wide: they threatened to bias the clinical research on which physicians relied to care for the sick, and they permeated nearly every aspect of medical care. Physicians were accepting gifts, taking free trips, serving on companies’ speakers’ bureaus, signing their names to articles written for them by industry-paid ghostwriters, and engaging in research that endangered patient care. (kl 73)

The fundamental problem posed by Rodwin’s book is this set of questions:

In what context can physicians be trusted to act in their patients’ interests? How can medical practice be organized to minimize physicians’ conflicts of interest? How can society promote what is best in medical professionalism? What roles should physicians and organized medicine play in the medical economy? What roles should insurers, the state, and markets play in medical care? (kl 267)

The book sheds light on dozens of institutional arrangements that create the likelihood of conflicted choices, or that reduce that likelihood. One of those arrangements is the question for a non-profit hospital of whether the physicians are employed with a fixed salary or work on a fee-for-service basis. The latter system gives the physician a very different set of financial interests, including the possibility of making clinical choices that increase revenues to the physician or his or her group practice.

Consider physicians employed as public servants in public hospitals. Typically, they receive a fixed salary set by rank, enjoy tenure, and have clinical discretion. As a result, they lack financial incentives that bias their choices and have clinical freedom. Such arrangements preclude employment conflicts of interest. But relax some of these conditions and employers can compromise medical practice…. Furthermore, emplloyers can manage physicians to promote the organization’s goals. As a result, employed physicians might practice in ways that promote their employer’s over their patients’ interests. (kl 445)

And the disadvantages for the patient of the self-employed physician are also important:

Payment can encourage physicians to supply more, less, or different kinds of services, or to refer to particular providers. Each form of payment has some bias, but some compromise clinical decisions more than others do. (kl 445) 

Plainly, the circumstances and economic institutions described here are relevant to many other occupations as well. Scientists, policymakers, regulators, professors, and accountants all face similar circumstances — though the financial stakes in medicine are particularly high. (Here is an earlier post on corporate efforts to influence scientific research; link.)


This field of research makes an important contribution to a particular challenging topic in contemporary healthcare. But Rodwin’s study also provides an important contribution to the new institutionalism, since it serves as a micro-level case study of the differences in behavior created by differences in institutional rules and practices.

Each country’s laws, insurance, and medical institutions shape medical practice; and within each country, different forms of practice affect clinical choices. (kl 218)

This feature of the book allows it to contribute to the kinds of arguments on the causal and historical importance of specific configurations of institutions offered by Kathleen Thelen (link) and Frank Dobbin (link).

The Morandi Bridge collapse and regulatory capture

Lower image: Eugenio Ceroni and Luca Cozzi, Ponte Morandi – Autopsia di una strage

A recurring topic in Understanding Society is the question of the organizational causes that lie in the background of major accidents and technological disasters. One such disaster is the catastrophic collapse of the Morandi Bridge in Genoa in August, 2018, which resulted in the deaths of 43 people. Was this a technological failure, a design failure — or importantly a failure in which private and public organizational features led to the disaster?

A major story in the New York Times on March 5, 2019 (link) makes it clear that social and organizational causes were central to this horrendous failure. (What could be more terrifying than having the highway bridge under your vehicle collapse to the earth 150 feet beneath you?) In this case it is evident from the Times coverage that a major cause of the disaster was the relationship between Autostrade per l’Italia, the private company that manages the bridge and derives enormous profit from it, and the regulatory ministries responsible for regulating and supervising safe operations of highways and bridges.

In a sign of the arrogance of wealth and power involved in the relationship, the Benetton family threatened a multimillion dollar lawsuit against the economist Marco Ponti who had served on an expert panel advising the government and had made strong statements about the one-sided relationship that existed. The threat was not acted upon, but the abuse of power is clear.

This appears to be a textbook case of “regulatory capture”, a situation in which the private owners of a risky enterprise or activity use their economic power to influence or intimidate the government regulatory agencies that nominally oversee their activities. “Autostrade reaped huge profits and acquired so much power that the state became a largely passive regulatory” (NYT March 5, 2019). Moreover, independent governmental oversight was crippled by the fact that “the company effectively regulated itself– because Autostrade’s parent company owned the inspection company responsible for safety checks on the Morandi Bridge” (NYT). The Times quotes Carlo Scarpa, and economics professor at the University of Brescia:

Any investor would have been worried about bidding. The Benettons, though, knew the system and they understood that the Ministry of Infrastructure and Transport, which was supposed to supervise the whole thing, was weak. They were able to calculate the weight the company would have in the political arena. (NYT March 5, 2019)

And this seems to have worked out as the family expected:

Autostrade became a political powerhouse, acquiring clout that the Ministry of Infrastructure and Transport, perpetually underfunded and employing a small fraction of the staff, could not match. (NYT March 5, 2019)

The story notes that the private company made a great deal of money from this contract, but that the state also benefited financially. “Autostrade has poured billions of euros into state coffers, paying nearly 600 million euros a year in corporate taxes, V.A.T. and license fees.”

The story also surfaces other social factors that played a role in the disaster, including opposition by Genoa residents to the construction involved in creating a potential bypass to the bridge.

Here is what the Times story has to say about the inspections that occurred:

Beyond fixing blame for the bridge collapse, a central question of the Morandi tragedy is what happened to safety inspections. The answer is that the inspectors worked for Autostrade more than for the state. For decades, Spea Engineering, a Milan-based company, has performed inspections on the bridge. If nominally independent, Spea is owned by Autostrade’s parent company, Atlantia, and Autostrade is also Spea’s largest customer. Spea’s offices in Rome and elsewhere are housed inside Autostrade. One former bridge design engineer for Spea, Giulio Rambelli, described Autostrade’s control over Spea as “absolute,” (NYT March 5, 2019)

The story notes that this relationship raises the possibility of conflicts of interest that are prohibited in other countries. The story quotes Professor Giuliano Fonderico: “All this suggests a system failure.”

The failure appears to be first and foremost a failure of the state to fulfill its obligations of regulation and oversight of dangerous activities. By ceding any real and effective system of safety inspection to the business firms who are benefitting from the operations of the bridge, the state has essentially given up its responsibility of ensuring the safety of the public.

It is also worth underlining the point made in the article about the huge mismatch that exists between the capacities of the business firms in question and the agencies nominally charged to regulate and oversee them. This is a system-level failure at a higher level, since it highlights the fact of the power imbalance that almost always exists between large corporate wealth and the government agencies charged to oversee their activities.

Here is an editorial from the Guardian that makes some similar points; link. There don’t appear to be book-length treatments of the Morandi Bridge disaster available in English. Here is an Italian book on the subject by Eugenio Ceroni and Luca Cozzi, Ponte Morandi – Autopsia di una strage: I motivi tecnici, le colpe, gli errori. Quel che si poteva fare e non si è fatto (Italian Edition), which appears to be a technical civil-engineering analysis of the collapse. The Kindle translate option using Bing is helpful for non-Italian readers to get the thrust of this short book. In the engineering analysis inadequate inspection and incomplete maintenance remediation are key factors in the collapse.

Skilled bodily capacities

When philosophers think of action they generally have in mind a combination of intentionality and simple motor movements. “John flips the switch to turn on the lights.” But a great deal of human action is substantially more complex than this. Skilled bodily performance — playing the piano, returning a tennis serve, fabricating a guitar — seems to require a sustained treatment from within cognitive science. Bodily action is a cognitive activity. It is enlightening to learn that there is in fact such a field. It turns out that the cognitive science of skilled bodily action is creating a great deal of highly interesting work. Some of that research is happening at Ruhr University-Bochum, and my exposure to this group of researchers last month was very rewarding. (Thanks, Albert Newen, for your warm introduction to the work your group is doing.)

