The rise of Austrofascism

 

Several recent posts have commented on the rise of a nationalistic, nativist politics in numerous contemporary democracies around the world. The implications of this political process are deeply challenging to the values of liberal democracy. We need to try to understand these developments. (Peter Merkl’s research on European right-wing extremism is very helpful here; Right-wing Extremism in the Twenty-first Century.)

One plausible approach to trying to understand the dynamics of this turn to the far right is to consider relevantly similar historical examples. A very interesting study on the history of Austria’s right-wing extremism between the wars was published recently by Janek Wasserman, Black Vienna: The Radical Right in the Red City, 1918-1938

Wasserman emphasizes the importance of ideas and culture within the rise of Austrofascism, and he makes use of Gramsci’s concept of hegemony as a way of understanding the link between philosophy and politics. The pro-fascist right held a dominant role within major Viennese cultural and educational institutions. Here is how Wasserman describes the content of ultra-conservative philosophy and ideology in inter-war Vienna:

The ideas represented within its institutions ran a broad spectrum, yet its discourse centered on radical anti-Semitism, German nationalism, völkisch authoritarianism, anti-Enlightenment (and antimodernist) thinking, and corporatism. The potential for collaboration between Catholic conservatives and German nationalists has only in recent years begun to attract scholarly attention. (6)

This climate was highly inhospitable towards ideas and values from progressive thinkers. Wasserman describes the intellectual and cultural climate of Vienna in these terms:

At the turn of the century, Austria was one of the most culturally conservative nations in Europe. The advocacy of avant-garde scientific theories therefore put the First Vienna Circle— and its intellectual forbears— under pressure. Ultimately, it left them in marginal positions until several years after the Great War. In the wake of the Wahrmund affair, discussed in chapter 1, intellectuals advocating secularist, rationalist, or liberal views faced a hostile academic landscape. Ernst Mach, for example, was an intellectual outsider at the University of Vienna from 1895 until his death in 1916. Always supportive of socialist causes, he left a portion of his estate to the Social Democrats in his last will and testament. His theories of sensationalism and radical empiricism were challenged on all sides, most notably by his successor Ludwig Boltzmann. His students, among them David Josef Bach and Friedrich Adler, either had to leave the country to find appointments or give up academics altogether. Unable to find positions in Vienna, Frank moved to Prague and Neurath to Heidelberg. Hahn did not receive a position until after the war. The First Vienna Circle disbanded because of a lack of opportunity at home. (110-111)

Philosophy played an important role in the politics of inter-war Vienna, on both the right and the left. Othmar Spann was a highly influential conservative thinker who openly defended the values of National Socialism. On the left were Enlightenment-inspired philosophers who were proponents for reason and science. The pioneering analytic philosopher and guiding light of the Vienna Circle was Moritz Schlick. In 1934 Schlick was required to report to the Viennese police to demonstrate that the Vienna Circle was not a political organization (Black Vienna, 106). Schlick responded with three letters intended to demonstrate factually that the Circle was “absolutely unpolitical”. He defended a conception of value-free science, and maintained that the debates considered by the Vienna Circle were entirely within the scope of value-free science. But, as Wasserman points out, the doctrines of positivism and modern scientific rationality that were at the core of Vienna Circle philosophy were themselves politically contentious in the conservative intellectual climate of inter-war Vienna. It is also true that some members of the circle were in fact active progressive thinkers and actors. The most overtly political member of the Vienna Circle was Otto Neurath, who had been imprisoned for his participation in the Bavarian Soviet Republic in 1918.

Intellectual influence depends on the ability of an intellectual movement to gain positions in universities and other cultural institutions. The effort to win positions of influence in Austrian universities and other leading cultural institutions was strongly weighted towards the conservatives and nationalists:

A comparison of placement success with the Vienna Circle of logical empiricists is telling. Spann managed to place four students into full professorships in Austria during the interwar period; Moritz Schlick did not manage to place a single one. Likewise, the psychologists Karl and Charlotte Bühler could not place anyone in German or Austrian universities. Although members of Schlick’s and Bühler’s respective circles attracted international recognition for their work in philosophy and science, they could not find institutional security in interwar Austria. The converse was true for the members of Spannkreis: they dominated the Austrian intellectual landscape yet enjoyed little international success. (91)

The rise of fascism in Austria was a violent history, including the 1927 police killing of 89 demonstrators (2) as well as the assassination of Moritz Schlick in 1936. Right-wing individuals and organizations were unleashed in attacks on progressives and socialists in Vienna, and the Austrofascist state (1933-38) was more than willing to use force against its enemies.

The assassination of Moritz Schlick was a single tragic moment in this large historical canvas. Schlick was shot to death in the main building of the university by a right-wing student, Johann Nelböck, in 1936. The background of the assassination appears to have involved politics as well as personal grievances, according to a document titled “Philosophie der Untat”, drafted by Professor Eckehart Köhler in 1968 and made publicly available in the 2000s through Reddit (link). Köhler’s document is well worth reading. It was drafted in 1968 and printed by the Union of Socialist Students of Austria for distribution at a philosophy of science conference in Vienna; but the student organization then got cold feet about the claims made and dumped 2000 copies into the Danube River. The document was rediscovered in the 1990s. According to Köhler, Nelböck was influenced by reactionary Vienna philosopher Leo Gabriel. It is apparent that the scientific philosophy of the Vienna Circle was at odds with the conservative thought that dominated Vienna; in fact, after his pardon by the Nazi government after the Anschluss, Nelböck proposed to create an alternative to positivism that he named “negativism”. It is ironic that the violence against Schlick had to do with the philosophy of positivism rather than the political program of socialism.

The University of Vienna had a shameful history during the Nazi period. Following the Anschluss the university expelled more than 2,700 faculty and students, most of whom were Jewish, according to Professor Katharina Kniefacz’s short history of these issues in the university (link). “Anti-Semitic tendencies culminated in the complete and systematic expulsion of Jewish teachers and students from the University of Vienna after Austria’s ‘Anschluss’ to the National Socialist German Reich in 1938” (6). Few were invited to return, and public contrition for these expulsions only began to occur in the 1990s. According to Kniefacz, anti-semitism within the university persisted for decades after the end of Nazi rule. And two rectors of the university who served without objection during the Nazi period are memorialized in the Main Building of the University (10).

This history is still of great relevance in Austria today. The Austrian far right came within a handful of votes of winning the presidency in May 2016, based on a virulent anti-immigrant platform. And the country’s high court has now invalidated that election, preparing the ground for a second election later this year. It is a very good question to wonder how widespread attitudes of racism, nativism, and anti-semitism are in the Austrian population today — the very climate of racism and intolerance mentioned in the Schlick memorial above.

Liberalism and hate-based extremism

How should a democratic society handle the increasingly virulent challenges presented by hate groups, anti-government extremists, and organizations that encourage violence and discrimination against others in society? Should extremist groups have unlimited rights to advocate for their ideologies of hatred and antagonism against other groups within a democracy?

Erik Bleich has written extensively on the subject of racist speech and the law. Recent books include The Freedom to Be Racist?: How the United States and Europe Struggle to Preserve Freedom and Combat Racism and Race Politics in Britain and France: Ideas and Policymaking since the 1960s. Bleich correctly notes that these issues are broader than the freedom-of-speech framework in which they are often placed; so he examines law and policy in multiple countries on freedom of speech, freedom of association, and freedom of opinion-as-motive. In each of these areas he finds important differences across European countries and the United States with respect to legislation concerning racist expressions. In particular, liberal democracies like Great Britain, France, and Germany have created legislation to prohibit various kinds of hate-based speech and action. Here is his summary of the status of European legislation:

European restrictions on racist expression have proceeded gradually but consistently since World War II. A few provisions were established in the immediate postwar era, but most countries’ key laws were enacted in the 1960s and 1970s. The statutes have been tinkered with, updated, and expanded in the ensuing decades to the point where virtually all European liberal democracies now have robust hate speech laws on their books. These laws are highly symbolic of a commitment to curb racism. But they are also more than just symbols. As measured by prosecutions and convictions, levels of enforcement vary significantly across Europe, but most countries have deployed their laws against a variety of racist speech and have recently enforced stiffer penalties for repeat offenders. (kl 960) 

In the United States it is unconstitutional under the First Amendment of the Constitution to prohibit “hate speech” or to ban hate-based organizations. So racist and homophobic organizations are accorded all but unlimited rights of association and expression, no matter how odious and harmful the content and effects of their views. As Bleich points out, other liberal democracies have a very different legal framework for regulating hate-based extremism by individuals and organizations (France, Germany, Sweden, Canada).

