Designing and managing large technologies

What is involved in designing, implementing, coordinating, and managing the deployment of a large new technology system in a real social, political, and organizational environment? Here I am thinking of projects like the development of the SAGE early warning system, the Affordable Care Act, or the introduction of nuclear power into the civilian power industry.

Tom Hughes described several such projects in Rescuing Prometheus: Four Monumental Projects That Changed the Modern World. Here is how he describes his focus in that book:

Telling the story of this ongoing creation since 1945 carries us into a human-built world far more complex than that populated earlier by heroic inventors such as Thomas Edison and by firms such as the Ford Motor Company. Post-World War II cultural history of technology and science introduces us to system builders and the military-industrial-university complex. Our focus will be on massive research and development projects rather than on the invention and development of individual machines, devices, and processes. In short, we shall be dealing with collective creative endeavors that have produced the communications, information, transportation, and defense systems that structure our world and shape the way we live our lives. (kl 76)

The emphasis here is on size, complexity, and multi-dimensionality. The projects that Hughes describes include the SAGE air defense system, the Atlas ICBM, Boston’s Central Artery/Tunnel project, and the development of ARPANET. Here is an encapsulated description of the SAGE process:

The history of the SAGE Project contains a number of features that became commonplace in the development of large-scale technologies. Transdisciplinary committees, summer study groups, mission-oriented laboratories, government agencies, private corporations, and systems-engineering organizations were involved in the creation of SAGE. More than providing an example of system building from heterogeneous technical and organizational components, the project showed the world how a digital computer could function as a real-time information-processing center for a complex command and control system. SAGE demonstrated that computers could be more than arithmetic calculators, that they could function as automated control centers for industrial as well as military processes. (kl 285)

Mega-projects like these require coordinated efforts in multiple areas — technical and engineering challenges, business and financial issues, regulatory issues, and numerous other areas where innovation, discovery, and implementation are required. In order to be successful, the organization needs to make realistic judgments about questions for which there can be no certainty — the future development of technology, the needs and preferences of future businesses and consumers, and the pricing structure that will exist for the goods and services of the industry in the future. And because circumstances change over time, the process needs to be able to adapt to important new elements in the planning environment.

There are multiple dimensions of projects like these. There is the problem of establishing the fundamental specifications of the project — capacity, quality, functionality. There is the problem of coordinating the efforts of a very large team of geographically dispersed scientists and engineers, whose work is deployed across various parts of the problem. There is the problem of fitting the cost and scope of the project into the budgetary envelope that exists for it. And there is the problem of adapting to changing circumstances during the period of development and implementation — new technology choices, new economic circumstances, significant changes in demand or social need for the product, large shifts in the costs of inputs into the technology. Obstacles in any of these diverse areas can lead to impairment or failure of the project.

Most of the cases mentioned here involve engineering projects sponsored by the government or the military. And the complexities of these cases are instructive. But there are equally complex cases that are implemented in a private corporate environment — for example, the development of next-generation space vehicles by SpaceX. And the same issues of planning, coordination, and oversight arise in the private sector as well.

The most obvious thing to note in projects like these — and many other contemporary projects of similar scope — is that they require large teams of people with widely different areas of expertise and an ability to collaborate across disciplines. So a key part of leadership and management is to solve the problem of securing coordination around an overall plan across the numerous groups; updating plans in face of changing circumstances; and ensuring that the work products of the several groups are compatible with each other. Moreover, there is the perennial challenge of creating arrangements and incentives in the work environment — laboratory, design office, budget division, logistics planning — that stimulate the participants to high-level creativity and achievement.

This topic is of interest for practical reasons — as a society we need to be confident in the effectiveness and responsiveness of the planning and development that goes into large projects like these. But it is also of interest for a deeper reason: the challenge of attributing rational planning and action to a very large and distributed organization at all. When an individual scientist or engineer leads a laboratory focused on a particular set of research problems, it is possible for that individual (with assistance from the program and lab managers hired for the effort) to keep the important scientific and logistical details in mind. It is an individual effort. But the projects described here are sufficiently complex that there is no individual leader who has the whole plan in mind. Instead, the “organizational intentionality” is embodied in the working committees, communications processes, and assessment mechanisms that have been established.

It is interesting to consider how students, both undergraduate and graduate, can come to have a better appreciation of the organizational challenges raised by large projects like these. Almost by definition, study of these problem areas in a traditional university curriculum proceeds from the point of view of a specialized discipline — accounting, electrical engineering, environmental policy. But the view provided from a discipline is insufficient to give the student a rich understanding of the complexity of the real-world problems associated with projects like these. It is tempting to think that advanced courses for engineering and management students could be devised making extensive use of detailed case studies as well as simulation tools that would allow students to gain a more adequate understanding of what is needed to organize and implement a large new system. And interestingly enough, this is a place where the skills of humanists and social scientists are perhaps even more essential than the expertise of technology and management specialists. Historians and sociologists have a great deal to add to a student’s understanding of these complex, messy processes.

Ideologies, policies, and social complexity

 

The approach to social and historical research that I favor is one that pays attention to the heterogeneity and contingency of social processes. It advises that social and historical researchers should disaggregate the large patterns they start with and try to identify the multiple underlying mechanisms, causes, motivations, movements, and contingencies that came together to create higher-level outcomes. Social research needs to focus on the micro- or meso-level processes that combined to create the macro world that interests us. The theory of assemblages fits this intellectual standpoint very well, since it emphasizes contingency and heterogeneity all the way down. The diagram above was chosen to give a visual impression of the complexity and interconnectedness of factors and causes that are associated with this approach to the social world.

According to the premises of this approach, we are not well served by imagining that there are simple, largescale forces that drive the outcomes in history. Examples of efforts at overly simplified explanations like these include:

  • Onerous conditions of the Treaty of Versailles caused the collapse of the Weimar Republic.
  • The Chinese Revolution succeeded because of post-Qing exploitation of the peasants.
  • The Industrial Revolution occurred in England because of the vitality of English science.

Instead, each of these large outcomes is the result of a large number of underlying processes, motivations, social movements, and contingencies that defy simple summary. To understand the Mediterranean world over the sweep of time, we need the detailed and granular research of a Fernand Braudel rather than the simplified ideas of Johann Heinrich von Thunen in the economic geography of central place theory.

In situations of this degree of underlying complexity, it is pointless to ask for a simple answer to the question, “what caused outcome X?” So the Great Depression wasn’t the outcome of capital’s search for profits; it was instead the complex product of interacting forms of private business activity, financial institutions, government action, legislation, war, and multiple other forces that conjoined to create a massive and persistent economic depression.

This approach has solid intellectual and ontological foundations. This is pretty much how the social world works. But this ontological vision about the nature of the social world is hard to reconcile with the large intellectual frameworks on the left and on the right that are used to diagnose our times and sometimes to prescribe solutions to the problems identified.

An ideologue is a thinker who seeks to subsume the sweep of history or current events under an overarching narrative with simple explanatory premises and interpretive schemes. The ideologue wants to portray history as the unfolding of a simple set of forces or drivers — whether markets, classes, divine purposes, or philosophies. And the ideologue is eager to force the facts into the terms of the narrative, and to erase inconvenient facts that appear to conflict with the narrative.

Consider Lenin, von Hayek, and Ronald Reagan. Each had a simplified mental framework that postulated a set of ideas about how the world worked. For Lenin it was expressed in a few paragraphs about class, the economic structure of capitalism, and the direction of history. For von Hayek it was the idea that free economic activity within idealized markets lead to the best possible outcomes for the whole of society. For Reagan it was a combination of von Hayek and the simplified notions of realpolitik associated with Kennan, Morgenthau, or Kissinger.