Elisabeth Pacherie has made major contributions to this field, bridging philosophy and cognitive science in her effort to contribute to a richer understanding of skilled bodily action. Her perspective has been to argue that bodily action is intentional and cognitive all the way down, and is dependent on mental representations of the field of action. She emphasizes that skilled action involves situated awareness and flexible control, at a granular level of bodily action. She and collaborator Myrto Mylopoulos provide a recent statement of their views in “Intentions and motor representations: the interface challenge” (link).  Here is the abstract to their article:

Abstract A full account of purposive action must appeal not only to propositional attitude states like beliefs, desires, and intentions, but also to motor representations, i.e., non-propositional states that are thought to represent, among other things, action outcomes as well as detailed kinematic features of bodily movements. This raises the puzzle of how it is that these two distinct types of state successfully coordinate. We examine this so-called “Interface Problem”. First, we clarify and expand on the nature and role of motor representations in explaining intentional action. Next, we characterize the respective functions of intentions and motor representations, the differences in representational format and content that these imply, and the interface challenge these differences in turn raise. We then evaluate Butterfill and Sinigaglia’s (2014) recent answer to this interface challenge, according to which intentions refer to action outcomes by way of demonstrative deference to motor representations. We present some worries for this proposal, arguing that, among other things, it implicitly presupposes a solution to the problem, and so cannot help to resolve it. Finally, we suggest that we may make some progress on this puzzle by positing a “content-preserving causal process” taking place between intentions and motor representations, and we offer a proposal for how this might work.

Another useful presentation of their work is offered in “Intentions: The dynamic hierarchical model revisited”; link.

Another key contributor to this field is Ellen Fridland. Her article, “Skill and motor control: intelligence all the way down” provides a compelling framework for analyzing skilled bodily action (link). Her fundamental insight is that we are not justified in analyzing bodily activity into higher processes (thought and decision) and lower processes (habits of motor control, learned reflexes). Intelligence comes into skilled action only at the higher level, the “propositional” level. What this fails to see, however, is that intelligence pervades skilled action all the way down, with fine-grained motor movements being affected by perception and opportunity at a very granular level. “In short, for [Stanley and Krakauer (link), Papineau (link), and Stanley and Williamson (link)], skill combines intelligent guidance by propositional knowledge with the noncognitive, basic, subpersonal, low-level motor and perceptual abilities. The propositional bit of skill is knowledge-involving while the motor acuity bit is not” (1543). She quotes an interesting passage from Papineau 2013:

At any stage of an inning, a competent batsman will have assessed the situation and formed a view about how to bat—a conscious intention to adopt a certain strategy. As with any intention, this will then set the parameters of the basic action-control system. It will direct that system to bat aggressively, say. It will take one raft of conditional dispositions from the batsman’s repertoire, and reconfigure that basic control system so that it embodies just those dispositions…Having been so reset, the basic action-control system will then respond accordingly, without any further intrusion of conscious thought’’ Emphasis in original, (2013, p. 191). (1544)

In this paper Fridland goes through a careful examination of the assumptions underlying the strong distinction made by S&K between propositional (intellectual) knowledge and motor acuity (habit or reflex), and shows that these assumptions are not well grounded. She makes use of “optimal control theory” to make her point (Todorov and Jordan 2002; link). Here is the Todorov-Jordan abstract describing this approach:

A central problem in motor control is understanding how the many biomechanical degrees of freedom are coordinated to achieve a common goal. An especially puzzling aspect of coordination is that behavioral goals are achieved reliably and repeatedly with movements rarely reproducible in their detail. Existing theoretical frameworks emphasize either goal achievement or the richness of motor variability, but fail to reconcile the two. Here we propose an alternative theory based on stochastic optimal feedback control. We show that the optimal strategy in the face of uncertainty is to allow variability in redundant (task-irrelevant) dimensions. This strategy does not enforce a desired trajectory, but uses feedback more intelligently, correcting only those deviations that interfere with task goals. From this framework, task-constrained variability, goal-directed corrections, motor synergies, controlled parameters, simplifying rules and discrete coordination modes emerge naturally. We present experimental results from a range of motor tasks to support this theory. (Todorov and Jordon 2002)

One important issue that emerges is the question of where learning occurs as a subject improves his or her skill level. Is it at the reflexive level of motor acuity, or is it at the intellectual and “model-building” level of intention? Here again, Fridland gives reasons to believe that the motor level improves effectiveness through the construction of models of the actions being performed — or in other words, that there is flexible cognition in play at the motor-acuity level as well as at the strategic, intentional level. Here is the conclusion to her paper:

I hope that it has become clear that a hybrid view of skilled bodily action where the intelligence of skill is cashed out in propositional, intentional terms and motor control is characterized in bottom-up, brute-causal, unintelligent ways is unsustainable. Instead of thinking of independent intentional states and automatic reflex-like basic actions or of independent action trajectories and the execution of those trajectories by processes of motor acuity, it seems that we must revise our view of skill in order to reflect findings which show that even those processes responsible for the automatic, low-level, fine-grained sensorimotor executions of motor skills are sensitive to high-level goals.

This is a place where cognitive science, neuroscience, and philosophy meet and shed very important new light on the nature of intentionality, action, and bodily skill. It is a very exciting field of research. Joshua Shepherd captures the intellectual challenges of the field very aptly in a recent paper, “Intelligent action guidance and the use of mixed representational formats”; link. Here is the abstract to this paper:

My topic is the intelligent guidance of action. In this paper I offer an empirically grounded case for four ideas: that [a] cognitive processes of practical reasoning play a key role in the intelligent guidance of action, [b] these processes could not do so without significant enabling work done by both perception and the motor system, [c] the work done by perceptual and motor systems can be characterized as the generation of information (often conceptually structured information) specialized for action guidance, which in turn suggests that [d] the cognitive processes of practical reasoning that play a key role in the guidance of intelligent action are not the abstract, syllogistic ones philosophers often treat as the paradigm of practical reasoning. Rather, these cognitive processes are constrained by, and work well with, the specialized concepts outputted by perception and the feedback outputted by sensorimotor processes.

One immediate thought that I had in listening to Elisabeth Pacherie present some of her work at a symposium in Bochum earlier this month is that this approach has the potential of solving the problem Norbert Elias was wrestling with in his own account of action. (Here is an earlier post on figurational sociology; link.) Elias used the example of skilled soccer play and proposed that we need to consider the unit to be the configuration (several players) rather than the individual player. But the real-time cognitive adaptiveness in skilled behavior described in this field of research provides a different and perhaps simpler way of understanding the rapid, intelligent adaptiveness of the players on the soccer field. Their bodily motions are indeed intelligent and adaptive, and their motions and reactions are responsive to the small clues available to them about the motions and intentions of the other players on the field. But at the other end of the research spectrum, it seems evident that research in this area is very relevant to work in robotics and artificial intelligence.