Here is the First Amendment of the US Constitution:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

This is pure liberalism, according to which the state needs to remain entirely neutral about disagreements over values, and the only justification for legal prohibition of an activity is the harm the activity creates. There is a strong philosophical rationale for this position. John Stuart Mill maintains an ultra-strong and exceptionless view of freedom of expression in On Liberty.  He argues that all ideas have an equal right to free expression, and that this position is most advantageous to society as a whole. Vigorous debate leads to the best possible set of beliefs. Here are a few passages from On Liberty:

The object of this Essay is to assert one very simple principle, as entitled to govern absolutely the dealings of society with the individual in the way of compulsion and control, whether the means used be physical force in the form of legal penalties, or the moral coercion of public opinion. That principle is, that the sole end for which mankind are warranted, individually or collectively, in interfering with the liberty of action of any of their number, is self-protection. (13)

But the peculiar evil of silencing the expression of an opinion is, that it is robbing the human race; posterity as well as the existing generation; those who dissent from the opinion, still more than those who hold it. If the opinion is right, they are deprived of the opportunity of exchanging error for truth: if wrong, they lose, what is almost as great a benefit, the clearer perception and livelier impression of truth, produced by its collision with error. (19)

This line of reasoning leads to legal toleration in the United States of groups like the White Citizens Councils, Neo-Nazi parties, and the Westboro Baptist Church to conduct their associations, propaganda, and demonstrations to further their hateful objectives. And they and their activists sometimes go further and commit acts of terrible violence (Timothy McVeigh, the murder of Matthew Shepherd in Wyoming, and the murders of civil rights workers in Mississippi).

But as Mill acknowledges, a democratic society has a right and an obligation to protect its citizens from violence. This is the thrust of the “harm” principle in Mill’s philosophy of political authority. Is right-wing extremism (RWE) really just another political platform, equally legitimate within the public sphere of debate in a democratic society? Or do these organizations represent a credible threat to personal safety and civil peace?

Certainly most of the disagreements between liberals and conservatives fall in Millian category — how much a society should spend on social welfare programs, what its immigration policies ought to be, the legal status of single-sex marriage. The disagreements among the parties are intense, but the debates and positions on both sides are legitimate. Mill is right about this range of policy disagreements. The political process and the sphere of public debate should resolve these disagreements.

But RWE goes beyond this level of disagreement about policy and legislation. RWE represents a set of values and calls to action that are inconsistent with the fundamentals of a democratic society. And they are strongly and essentially related to violence. RWE activists call for violence against hated groups, they call for armed resistance to the state (e.g. the Bundy’s), and they actively work to inculcate hatred against specific groups (Muslims, Jews, African Americans, gays and lesbians, …). These groups are anti-constitutional and contemptuous of the common core of civility upon which a democratic society depends.

There are two fundamental arguments against hate-based speech and associations that seem to justify exceptions to the general liberal principle of toleration of offensive speech. One is an argument linking hate to violence. There is ample historical evidence that hateful organizations do in fact stimulate violence by their followers (Birmingham bombing, lynchings and killings of civil rights workers, the assassination of Yitzak Rabin). So our collective interest in protecting all citizens against violence provides a moral basis for limiting incendiary hate speech and organization.

The second kind of argument concerns hate itself, and the insidious effects that hateful ideologies have on individuals, groups, and the polity. EU reports make an effort to capture the essential nature and harms of hate (link). Hate incites mistrust, disrespect, discrimination, and violence against members of other groups. The social effects of hate are toxic and serious. Do these effects suffice to justify limiting hate speech?

This is a difficult argument to make within the context of US jurisprudence. The realm of law involves coercion, and it is agreed that the threshold for interfering with liberty is a high one. It is also agreed that legal justifications and definitions need to be clear and specific. How do we define hate? Is it explained in terms of well-known existing hatreds — racism, anti-semitism, islamophobia, homophobia, …? Or should it be defined in terms of its effects — inculcating disrespect and hostility towards members of another group? Can there be new hatreds in a society — antagonisms against groups that were previously accepted without issue? Are there legitimate “hatreds” that do not lead to violence and exclusion? Or is there an inherent connection between hatred and overt antagonism? And what about expressions like those of Charlie Hebdo — satire, humor, caricature? Is there a zone of artistic expression that should be exempt from anti-hate laws?

Here is Bleich’s considered view on the balance between liberty and racism. Like Mill, he focuses on the balance between the value of liberty and the harm created by racist speech and action.

To telegraph the argument here, my perspective focuses on the level of harm inflicted on individuals, victim groups, and societies. For individuals and victim groups, the harm has to be measurable, specific, and intense. For societies, racism that fosters violence or that drives wedges between groups justifies limiting freedom of expression, association, and opinion-as-motive. (kl 247)

Further:

Racist expressions, associations, or actions that drive a wedge between segments of society or that provoke an extremely hostile response have little redeeming social value. Their harm to other core liberal democratic values such as social cohesion and public order simply outweighs any potential benefits to be gained by protecting them. At the same time, if the statements or organizations are designed to contribute to public debate about state policies, they have to be rigorously protected, even if they may have potentially damaging side effects. (kl 3403)

And here are the closing words of advice offered in the book:

How much freedom should we grant to racists? The ultimate answer is this: look at history, pay attention to context and effects, work out your principles, convince your friends, lobby your representatives, and walk away with a balance of values that you can live with. (kl 3551)

The issue to this point has been whether the state can legitimately prohibit hate speech and organization. But other avenues for fighting hateful ideas fall within the realm of civil society itself. We can do exactly as Mill recommended: offer our own critiques and alternatives to hatred and racism, and strive to win the battle of public opinion. Empirically considered, this is not an entirely encouraging avenue, because a century of experience demonstrates that hate-based propaganda almost always finds a small but virulent audience. So it is not entirely clear that this remedy is sufficient to solve the problem.

These are all difficult questions. But the rise and virulence of hate-based groups across the world makes it urgent for democracies to confront the problem in a just way, respecting equality and liberty of citizens while stamping out hate. And there are pressing practical questions we have to try to answer: do the non-coercive strategies available to the associations of civil society have the capacity to securely contain the harmful spread of hate-based organizations and ideologies? And, on the other hand, do the more restrictive legal codes against racism and hate-based organizations actually work in France or Germany? Or does the continuing advance of extremist groups there suggest that legal prohibition had little effect on RWE as a political movement? And if both questions turn out unfavorably, does liberalism face the possibility of defeat by the organizations of hatred and racism?

Inductive reasoning and the philosophy of science

I’ve just finished reading Sharon Bertsch McGrayne’s book on Bayesian statistics, The Theory That Would Not Die: How Bayes’ Rule Cracked the Enigma Code, Hunted Down Russian Submarines, and Emerged Triumphant from Two Centuries of Controversy. McGrayne presents a very interesting story of the advancement of a scientific idea over a very long period (1740s through the 1950s). As she demonstrates at length, the idea that “subjective prior beliefs” could enhance our knowledge about causation and the future was regarded as paradoxical and irrational by mathematicians and statisticians for well over a century.