There are two problems for these kinds of approaches to understanding the social world. First is the indifference ideologues express to the role of facts and empirical validation in their thinking. This is an epistemic shortcoming. But second, and equally problematic, is their insistence on representing the social world as a fundamentally simple process, with a few driving forces whose impact can be forecast. This is an ontological shortcoming. The social world is not simple, and there are not a small number of dominant forces whose effects overshadow the myriad of other socially relevant processes and events that make up a given situation.

Ideologues are insidious for serious historians, since they denigrate careful efforts to discover how various events actually unfolded, in favor of the demands of a particular interpretation of history. It is not possible to gain adequate or insightful historical knowledge from within the framework of a rigid and dogmatic ideology. But even more harmful are policy makers driven by ideologies. An ideological policy maker is an actor who takes the simplistic assumptions of an ideology and attempts to formulate policy interventions based on those assumptions. Ideology-based policies are harmful, of course, because the world has its own properties independent from our theories, and interventions based on false hypotheses about how the world works are unlikely to bring about their intended results. Policies need to be driven by theories that are fact-based and approximately true. And policy makers and officials need to be rejected when they flout science and fact-based inquiry in favor of pet theories and ideologies.

A hard question that this line of thought poses and that I have not addressed here is whether policies can be formulated at all within the context of a fundamentally heterogeneous and contingent world. It might be argued that policy formation requires fairly simple cause-and-effect relationships in order to justify the idea of an intervention; and complexity makes it unlikely that such relationships exist. I believe policies can be formulated within this ontological framework; but I agree that the case must be made. A few earlier posts are relevant to this topic (link, linklink, link, link).

SSHA 2017 Call for Papers


SSHA CALL FOR PAPERS
Macrohistorical Dynamics Network
42nd Annual Meeting of the Social Science History Association
Montréal, Québec Canada


 2-5 November 2017
Submission Deadline: 3 March 2017

Changing Social Connections in Time and Space
 
Please consider participation in Macrohistorical Dynamics (MHD) panels of the 42nd annual meeting of the Social Science History Association, November 2-5, 2017 in Montréal For more information on the meeting as well as the call for proposals, please refer to the SSHA website at www.ssha.org. Here is the SSHA call for proposals (link).

The deadline for paper and/or panel submissions is March 3, 2017.
 
In recognition of Canada’s policy of official bilingualism, SSHA will accept paper presentations in either English or French for our meeting in Montreal. Sessions may be monolingual English, monolingual French, or bilingual English/French. Session organizers must clearly indicate which language(s) will be spoken at their session, and paper submitters must indicate if their paper will be delivered in French. All paper abstracts must be submitted with an English version, regardless of the language in which the paper will be presented. Please contact the Program Committee co-chair Barry Eidlin (barry.eidlin@mcgill.ca) with any questions regarding conference language policies.
 
The thematic topic of the annual meeting is “Changing Social Connections in Time and Space” – a theme that works very well with the research interests of many of the scholars involved in the Macrohistorical Dynamics network.

Macrohistorical Dynamics (MHD) is an interdisciplinary social science research field that focuses on problems of large-scale, comparative historical inquiry. Contributors to the field have brought perspective on a wide variety of problem areas, including macro- and historical sociology; comparative histories; world history; world-system analysis; comparative study of civilizations; philosophy of history; and studies of long-term socio-ecological, technological, demographic, cultural, and political trends and transformations.  The Macrohistorical Dynamics network brings a rigorous perspective to bear on questions having to do with “large” history.

The list of MHD panel themes for 2017 is open, and we encourage you to submit proposals for panel themes or individual paper topics.

The MHD network will be able to host at least six panels in 2017 and will also be able to place additional papers through co-sponsorship with other networks (for example, with History/Methods, Politics, Culture, State-Society, Historical Geography, etc.).

SSHA requests that submissions be made by means of its web conference management system. Paper title, brief abstract, and contact information should be submitted on the site http://www.ssha.org, where the general SSHA 2017 call for papers is also available.  (If you haven’t used the system previously you will need to create an account, which is a very simple process.)  The direct link for submissions is now open for submissions (link). 

 
NOTE: There is an SSHA rule concerning book sessions.  For a book session to proceed, the author (or at least one of multiple authors) MUST be present.  Proposals for book sessions should only be submitted if there is high confidence that the author will be able to travel to Baltimore November 17-20, 2016.

SSHA has set up a mechanism for networks to share papers, so even if you have a solo paper, send the idea along.  It is possible and useful to identify a paper not only by the MHD network, but also by some other co-sponsoring networks–for example, Theory/Methods, Historical Geography, Politics, Culture, Economics, etc.  Co-sponsored panels and papers are encouraged by the SSHA Program Committee as a means of broadening the visibility of the various networks.

Feel free to contact the co-chairs of the Macrohistorical Dynamics network for further information.

Prof. Daniel Little
University of Michigan-Dearborn
delittle@umich.edu
 
Prof. Peter Perdue
Department of History
Yale University
peter.c.perdue@yale.edu

Prof. James Lee
School of Humanities and Social Science
Hong Kong University of Science and Technology
jqljzl@gmail.com
 

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Trumpism

What kind of political movement does Donald Trump represent? How did we get here? And what will be needed to defeat this divisive and anti-democratic political agenda?

There is a tendency to see Trump as a bolt out of the blue, an anomaly — an extraordinary showman who somehow conned just enough voters to gain him the Republican nomination and then to prevail as a minority vote getter with an electoral college majority. But now that we’ve had a few months to reflect on the election, it seems a little more clear that Trump represents something different and even more worrisome. His presidency is more like an American version of a global phenomenon — a populist ultra-rightist who has come to power on the strength of a political program of xenophobia, hatred of immigrants, and racism.

The extreme right has made sizable gains in Europe in the past forty years. Pippa Norris provides a summary statistic on the rise of the radical right in Western Europe:

This graph documents the substantial increase in the electoral strength of the extreme right, more than tripling as a share of the total electorate since 1980. (It is interesting to note that the share of the extreme right declined after 2000.) Populist extreme right parties have become powerful in almost every European country.

The parallels between Trump’s most outlandish political messages as an unorthodox campaigner and the political ideology of the European extreme right parties are exact and uncanny. Take first his right-wing populism. Cas Mudde attempted to distill the “populist zeitgeist” of the European extreme right in a 2004 article (link), based on his long study of the extreme right parties of Europe. The match with the Trump campaign is exact. Populism is anti-elitist, and its leaders marshal resentment against “corrupt elites”. Mudde writes:

I define populism as an ideology that considers society to be ultimately separated into two homogeneous and antagonistic groups, ‘the pure people’ versus ‘the corrupt elite’, and which argues that politics should be an expression of the volonté générale (general will) of the people. Populism, so defined, has two opposites: elitism and pluralism. (543)

Moreover, populism is fundamentally divisive between “us” and “them”:

Opponents are not just people with different priorities and values, they are evil! Consequently, compromise is impossible, as it ‘corrupts’ the purity. (544)

The visceral antagonism whipped up against the Clintons during the Trump campaign illustrate this theme.

So who are the “people” of the populist right? They are the people of the imaginary “heartland”:

The concept of the heartland helps to emphasize that the people in the populist propaganda are neither real nor all-inclusive, but are in fact a mythical and constructed sub-set of the whole population. In other words, the people of the populists are an ‘imagined community’, much like the nation of the nationalists. (546)

Further, as Mudde documents for European far-right parties, populist politicians are frequently antagonistic to the media — with the right-wing populist view that the media serves the interests of the elites, not the heartland. This line of thought has an extensive research literature as well — for example, Mazzoleni et al, The Media and Neo-Populism: A Contemporary Comparative Analysis. “In the populist mind, the elite are the henchmen of ‘special interests'” (561) — a line of heartland thinking that plays into dark conspiratorial theories and anti-Semitism. (Recall the closing political ad sponsored by the Trump campaign with its strong implications of anti-Semitic innuendo; link.)