Bodily cognition

Traditional cognitive science has been largely organized around the idea of the brain as a computing device and cognitive systems as functionally organized systems of data-processing. There is an emerging alternative to this paradigm that is described as “4E Cognition,” where the four “E’s” refer to cognition that is embodied, embedded, enactive, and extended. For example, there is the idea that perception of a fly ball is constituted by bodily awareness of arms and legs as well as neurophysiological information processing of visual information; that a paper scratch-pad used to assist a calculation is part of the cognitive process of calculation; or that a person’s reliance on her smartphone for remembering names incorporates the smartphone into the extended process of recognizing an acquaintance on the street.

The 4E-cognition approach is well represented in The Oxford Handbook of 4E Cognition, edited by Albert Newen, Leon de Brun, and Shaun Gallagher, which provides an exposure to a great deal of very interesting current research. The fundamental idea is the questioning of the “brain-centered” approach to cognition that has characterized much of the history of cognitive science and neuroscience — what participants refer to as “representational and computational model of cognition”; RCC. But the 4E approach rejects this paradigm for cognition. 

According to proponents of 4E cognition, however, the cognitive phenomena that are studied by modern cognitive science, such as spatial navigation, action, perception, and understanding others emotions, are in some sense all dependent on the morphological, biological, and physiological details of an agent’s body, an appropriately structured natural, technological, or social environment, and the agent’s active and embodied interaction with this environment. (kl 257)

Here is a summary statement of the chief philosophical problems raised by the theory of “4E cognition”, according to the introduction to the volume provided by Newen, de Brun, and Gallagher:

Thus, by maintaining that cognition involves extracranial bodily processes, 4E approaches depart markedly from the RCC view that the brain is the sole basis of cognitive processes. But what precisely does it mean to say that cognition involves extracranial processes? First of all, the involvement of extracranial processes can be understood in a strong and a weak way. According to the strong reading, cognitive processes are partially constituted by extracranial processes, i.e., they are essentially based on them. By contrast, according to the weak reading, they are non-constitutionally related, i.e., only causally dependent upon extracranial processes. Furthermore, cognitive processes can count as extracranial in two ways. Extracranial processes can be bodily (involving a brain–body unit) or they can be extrabodily (involving a brain–body–environment unit).


Following this line of reasoning, we can distinguish between four different claims about embodied cognition:


a. A cognitive process is strongly embodied by bodily processes if it is partially constituted by (essentially based on) processes in the body that are not in the brain;


b. A cognitive process is strongly embodied by extrabodily processes if it is partially constituted by extrabodily processes;


c. A cognitive process is weakly embodied by bodily processes if it is not partially constituted by but only partially dependent upon extracranial processes (bodily processes outside of the brain);


d. A cognitive process is weakly embodied by extrabodily processes if it is not partially constituted by but only partially dependent upon extrabodily processes. 

The last version of the claim (d) is identical with the property of being embedded, i.e., being causally dependent on extrabodily processes in the environment of the bodily system. Furthermore, being extended is a property of a cognitive process if it is at least partially constituted by extrabodily processes (b), i.e., if it extends into essentially involved extrabodily components or tools (Stephan et al. 2014; Walter 2014). (kl 259)

These are metaphysical problems on the whole: what is the status of cognition as a thing in the world, and where does it reside — in the brain, in the body, or in a complex embedded relationship with the environment? The distinction between “constituted by” and “causally affected by” is a metaphysically important one — though it isn’t entirely clear that it has empirical consequences.

Julian Kiverstein’s contribution to the volume, “Extended cognition,” appears to agree with this point about the metaphysical nature of the topic of “embedded cognition”. He distinguishes between the “embedded theory” (EMT) and “extended theories” (EXT), and proposes that the disagreement between the two families of theories hangs on “what it is for a state or process to count as cognitive” (kl 549). This is on its face a conceptual or metaphysical question, not an empirical question.

I show how there is substantial agreement in both camps about how cognitive science is to proceed. Both sides agree that the best explanation of human problem-solving will often make reference to bodily actions carried out on externally located information-bearing structures. The debates is not about how to do cognitive science. It is instead, to repeat, a debate about the mark of the cognitive: the properties that make a state or process count as being of a particular cognitive kind. (kl 590)

Embedded and extended theorists therefore agree that internal cognitive processes will often not be sufficient for explaining cognitive behaviors. (kl 654)

It might be thought to be analogous to the question, “what is the global trading network?” (GTN), and the subsequent question of whether systems of knowledge production are part of the global trading network (constitutive) or merely causally relevant to the GTN (extended causal relevance). But it is difficult to see how one could argue that there is a fact of the matter about the “reality of the global trading system” or the “mark of the cognitive”. These look like typical issues of conceptual demarcation, guided by pragmatic scientific concerns rather than empirical facts about the world.

Kiverstein addresses this issue throughout his chapter, but he arrives at what is for me an unsatisfactory reliance on a fundamental distinction between conceptual frameworks and metaphysical reality:

I agree with Sprevak, however, that the debate between EXT and EMT isn’t about the best conceptual framework for interpreting findings in cognitive science. It is a debate in metaphysics about “what makes a state or process count as mental or non-mental” (Sprevak 2010, p. 261) (kl 654)

The central claim of this chapter has been that to resolve the debate about extended cognition we will need to come up with a mark of the cognitive. We will need to say what makes a state or process count as a state or process of a particular cognitive kind. (kl 951)

But debates in metaphysics are ultimately debates about conceptual frameworks; so the distinction is not a convincing one. And, contrary to the thrust of the second quote, it is implausible to hold that there might be a definitive answer to the question of “what makes a state count as a state of a particular cognitive kind.” (Here is an earlier post on conceptual schemes and ontology; link.)

What this suggests to me is not that 4E theory is misguided in its notion that cognition is embedded, embodied, extended, and enactive; rather, my suggestion here is that the metaphysical questions about “constitution of cognition” and “the real nature of cognition” might be put aside and the empirical and systematic ways in which human cognitive processes are interwoven with extra-bodily artifacts and processes be investigated in detail.

Also interesting in the volume is Tadeusz Wiesław Zawidzki’s treatment of “mindshaping”. This topic has to do with another aspect of extended cognition, in this case the ability humans have to perceive the emotional and intentional states of other humans. Zawidski takes on the more traditional idea of “mindreading” (not the spooky kind, just the idea that human beings are hard-wired to perceive behavioral expressions of various mental states when performed by other people). He argues instead that our ability to read other people’s emotions and intentions is the result of a socially/culturally constructed set of tools that we learn. And, significantly, he argues that the ability to influence the minds of others is the crucial social-cognitive ability that underlies much that is distinctive in human history.

The mindshaping hypothesis rejects this assumption [of hardwired interpersonal cognition], and proposes an alternative. According to this alternative, our social accomplishments are not due to an individual, neurally implemented capacity to correctly represent each other’s mental states. Rather, they rely on less intellectualized and more embodied capacities to shape each other’s minds, e.g., imitation, pedagogy, and norm enforcement. We are much better mindshapers, and we spend much more of our time and energy engaged in mindshaping than any other species. Our skill at mindshaping enables us to insure that we come to have the complementary mental states required for successful, complex coordination, without requiring us to solve the intractable problem of correctly inferring the independently constituted mental states of our fellows. (chapter 39)

Here is how Zawidzki relates the mindshaping hypothesis to the 4E paradigm:

The mindshaping hypothesis is a natural ally of “4E” approaches to human social- cognition. Rather than conceptualize distinctively human social cognition as the accomplishment of computational processes implemented in the brains of individuals, involving the correct representation of mental states, the mindshaping hypothesis conceptualizes it as emerging from embodied and embedded practices of tracking and molding behavioral dispositions in situated, socio-historically and culturally specific human populations. Our socio-cognitive success depends essentially on social and hence extended facts, e.g., social models we shape each other to emulate, both concrete ones, e.g., high status individuals, and “virtual” ones, e.g., mythical ideals encoded in external symbol systems. And social cognition, according to the mindshaping hypothesis, is in a very literal sense enactive: we succeed in our socio-cognitive endeavors by cooperatively enacting roles in social structures. (chapter 39)

 This is an interesting approach to the important phenomenon of interpersonal perception. And it has immediate empirical implications: are there cross-cultural differences in “mindshaping” practices? Are there differences within a given culture according to socially relevant characteristics (gender, race, class)? Is it possible to track historical changes in the skills associated with human “mindshaping” practices? Were Victorian aristocrats different in their mindshaping capacities from their counterparts a century earlier or later?