McGrayne’s book does a very good job of highlighting the scientific controversies that have arisen with respect to Bayesian methods, and the book also makes a powerful case for the value of the methods in many important contemporary problems. But it isn’t very detailed about the logic and mathematics of the field. She gives a single example of applied Bayesian reasoning in appendix b, using the example of breast cancer and mammograms. This is worth reading carefully, since it makes clear how the conditional probabilities of a Bayesian calculation work.

As McGrayne demonstrates with many examples, Bayesian reasoning permits a very substantial ability to draw novel conclusions based on piecemeal observations and some provisional assumptions about mechanisms in the messy world of complex causation. Examples can be found in epidemiology (the cause of lung cancer), climate science, and ecology. And she documents how Bayesian ideas have been used to enhance search processes for missing things — for example, lost hydrogen bombs and nuclear submarines. Here is an important example of the power of Bayesian reasoning to identify causal linkages to lung cancer, including especially cigarette smoking.

In 1951 Cornfield used Bayes’ rule to help answer the puzzle. As his prior hypothesis he used the incidence of lung cancer in the general population. Then he combined that with NIH’s latest information on the prevalence of smoking among patients with and without lung cancer. Bayes’ rule provided a firm theoretical link, a bridge, if you will, between the risk of disease in the population at large and the risk of disease in a subgroup, in this case smokers. Cornfield was using Bayes as a philosophy-free mathematical statement, as a step in calculations that would yield useful results. He had not yet embraced Bayes as an all-encompassing philosophy. Cornfield’s paper stunned research epidemiologists. 

More than anything else, it helped advance the hypothesis that cigarette smoking was a cause of lung cancer. Out of necessity, but without any theoretical justification, epidemiologists had been using case studies of patients to point to possible causes of problems. Cornfield’s paper showed clearly that under certain conditions (that is, when subjects in a study were carefully matched with controls) patients’ histories could indeed help measure the strength of the link between a disease and its possible cause. Epidemiologists could estimate disease risk rates by analyzing nonexperimental clinical data gleaned from patient histories. By validating research findings arising from case-control studies, Cornfield made much of modern epidemiology possible. In 1961, for example, case-control studies would help identify the antinausea drug thalidomide as the cause of serious birth defects. (110-111)

One fairly specific thing that strikes me after reading the book concerns the blindspots that existed in the neo-positivist tradition in the philosophy of science that set the terms for the field in the 1960s and 1970s (link). This tradition is largely focused on theories and theoretical explanation, to the relative exclusion of inductive methods. It reveals an underlying predilection for the idea that scientific knowledge takes the form of hypothetico-deductive systems describing unobservables. The hypothetico-deductive model of explanation and confirmation makes a lot of sense in the context of this perspective. But after reading McGrayne I’m retrospectively surprised at the relatively low priority given within standard philosophy of science curriculum to probabilistic reasoning — either frequentist or Bayesian. Many philosophers of science have absorbed a degree of disregard for “inductive logic”, or the idea that we can discover important features of the world through careful observation and statistical analysis. The basic assumption seems to have been that statistical reasoning is boring and Humean — not really capable of discovering new things about nature or society. But in hindsight, this disregard for inductive reasoning is an odd distortion of the domain of scientific knowledge, and, in particular, of the project of sorting out causes.

Some philosophers of science have indeed given substantial attention to Bayesian reasoning. (Here is a good article on Bayesian epistemology by Bill Talbott in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy; link.) Ian Hacking’s textbook An Introduction to Probability and Inductive Logic provides a very accessible introduction to the basics of inductive logic and Bayesian reasoning, and his The Emergence of Probability: A Philosophical Study of Early Ideas about Probability, Induction and Statistical Inference provides an excellent treatment of the history of the subject from a philosophy of science point of view. Another philosopher of science who has treated Bayesian reasoning in detail is Michael Strevens. Here Strevens provides a good brief treatment of the subject from the point of view of the philosophy of science (link). And here is a first-rate unpublished manuscript by Strevens on the use of Bayesian ideas as a theory of confirmation (link). Strevens’ recent Tychomancy: Inferring Probability from Causal Structure is also relevant. And the research program on causal reasoning of Judea Pearl has led to a flourishing of Bayesian reasoning in the theory of causality (link).

What is the potential relevance of Bayesian reasoning in sociology and other areas of the social sciences? Can Bayesian reasoning lead to new insights in assessing social causation? Several features of the social world seem particularly distinctive in the context of a Bayesian approach. Bayesianism conforms very naturally to a scenario-based way of approaching the outcomes of a system or a complicated process; and it provides an elegant and rigorous way of incorporating “best guesses” (subjective probability estimates) into the analysis of a given process. Both features are well suited to the social world. One reason for this is the relatively narrow limits of frequency-based estimates of probabilities of social events. The social sciences are often concerned with single-instance events — the French Revolution, the Great Depression, the rise of ISIS. In cases like these frequency-based probabilities are not available. Second, there is the problem of causal heterogeneity in many social causal relations. If we are interested in the phenomenon of infant mortality, we are led immediately to the realization that there are multiple social factors and conditions that influence this population characteristic; so the overall infant mortality rate of Bangladesh or France is the composite effect of numerous social and demographic causes. This means that there is no single underlying causal property X, where X can be said to create differences in infant mortality rates in various countries. And this in turn implies that it is dubious to assume that there are durable objective probabilities underlying the creation of a given rate of infant mortality. This is in contrast to the situation of earthquakes or hurricanes, where a small number of physical factors are causally relevant to the occurrence of the outcome.

Both these factors suggest that subjective probabilities based on expert-based assessment of the likelihood of various scenarios represent a more plausible foundation for assigning probabilities to a given social outcome. This is the logic underlying Philip Tetlock’s approach to reliable forecasting in Superforecasting: The Art and Science of Prediction and Expert Political Judgment: How Good Is It? How Can We Know? (link). Both points suggest that Bayesian reasoning may have even more applicability in the social world than in the natural sciences.

The joining of Monte Carlo methods with Bayesian reasoning that McGrayne describes in the case of the search for the missing nuclear submarine Thresher (199 ff.) is particularly relevant to social inquiry, it would seem. This is true because of the conjunctural nature of social causation and the complexity of typical causal intersections in the social domain. Consider a forecasting problem similar to those considered by Tetlock — for example, the likelihood that Russia will attempt to occupy Latvia in the next five years. One way of analyzing this problem is to identify a handful of political scenarios moving forward from the present that lead to consideration of this policy choice by Russian leadership; assign prior probabilities to the component steps of each scenario; and calculate a large number of Monte Carlo “runs” of the scenarios, based on random assignment of values to the component steps of each of the various scenarios according to the prior probabilities assigned by the experts. Outcomes can then be classified as “Russia attempts to occupy Latvia” and “Russia does not attempt to occupy Latvia”. The number of outcomes in the first cell allows an estimate of the overall likelihood of this outcome. The logic of this exercise is exactly parallel to the calculation that McGrayne describes for assigning probabilities to geographic cells of ocean floor for the final resting spot of the submarine, given the direction and speed scenarios considered. And the Bayesian contribution of updating of priors is illuminating in this analysis as well: as experts’ judgments of the probabilities of the component steps change given new information, the overall probability of the outcome changes as well.

Here is a very simple illustration of a scenario analysis. The four stages of the scenario are:

A: NATO signals unity

B: LATVIA accepts anti-missile defense

C: US signals lack of interest

D: KREMLIN in turmoil

Here is a diagram of the scenarios, along with hypothetical “expert judgments” about the likelihoods of outcomes of the branch points:

 


This analysis leads to a forecast of an 7.8% likelihood of occupation (O1, O10, O13). And an important policy recommendation can be derived from this analysis as well: most of the risk of occupation falls on the lower half of the tree, stemming from a NATO signal of disunity. This risk can be avoided by NATO giving the signal of unity instead; then the risk of occupation falls to less than 1%.