Piero Ignazi offered a detailed analysis of extreme right parties based on their core ideologies in 1995 (link). He refers to the summary offered by H.G. Betz:

Betz (1993) has introduced the category of “populist extreme right” on the basis of four elements: a) radical opposition to the cultural and socio-political system, without an overt attack to the system as such; b) the refusal of individual and social equality; c) the defence of the “common man”; d) the emphasis on “common sense”; all these populist parties share racist, authoritarian, anti-women and law and order attitudes. (3) 

These are parties “which appeal to resentments, prejudices and traditional values and offer simplistic and unrealistic solutions to the socio-political problems” (4).

And, as Ignazi observes for European extreme right politicians, much of their rhetoric is directed against traditional political parties themselves (recalling Trump’s own war with the GOP establishment during the campaign).

Dissatisfaction towards institutions, parties, the way in which democracy works, the traditional channels of participation and the output of the system in relation to identity and security tend inevitably to feed opposition and/or anti-system parties and, in particular, the extreme right. In fact, only ERPs indicate, while quite vaguely, a new way of channelling of the demands based on populist style. Only ERPs distrust parties as such (even if they build up strong organizations for their own) because they divide the “people” and they pervert the “general will”. Only ERPs offer the electorate a right wing radical alternative to the establishment’s political discourse. (8)

Here again it is impossible to miss the strong parallels that exist between these currents and the rhetoric of the Trump machine.

And, of course, there is racism, xenophobia, and bigotry. Thomas Greven emphasizes the central role played in right-wing populism in Europe in his Friedrich Ebert Stiftung study (link). (Here is a summary of research on the racism underlying the European right; link.) The rise of the extreme right parties in Europe has been driven by nationalism and antagonism to minority groups and immigrants; and the rhetoric of these parties has in turn increased the volume and intensity of popular racism. Racism is normalized.

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. (Intolerance, Prejudice and Discrimination: A European Report; link)

These themes are all too evident in the Trump political agenda, most recently with this week’s stunning restrictions on Muslim visitors and refugees and the deliberate choice not to refer to Jewish victims in the annual White House statement commemorating the Holocaust (link).

So we might say that Trumpism is a familiar kind of political movement after all. It is right-wing populism, mobilizing its constituents around racism and bigotry combined with resentment of immigrants, with a pounding message of antagonism towards the institutions and personages of the status quo, including especially the media and government. The white nationalism of Steve Bannon and his intimate role within the Trump administration makes perfect sense.

Survey research on the extreme right in Europe

 

Earlier posts have addressed the issue of the rise of extreme-right parties and ideologies in many parts of the world, including Western Europe and the United States. A valuable multi-country research project now seeks to shed light on these phenomena based on large-scale surveys of attitudes among young people. MYPLACE (Memory, Youth, Public Legacy and Civic Engagement) is a multi-country data set in order to assess the distribution and variation of extreme right ideologies across countries and social groups (link). This research project provides substantial survey data about the civic and political attitudes of young people in numerous European countries. Here is a brief description of the research project on the MYPLACE website:

MYPLACE can provide a hugely rich and sophisticated dataset, covering young people’s attitudes and beliefs in relation, specifically, to far-right and populist ideologies, but in practice covering issues such as class, xenophobia, racism, education and trust in democratic processes and associated social and political exclusion.

MYPLACE methodology is described in these terms:

The MYPLACE project used a case study approach, using 30 carefully selected research locations (illustrated in Figure 1) which provided within country contrasts in terms of hypothesised receptivity to radical politics. MYPLACE work strands include:

  • Questionnaire survey (N = 16,935, target = 600 per location) of young people aged 16-25;
  • Follow up interviews (N = 903, target = 30 per location with a sub-sample of these young people;
  • 44 ethnographic studies of youth activism, in 6 thematic clusters;
  • Ethnographic observation at 18 sites of memory including expert interviews with staff (N = 73), focus groups with young people (N = 56) and inter-generational interviews (N = 180). (link)

Participant researchers have provided summary reports on eight topic areas: democracy, history and memory, European issues, citizenship, attitudes and trust, political activism, religion, and attitudes towards minority groups (link). These reports were released in late 2015.

A recent article in Sociological Review seeks to extend this research. Inta Mieriņa and Ilze Koroļeva’s “Support for far right ideology and anti-migrant attitudes among youth in Europe: A comparative analysis” (link) makes use of the MYPLACE datasets to evaluate different theories of the factors that encourage right wing extremism among European young people. This piece provides valuable reading for anyone concerned about the rise of authoritarian and racist politics in many parts of the democratic world. Here is the abstract of the article:

The last decade has seen a notable increase in support for far right parties and an alarming rise of right-wing extremism across Europe. Drawing on a new comparative youth survey in 14 European countries, this article provides deeper insight into young people’s support for nationalist and far right ideology: negative attitudes towards minorities, xenophobia, welfare chauvinism and exclusionism in relation to migrants. We first map the support for far right ideology among youth in Europe, and then use multilevel regression analysis (16,935 individuals nested in 30 locations) to investigate which individual or contextual factors are associated with a higher propensity among young people towards getting involved in far right movements. (183)

Mieriņa and Koroļeva consider several fundamental theories of the rise of far right activism: social psychological theories of the effects of ethnic diversity on an individual’s conception of his or her own identity; the effects of modernization and urbanization on political attitudes; socio-structural explanations (“level of immigration, economic conditions and level of support for the political system”; 187); and the impact of media on political attitudes.

Here is a plot of a particularly important pair of variables observed in the study, ethnic nationalism and negative attitude towards minorities:

Mieriņa and Koroļeva summarize their key findings in these terms:

Using new data collected as part of the MYPLACE youth survey, in this article we have explored young people’s support for far right ideology and analysed which factors are associated with holding far right views. We find that despite comparatively low immigration rates, young people in post-socialist locations, along with Greek locations, tend to have more negative predispositions and to be more xenophobic and exclusionist towards immigrants than young people in Western European locations. Moreover, we have demonstrated that young Europeans’ views on immigrants vary greatly even within the boundaries of one country, thus below-national level analysis should be the preferred strategy in future studies.

Our analysis shows that negative attitudes towards minorities and immigrants are often rooted in ethnic nationalism, that is, a belief that one has to be born in a country or have at least one ethnic parent for being a citizen of a country. A more over-arching civic national identity – based on respect for countries’ institutions and laws – is more likely to create an inclusive, cohesive society.

The data strongly support the instrumental model of group conflict, confirming that resource stress over money, status and, most of all, jobs is an essential source of group conflicts. Living in poverty or seeing poverty facilitates negative attitudes towards minorities and significantly increases xenophobia, welfare chauvinism and exclusionism, especially if immigration rates are high. Far right ideology is especially appealing to groups of society who experience a higher level of insecurity and perceived competition. (199)

Or in other words, Mieriņa and Koroļeva find that there are important geographical patterns to intolerance; ethnic nationalism appears to be a cause of intolerance of minorities and immigrants; and economic stress on specific groups appears to be a cause of xenophobia and chauvinism in those groups.