There are many instructive implications of research within the umbrella of 4E cognitive science. But perhaps the most important is the license it gives researchers to think more broadly about knowledge, perception, intention, belief, and emotion than the narrowly neurophysiological versions of cognitive science would permit. This perspective allows researchers to pay attention to the interdependencies that exist between consciousness, thought, bodily action, joint activity, social context, and artifact that are difficult to incorporate into older cognitive theories. The model of the mind as the expression of a brain-computer-information machine is perhaps one whose time has passed. (Sorry, Alan Turing!)

Marx’s ideas about government

Marx had something of a theory of politics and somewhat less of a theory of government. The slogan “the capitalist state serves as the managing committee of the bourgeoisie” represents the simplest version of his view of the state. He generally regarded government and law as an expression of class interests.

That said, Marx was not much of an organizational thinker. He had literally nothing to say about the workings of real governments — the British state or the French state, for example, and nothing to say about the ministries and bureaus through which the affairs of government worked. When he mentioned politicians in any European country it was as particular individuals rather than as functionaries. And yet it is crucial to understand government — including nineteenth century European governments — as bureaucracies organizing the flows of revenue, regulations, information, and coercion. Marx added essentially nothing to this task.

What Marx most likely would have asserted is that the existence of bureaucracy in government is a second-order factor, and that the main event is the existence and use of political power through the tools of state action. How precisely this is implemented was not of scientific interest to Marx, and he believed he had a more fundamental understanding of the orientation and workings of government. This is his view that political power derives from class privilege and state organs act in support of class interests.

Most of Marx’s ideas about the state and government were formulated during the years surrounding the revolutions of 1848. Here are a few important passages from Marx’s writings in the 1840s and 1950s. This is the full passage about the “managing committee of the bourgeoisie” from the Communist Manifesto:

Each step in the development of the bourgeoisie was accompanied by a corresponding political advance of that class. An oppressed class under the sway of the feudal nobility, an armed and self-governing association in the medieval commune: here independent urban republic (as in Italy and Germany); there taxable “third estate” of the monarchy (as in France); afterwards, in the period of manufacturing proper, serving either the semi-feudal or the absolute monarchy as a counterpoise against the nobility, and, in fact, cornerstone of the great monarchies in general, the bourgeoisie has at last, since the establishment of Modern Industry and of the world market, conquered for itself, in the modern representative State, exclusive political sway. The executive of the modern state is but a committee for managing the common affairs of the whole bourgeoisie. Marx and Engels,Communist Manifesto

And here is his account of the establishment of the French “bourgeois republic” following the Revolution of 1848:

Upon the bourgeois monarchy of Louis Philippe, only the bourgeois republic could follow; that is to say, a limited portion of the bourgeoisie, having ruled under the name of the king, now the whole bourgeoisie was to rule under the name of the people. The demands of the Parisian proletariat are Utopian tom-fooleries that have to be done away with. To this declaration of the constitutional national assembly, the Paris proletariat answers with the June insurrection, the most colossal event in the history of European civil wars. The bourgeois republic won. On its side stood the aristocracy of finance, the industrial bourgeoisie; the middle class; the small traders’ class; the army; the slums, organized as Guarde Mobile; the intellectual celebrities, the parsons’ class, and the rural population…. 

The defeat of the June insurgents prepared, leveled the ground, upon which the bourgeois republic could be founded and erected; but it, at the same time showed that there are in Europe other issues besides that of “Republic or Monarchy.” It revealed the fact that here the BOURGEOIS REPUBLIC meant the unbridled despotism of one class over another. Karl Marx, The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, p. 10, 11

The view here is perfectly clear — Marx describes the Republic of 1848 as the naked expression of the economic interests of the bourgeoisie, imposed on the whole of society through control of the state.

The epoch between December 20, 1848, and the dissolution of the constitutional assembly in May, 1849, embraces the history of the downfall of the bourgeois republicans. After they had founded a republic for the bourgeoisie, had driven the revolutionary proletariat from the field, and had meanwhile silenced the democratic middle class, they are themselves shoved aside by the mass of the bourgeoisie, who justly appropriate this republic as their property. This bourgeois mass was ROYALIST, however. A part thereof, the large landed proprietors, had ruled under the restoration, hence, was LEGITIMIST; the other part, the aristocrats of finance and the large industrial capitalists, had ruled under the July monarchy, hence, was ORLEANIST. The high functionaries of the Army, of the University, of the Church, in the civil service, of the Academy and of the press, divided them selves on both sides, although in unequal parts. Here, in the bourgeois republic, that bore neither the name of BOURBON, nor of ORLEANS, but the name of CAPITAL, they had found the form of government under which they could all rule in common. Already the June insurrection had united them all into a “Party of Order.” Eighteenth Brumaire, p. 18

Significantly, Marx’s analysis of the few crucial years of French political history between 1848 and 1851 focuses entirely on segments of the propertied classes who vied for power in the National Assembly. Landowners want X, small owners want Y, large industrial owners want W, financiers want Z; and the individuals and parties representing these segments compete for power. And the actions of government reflect the goals and strategies of the strongest parties. Here is Marx’s description of the crucial manipulation of the Constitution’s election rules for the election of a president:

The law of May 31, 1850, was the “coup d’etat” of the bourgeoisie. All its previous conquests over the revolution had only a temporary character: They became uncertain the moment the National Assembly stepped off the stage; they depended upon the accident of general elections, and the history of the elections since 1848 proved irrefutably that, in the same measure as the actual reign of the bourgeoisie gathered strength, its moral reign over the masses wore off. Universal suffrage pronounced itself on.May 10 pointedly against the reign bourgeoisie; the bourgeoisie answered with the banishment of universal suffrage. The law of May 31 was, accordingly, one of the necessities of the class struggle. On the other hand, the constitution required a minimum of two million votes for the valid election of the President of the republic. If none of the Presidential candidates polled this minimum, then the National Assembly was to elect the President out of the three candidates polling the highest votes. At the time that the constitutive body made this law, ten million voters were registered on the election rolls. Eighteenth Brumaire, p. 39

And, significantly, Marx describes this period of government as representing a coalition of two major groups of property owners, landed property and manufacture:

The parliamentary republic was more than a neutral ground on which the two factions of the French bourgeoisie— Legitimists and Orleanists, large landed property and manufacture— could lodge together with equal rights. It was the indispensable condition for their common reign, the only form of government in which their common class interest could dominate both the claims of their separate factions and all the other classes of society. As royalists, they relapsed into their old antagonism: into the struggle for the overlordship of either landed property or of money; and the highest expression of this antagonism, its personification, were the two kings themselves, their dynasties. Hence the resistance of the party of Order to the recall of the Bourbons. Eighteenth Brumaire, p. 54