Survey research on right-wing extremism in Europe

European research and policy organizations have devoted a fair amount of attention to the rise of extremist movements and intolerance in European countries in the past ten years. Attention has been directed towards both aspects of the problem that have been mentioned in earlier posts — rising public attitudes of intolerance, and the mobilization and spread of hate-based right-wing organizations. (The topic has also received a great deal of attention in the press — for example, in the Guardian (link), the New York Times (link), and Spiegel (link).)

One useful report is Intolerance, Prejudice and Discrimination: A European Report (link), authored by Andreas Zick, Beate Kupper, and Andreas Hovermann (Friedrich Ebert Stiftung, 2011). The study is based on survey research in eight countries (Germany, Britain, France, Netherlands, Italy, Portugal, Poland, and Hungary). Particularly interesting are the results on anti-semitism, anti-muslimism, and homophobia (56 ff.). Here are the opening paragraphs of the authors’ foreword:

Intolerance threatens the social cohesion of plural and democratic societies. It reflects the extent to which we respect or reject social, ethnic, cultural and religious minorities. It marks out those who are “strange”, “other” or “out- siders”, who are not equal, less worthy. The most visible expression of intolerance and discrimination is prejudice. Indicators of intolerance such as prejudice, anti-democratic attitudes and the prevalence of discrimination consequently represent sensitive measures of social cohesion.

Investigating intolerance, prejudice and discrimination is an important process of self-reflection for society and crucial to the protection of groups and minorities. We should also remember that intolerance towards one group is usually associated with negativity towards others. The European Union acknowledged this when it declared 1997 the European Year against Racism. In the 1997 Treaty of Amsterdam the European Union called for joint efforts to combat prejudice and discrimination experienced by groups and individuals on the basis of their ethnic features, cultural background, religion, gender, sexual orientation, age or disability. (11)

And here are a few of their central findings, based on survey research in these eight countries:

Group-focused enmity is widespread in Europe. It is weakest in the Netherlands, and strongest in Poland and Hungary. With respect to anti-immigrant attitudes, anti-Muslim attitudes and racism there are only minor differences between the countries, while differences in the extent of anti-Semitism, sexism and homophobia are much more marked. 

About half of all European respondents believe there are too many immi- grants in their country. Between 17 percent in the Netherlands and more than 70 percent in Poland believe that Jews seek to benefit from their forebears’ suffering during the Nazi era. About one third of respondents believe there is a natural hierarchy of ethnicity. Half or more condemn Islam as “a religion of intolerance”. A majority in Europe also subscribe to sexist attitudes rooted in traditional gender roles and demand that: “Women should take their role as wives and mothers more seriously.” With a figure of about one third, Dutch respondents are least likely to affirm sexist attitudes. The proportion opposing equal rights for homosexuals ranges between 17 percent in the Netherlands and 88 percent in Poland; they believe it is not good “to allow marriages between two men or two women”. (13)

These researchers find three underlying “ideological orientations” associated with these patterns of intolerance and discrimination: authoritarianism, “social dominance orientation”, and the rejection of diversity. And the factors that work against intolerance include “trust in others, the ability to forge firm friendships, contact with immigrants, and above all a positive basic attitude towards diversity” (14).

The topic of the incidence of intolerance in European countries is also the subject of research in the Eurobarometer project. Here are two Eurobarometer reports from 2008 and 2012 that attempt to measure changes in levels of discrimination and prejudice (Discrimination in the European Union, 2008; link; 2012; link). 

Also from the Friedrich Ebert Stiftung is the report Is Europe on the “Right” Path?: Right-wing extremism and right-wing populism in Europe (link). This report provides country studies of the radical right in Germany, France, Britain, Netherlands, Italy, Switzerland, Spain, Bulgaria, Poland, Hungary, Denmark, Sweden, and Norway. Here is how Britta Schellenberg undertakes to synthesize these wide-ranging findings:

Taken as a whole, the contributions in the present volume clearly illustrate the common features and differences within the radical right in Europe. Analyses of the current phenomenon of the various radical-right movements and a differentiated analysis of their origins are fundamental for considering counter-strategies. Obviously, there is no single, generally valid strategy that guarantees an optimal way of combating the radical right. In fact, strategies can be successful only if they match up to the specific political and social context and if the maximum possible number of players from politics, the legal system, the media, educational institutions and civil society are agreed upon them.

However, we can identify general requirements for strategies against right-wing extremism and xenophobia that form a framework broad enough to allow a European perspective. For concrete work in a particular place, this framework must be filled out with individual measures and activities specific to the situation and location. But for now, we shall now proceed to take a bird’s eye view and answer the basic questions as to what preconditions have to be created for maximum success in combating radical-right-wing attacks, parties and attitudes. (309)

Each country study is detailed and interesting. The France study focuses on the Front National and Jean-Marie Le Pen’s success (and later Marine Le Pen’s success) since the 1984 European election in gaining visible support and electoral success with 10% to 15% of the vote (84). The Mouvement pour la France (MPF) and its leader Philippe de Villiers also receive attention in the report. And the resurgence of skinheads and direct action neo-fascists like the “violence-prone street brawlers of the Groupe Union Defense” are discussed (89-90).

The essay develops a handful of strategies for combatting right-wing movements:

  1. A comprehensive approach: Identifying and naming problems and strategically combating the radical right
  2. Political involvement: Confront, don’t cooperate
  3. Determining the focus: Protection against discrimination, and diversity and equality
  4. Allowing civil society to develop, and strengthening civic commitment
  5. Education for democracy and human rights

The Heinrich Boll Stiftung report authored by sixteen representatives from EU countries, “How to Counter Right Wing Populism and Extremism in Europe”, summarizes current progressive thinking about how best to resist the rise of right-wing extremism (link). This document was the result of a conference held in Brussels and Antwerp in October 2015. Here are some key findings and recommendations:

  • The EU is being degraded into an enforcer of austerity measures across the continent. It is essential to restore the idea of the EU as a regional network of states that stand together in solidarity in order to promote mutual wellbeing, good living standards, tolerant societies, and democratic values that are shared by all. 
  • Furthermore it is vital to explain the local benefits of EU membership to ordinary people with a clear and understandable message. 
  • There need to be more efficient and accessible training and exchange programmes in order to decrease the distance between EU institutions and citizens. 
  • Diversity must be increased and a greater inclusiveness within EU institutions is required, with mechanisms to enable a much more accurate representation of the European population in EU institutions.
  • Progressives should be strident in defending greater global and European integration against the often empty criticisms of right-wing populists and extremists.
  • We recommend that different stakeholders collaborate with each other in a knowledge exchange in order to provide public officials with EU-wide training.
  • Establishing quotas for those who are elected as candidates, by increasing leadership in minority groups, and via private-public partnerships to help promote equality in business as well as the public sector.
  • Hate speech has to be monitored in the European Parliament by an independent body and the existing sanctions regarding hate speech need to be reviewed.
  • Social media should be used in this effort to confront the advocacy of hatred and that a dialogue should be promoted between internet providers and social media companies, examining among others the possibility of creating a new platform for non-governmental organizations and the civil society. (5-6)

Another FES study addresses the “massive challenges” faced by the EU in the context of citizens’ expectations (link). Richard Himler’s public opinion survey (2016) considers eight countries (Netherlands, Sweden, France, Germany, Slovak Republic, Spain, Italy, and the Czech Republic).

Here is a summary table based on results from all eight countries ranking the relative weight of EU priorities for EU citizens. Solving the refugee crisis dwarfs concern about other issues, though unemployment comes in as a substantial second.

Given Brexit, it is interesting to see the relative levels of dissatisfaction with EU membership in other countries as well. An average of 34% of respondents found that “disadvantages exceed advantages” in EU membership for their country, with the Czech Republic at 44% on this question and Spain at only 22%.