The article reports some very important empirical findings on the subject of the prevalence and variation of support for far-right ideologies across Western Europe. But equally interesting are the efforts the authors make to clarify the central terms involved, including especially the idea of a “far right ideology.” They refer to work by Cas Mudde on this topic:

Cas Mudde’s research suggests that radical right ideology typically rests on nationalism, xenophobia, welfare chauvinism, and law and order…. The ideological core of the new ‘populist radical right’ ideology … is a combination of nativism, authoritarianism and populism, of which nativism is considered as the key feature. It holds that ‘states should be inhabited exclusively by members of the native group (‘the nation’) and that non-native elements (persons and ideas) are fundamentally threatening to the homogeneous nation-state. (185)

This is an astute, clear, and focused analysis of the heart of far-right ideologies in many countries. And people who have lived through the Trump presidential campaign and the extreme rhetoric the candidate used consistently throughout the preceding year will recognize the point-for-point correspondence that exists between Trumpism and this definition of radical right nativist ideology.

Path dependency in formation of academic disciplines

The topic of the historicity of academic disciplines has come up numerous times in this forum. It is a conviction of mine that disciplines demonstrate a great deal of path dependency over time in their evolution. We can think of a discipline as being constituted at a time by some or all of these elements:

  • a definition of important questions for research
  • a definition of appropriate methods of research and analysis
  • a model of explanation in the field
  • some key examples of what theories and hypotheses ought to look like
  • institutions for supporting, organizing, and directing research efforts
  • institutions for validating and disseminating research findings
  • institutions for training young researchers in the key elements of the discipline

This sounds a lot like Kuhn’s idea of a paradigm, Lakatos’s idea of a research community, or the definitions of scientific enterprise offered by historians and sociologists of science and researchers in the tradition of STS studies (link). An academic discipline is an assemblage of ideas, networks of individuals, institutions, and locations (libraries, laboratories, research institutes).

If this is a reasonable approximation to the social reality of an academic discipline, what does it suggest about contingency and path-dependency in the development of the discipline? For one thing, it suggests multiple sources of contingency both internal to the intellectual enterprise and external to it. Internally, a discipline like philosophy or a sub-discipline like the philosophy of mind is driven in part by a somewhat logical process of attack on existing problems — what Kuhn referred to as “normal science”, and partly by large, compelling breakthroughs by individuals or small groups (for example, the Vienna Circle). Externally, it is straightforward to identify political and institutional influences that shape the research agenda at various times in various disciplines — the preference for positivism in sociology that was advanced by considerations of the Cold War, for example. And within the institutional setting of the disciplines there are contingencies as well — for example, a strong editor of a leading journal or research laboratory can set the agenda for theory and methodology in a discipline for a generation. (Andrew Abbott describes this kind of influence in Department and Discipline: Chicago Sociology at One Hundred.)

Almost every element in this list is itself visibly dependent on historical circumstances in multiple ways. Take the issue of defining the important questions for research. There are political and governmental influences on the definition of research problems — witness the influence of the Cold War on the development of the social sciences, the role that is played by governmental funding agencies like the NSF or NIH, and the occasional intrusion of political pressure into scientific fields like environmental science and sociology.

Within the community of individuals currently pursuing the discipline or proto-discipline there is a range of levels of talent and innovation, on the one hand, and prestige and influence, on the other. (The two categories don’t necessarily correlate perfectly.) One charismatic individual or local group (Wittgenstein, say) may exert influence over the direction of a sub-field through charisma and the power of his or her ideas. Another may exert influence over the strategic placement he or she occupies in the institutions of influence — major graduate schools or prominent journals, for example. And in each case, the discipline moves to a new phase with new questions and ideas.

Bourdieu’s theoretical construct of the field (link) is very relevant to these forms of influence on the development of a given academic discipline. By locating various individuals within the network of institutions, scholars, and funding sources it is possible to attempt to piece together the ways in which their own research agendas unfolded (responding to incentives created by their field) and the influence they exerted on other scholars. Neil Gross’s sociological biography of Richard Rorty illustrates this kind of analysis (link), as does much of George Steinmetz’s research on the development of sociology as a discipline in France, Germany, and the US.

What all of this seems to support is the idea that the academic disciplines are in fact highly contingent in their development, and that there is no reason to expect convergence around a single “best” version of the discipline. The history of disciplines should better be understood in analogy to the brachiation and differentiation associated with the evolution of species and sub-species over time — lots of contingency, with a consequent specialization of the intermediate results to the demands of a particular point in time. This implies that a discipline like sociology or political science could have developed very differently, with substantially different ideas about research questions and methods. And this seems to be true for similar reasons in the humanities as well as the natural sciences and mathematics. Finally, this suggests that there is no end-point — no “universal sociology,” no “final philosophy,” no “complete mathematics.” Instead, every discipline in its search for knowledge and new ideas is charting new intellectual space.

Making of a Black Panther

images: Rahman as keynote speaker at “Black Men in Unions” Institute, UM-Dearborn, 2012; 
Rahman with Huey Newton at Detroit Metro Airport, 1970
 

In an earlier post I discussed the path through which an African-American intellectual, Phil Richards, came to have the intellectual profile he has today. Here I will reflect upon the development of another African-American man, born in the same year, who also journeyed from the inner city to a career as an academic, but through a very different route. Ahmad Rahman traveled through life from childhood in Chicago in the 1950s to becoming a Black Panther in Detroit in his teens to becoming a professor of history in adulthood. Rahman presents an interesting contrast with Richards. Ahmad Rahman too was a powerful personality and an intelligent man whose life itinerary and character were shaped by the experience of race and racism in urban America. Ahmad too became a member of the Black intelligentsia. But his itinerary was dramatically different, and his identity as a militant activist was primary.

Rahman grew up in Chicago in the 1950s, but also spent time with his extended family in rural Mississippi throughout his early years. He had ample opportunity to experience the realities of racism and white supremacy throughout his youth. He graduated from high school in Chicago and became involved in the rising mood of Black Power in the southside neighborhoods of the city. He moved to Detroit while still a teen-ager to become an early member of the Black Panther organization there. He spent twenty-one years in prison as part of a life sentence he received after being found guilty of events that occurred during a Black Panther raid on a supposed drug house in Detroit. (He eventually learned that this incident had been engineered by the FBI as part of the COINTELPRO program.) Rahman converted to Islam while in prison as part of a spiritual evolution he describes in an interview in Transformations, mentioned below.

Rahman’s life changed dramatically when his life sentence was commuted by Michigan governor John Engler. This took place because of the long-term advocacy of a group of committed liberation activists whose support for Rahman never wavered. Rahman completed an undergraduate degree at Wayne State University while in prison and completed a PhD in history at the University of Michigan in 2002 after his release from prison in 1992. He spent the rest of his life as a professor of history at the Dearborn campus of the University of Michigan, where he had a strong influence on a generation of students. His teaching and course content always embodied the critical edge of his lifetime commitment to black progress, but his radicalism perhaps was transformed into something more patient and persistent. Like Phil Richards, Ahmad too was a friend of mine for a long time. Ahmad died prematurely in 2015 at the age of 63. (Here is a brief bio of Rahman from the Detroit Free Press; link.)

Rahman never published a full memoir, but there are several short sources where he tells some of his story. One is “A Detroit Black Panther’s Soldiering Journey with Malcolm X,” his account of his time as a Black Power activist in Chicago, a soldier of Malcolm X, and a Black Panther in Detroit in his contribution to Edozie and Stokes, Malcolm X’s Michigan Worldview: An Exemplar for Contemporary Black Studies (link). The second is an extensive interview he provided to Hajj Mustafa Ali in Transformations on his journey to Islam while in prison in Michigan (link). And a third source is his essay “Marching Blind: The Rise and Fall of the Black Panther Party in Detroit” in Yohuru Williams and Jama Lazarow’s Liberated Territory: Untold Local Perspectives on the Black Panther Party.