But the INDUSTRIAL BOURGEOISIE also, in its fanaticism for order, was annoyed at the quarrels of the Parliamentary party of Order with the Executive. Thiers, Anglas, Sainte Beuve, etc., received, after their vote of January 18, on the occasion of the discharge of Changarnier, public reprimands from their constituencies, located in the industrial districts, branding their coalition with the Mountain as an act of high treason to the cause of order. Although, true enough, the boastful, vexatious and petty intrigues, through which the struggle of the party of Order with the President manifested it self, deserved no better reception, yet notwithstanding, this bourgeois party, that expects of its representatives to allow the military power to pass without resistance out of the hands of their own Parliament into those of an adventurous Pretender, is not worth even the intrigues that were wasted in its behalf. It showed that the struggle for the maintenance of their public interests, of their class interests, of their political power only incommoded and displeased them, as a disturbance of their private business…. Business being brisk, as still at the beginning of 1851, the commercial bourgeoisie stormed against every Parliamentary” strife, lest business be put out of temper. Business being dull, as from the end of February, 1851, on, the bourgeoisie accused thee Parliamentary strifes as the cause of the stand-still, and clamored for quiet in order that business may revive. Eighteenth Brumaire, p. 58-59

Again, we find the same idea of the managing committee of (dominant factions of) the propertied classes.

This is a particularly reductionist interpretation of politics. It suggests a thoroughly mechanistic relationship between class interests and the actions of the state. Politicians are the creatures of various propertied interests, and their actions are dictated by their patrons. But towards the end of the Eighteenth Brumaire Marx gives a nod to the complexity and size of government:

This Executive power, with its tremendous bureaucratic and military organization; with its wide-spreading and artificial machinery of government — an army of office-holders, half a million strong, together with a military force of another million men— ; this fearful body of parasites, that coils itself like a snake around French society, stopping all its pores, originated at the time of the absolute monarchy, along with the decline of feudalism, which it helped to hasten. The princely privileges of the landed proprietors and cities were transformed into so many attributes of the Executive power; the feudal dignitaries into paid office-holders; and the confusing design of conflicting medieval seigniories, into the well regulated plan of a government, whose work is subdivided and centralized as in the factory…. Napoleon completed this governmental machinery. Eighteenth Brumaire, p. 69

This clearly presents a topic for study: how does this “machinery of government” work? What is the social ontology of the ministries, offices, and agencies of government? Further, Marx raises a point that Nicos Poulantzas eventually characterizes as the “relative autonomy of the capitalist state”:

Nevertheless, under the absolute monarchy, during the first revolution, and under Napoleon, the bureaucracy was only the means whereby to prepare the class rule of the bourgeoisie; under the restoration, under Louis Philippe, and under the parliamentary republic, it was the instrument of the ruling class, however eagerly this class strained after autocracy. Not before the advent of the second Bonaparte does the government seem to have made itself fully independent. The machinery of government has by this time so thoroughly fortified itself against society, that the chief of the “Society of December 10” is thought good enough to be at its head a fortune-hunter, run in from abroad, is raised on its shield by a drunken soldiery, bought by himself with liquor and sausages, and whom he is forced ever again to throw sops to. Hence the timid despair, the sense of crushing humiliation and degradation that oppresses the breast of France and makes her to choke. She feels dishonored. Eighteenth Brumaire, p. 70

According to this passage, the government of Napoleon III has a degree of autonomy from the propertied interests of his period. “The machinery of government has by this time … thoroughly fortified itself against society.” This idea too points to a more sophisticated understanding of the “machinery of government.” This opens the door to a more nuanced theory of politics, including the possibility that other groups in society (environmentalists, workers, right-wing nationalists) may position themselves in ways that have substantial effect on the actions of government.

Here is Robert Paul Resch’s description of Poulantzas’s theory of relative autonomy in Althusser and the Renewal of Marxist Social Theory (329-330):

Poulantzas also seeks to explain how the capitalist state directly serves the interests of the capitalist class while being formally separated from the economy and from the direct control of the capitalists. Poulantzas’s concept of the capitalist state is premised on its relative autonomy with respect to the economy and the fact that “it is this autonomy which, as a constant invariant, regulates the variations of intervention and non-intervention of the political in the economic, and of the economic in the political” (Poulantzas 1973, 143). The general concept of a class state, Poulantzas reminds us, does not require that the state be the direct instrument of the dominant class but only that it legitimize and reproduce the conditions and relations of domination and exploitation by which the ruling class is constituted. In capitalist social formations these conditions are defined by the existence of surplus value and the irresistible impetus to accumulate it that occurs when private property exists and labor power is completely commodified. Furthermore, in capitalist social formations, the members of the dominant class are in economic competition with each other, and their competing interests render them incapable of governing directly or with unanimity. Their only common interests, Poulantzas concludes, are that the exploited class be politically fragmented and that the existence of propertyless laborers “free” to sell their labor power be perpetuated.

Poulantzas argues that the peculiar characteristics of the capitalist mode of production do not require a state that directly represents the economic interests of the ruling classes; rather, they require a state that represents their political interest. However democratic a capitalist state may appear to be, Poulantzas maintains that it always functions as “the dominant class’s political power center, the organizing agent of their political struggles” (Poulantzas 1973, 190). The state accomplishes this function by redefining agents of production, distributed in classes, as political subjects, distributed as individuals. The result is an effect of “individual isolation” that is then projected back, via the legal system, from the political realm into the economy to mask the existence of class relationships. The capitalist state is both the source and guarantor of the “rights” of isolated political subjects and thus of its own function of representing the unity of these isolated relations, that is, the body politic of “the people” and “the nation.” In other words, “the state represents the unity of an isolation which because of the role played by the ideological, is largely its own effect. This double function of isolating [individuals] and representing [their] unity is reflected in the internal contradictions in the structure of the state” (Poulantzas 1973, 134).

(Rereading The Eighteenth Brumaire creates a little bit of a sense of what Marx was getting at when he wrote in the first sentence of the essay that “Hegel says somewhere that all great historic facts and personages recur twice. He forgot to add: ‘Once as tragedy, and again as farce.'” The lawlessness and recklessness of the current US president resonates with Marx’s narrative of Napoléon le petit, in Victor Hugo’s phrase.)

Is the Xerox Corporation supervenient?

Supervenience is the view that the properties of some composite entity B are wholly fixed by the properties and relations of the items A of which it is composed (link, link). The transparency of glass supervenes upon the properties of the atoms of silicon and oxygen of which it is composed and their arrangement.

Can the same be said of a business firm like Xerox when we consider its constituents to be its employees, stakeholders, and other influential actors and their relations and actions? (Call that total field of factors S.) Or is it possible that exactly these actors at exactly the same time could have manifested a corporation with different characteristics?

Let’s say the organizational properties we are interested in include internal organizational structure, innovativeness, market adaptability, and level of internal trust among employees. And S consists of the specific individuals and their properties and relations that make up the corporation at a given time. Could this same S have manifested with different properties for Xerox?