These are interesting survey results describing the growth of right-wing extremism in Europe. But these studies are limited in their explanatory reach. They are largely descriptive; they give a basis for assessing the dimensions of the problem in terms of population attitudes and right-wing extremist organizations. But there is little by the way of sociological analysis of the mechanisms through which these extremist attitudes and processes of activism proliferate and grow. In an upcoming post I will review some recent work on the ethnography of right-wing movements that will allow a somewhat deeper understanding of the dynamics of these movements.

Accident analysis and systems thinking

Complex socio-technical systems fail; that is, accidents occur. And it is enormously important for engineers and policy makers to have a better way of thinking about accidents than is the current protocol following an air crash, a chemical plant fire, or the release of a contaminated drug. We need to understand better what the systems and organizational causes of an accident are; even more importantly, we need to have a basis for improving the safe functioning of complex socio-technical systems by identifying better processes and better warning indicators of impending failure.

A long-term leader in the field of systems-safety thinking is Nancy Leveson, a professor of aeronautics and astronautics at MIT and the author of Safeware: System Safety and Computers (1995) and Engineering a Safer World: Systems Thinking Applied to Safety (2012). Leveson has been a particular advocate for two insights: looking at safety as a systems characteristic, and looking for the organizational and social components of safety and accidents as well as the technical event histories that are more often the focus of accident analysis. Her approach to safety and accidents involves looking at a technology system in terms of the set of controls and constraints that have been designed into the process to prevent accidents. “Accidents are seen as resulting from inadequate control or enforcement of constraints on safety-related behavior at each level of the system development and system operations control structures.” (25)

The abstract for her essay “A New Accident Model for Engineering Safety” (link) captures both points.

New technology is making fundamental changes in the etiology of accidents and is creating a need for changes in the explanatory mechanisms used. We need better and less subjective understanding of why accidents occur and how to prevent future ones. The most effective models will go beyond assigning blame and instead help engineers to learn as much as possible about all the factors involved, including those related to social and organizational structures. This paper presents a new accident model founded on basic systems theory concepts. The use of such a model provides a theoretical foundation for the introduction of unique new types of accident analysis, hazard analysis, accident prevention strategies including new approaches to designing for safety, risk assessment techniques, and approaches to designing performance monitoring and safety metrics.

The accident model she describes in this article and elsewhere is STAMP (Systems-Theoretic Accident Model and Processes). Here is a short description of the approach.

In STAMP, systems are viewed as interrelated components that are kept in a state of dynamic equilibrium by feedback loops of information and control. A system in this conceptualization is not a static design—it is a dynamic process that is continually adapting to achieve its ends and to react to changes in itself and its environment. The original design must not only enforce appropriate constraints on behavior to ensure safe operation, but the system must continue to operate safely as changes occur. The process leading up to an accident (loss event) can be described in terms of an adaptive feedback function that fails to maintain safety as performance changes over time to meet a complex set of goals and values…. 

The basic concepts in STAMP are constraints, control loops and process models, and levels of control. (12)

The other point of emphasis in Leveson’s treatment of safety is her consistent effort to include the social and organizational forms of control that are a part of the safe functioning of a complex technological system.

Event-based models are poor at representing systemic accident factors such as structural deficiencies in the organization, management deficiencies, and flaws in the safety culture of the company or industry. An accident model should encourage a broad view of accident mechanisms that expands the investigation from beyond the proximate events. (6)

She treats the organizational backdrop of the technology process in question as being a crucial component of the safe functioning of the process.

Social and organizational factors, such as structural deficiencies in the organization, flaws in the safety culture, and inadequate management decision making and control are directly represented in the model and treated as complex processes rather than simply modeling their reflection in an event chain. (26)

And she treats organizational features as another form of control system (along the lines of Jay Forrester’s early definitions of systems in Industrial Dynamics.

Modeling complex organizations or industries using system theory involves dividing them into hierarchical levels with control processes operating at the interfaces between levels (Rasmussen, 1997). Figure 4 shows a generic socio-technical control model. Each system, of course, must be modeled to reflect its specific features, but all will have a structure that is a variant on this one. (17)

Here is figure 4:

The approach embodied in the STAMP framework is that safety is a systems effect, dynamically influenced by the control systems embodied in the total process in question.

In STAMP, systems are viewed as interrelated components that are kept in a state of dynamic equilibrium by feedback loops of information and control. A system in this conceptualization is not a static design—it is a dynamic process that is continually adapting to achieve its ends and to react to changes in itself and its environment. The original design must not only enforce appropriate constraints on behavior to ensure safe operation, but the system must continue to operate safely as changes occur. The process leading up to an accident (loss event) can be described in terms of an adaptive feedback function that fails to maintain safety as performance changes over time to meet a complex set of goals and values. (12) 

And:

In systems theory, systems are viewed as hierarchical structures where each level imposes constraints on the activity of the level beneath it—that is, constraints or lack of constraints at a higher level allow or control lower-level behavior (Checkland, 1981). Control laws are constraints on the relationships between the values of system variables. Safety-related control laws or constraints therefore specify those relationships between system variables that constitute the nonhazardous system states, for example, the power must never be on when the access door is open. The control processes (including the physical design) that enforce these constraints will limit system behavior to safe changes and adaptations. (17)

Leveson’s understanding of systems theory brings along with it a strong conception of “emergence”. She argues that higher levels of systems possess properties that cannot be reduced to the properties of the components, and that safety is one such property:

In systems theory, complex systems are modeled as a hierarchy of levels of organization, each more complex than the one below, where a level is characterized by having emergent or irreducible properties. Hierarchy theory deals with the fundamental differences between one level of complexity and another. Its ultimate aim is to explain the relationships between different levels: what generates the levels, what separates them, and what links them. Emergent properties associated with a set of components at one level in a hierarchy are related to constraints upon the degree of freedom of those components. (11)

But her understanding of “irreducible” seems to be different from that commonly used in the philosophy of science. She does in fact believe that these higher-level properties can be explained by the system of properties at the lower levels — for example, in this passage she asks “… what generates the levels” and how the emergent properties are “related to constraints” imposed on the lower levels. In other words, her position seems to be similar to that advanced by Dave Elder-Vass (link): emergent properties are properties at a higher level that are not possessed by the components, but which depend upon the interactions and composition of the lower-level components.

The domain of safety engineering and accident analysis seems like a particularly suitable place for Bayesian analysis. It seems unavoidable that accident analysis involves both frequency-based probabilities (e.g. the frequency of pump failure) and expert-based estimates of the likelihood of a particular kind of failure (e.g. the likelihood that a train operator will slacken attention to track warnings in response to company pressure on timetable). Bayesian techniques are suitable for the task of combining these various kinds of estimates of risk into a unified calculation.

The topic of safety and accidents is particularly relevant to Understanding Society because it expresses very clearly the causal complexity of the social world in which we live. And rather than simply ignoring that complexity, the systematic study of accidents gives us an avenue for arriving at better ways of representing, modeling, and intervening in parts of that complex world.

 

Ideologies and organizations as causes of political extremism

In a recent post I addressed the issue of the rise of mass intolerance and hate from the point of view of the public — the processes through which sizable numbers of members of society come to be more intolerant in their attitudes and behaviors. This involves looking at the problem as being analogous to epidemiology — the contagion through a population of the social psychology of hate and intolerance.

 
But this is only a part of the story. Right-wing political movements are fueled by ideologies and organizations, and when they come to power their success is at least partially attributable to these higher-level social factors. A movement can’t succeed without gaining grassroots followers, to be sure. But it may be that the authoritarian and racist politics of a movement derive more from the higher-level factors of ideology and organization than the retail racism and social psychology of the populace. 
 