On reading these brief recollections and recalling many snippets of conversation over the years, it might almost be said that Ahmad was a Black Panther before the term even existed — as a child, as a teen-ager, as a high school student who reacted viscerally and certainly to the Birmingham bombing, and to the visible bonds of white supremacy and police brutality in Chicago and Mississippi in the early 1960s. Ahmad was of a generation of young men who did not easily accept MLK’s advocacy of Gandhian non-violence and who felt that forceful self-defense was entirely legitimate. I don’t think this was an unusual point of view among young black men of the generation who came of age in the 1960s, and it seems clear that Ahmad’s older brothers had much the same feelings.

Like Richards, Rahman too eventually became an intellectual, a historian who wrote extensively on African and African-American history. His book The Regime Change of Kwame Nkrumah: Epic Heroism in Africa and the Diaspora provides a careful political biography of Nkrumah in the context of pan-African liberation movements. The book used previously unreported government documents to shed new light on the actions of the United States in Africa in the 1960s, including particularly the assassination of Nkrumah. (Some of Rahman’s research skills later in life were honed during prison through his efforts to use FOIA documents from the FBI to piece together how the Black Panthers had been undone in Detroit with such efficiency.) But Rahman’s pathway to a life as a creator of new knowledge led through activism and profound engagement rather than through a primary interest in knowledge and discovery for its own sake. His scholarship was diligent and rigorous, but it was not disinterested. He almost always had a point to make about racism, power, and inequality, and his academic writing had this character as well. Most fundamentally, he wanted to expose the hidden lineaments of power and white supremacy in order to assist in the struggle for liberation and equality.

Rahman’s entire life was oriented by his activism in defense of black equality, security, and dignity. Here are a few episodes from childhood and adolescence that bear this out:

My path to prison began with Malcolm X and what I had heard he had said black people should do after the Ku Klux Klan bomb murdered the four little girls in the 16th Street baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, on Sunday, September 15, 1963. (Soldiering Journey, 169) 

Ahmad was then twelve years old, and this violence against black children had a powerful impact on him.

When the Jet magazine my mother bought detailed their slaughter, I searched for strong statements from black leaders that offered something more forceful than prayer to prevent more Sunday morning bombings. As usual, Dr. King had called for us to remain nonviolent and not lose faith in the white man…. This was the first time I had ever disagreed with Dr. King. He was a living saint to everybody I knew. I remember saying that I thought that only monsters could blow up those girls and monsters deserved a stake in their hearts. My playmates, all Baptists like the four murdered girls, nodded in agreement. (170)

It was Malcolm X’s response and call to action that caught the young Rahman’s admiration.

Now I knew a leader who did not believe it either. I swore that day that whenever Malcolm X formed his army, I would march in their ranks. (171)

Later in the piece Rahman describes an episode during his regular visits to relatives in rural Mississippi in which he makes preparations to use the family’s shotgun to protect the house against the Klan. He doesn’t specify the year, but June 1964 witnessed the Klan murder of Chaney, Goodman, and Schwerner in Mississippi, which is consistent with Ahmad’s description of the climate of KKK violence during his visit. If so, Ahmad was thirteen years old. (His great-grandmother was a step ahead of him, having found the shotgun shells and removed them from his sock drawer.)

Here is how Rahman describes the appeal of the Black Panther movement to him in the Transformations interview:

The Black Panther party was then arising as a strong influence among young people in Chicago. I was impressed by their stalwart stance for black community control of the educational, economic, and criminal justice institutions, which affected our lives. During the latter 1960’s, statistics revealed that the mainly white Chicago Police Department killed more citizens per capita than did any police department in the United States. Most of the dead were black. The Black Panther Party alone stood up and publicly stated that black people had a right to armed self-defense from racist attack. (Transformations interview)

As a teenager in Chicago Ahmad learned of Fred Hampton’s efforts to form a Black Panther branch in Chicago, and he engaged himself with the party. Soon after he went to Detroit to help in the establishment of a Detroit branch as well, and by 1970 he was fully involved in the Detroit Black Panther party. Several episodes of defiance and resistance described in the “Soldiering Journey” piece give a good sense of Rahman’s state of mind during this period.

This history demonstrates a number of personal characteristics — discipline, courage, and an unusual ability to succeed academically in spite of enormous obstacles. Rahman’s life in prison reflected the same propensity for activism and resistance to injustice, and he was deeply involved in prisoners’ rights organizations inside prison. These qualities certainly affected his development as a historian. The inner peace he learned to cultivate in prison remained with him, and he transformed his urgent desire for progress into a long and sustained commitment to tangible forms of life improvement for young people in Detroit. (I once asked Ahmad what he thought of The Wire. He replied that he had seen too much violence in his life, and he didn’t like watching it on television.)

This development seems to make several things clear. First, the boy and adolescent Ahmad had a personality that was strongly keyed to responding forcefully to perceived injustice. And these traits are equally evident in his memories of incidents of coercion against him in Detroit. These same dispositions seemed to be part of his older brother Eddie’s character as well. Second, the environments in which he lived — Chicago and Mississippi — gave very specific and deep instruction to the young man about the nature of racial injustice and white supremacy surrounding him. Third, Rahman’s exposure to ideas mattered a great deal in his development — to the ideas of Elijah Muhammad and the Nation of Islam, to the Black Power messages of the early founders of the Black Panther movement, and to the primary texts of resistance and revolution to which he was exposed — Franz Fanon, Marx, Lenin, Che, Mao. (He once said to me that a smuggled copy of Mao’s Little Red Book got him through the ordeal of the first few years in prison.) Finally, none of these influences would have brought about the particular chemistry of the activist-historian-scholar that Ahmad became, without the presence of a powerful intellect, a desire to make sense of the social world that surrounded him, and an active skepticism about status-quo explanations of things. Putting these points together, Rahman’s development seems more predictable and logical than Richards’. In spite of the dramatic contingencies that arose in his life history, there seems to be a fairly direct line of development from the twelve-year-old in Chicago trying to make sense of the Birmingham bombings to the activist-scholar of the current decade.

Here is a video interview I did with Ahmad in 2008; link. Readers may also be interested in Lance Hill’s historical study of the Deacons for Defense, a predecessor to the Black Panthers in The Deacons for Defense: Armed Resistance and the Civil Rights Movement. Here is an earlier post on this group (link).)

Making of a black intellectual



Becoming an intellectual in any society is a chancy thing, and this is especially true for young people coming from backgrounds of disadvantage and discrimination. What were the influences that gave the child and young adult the curiosity and other intellectual qualities that led him or her to seek out new knowledge and new questions throughout high school and college? What factors helped to produce some of the specific qualities of mind that became the particular inquiring intellect of the adult? How did Orwell become Orwell, or W.E.B. DuBois become DuBois?


Several recent autobiographies are worth reading for anyone interested in knowing more about what it’s like to develop as a black man in America into a serious intellectual in adulthood. One is by Phil Richards, an emeritus professor of English at Colgate University. His autobiography An Integrated Boyhood: Coming of Age in White Cleveland is a powerful account of one man’s journey from inner city Cleveland to Yale University. And it sheds a great deal of light on the very specific chemistry of personality, stimulation, social contacts, family, and schooling that led Richards to becoming a smart, original, and rigorous intellectual.

Richards grew up in in Cleveland in the 1950s, attended Yale university as an undergraduate, and received his PhD in English literature from the University of Chicago. He became a professor of English at a top-rank liberal arts university, and An Integrated Childhood is an eloquent and honest description of his journey. He became a profoundly insightful and original thinker about very traditional topics in western culture and English and American literature. And he has challenged many of the assumptions that have become dogma within the field of African-American studies. I have had many long conversations with Phil over the past twenty-five years, and have never failed to be impressed at his insights into literature, culture, and the intricacies of today’s politics. His recent book Black Heart: The Moral Life of Recent African American Letters gives a good impression of the breath and depth of his thought.