One thing is clear. If a highly similar group of individuals had been involved in the creation and development of Xerox, it is entirely possible that the organization would have been substantially different today. We could expect that contingent events and a high level of path dependency would have led to substantial differences in organization, functioning, and internal structure. So the company does not supervene upon a generic group of actors defined in terms of a certain set of beliefs, goals, and modes of decision making over the history of its founding and development. I have sometimes thought this path dependency itself if enough to refute supervenience.

But the claim of supervenience is not a temporal or diachronic claim, but instead a synchronic claim: the current features of structure, causal powers, functioning, etc., of the higher-level entity today are thought to be entirely fixed by the supervenience base (in this case, the particular individuals and their relations and actions). Putting the idea in terms of possible-world theory, there is no possible world in which exactly similar individuals in exactly similar states of relationship and action would underlie a business firm Xerox* which had properties different from the current Xerox firm.

One way in which this counterfactual might be true is if a property P of the corporation depended on the states of the agents plus something else — say, the conductivity of copper in its pure state. In the real world W copper is highly conductive, while in W* copper is not-conductive. And in W*, let’s suppose, Xerox has property P* rather than P. On this scenario Xerox does not supervene upon the states of the actors, since these states are identical in W and W*. This is because dependence on the conductivity of copper make a difference not reflected in a difference in the states of the actors. 
But this is a pretty hypothetical case. We would only be justified in thinking Xerox does not supervene on S if we had a credible candidate for another property that would make a difference, and I’m hard pressed to do so.  
There is another possible line of response for the hardcore supervenience advocate in this case. I’ve assumed the conductivity of copper makes a difference to the corporation without making a difference for the actors. But I suppose it might be maintained that this is impossible: only the states of the actors affect the corporation, since they constitute the corporation; so the scenario I describe is impossible. 
The upshot seems to be this: there is no way of resolving the question at the level of pure philosophy. The best we can do is to do concrete empirical work on the actual causal and organizational processes through which the properties of the whole are constituted through the actions and thoughts of the individuals who make it up.

But here is a deeper concern. What makes supervenience minimally plausible in the case of social entities is the insistence on synchronic dependence. But generally speaking, we are always interested in the diachronic behavior and evolution of a social entity. And here the idea of path dependence is more credible than the idea of moment-to-moment dependency on the “supervenience base”. We might say that the property of “innovativeness” displayed by the Xerox Corporation at some periods in its history supervenes moment-to-moment on the actions and thoughts of its constituent individuals; but we might also say that this fact does not explain the higher-level property of innovativeness. Instead, some set of events in the past set the corporation on a path that favored innovation; this corporate culture or climate influenced the selection and behavior of the individuals who make it up; and the day-to-day behavior reflects both the path-dependent history of its higher-level properties and the current configuration of its parts.

(Thanks, Raphael van Riel, for your warm welcome to the Institute of Philosophy at the University of Duisburg-Essen, and for the many stimulating conversations we had on the topics of supervenience, generativity, and functionalism.)

Deficiencies of practical rationality in organizations

Suppose we are willing to take seriously the idea that organizations possess a kind of intentionality — beliefs, goals, and purposive actions — and suppose that we believe that the microfoundations of these quasi-intentional states depend on the workings of individual purposive actors within specific sets of relations, incentives, and practices. How does the resulting form of “bureaucratic intelligence” compare with human thought and action?

There is a major set of differences between organizational “intelligence” and human intelligence that turn on the unity of human action compared to the fundamental disunity of organizational action. An individual human being gathers a set of beliefs about a situation, reflects on a range of possible actions, and chooses a line of action designed to bring about his/her goals. An organization is disjointed in each of these activities. The belief-setting part of an organization usually consists of multiple separate processes culminating in an amalgamated set of beliefs or representations. And this amalgamation often reflects deep differences in perspective and method across various sub-departments. (Consider inputs into an international crisis incorporating assessments from intelligence, military, and trade specialists.)

Second, individual intentionality possess a substantial degree of practical autonomy. The individual assesses and adopts the set of beliefs that seem best to him or her in current circumstances. The organization in its belief-acquisition is subject to conflicting interests, both internal and external, that bias the belief set in one direction or the other. (This is the central thrust of experts on science policy like Naomi Oreskes.) The organization is not autonomous in its belief formation processes.

Third, an individual’s actions have a reasonable level of consistency and coherence over time. The individual seeks to avoid being self-defeating by doing X and Y while knowing that X undercuts Y. An organization is entirely capable of pursuing a suite of actions which embody exactly this kind of inconsistency, precisely because the actions chosen are the result of multiple disagreeing sub-agencies and officers.

Fourth, we have some reason to expect a degree of stability in the goals and values that underlie actions by an individual. But organizations, exactly because their behavior is a joint product of sub-agents with conflicting plans and goals, are entirely capable of rapid change of goals and values. Deepening this instability is the fluctuating powers and interests of external stakeholders who apply pressure for different values and goals over time.

Finally, human thinkers are potentially epistemic thinkers — they are at least potentially capable of following disciplines of analysis, reasoning, and evidence in their practical engagement with the world. By contrast, because of the influence of interests, both internal and external, organizations are perpetually subject to the distortion of belief, intention, and implementation by actors who have an interest in the outcome of the project. And organizations have little ability to apply rational rational standards to their processes of belief, intention, and implementation formation. Organizational intentionality lacks overriding rational control.

Consider more briefly the topic of action. Human actors suffer various deficiencies of performance when it comes to purposive action, including weakness of the will and self deception. But organizations are altogether less capable of effectively mounting the steps needed to fully implement a plan or a complicated policy or action. This is because of the looseness of linkages that exist between executive and agent within an organization, the perennial possibility of principal-agent problems, and the potential interference with performance created by interested parties outside the organization.

This line of thought suggests that organizational lack “unity of apperception and intention”. There are multiple levels and zones of intention formation, and much of this plurality persists throughout real processes of organizational thinking. And this disunity affects both belief, intention and action. Organizations are not univocal at any point. Belief formation, intention formation, and action remain fragmented and multivocal.

These observations are somewhat parallel to the paradoxes of social choice and various voting systems governing a social choice function. Kenneth Arrow demonstrated it is impossible to design a voting system that guarantees consistency of choice by a group of individual consistency voters. The analogy here is the idea that there is no organizational design possible that guarantees a high degree of consistency and rationality in large organizational decision processes at any stage of quasi-intentionality, including belief acquisition, policy formulation, and policy implementation. 

The place for thick theories of the actor in philosophy

image: Bruegel, The Dutch Proverbs (1559)

When philosophers of the social sciences take seriously the importance of individual action within the social realm, we often look in the direction of methodological individualism and the methods of “aggregation dynamics”. That is, agent-centered theorists are usually interested in finding ways of climbing the upward strut of Coleman’s boat through efforts at modeling the interactive dynamics of purposive individuals and the social outcomes they produce. This leads to an interest in applying microeconomics, game theory, or agent-based modeling as ways of discovering the aggregate consequences of a certain theory of the actor (purposive, calculating, strategic rationality). We then get a ready basis for accounting for causal relations in the social world; the medium of causal powers and effects is the collection of purposive actors who live in social relationships and institutions with a fairly homogeneous form of agency.

This is a perfectly valid way of thinking about social causation and explanation. But the thrust of the argument for thick descriptions of actors, coming from microsociologists, ethnomethodologists, and historical sociologists, is that the abstractions associated with thin theories of the actor (goal-directed behavior driven by rational-self-interest) are often inadequate for understanding real social settings. If we attach weight to sociologists like Goffman and Garfinkel, some of the most interesting stuff is happening along the bottom edge of Coleman’s boat — the interactions among socially situated individuals. So how should we think about the challenge of incorporating a richer theory of the actor into the project of supporting an adequate set of ideas about social inquiry and social explanation?