This is the heart of the approach taken by Fritz Stern in The Politics of Cultural Despair: A Study in the Rise of the Germanic Ideology, where he gives a careful and detailed accounting of the philosophies and mental frameworks that underlay the progress of reactionary and racist parties in Germany (link). It is also the approach taken by Janek Wasserman in Black Vienna: The Radical Right in the Red City, 1918-1938, where the ideas of conservative religious dogmas, anti-semitism, and a hatred of modern secularism fueled the rise of Austrofascism. Wasserman gives little attention to the street-level politics of the struggles and mobilizations of left and right in Austria (unlike Arthur Koestler’s gritty accounts of the mobilizations and street fighting of communists and fascists in Berlin; link).
 
If we look at the problem from this point of view, then the rise of right-wing extremist movements needs to be analyzed in terms of the ideologies that lead them and the organizations through which they attempt to bring about their political ends. In the United States the ideology of the right has a number of leading values: religious fundamentalism, nativism, anti-government and anti-tax rhetoric, free market fundamentalism, suspicion, homophobia, and cultural conservativism. And these threads have been woven together into powerful and motivating narratives of American history and the political choices the country faces for tens of millions of Americans. 
 
In this light the writings of Richard Hofstadter, discussed in an earlier post, are quite important. Hofstadter traces the specifics of a fairly distinctive conservative ideology in the United States, a worldview of society and politics that has persisted in the organs of public expression — newspapers, activists, professors, clergy — over a very long time. And these tropes in turn find expression in the activism and mobilization of extremist groups like the armed groups who took over the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge last winter. These ideological strands become currents of extremist values around which individual entrepreneurs organize their appeals to potential followers. (Many of these themes are finding expression on the convention stage in Cleveland this week.)
It is a very interesting question to consider how mass consciousness in a population maintains a “folk” political philosophy over generations. How have American nativism and mistrust of government been sustained in the populace since 1900? Why does anti-semitism persist so strongly in some European countries where the Holocaust left almost no Jewish residents at all? What are the mechanisms of transmission and reproduction that make this possible? To what extent is this an organic process of popular transmission, and to what extent is it the result of ongoing ideological struggles? It is clear that ideologies have institutional embodiments. And it is an important task for political sociology to map out the ways these institutions work. Obviously newspapers, media, religious centers, and universities play key roles in the transmission of political frameworks to new generations of citizens; and the influence of family traditions and daily discussions of current events play a crucial role in the transmission of values and frameworks as well.
The organizations of the right include a range of configurations of groups in civil society — right-wing political parties, religious organizations, anti-government groups, and cause-based organizations (anti-gay marriage, pro-gun groups, business advocacy groups, conservative student organizations). The hate groups tracked by the SPLC are the extreme fringe of this world. These kinds of organizations do their best to frame political choices and antagonisms around their core ideological tropes, and they do everything possible to stir up the emotions and angers of their followers and potential followers around these values.

Ideologies and organizations are clearly intertwined. Organizations have purposive agendas; and one important mechanism for furthering their agendas is to influence the content and nature of prominent expressions of social worldviews. So funneling cash into right-leaning think tanks, enhancing the visibility and credibility of their spokesmen, and turning up the volume on extreme right-wing media outlets are all understandable strategies of ideological conflict. (Naomi Oreskes’ and Eric Conway’s important book Merchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming documents these strategies in the case of climate science; link.) But likewise, the currency of a bundle of ideological beliefs and values in a part of the population is a huge boost for the ability of an organization to finance itself, draw followers, and exercise influence.

So we can look at the rise of large social movements, including those based on hate and suspicion, from two complementary perspectives. We can consider the micro-level processes through which beliefs and activism spread through a population, and we can look at the higher-level factors of ideology and organization within which these political processes unfold. In reality, of course, the kinds of causation involved in both levels are always involved in political transformation, and it may not be productive to try to sort out which level has greater causal importance.

Making sense of ISA 2016

 

The International Sociological Association hosted its third major forum in Vienna this month. (ISA forums are organized every four years; previous forums took place in Buenos Aires and Barcelona.) Nearly five thousand sociologists (and researchers in cognate disciplines) came together from countries all over the world, contributing to over 700 sessions in five days. So one might look at this as a great opportunity for distilling a map of the topics that are the most urgent for social researchers in many countries today. The program provides a first-hand exposure to a point Gabriel Abend makes about national differences in the practice of sociology (link); attendance at multiple sessions makes it apparent that there are substantial differences in topics, methods, and vocabularies across national and cultural research communities in sociology.

 
There are 56 research committees represented in the ISA, and most of the five-day program was put together by these research groups. An overall theme of global crisis emerges from the gestalt of panels and papers — refugees, radicalization, international terrorism, racial conflict, and environmental collapse, along with the conviction that public sociology can help lead to a better world. Topics of aging, youth, the body, race, and protest are also prominent. There are relatively few quantitative research projects on display. (It would be interesting to compare the frequencies of papers using qualitative, comparative, and quantitative methods at this conference to that found at the ASA.)
 
It would be fascinating to see a network graph of citation clusters or keywords from the full list of papers to identify central topics. (The 829-page PDF book of abstracts might allow for some initial topic analysis along these lines.) What methods emerges as particularly compelling? What theoretical approaches and concepts are favored?
 
The demographics of attendance would also be very interesting to study. What countries are represented? What is the gender composition of the attendees and panelists? What about age and rank in the profession? The ISA has provided a country breakdown for previous forums; I assume it will do so after the close of this event as well. Perhaps most difficult to assess, why did these individuals choose to participate? Is there a sense of deep engagement in a set of intellectual issues in the disciplines? Or is the dominant motivation one of career competition and progress?  It would have been very interesting if ISA had organized an “ethnographic corps” of volunteers who did short interviews with attendees to learn a little more about their interests and reasons for attending. 
 
My non-scientific impression, based on assessing the audiences in several small sessions and a large common session, is that the attendance is skewed to a younger set of scholars, relative to attendance at the ASA. There are a good number of senior scholars (>60 years), but this segment seems to be less than 15% of a typical audience. In sessions I have attended the gender ratio is about 2:1 male:female and sometimes much more skewed. The age distribution of panel participants is more difficult to assess, but my impression is that panel participants tend to be more senior than the audiences. Gender representation among speakers appears to be substantially lower than the 33% female audience would suggest.

Studying this extensive conference in sociology seems like a good topic for investigation by researchers in the new sociology of ideas (link). I’m sure that Neil Gross, Michelle Lamont, or Andrew Abbott would have dozens of interesting questions to pose about this assemblage of the field of sociology in the process of renewing itself (as of course every discipline does on a continuing basis). The concept of “field” is particularly relevant here; many of the topic areas are actively engaged in contesting the various fields and institutions that constitute the sociology knowledge industry today. And of course the disastrous state of the academic marketplace in almost all of European universities is relevant; young scholars face almost impossible odds in seeking continuing faculty positions in their fields of expertise.

 

In my view this forum has accomplished a lot of what we would want from an academic convening. Important topics were discussed with seriousness, and new ideas were shared with a world-wide audience of mostly younger scholars. At a time when anti-intellectualism seems to be at a high, ISA makes a strong case for the vitality of sociology and the likelihood that research in the disciplines of the social sciences can actually make a difference in achieving a better future. 

 

Elias on figurational sociology

 
 
 

A premise shared by all actor-centered versions of sociology is that individuals and their actions are the rock-bottom level of the social world. Every other social fact derives from facts at this level. Norbert Elias raises a strong and credible challenge to this ontological assumption in his work, offering a view of social action that makes “figurations” of actors just as real as individual actors themselves. By figuration he means something like an interlocking set of individuals whose actions are a fluid series of reactions to and expectations about others. Figurations include both conflict and cooperation. And he is insistent that figurations cannot be reduced to the sum of a collection of independent actors and their choices. “Imagine the interlocking of the plans and actions, not of two, but of two thousand or two million interdependent players. The ongoing process which one encounters in this case does not take place independently of individual people whose plans and actions keep it going. Yet it has a structure and demands an explanation sui generis. It cannot be explained in terms of the ‘ideas’ or the ‘actions’ of individual people” (52). So good sociology needs to pay attention to figurations, not just individuals and their mental states.