Richards’ autobiography is personal, honest, and insightful. He writes in detail about the working class home and family in which he grew up — a mother who sought to create a cultured environment for the family, a father who worked hard and reflected carefully about the racialized society around them in Cleveland, and other relatives who presented a different side of black life. The picture that emerges is quite different from many stereotypes of life in African-American working class families in the 1950s that are often presented to us, both positive and negative. Here is an evocative passage where he describes the values system of his parents as they made their lives in Cleveland:

Before I ever heard the word, I knew that my parents were integrationists. They were what Malcolm X would later derisively call “integration-mad Negroes.” Struck by the recent triumphs of Jackie Robinson, Ralph Bunche, and Brown v. Board of Education, they imagined the imminent appearance of a cultivated, racially integrated middle-class life in Cleveland. These utopian hopes could not have been more mistaken. The possibility of a racially integrated existence had disappeared long ago with the cultivated, mulatto, elite culture that had existed during the first half of the nineteenth century. These black middle-class tradesmen, artisans, funeral directors, barbers, and entrepreneurs had lived relatively harmoniously with Cleveland whites before the turn of the century…. (6)

But by the 1950s, Richards writes, those options had all but disappeared. 

Particularly important in Richards’ childhood environment was the opposition established between the values and aspirations of his immediate family and the values and lifestyles of black Cleveland more broadly. Classical music rather than hip hop, saving rather than conspicuous consumption, and temperance rather than a free-and-easy relationship to alcohol and drugs — these were important markers in Richards’ family life. And his mother’s fortuitous circumstance of having found work as a pre-school teacher in the Park Synagogue in Cleveland gave the young Richards access to a cosmopolitan experience of Cleveland’s social world — anti-war activists, leftists, and white liberal supporters of the Civil Rights movement and their children.

The family’s involvement in the black church was a formative influence for Richards — but once again, in ways that defy stereotypes. Their involvement in Antioch Baptist Church in Cleveland embodied many of the cultural and social tensions that their existence in various neighborhoods of Cleveland presented. Here is a particularly penetrating observation by Richards the adult about his experience of the church as a child. He is commenting on the practice of the church that the congregation would hum spontaneously during the communion service. The minister objected to this practice, but it continued.

My parents disapproved of this humming also, and neither ever joined in it. At the dinner table, they could be very adamant about this; they had come to the North, they said, to find nothing but the moaning of black people. From where I sat, however, self-pitying moans were a more than appropriate response to the experience of black people in Cleveland. On the No. 48 bus going to French class in the summer, I had on Fridays seen the black maids coming home from their weekly stints with their white employers on Van Aken, on South Park, and from points east. On those days, they carried large brown shopping bags from the suburban supermarket, Heinens, filled with leftover food and their employers’ cast-off dresses and skirts. No matter who these black women had been in the South, they were now servants in Cleveland. It occurred to me then that the post-Communion music expressed wordlessly everything they could never say to their employers in the mansions of Shaker Heights. The deepest truth about Cleveland that I was learning from my family was that Cleveland’s racial truths could never be openly discussed, at least not in public by people like me. If being black, however, meant that one carried a wordless secret truth, then I would willingly be black. Why, I wondered a little angrily, did my parents not hum? (57)

The young man’s experience of Yale was no less ambiguous in the clash it represented between existing privileged elites, rising white suburban families, and newly present families of color from the various urban areas of the Northeast. 

My parents, who were still shaken by the riots in Cleveland that summer, were anxious about coming to the Yale campus, and my father had wondered whether he should put on a sport coat. He was surprised to see large crowds of casual, mild-mannered parents, many in T-shirts, carrying their children’s clothes in cardboard grocery store boxes to the dormitories. Surrounded by large old buildings, the Old Campus was what I imagined the Cleveland Heights High parking lot might look on a fall Saturday afternoon during a football game…. My classmates came to Yale rather like a group of local champions arriving at an all-state swimming meet. Yet the world that greeted them was not the world of merit but the world of privileged entitlement. (103)

And it occurred to me for the first time that for all the social baggage of my lower-middle-class background, I was free of the particular status-related anxieties borne by the truly middle- and upper-middle-class blacks educated in largely black environments. It was an oft-repeated joke in my household that, compared to our relations who were doctors, lawyers, and college administrators, we had no status. (107)

The search for a black identity was, it seemed to me, a distinctly middle-class search for those who must have the autonomy required for survival in a competitive liberal social order that devalued attachments of kinship, social status, religious affiliation, and (ironically) ethnicity. (113)

Richards’s book is interesting at many levels. Richards has an exceptional voice in his ability to put the reader into the life and mind of the smart, awkward, sometimes angry adolescent of the fifteen-year-old boy he was. He is a deeply reflective thinker on the nuances of the many strands of black culture and intellectual life that were in play in America in the 1950s and 1960s. And he seems to have real insight into the lives and experiences of the adults around him — what they cared about, why they behaved as they did. His account of the complicated persons who were his parents is particularly astute. 

The book also does a remarkable job of explicating some of the ways that Richards’ most controversial ideas may have evolved from his own experience — his mistrust of the political left, his doubts about the validity of many of the dogmas of ethnic studies, and his affirmation of the value of intellectual engagement with the broad horizons of Western and non-Western culture. When we speak of a need for more diversity within universities, this is one of the dimensions often overlooked: the need for welcoming diverse viewpoints on the significance of race, gender, and class in ways that perhaps offend the prevailing liberal orthodoxies.

*  *  *

A useful collection on the social environment of black intellectuals in the social sciences is Jonathan Holloway and Keppel’s Black Scholars on the Line: Race, Social Science, and American Thought in the Twentieth Century. The introduction to the volume can be found here. Here is a brief description of their central perspective in the volume:

Brown was but one chapter in a larger historical narrative that must be better understood. Between the generation after slavery and the generation after the Second World War, black scholars played important roles in the founding, elaboration, and refinement of American social science. The groundbreaking work that black attorneys and social scientists—many of whom were trained and worked at historically black colleges and universities—pursued in Brownwas but one part of this larger development. We honor the scholarship that was related to Brown by reprinting social psychologists Kenneth and Mamie Clark’s most ambitious discussions of their research on racial attitudes. However, as our first obligation in this project is to place this well-known intellectual priority within a larger context, we showcase other black scholars’ work on different topics: migration and its effects, the structure of the black family, the disparate impact of race on economic opportunity, the relationship of cultural production and projection to debates over cultural assimilation, and so forth. (2)

It is evident that there is still much to be learned about the intellectual history of black America.

Grand Hotel Abyss

Georg Lukács in 1962 used the colorful image of a fictional “Grand Hotel Abyss” to express his disappointment in the theorists of the Frankfurt School. Here is a passage in which the idea is described in “Preface to the Theory of the Novel” (link):

A considerable part of the leading German intelligentsia, including Adorno, have taken up residence in the ‘Grand Hotel Abyss’ which I described in connection with my critique of Schopenhauer as ‘a beautiful hotel, equipped with every comfort, on the edge of an abyss, of nothingness, of absurdity. And the daily contemplation of the abyss between excellent meals or artistic entertainments, can only heighten the enjoyment of the subtle comforts offered.’ (The fact that Ernst Bloch continued undeterred to cling to his synthesis of ‘left’ ethics and ‘right’ epistemology (e.g. cf. Frankfurt 1961) does honour to his strength of character but cannot modify the outdated nature of his theoretical position. To the extent that an authentic, fruitful and progressive opposition is really stirring in the Western world (including the Federal Republic), this opposition no longer has anything to do with the coupling of ‘left’ ethics with ‘right’ epistemology.)