One approach is to simply acknowledge the scientific relevance and importance of research into the mentality of real social actors. This approach accepts the point that we cannot always make use of the very sparse assumptions of thin theories of the actor if we want to understand social phenomena like the politics of hate, the rise of liberal democracy, or the outbreak of ethnic violence. We can then attempt to address the theoretical and methodological problems associated with research into more nuanced understanding of historically and socially situated persons in specific circumstances involving the phenomena of interest. We can give attention to fields like cultural sociology and ethnography and attempt to offer support for those research efforts. This approach also permits the possibility of attempting to formulate a conception of social explanation that fits thick theories of the actor.

This approach seems to lead most naturally to a conception of explanation that is more interpretive than causal, and it suggests that the hard work of social research will go into the effort to find evidence permitting the researcher to form a theory of the attitudes, beliefs, and mental frameworks of the actors involved in the social setting of interest. The example of Robert Darnton’s study of “The Great Cat Massacre” illustrates the value and difficulty of this kind of inquiry (link). And it highlights the crucial role that concrete historical and documentary evidence play in the effort (link). At the same time, the explanations offered are almost inevitably particular to the case, not generalizable.

Is there an approach to social explanation that makes use of a thick theory of the actor but nonetheless aspires to providing largescale social explanations? Can thick theories of the actor, and rich accounts of agency in specific circumstances, be incorporated into causal theories of specific kinds of social organization and change? Can we imagine a parallel masterpiece to Coleman’s Foundations of Social Theory, which incorporates the nuances of thick sociology and points towards a generalizing sociology?

Yes and no. Yes, in that important and large-scale works of comparative historical sociology depend directly on analysis of the thick mentalities of the actors who made up great events — e.g. Mann on fascism (demobilized soldiers), Steinmetz on German colonialism (professional administrators), Frank Dobbin on French technology planning (technocrats), or Charles Sabel on Italian mechanical culture (machinists versus engineers). And this kind of social research depends upon its own kind of generalization — the claim to identify a cultural type that was current in a given population at a certain time. This is the project of discovering a historically concrete mentalité (link). But no, if we think the primary mode of social explanation takes the form of system models demonstrating the genealogy of this social characteristic or that.

This sounds a bit like the heart of the methodenstreit of the last century, between historicists and nomological theorists. Does the social world admit of generalizing explanations (nomothetic), or is social explanation best understood as particular and historically situated (idiographic)? Fortunately we are not forced to choose. Both kinds of explanation are possible in the social realm, and some problems are more amenable to in approach or the other. Only the view that insists on the unity of science find this dilemma unacceptable. But for a methodological pluralist, this is a perfectly agreeable state of affairs.

The research university

Where do new ideas, new technologies, and new ways of thinking about the world come from in a modern society? Since World War II the answer to this question has largely been found in research universities. Research universities are doctoral institutions that employ professors who are advanced academic experts in a variety of fields and that expend significant amounts of external funds in support of ongoing research. Given the importance of innovation and new ideas in the knowledge economy of the twenty-first century, it is very important to understand the dynamics of research universities, and to understand factors that make them more or less productive in achieving new knowledge. And, crucially, we need to understand how public policy can enhance the effectiveness of the university research enterprise for the benefit of the whole of society.

Jason Owen-Smith’s recent Research Universities and the Public Good: Discovery for an Uncertain Future is a very welcome and insightful contribution to better understanding this topic. Owen-Smith is a sociology professor at the University of Michigan (itself a major research university with over 1.5 billion dollars in annual research funding), and he brings to his task some of the most insightful ideas currently transforming the field of organizational studies.

Owen-Smith analyzes research universities (RU) in terms of three fundamental ideas. RUs serves as sourceanchor, and hub for the generation of innovations and new ideas in a vast range of fields, from the humanities to basic science to engineering and medicine. And he believes that this triple function makes research universities virtually unique among American (or global) knowledge-producing organizations, including corporate and government laboratories (33).

The idea of the university as a source is fairly obvious: it is the idea that universities create and disseminate new knowledge in a very wide range of fields. Sometimes that knowledge is of interest to a hundred people worldwide; and sometimes it results in the creation of genuinely transformative technologies and methods. The idea of the university as “anchor” refers largely to the stability that research universities offer the knowledge enterprise. Another aspect of the idea of the university as an anchor is the fact that it helps to create a public infrastructure that encourages other kinds of innovation in the region that it serves — much as an anchor tenant helps to bring potential customers to smaller stores in a shopping mall. Unlike other knowledge-centered organizations like private research labs or federal laboratories, universities have a diverse portfolio of activity that confers a very high level of stability over time. This is a large asset for the country as a whole. It is also frequently an asset for the city or region in which it is located.

The idea of the university as a hub is perhaps the most innovative perspective offered here. The idea of a hub is a network concept. A hub is a node that links individuals and centers to each other in ways that transcend local organizational charts. And the power of a hub, and the networks that it joins, is that it facilitates the exchange of information and ideas and creates the possibility of new forms of cooperation and collaboration. Here the idea is that a research university is a place where researchers form working relationships, both on campus and in national networks of affiliation. And the density and configuration of these relationships serve to facilitate communication and diffusion of new ideas and approaches to a given problem, with the result that progress is more rapid. O-S makes use of Peter Galison’s treatment of the simultaneous discovery of the relativity of time measurement by Einstein and Poincaré in Einstein’s Clocks and Poincaré’s Maps: Empires of Time.  Galison shows that Einstein and Poincaré were both involved in extensive intellectual networks that were quite relevant to their discoveries; but that their innovations had substantially different effects because of differences in those networks. Owen-Smith believes that these differences are very relevant in the workings of modern RUs in the United States as well. (See also Galison’s Image and Logic: A Material Culture of Microphysics.)

Radical discoveries like the theory of special relativity are exceptionally rare, but the conditions that gave rise to them should also enable less radical insights. Imagining universities as organizational scaffolds for a complex collaboration networks and focal point where flows of ideas, people, and problems come together offers a systematic way to assess the potential for innovation and novelty as well as for multiple discoveries. (p. 15)

Treating a complex and interdependent social process that occurs across relatively long time scales as if it had certain needs, short time frames, and clear returns is not just incorrect, it’s destructive. The kinds of simple rules I suggested earlier represent what organizational theorist James March called “superstitious learning.” They were akin to arguing that because many successful Silicon Valley firms were founded in garages, economic growth is a simple matter of building more garages. (25)

Rather, O-S demonstrates in the case of the development of the key discoveries that led to the establishment of Google, the pathway was long, complex, and heavily dependent on social networks of scientists, funders, entrepreneurs, graduate students, and federal agencies.

A key observation in O-S’s narrative at numerous points is the futility — perhaps even harmfulness — of attempting to harness university research to specific, quantifiable economic or political goals. The idea of selecting university research and teaching programs on the basis of their ROI relative to economic goals is, according to O-S, deeply futile. The extended example he offers of the research that led to the establishment of Google as a company and a search engine illustrates this point very compellingly: much of the foundational research that made the search algorithms possible had the look of entirely non-pragmatic or utilitarian knowledge production at the time it was funded (chapter 1). (The development of the smart phone has a similar history; 63.) Philosophy, art history, and social theory can be as important to the overall success of the research enterprise as more intentionally directed areas of research (electrical engineering, genetic research, autonomous vehicle design). His discussion of Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker’s effort to revise the mission statement of the University of Wisconsin is exemplary (45 ff.).