Elias’s most vivid illustration of what he means by a figuration comes from his reflections on the game of soccer and the flow of action across two teams and twenty-two individual players over extended episodes of play. These arguments constitute the primary topic of volume 7 of his collected writings, Elias and Dunning, Quest for Excitement: Sport and Leisure in the Civilising Process. (This is particularly relevant at a time when millions of people are viewing the Euro Cup.)

The observation of an ongoing game of football can be of considerable help as an introduction to the understanding of such terms as interlocking plans and actions. Each team may have planned its strategy in accordance with the knowledge of their own and their opponents’ skills and foibles. However, as the game proceeds, it often produces constellations which were not intended or foreseen by either side. In fact, the flowing pattern formed by players and ball in a football game can serve as a graphic illustration not only of the concept of ‘figurations’ but also of that of ‘social process’.

The game-process is precisely that, a flowing figuration of human beings whose actions and experiences continuously interlock, a social process in miniature. One of the most instructive aspects of the fast-changing pattern of a football game is the fact that this pattern is formed by the moving players of both sides.

If one concentrated one’s attention only on the activities of the players of one team and turned a blind eye to the activities of the other, one could not follow the game. The actions and experiences of the members of the team which one tried to observe in isolation and independently of the actions and perceptions of the other would remain incomprehensible. In an ongoing game, the two teams form with each other a single figuration. It requires a capacity for distancing oneself from the game to recognize that the actions of each side constantly interlock with those of their opponents and thus that the two opposing sides form a single figuration. So do antagonistic states. Social processes are often uncontrollable because they are fuelled by enmity. Partisanship for one side or another can easily blur that fact. (51-52; italics mine)

Here is a more theoretical formulation from Elias, from “Dynamics of sports groups” in the same volume.

Let us start with the concept of ‘figuration’. It has already been said that a game is the changing figuration of the players on the field. This means that the figuration is not only an aspect of the players. It is not as one sometimes seems to believe if one uses related expressions such as ‘social pattern’, ‘social group’, or ‘society’, something abstracted from individual people. Figurations are formed by individuals, as it were ‘body and soul’. If one watches the players standing and moving on the field in constant inter-dependence, one can actually see them forcing a continuously changing figuration. If groups or societies are large, one usually cannot see the figurations their individual members form with one another. Nevertheless, in these cases too people form figurations with each other — a city, a church, a political party, a state — which are no less real than the one formed by players on a football field, even though one cannot take them in at a glance.

 

 

 

To envisage groupings of people as figurations in this sense, with their dynamics, their problems of tension and of tension control and many others, even though one cannot see them here and now, requires a specific training. This is one of the tasks of figurational sociology, of which the present essay is an example. At present, a good deal of uncertainty still exists with regard to the nature of that phenomenon to which one refers as ‘society’. Sociological theories often appear to start from the assumption that ‘groups’ or ‘societies’, and ‘social phenomean’ in general, are something abstracted from individual people, or at least that they are not quite as ‘real’ as individuals, whatever that may mean. The game of football — as a small-scale model — can help to correct this view. It shows that figurations of individuals are neither more nor less real than the individuals who form them. Figurational sociology is based on observations such as this. In contrast to sociological theories which treat societies as if they were mere names, an ‘ideal type’, a sociologist’s construction, and which are in that sense representative of sociological nominalism, it represents a sociological realism. Individuals always come in figurations and figurations are always formed by individuals. (199)

This ontological position converges closely with the “relational” view of social action advocated by the new pragmatists as well as Chuck Tilly. The pragmatists’ idea that individual actions derive from the flow of opportunities and reactions instigated by the movements of others is particularly relevant. But Elias’s view also seems to have some resonance with the idea of methodological localism as well: “individuals in local social interactions are the molecule of the social world.”

 
What seems correct here is an insight into the “descriptive ontology” of the social world. Elias credibly establishes the fact of entangled, flowing patterns of action by individuals during an episode, and makes it credible that these collective patterns don’t derive fully in any direct way from the individual intentions of the participants. “Figurations are just as real as individuals.” So the sociologist’s ontology needs to include figurations. Moreover the insight seems to cast doubt as well on the analytical sociologists’ strategy of “dissection”. These points suggest that Elias provides a basis for a critique of ontological individualism. And Elias can be understood as calling for more realism in sociological description. 
What this analysis does not provide is any hint about how to use this idea in constructing explanations of larger-scale social outcomes or patterns. Are we forced to stop with the discovery of a set of figurations in play in a given social occurrence? Are we unable to provide any underlying explanation of the emergence of the figuration itself? Answers to these questions are not clear in Elias’s text. And yet this is after all the purpose of explanatory sociology.

It is also not completely convincing to me that the figurations described by Elias could not be derived through something like an agent-based simulation. The derivation of flocking and swarming behavior in fish and birds seems to be exactly this — a generative account of the emergence of a collective phenomenon (figuration) from assumptions about the decision-making of the individuals. So it seems possible that we might look at Elias’s position as seeing a challenge to actor-based sociology that now can be addressed rather than a refutation. 

 
In this sense it appears that figurational sociology is in the same position as various versions of microsociology considered elsewhere (e.g. Goffman): it identifies a theoretical lacuna in rational choice theory and thin theories of the actor, but it does not provide recommendations for how to proceed with a more adequate explanatory theory.

(Recall the earlier discussion on non-generative social facts and ontological individualism; link. That post makes a related argument for the existence of social facts that cannot be derived from facts about the individual actors involved. In each case the problem derives from the highly path-dependent nature of social outcomes.)

Karl Polanyi as a critical realist?

In The Power of Market Fundamentalism: Karl Polanyi’s Critique Fred Block and Peggy
Somers focus on a phrase that Karl Polanyi uses in The Great Transformation: The Political and Economic Origins of Our Time, the idea of treating society as “real”. They address this issue in the final chapter of the book. (This is in the context, it should be noted, of their conclusion that Polanyi was fundamentally a “failed prophet” — the transformation that he expected in the next fifty years of market society following World War II has not in fact materialized.) What does this idea refer to in Polanyi’s thinking?

In the end, Polanyi is asking us to accept that we live in complex societies, the essence of which is the interdependence of persons and institutions. No person or action or institution is autonomous; every institutional movement or seemingly personal action will have consequences, often unknown, for people close and far…. A new public philosophy must be build from this foundational commitment to the reality of a complex and interdependent society. (227) 

To see the world as it is in reality, not as we might like it to be in the logic of economic thought, is for Polanyi the only way to fashion public and social policies on moral and ethical foundations. (228)

Block and Somers are insistent that “free market ideology” is very far from “realistic”. The arrangements of a “free market” are by no means self-reinforcing; they require powerful institutions to stabilize them. And markets require powerful states — governmental action — to preserve their existential prerequisites. So free market ideology and economic liberalism are not realistic from a sociological point of view.

So what is the “reality of society”, in Polanyi’s meaning? For Block and Somers, Polanyi’s realism is directly related to his distinction between formalism and substantivism. Formalists look at the social world as a pure market environment in which rational egoists seek to maximize utility, and neo-classical economics is the science of this realm. But Polanyi believes this is a fiction, and that real human beings are always embedded in concrete social, cultural, and ideational relations with each other. This is the “substantivist” view of the social world. When Polanyi refers to the “real” social world he is referring to this substantive, concrete set of relations. And it is the work of social scientists, historians, and ethnographers to map out the details of these relations in a particular social historical setting.

So the vision of the pure marketplace is a fantasy or a utopia, according to Polanyi. The real social world is constituted by normative and material relations between real human beings.