The thinkers of the Frankfurt School — Adorno, Horkheimer, Habermas, Benjamin, Wellmer, Marcuse — were for Lukács too much devoted to theorizing capitalism and barbarism and too little about changing it. They were like imagined world-weary residents in the Grand Hotel Abyss, observing the unfolding catastrophe but doing nothing to intervene to stop it. They were about theory, not praxis.

Stuart Jeffries uses this trope as the organizing theme of his group biography of these figures in Grand Hotel Abyss: The Lives of the Frankfurt School, and, in a word, he finds that Lukács’s critique is unfounded.

Jeffries emphasizes the common social origins of these boundary-breaking critics of capitalism. The book is detailed and insightful. Jeffries emphasizes the common social and cultural origins of almost all these men — German, Jewish, bourgeois, affluent — and the common threads of their criticism of the capitalism and consumerism that surrounded them in the early and middle twentieth century. The central question of how it came to pass that ordinary people in cultured, philosophically rich Germany came to support the Nazi rise to power was of vital concern to all of them. But consumerism, authoritarianism, and the suffering both created by and hidden by capitalism are also in the center stage.

The book is primarily about ideas and debates, not the particulars of personal biography. Jeffries does an impressive job of walking readers through the debates that swirled within and across the Frankfurt School — is capitalism doomed? Are workers inherently revolutionary? Is art part of the support system for capitalism? Is Marxism scientific or dialectical? Jeffries does an exceptional and fascinating job of telling this complex story of intellectual history and social criticism.

A particularly important innovation within the intellectual tradition of critical theory was the pointed critique these theorists offered of mass culture. Unlike orthodox Marxists who gave primary emphasis to the workings of the forces and relations of production — economics — the critical theorists took very seriously the powerful role played within advanced capitalism by mass culture, film, media, and television. (The publication in 1927 of Marx’s Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844 appears to have been an important impetus to much of the theorizing of the Frankfurt School.) Here is one example of the social criticism of Hollywood offered by Adorno and Horkheimer in Dialectic of Enlightenment:

Consider, for instance, Donald Duck. Once, such cartoon characters were ‘exponents of fantasy as opposed to rationalism’, wrote Adorno and Horkheimer. Now they had become instruments of social domination. ‘They hammer into every brain the old lesson that continuous friction, the breaking down of all individual resistance, is the condition of life in this society. Donald Duck in the cartoons and the unfortunate in real life get their thrashing so that the audience can learn to take their own punishment.’ (225)

So what is a more progressive role for works of art and culture to play in a society embodying serious social exploitation and domination? One work that was important point of consideration for several theorists was the Brecht and Weill opera, Rise and Fall of the City of Mahogany. Adorno and others regarded this work as one that gave appropriate and unblinking attention to the suffering of the modern social order.

Brecht’s libretto, too, sought to make it clear that the bourgeois world was absurd and anarchic. ‘In order to represent this convincingly’, wrote Adorno of the dramatisation of the bourgeois world as absurd and anarchic, ‘it is necessary to transcend the closed world of bourgeois consciousness which considers bourgeois social reality to be immutable. Outside of this framework, however, there is no position to take – at least for the German consciousness, there is no site which is non-capitalist.’ This was to become one great theme of critical theory: there is no outside, not in today’s utterly rationalised, totally reified, commodity-fetishising world. When Marx wrote Capital in the mid nineteenth century, the more primitive capitalist system he was diagnosing made commodity fetishism merely episodic; now it was everywhere, poisoning everything. ‘Paradoxically, therefore’, Adorno added, ‘transcendence must take place within the framework of that which is.’ Brecht’s assault on capitalist society in Mahoganny was then paradoxically both from within and from without at the same time, both immanent and transcendent. (132)

Jeffries also provides a fascinating and extended discussion of the deep interactions that occurred between Thomas Mann and Adorno in Los Angeles as Mann worked at completing Doctor Faustus. Mann wanted Adorno’s expert advice about modern music, and Adorno obliged. Jeffries argues that Adorno had a substantive effect on the novel:

Arguably, the finished novel reflects Adorno’s melancholic philosophy more profoundly than Mann’s. This is not to suggest plagiarism: as Adorno wrote in 1957, the insinuation that Mann made illegitimate use of his ‘intellectual property’ is absurd. The underlying aesthetic philosophy of the novel goes beyond the binary opposition between the Apollonian and Dionysian, between the orderly and the ecstatic, that Nietzsche set out in The Birth of Tragedy and to which Mann repeatedly appealed in his fiction… During the collaboration with Adorno, however, Mann set aside his original, Dionysian conception of the composer and as a result Leverkühn became something much more interesting –a figure who dramatised something of the Frankfurt School’s, and in particular Adorno’s, distinctive contribution to the philosophy of art. (243)

And what about fascism? This was a central thrust of Frankfurt School research, and opinion was divided about the causes of the rise of Nazism in Germany among the Frankfurt School theorists. But here is an interpretation that seems particularly relevant in 2016 in the United States, given the pageantry of political rallies and the slogans about making America great again:

Fascism was, as a result, a paradox, being both ancient and modern: more precisely it was a system that used a tradition hostile to capitalism for the preservation of capitalism. For Bloch, as for Walter Benjamin, fascism was a cultural synthesis that contained both anti-capitalist and utopian aspects. The Frankfurt School failed to emphasise in its analysis of fascism what Benjamin called the ‘aestheticisation of politics’. It fell to Benjamin, Bloch and Siegfried Kracauer to reflect on the Nazi deployment of myths, symbols, parades and demonstrations to command support. (250)

The chapter on Habermas is also very good and can be read separately as an introduction to Habermas’s leading ideas (chapter 17). It is significant that this final voice of the Frankfurt School should be one that provides a basis for greater optimism about the prospects for modern democracy than what emerges from the Dialectic of Enlightenment.

The perspectives of the Frankfurt School were developed in the context of crises of capitalism, fascism, and anti-semitism in the 1930s. But these theories are once again deeply relevant in the context of the politics of 2016. A xenophobic, divisive candidate and party have assumed the reins of power in a populous democracy. The issues of propaganda and unapologetic political lies are before us once again. The politics of hate and intolerance have taken center stage. And the role of culture, media, and now the internet needs to be examined carefully for its dependence upon the corporate order as well as its possible potency as a mechanism of resistance. The Frankfurt School thinkers had important insights into virtually all these questions. Jeffries’ very interesting intellectual history of the movement is timely.

Jeffries quotes from a letter from Adorno to Mann on the aftermath of Nazism in Germany with observations that may be relevant to us today as well:

The inarticulate character of apolitical conviction, the readiness to submit to every manifestation of actual powers, the instant accommodation to whatever new situation emerges, all this is merely an aspect of the same regression. If it is true that the manipulative control of the masses always brings about a regressive formation of humanity, and if Hitler’s drive for power essentially involved the relationship of this development ‘at a single stroke’, we can only say that he, and the collapse that followed, has succeeded in producing the required infantilisation. (273)

These are words that may be important in the coming years, if the incoming government succeeds in carrying out many of its hateful promises. And how will the institutions of media and culture respond? Let us not be infantilized in the years to come when it comes to the fundamental values of democracy.

Critical points in history and social media

Recent posts have grappled with the interesting topic of phase transitions in physics (link, link, link). One reason for being interested in this topic is its possible relevance to the social world, where abrupt changes of state in the social plenum are rare but known occurrences. The eruption of protest in numerous countries across the Middle East and North Africa during the Arab Spring is one example. Essentially we can describe these incidents as moments when ordinary citizens are transformed from quiescent members of civil society, pursuing their private lives as best they can, to engaged activists assembling at great risk in large demonstrations. Is this an example of a phase transition? And are there observable indicators that might allow researchers to explain and sometimes anticipate such critical points?

There is a great deal of interesting research underway on these topics in the field of complex systems and communications theory. The processes and phenomena that researchers are identifying appear to have a great deal of importance both for understanding current social dynamics and potentially for changing undesirable outcomes.

Researchers on the dynamics of mass social media have addressed the question of critical transitions. Kuehn, Martens, and Romero (2014) provide an interesting approach in their article, “Critical transitions in social network activity” (link). Also of interest is Daniel Romero’s “An epidemiological approach to the spread of political third parties”, co-authored with Christopher Kribs-Zaleta, Anuj Mubayi, and Clara Orbe (link).

Here is the abstract for “Critical transitions”:

A large variety of complex systems in ecology, climate science, biomedicine and engineering have been observed to exhibit tipping points, where the dynamical state of the system abruptly changes. For exam- ple, such critical transitions may result in the sudden change of ecological environments and climate conditions. Data and models suggest that detectable warning signs may precede some of these drastic events. This view is also corroborated by abstract mathematical theory for generic bifurcations in stochastic multi-scale systems. Whether such stochastic scaling laws used as warning signs for a priori unknown events in society are present in social networks is an exciting open problem, to which at present only highly speculative answers can be given. Here, we instead provide a first step towards tackling a simpler question by focusing on a priori known events and analyse a social media data set with a focus on classical variance and autocorrelation warning signs. Our results thus pertain to one absolutely fundamental question: Can the stochastic warning signs known from other areas also be detected in large-scale social media data? We answer this question affirmatively as we find that several a priori known events are preceded by variance and autocorrelation growth. Our findings thus clearly establish the necessary starting point to further investigate the relationship between abstract mathematical theory and various classes of critical transitions in social networks.

They use the idea of a tipping point rather than a phase transition, but there seems to be an important parallel between the two ideas. (Here are a few prior posts on continuity and tipping points; link, link.) Here is they define the idea of a critical transition: “A critical transition may informally be defined as a rapid and drastic change of a time-dependent dynamical system” (2). The warning signs they consider are formal and statistical rather than substantive: increasing variance and rising auto-correlation:

Two of the most classical warning signs are rising variance and rising auto-correlation before a critical transition [10,28]. The theory behind these warning signs is described in more detail in Appendix A. The basic idea is that if a drastic change is induced by a critical (bifurcation) point, then the underlying deterministic dynamics becomes less stable. Hence, the noisy fluctuations become more dominant as the decay rate decreases close to the critical transition. As a result, (a) the variance in the signal increases, due to the stronger fluctuations and (b) the system’s state memory (i.e., auto-correlation) increases, due to smaller deterministic contraction onto a single state [10,11]. It can be shown that both warning signs are related via a suitable fluctuation–dissipation relation [29]. (2)

Below are the data they present showing statistical associations of hashtag frequencies for impending known events — Halloween, Thanksgiving, and Christmas. The X panels represent the word frequency of the hashtag; the V panels represent the variance, and R represents autocorrelation on the time series of word frequency.

It is plain from the graphs of these variables that the frequency, variance, and autocorrelation statistics for the relevant hashtags demonstrate a rising trend as they approach the event and fall off steeply following the event; so these statistics post-dict the event effectively. But of course there is no value in predicting the occurrence of Halloween based on the frequency of #halloween earlier in October; we know that October 31 will soon occur. The difficult research question posed here is whether it is possible to identify warning signs for unknown impending events. The authors do not yet have an answer to this question, but they offer a provocative hypothesis: “These time series illustrate that there is a variety of potentially novel dynamical behaviors in large-scale social networks near large spikes that deserve to be investigated in their own right.” (4). This suggests several questions for future investigation:

  • How do we define when a critical transition occurs in the data for an a priori unknown event? 
  • For a priori unknown events, is there a possibility to identify hashtags or other aspects of the message which allow us to determine the best warning sign? 
  • Can we link warning signs in social networks to a priori unknown critical transitions outside a social network? 
  • Which models of social networks can re-produce critical transitions observed in data? 
Also of interest for issues raised previously in Understanding Society is Romero, Kribs-Zaleta, Mubayi, and Orbe’s “An epidemiological approach to the spread of political third parties” (link). This paper is relevant to the topic of the role of organizations in the spread of social unrest considered earlier (link, link). Their paper uses the example of Green Party activism as an empirical case. Here is their abstract:

Abstract. Third political parties are influential in shaping American politics. In this work we study the spread of a third party ideology in a voting population where we assume that party members/activists are more influential in recruiting new third party voters than non-member third party voters. The study uses an epidemiological metaphor to develop a theoretical model with nonlinear ordinary differential equations as applied to a case study, the Green Party. Considering long-term behavior, we identify three threshold parameters in our model that describe the different possible scenarios for the political party and its spread. We also apply the model to the study of the Green Party’s growth using voting and registration data in six states and the District of Columbia to identify and explain trends over the past decade. Our system produces a backward bifurcation that helps identify conditions under which a sufficiently dedicated activist core can enable a third party to thrive, under conditions which would not normally allow it to arise. Our results explain the critical role activists play in sustaining grassroots movements under adverse conditions.

And here is the basic intuition underlying the analysis of this paper:

We use an epidemiological paradigm to translate third party emergence from a political phenomenon to a mathematical one where we assume that third parties grow in a similar manner as epidemics in a population. We take this approach following in the steps of previous theoretical studies that model social issues via such methods. The epidemiological metaphor is suggested by the assumption that individuals’ decisions are influenced by the collective peer pressure generated by others’ behavior; the “contacts” between these two groups’ ideas are analogous to the contact processes that drive the spread of infectious diseases. (2)

Their approach makes use of a system of differential equations to describe the behavior of the population as a whole based on specific assumptions. It would seem that the problem could be approached using an agent-based model as well. This paper is relevant to the general topic of critical points in social behavior as well, since it attempts to discover the conditions under which a social movement like third-party mobilization will accelerate rather than decay.

Also of interest to the topic of large dynamic social processes and social media is R. Kelly Garrett and Paul Resnick, “Resisting political fragmentation on the Internet” (link). Here is their abstract:

Abstract: Must the Internet promote political fragmentation? Although this is a possible outcome of personalized online news, we argue that other futures are possible and that thoughtful design could promote more socially desirable behavior. Research has shown that individuals crave opinion reinforcement more than they avoid exposure to diverse viewpoints and that, in many situations, hearing the other side is desirable. We suggest that, equipped with this knowledge, software designers ought to create tools that encourage and facilitate consumption of diverse news streams, making users, and society, better off. We propose several techniques to help achieve this goal. One approach focuses on making useful or intriguing opinion-challenges more accessible. The other centers on nudging people toward diversity by creating environments that accentuate its benefits. Advancing research in this area is critical in the face of increasingly partisan news media, and we believe these strategies can help.

This research too is highly relevant to the dynamic social processes through which largescale social changes occur, and particularly so in the current climate of fake news and deliberate political polarization.

(It is interesting that social media and the Internet come into this story in several different ways. Google employee and Egyptian activist Wael Ghonim played a central role in the early stages of activation of the uprisings in Cairo in 2011. His book, Revolution 2.0: The Power of the People Is Greater Than the People in Power: A Memoir, is a fascinating exposure to some of the details of these events, and the short book Wael Ghonim… Facebook and The Uprising in Egypt by Dhananjay Bijale specifically addresses the role that Ghonim and FaceBook played in the mobilization of ordinary young Egyptians.)

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