Contra Governor Walker, the value of the university is found not in its ability to respond to immediate needs but in an expectation that joining systematic inquiry and education will result in people and ideas that reach beyond local, sometimes parochial, concerns. (46-47)

Also interesting is O-S’s discussion of the functionality of the extreme decentralization that is typical of most large research universities. In general O-S regards this decentralization as a positive thing, leading to greater independence for researchers and research teams and permitting higher levels of innovation and productive collaboration. In fact, O-S appears to believe that decentralization is a critical factor in the success of the research university as source, anchor, and hub in the creation of new knowledge.

The competition and collaboration enabled by decentralized organization, the pluralism and tension created when missions and fields collide, and the complex networks that emerge from knowledge work make universities sources by enabling them to produce new things on an ongoing basis. Their institutional and physical stability prevents them from succumbing to either internal strife or the kinds of ‘creative destruction’ that economist Joseph Schumpeter took to be a fundamental result of innovation under capitalism. (61)

O-S’s discussion of the micro-processes of discovery is particularly interesting (chapter 3). He makes a sustained attempt to dissect the interactive, networked ways in which multiple problems, methods, and perspectives occasionally come together to solve an important problem or develop a novel idea or technology. In O’S’s telling of the story, the existence of intellectual and scientific networks is crucial to the fecundity of these processes in and around research universities.

This is an important book and one that merits close reading. Nothing could be more critical to our future than the steady discovery of new ideas and solutions. Research universities have shown themselves to be uniquely powerful engines for discovery and dissemination of new knowledge. But the rapid decline of public appreciation of universities presents a serious risk to the continued vitality of the university-based knowledge sector. The most important contribution O-S has made here, in my reading, is the detailed work he has done to give exposition to the “micro-processes” of the research university — the collaborations, the networks, the unexpected contiguities of problems, and the high level of decentralization that American research universities embody. As O-S documents, these processes are difficult to present to the public in a compelling way, and the vitality of the research university itself is vulnerable to destructive interference in the current political environment. Providing a clear, well-documented account of how research universities work is a major and valuable contribution.

The mind of government

We often speak of government as if it has intentions, beliefs, fears, plans, and phobias. This sounds a lot like a mind. But this impression is fundamentally misleading. “Government” is not a conscious entity with a unified apperception of the world and its own intentions. So it is worth teasing out the ways in which government nonetheless arrives at “beliefs”, “intentions”, and “decisions”.

Let’s first address the question of the mythical unity of government. In brief, government is not one unified thing. Rather, it is an extended network of offices, bureaus, departments, analysts, decision-makers, and authority structures, each of which has its own reticulated internal structure.

This has an important consequence. Instead of asking “what is the policy of the United States government towards Africa?”, we are driven to ask subordinate questions: what are the policies towards Africa of the State Department, the Department of Defense, the Department of Commerce, the Central Intelligence Agency, or the Agency for International Development? And for each of these departments we are forced to recognize that each is itself a large bureaucracy, with sub-units that have chosen or adapted their own working policy objectives and priorities. There are chief executives at a range of levels — President of the United States, Secretary of State, Secretary of Defense, Director of CIA — and each often has the aspiration of directing his or her organization as a tightly unified and purposive unit. But it is perfectly plain that the behavior of functional units within agencies are only loosely controlled by the will of the executive. This does not mean that executives have no control over the activities and priorities of subordinate units. But it does reflect a simple and unavoidable fact about large organizations. An organization is more like a slime mold than it is like a control algorithm in a factory.

This said, organizational units at all levels arrive at something analogous to beliefs (assessments of fact and probable future outcomes), assessments of priorities and their interactions, plans, and decisions (actions to take in the near and intermediate future). And governments make decisions at the highest level (leave the EU, raise taxes on fuel, prohibit immigration from certain countries, …). How does the analytical and factual part of this process proceed? And how does the decision-making part unfold?

One factor is particularly evident in the current political environment in the United States. Sometimes the analysis and decision-making activities of government are short-circuited and taken by individual executives without an underlying organizational process. A president arrives at his view of the facts of global climate change based on his “gut instincts” rather than an objective and disinterested assessment of the scientific analysis available to him. An Administrator of the EPA acts to eliminate long-standing environmental protections based on his own particular ideological and personal interests. A Secretary of the Department of Energy takes leadership of the department without requesting a briefing on any of its current projects. These are instances of the dictator strategy (in the social-choice sense), where a single actor substitutes his will for the collective aggregation of beliefs and desires associated with both bureaucracy and democracy. In this instance the answer to our question is a simple one: in cases like these government has beliefs and intentions because particular actors have beliefs and intentions and those actors have the power and authority to impose their beliefs and intentions on government.

The more interesting cases involve situations where there is a genuine collective process through which analysis and assessment takes place (of facts and priorities), and through which strategies are considered and ultimately adopted. Agencies usually make decisions through extended and formalized processes. There is generally an organized process of fact gathering and scientific assessment, followed by an assessment of various policy options with public exposure. Final a policy is adopted (the moment of decision).

The decision by the EPA to ban DDT in 1972 is illustrative (link, linklink). This was a decision of government which thereby became the will of government. It was the result of several important sub-processes: citizen and NGO activism about the possible toxic harms created by DDT, non-governmental scientific research assessing the toxicity of DDT, an internal EPA process designed to assess the scientific conclusions about the environmental and human-health effects of DDT, an analysis of the competing priorities involved in this issue (farming, forestry, and malaria control versus public health), and a decision recommended to the Administrator and adopted that concluded that the priority of public health and environmental safety was weightier than the economic interests served by the use of the pesticide.

Other examples of agency decision-making follow a similar pattern. The development of policy concerning science and technology is particularly interesting in this context. Consider, for example, Susan Wright (link) on the politics of regulation of recombinant DNA. This issue is explored more fully in her book Molecular Politics: Developing American and British Regulatory Policy for Genetic Engineering, 1972-1982. This is a good case study of “government making up its mind”. Another interesting case study is the development of US policy concerning ozone depletion; link.

These cases of science and technology policy illustrate two dimensions of the processes through which a government agency “makes up its mind” about a complex issue. There is an analytical component in which the scientific facts and the policy goals and priorities are gathered and assessed. And there is a decision-making component in which these analytical findings are crafted into a decision — a policy, a set of regulations, or a funding program, for example. It is routine in science and technology policy studies to observe that there is commonly a substantial degree of intertwining between factual judgments and political preferences and influences brought to bear by powerful outsiders. (Here is an earlier discussion of these processes; link.)

Ideally we would like to imagine a process of government decision-making that proceeds along these lines: careful gathering and assessment of the best available scientific evidence about an issue through expert specialist panels and sections; careful analysis of the consequences of available policy choices measured against a clear understanding of goals and priorities of the government; and selection of a policy or action that is best, all things considered, for forwarding the public interest and minimizing public harms. Unfortunately, as the experience of government policies concerning climate change in both the Bush administration and the Trump administration illustrates, ideology and private interest distort every phase of this idealized process.

(Philip Tetlock’s Superforecasting: The Art and Science of Prediction offers an interesting analysis of the process of expert factual assessment and prediction. Particularly interesting is his treatment of intelligence estimates.)

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