One feature of this substantive reality, in Polanyi’s view, is recognition of the unavoidable interdependence of human beings in all social settings. Once again, reality is poised in contrast to fantasy — now the fantasy of the wholly independent autonomous economic individual. Rather, real individuals are embedded in concrete social relations with each other that constrain and guide their actions.

So reality for Polanyi stands in direct opposition to the abstract social theory of economic liberalism, or what Block and Somers call “market fundamentalism”.

Peggy Somers is an advocate of critical realism for sociology (link). Is Polanyi any kind of critical realist, on this interpretation of what he means by “real society”? There are certain affinities, to be sure. Like Bhaskar, he affirms that the social world possesses real structures and relations, and that these structures wield influence on individuals and outcomes. In Bhaskar’s terms, they possess causal powers. And, like Bhaskar, he gives credence to some of Marx’s basic social categories.

But there are contrasts as well. His theory is not at all philosophical or ontological — in fact, Bhaskar might describe it as empiricist, given Polanyi’s view that the real properties of the social world are amenable to direct empirical investigation. (That is my own view as well.) Perhaps the strongest affinity with critical realism is Polanyi’s conviction that a realistic understanding of the social world brings with it a definite normative stance and program for progress — realism and human emancipation.

Here is an important statement of Polanyi’s views of social change:

Nowhere has liberal philosophy failed so conspicuously as in its understanding of the problem of change. Fired by an emotional faith in spontaneity, the common-sense attitude toward change was discarded in favor of a mystical readiness to accept the social consequences of economic improvement, whatever they might be. The elementary truths of political science and statecraft were first discredited then forgotten. It should need no elaboration that a process of undirected change, the pace of which is deemed too fast, should be slowed down, if possible, so as to safeguard the welfare of the community. Such household truths of traditional statesmanship, often merely reflecting the teachings of a social philosophy inherited from the ancients, were in the nineteenth century erased from the thoughts of the educated by the corrosive of a crude utilitarianism combined with an uncritical reliance on the alleged self-healing virtues of unconscious growth. (35)

This passage clearly advocates taking change in hand and shaping it to the needs of ordinary people, not simply accepting the fatalism of economic necessity. And this perhaps has relevance for today’s hot debates over globalization, from Bernie to Donald to Brexit. Here is Polanyi’s treatment of the enclosure acts:

Enclosures have appropriately been called a revolution of the rich against the poor. The lords and nobles were upsetting the social order, breaking down ancient law and custom, sometimes by means of violence, often by pressure and intimidation. They were literally robbing the poor of their share in the common, tearing down the houses which, by the hitherto unbreakable force of custom, the poor had long regarded as theirs and their heirs’. The fabric of society was being disrupted; desolate villages and the ruins of human dwellings testified to the fierceness with which the revolution raged, endangering the defences of the country, wasting its towns, decimating its population, turning its overburdened soil into dust, harassing its people and turning them from decent husbandmen into a mob of beggars and thieves. Though this happened only in patches, the black spots threatened to melt into a uniform catastrophe. The King and his Council, the Chancellors, and the Bishops were defending the welfare of the community and, indeed, the human and natural substance of society against this scourge. With hardly any intermittence, for a century and a half—from the 1490s, at the latest, to the 1640s they struggled against depopulation. Lord Protector Somerset lost his life at the hands of the counterrevolution which wiped the enclosure laws from the statute book and established the dictatorship of the grazier lords, after Kett’s Rebellion was defeated with several thousand peasants slaughtered in the process. Somerset was accused, and not without truth, of having given encouragement to the rebellious peasants by his denunciation of enclosures. (37)

Polanyi’s realism has substantial implications for social policy and reform. If interdependence and reciprocity are real and permanent features of the social world, if a pure self-regulating market society is a plain fiction, then some programs for social change make a lot more sense than others. Social democracy, in particular, appears to be an almost unavoidable choice. (Or rather, the old opposition of “socialism or barbarism” seems like an unavoidable historical necessity. This is the thrust of Polanyi’s anti-fascism.

It is interesting to recall that the brother of Karl Polanyi, Michael, was an anti-empiricist philosopher of science. Michael Polanyi’s book Personal Knowledge: Towards a Post-Critical Philosophy amounted to a sustained critique of simple empiricist theories of social knowledge (link).

Complementarity of thick and thin theories of the actor

There is a range of approaches to the social sciences that fall under the umbrella of “actor-centered” theories (link). The chief fissure among these theories is that between “thin” and “thick” theories of the actor — theories which provide less or more detail about the mental frameworks and beliefs of the actors being described. The extremes of the two types of theories range from pure rational choice theory to social psychology and ethnography. The two types of theories have complementary strengths and weaknesses. Thin theories, including especially rational choice theory and game theory, make use of a particularly sparse theory of the actor’s decision framework. This approach provides a basis for representing the motives and decisions of actors that can be readily incorporated into powerful techniques of simulation and calculation. Thick theories, including pragmatist and ethnomethodological theories, offer a basis for investigating particular social settings of action in detail, and they provide an in-depth basis for explaining and understanding the choices, judgments, and behavior of the individuals they study. But thick theories are not so readily incorporated into simulation models, precisely because they do not provide abstract, general characterizations of the individual’s action framework.

These comments make the contrast sound like a familiar set of oppositions: nomothetic explanation versus idiographic interpretation; causal explanation versus hermeneutic interpretation. And this in turn suggests that rational choice theory will be good at arriving at generalizations, whereas pragmatist and ethnographic theories will be good at providing satisfying interpretations of the actions of individuals in concrete social and historical circumstances, but not particularly good at providing a basis for general explanations.

The situation is not quite so binary as this suggests, however. A central tool for actor-centered research is set of simulation techniques falling under the rubric of agent-based models. To date ABMs have tended to use thin theories of the actor to represent the players in the simulation. However, it is entirely possible for agent-based models to incorporate substantially greater levels of specificity and granularity about the action frameworks of the individuals in specific circumstances. An ABM can introduce different kinds of agents into a simulation, each of which embodies a specific set of beliefs and modes of reasoning. And it can be argued that this increase in granularity provides a basis for a better simulation of complex social processes involving heterogeneous kinds of actors.

For example, a simulation of the political appeal of a nationalistic politician like Donald Trump may benefit by segmenting the electorate into different categories of voters: white nationalists, aging blue-collar workers, anti-globalization young people, …. And the model should represent the fact that actors in these various segments have substantially different ways of making political judgments and actions. So ABM simulations can indeed benefit from greater “thickness” of assumptions about agents. (This was illustrated in the discussion of the Epstein rebellion model earlier; link.)

On the other hand, it is possible to use RCT and DBO theories to illuminate historically particular instances of action — for example, the analysis of historically situated collective action along the lines of Margaret Levi’s review in “Reconsiderations of Rational Choice in Comparative and Political Analysis” (link). These theories can be applied to specific social circumstances and can provide convincing and satisfying interpretations of the reasoning and actions of the agents who are involved. So narrative explanations of social outcomes can be constructed using both thick and thin assumptions about the actors.

Moreover, the explanatory strength of thick theories is not limited to the degree to which they can be incorporated into formal simulations — what can be referred to as “aggregation dynamics”. It is clear that real explanations of important phenomena emerge from research by sociologists like Michele Lamont in Money, Morals, and Manners: The Culture of the French and the American Upper-Middle Class (link), Al Young in The Minds of Marginalized Black Men: Making Sense of Mobility, Opportunity, and Future Life Chances (link), and Erving Goffman in Behavior in Public Places: Notes on the Social Organization of Gatherings (link). We understand better the dynamics of the French professional classes, inner city neighborhoods, and asylums when we read the detailed and rigorous treatments that micro-sociologists provide of these social settings.

What this suggests is that analytical sociology would be well advised to embrace pluralism when it comes to theories of the actor and methods of application of actor-based research. Thick and thin are not logical contraries, but rather complementary ways of analyzing and explaining the social worlds we inhabit.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 123 other followers

%d bloggers like this: