Neil Gross’s pragmatist sociology

An earlier post discussed Neil Gross’s attempt to understand social mechanisms from the point of view of a pragmatist sociology. Gross’s attempt to flesh out a pragmatist theory of action is intriguing and worthy of further exploration.  So here I’ll look at a subsequent article, “Charles Tilly and American Pragmatism” (2010), in which Gross extends this analysis to an interpretation of Charles Tilly.  He makes an interesting case that Tilly’s theories share a great deal in common with pragmatist theory.  I’m not going to evaluate that claim here, though he makes a strong case, but instead want to pull out the essentials of what Gross seems to believe to be the fundamental assumptions of a pragmatist theory of acdtion.

So what are some of the insights from pragmatism that Gross thinks can help us to formulate a more adequate framework of sociological thinking?  Here is a suggestive statement:

I aimed for a way of proceeding that would also accord with the turn toward “practice” in contemporary theory—that is, toward the reconceptualization of action as “forms of doing or ways of acting and interacting that appear within particular communities or groups; depend on shared presuppositions or assumptions…; and unfold in individuals’ lives as a result of active, creative, and less than conscious puttings into play of those presuppositions and assumptions in the context of various and intersecting sociobiographical experiences and exigencies.” (342)

This part of the story falls clearly in the zone of attempting to improve upon the theory of action that much social theory has presupposed for more than a century — the idea of the rational, purposive agent considering options and choosing outcomes (link).  Against that hyper-deliberative conception, Gross (and pragmatism) advocates for a more fluid, interactional, and only partially conscious flow of actions.  There is a suggestion here of stylized modes of behavior (scripts) within which persons locate their actions, and a suggestion of the importance of specific cognitive fields embodied in social groups that contextualize and rationalize the person’s activities (assumptions, for example, of how a doctor should treat a patient in a hospital).

Another important part of Gross’s conception of pragmatist action theory is the way we conceive of the individual. According to the pragmatist theory, the individual needs to be considered within the context of a social group, influenced by norms, emotions, and actions of the others in the group.  So action should not be “atomized” into a group of individual actors choosing independently.  Gross puts this part of the theory in the form of a comment about Tilly:

The motivating claim of Durable Inequality is that analysts should dispense with “individualistic” models that seek to explain differences in the life chances of members of social groups in terms of their experiences, properties, and characteristics, whether these are assumed to be a product of genetic endowments, as in Herrnstein and Murray’s (1994) controversial “bell curve” thesis, or social circumstance, as in some versions of human capital theory. (349)

The point emerges in Tilly through his insistence on “relationality” — his deep objection to attempting to understand actions by individuals without regard to the networks of other individuals whose behavior and thoughts set the context to the actions.

Third, there is the question of how the agent decides what to do in a particular circumstance. The pragmatist view that Gross describes holds that the actor chooses in line with habit and script. Essentially, this is the insight that there are fairly well defined rules of thumb or scripts for how to respond to certain kinds of problems. And the theory holds that the actor generally acts accordingly. When an experienced politician is confronted by a heckler, the play book pretty well specifies how he/she should respond. This contrasts sharply from the deliberativist view of action. 

What makes this set of assumptions a “pragmatist” approach?  Fundamentally, because it understands the actor as situated within a field of assumptions, modes of behavior, ways of perceiving; and as being stimulated to action by “problem situations”.  So action is understood as the actor’s creative use of scripts, habits, and cognitive frameworks to solve particular problems.  (Gross refers to this as an A-P-H-R chain: actor, problem situation, habit, and response; 343.)

How does this compare to the foil of pure deliberative rationality?  According to rational choice theory an actor makes a choice in a problem situation by (i) arranging a preference ordering of possible outcomes, including utilities for each outcome; (ii) consulting rational procedures to gain beliefs about the probabilities of various strategies leading to various outcomes; and (iii) choosing that strategy that results in the greatest expected utility (utilityprobability).  This account makes choice rational in both aspects: rational acquisition of beliefs about interventions and outcomes, and rational comparison of the relative goodness/badness of the outcomes associated with possible interventions.  There is no place in this story for culturally variable cognitive frameworks for perceiving the situation, or for group-specific rules of thumb governing the choice of interventions. 

This formulation of the two theories permits fairly direct comparison between them.  Consider this table comparing the two theories of action:

So how would we pursue a concrete sociological question differently if we chose one or the other of these theories of action?  Let’s consider rebellion — the coordinated activities of resistance of a large population against a powerful ruler.  What would a deliberative rationality sociology of rebellion look like?  And what would a pragmatist theory look like?

Oddly enough, it seems to me that we have clear illustrations of both approaches in the existing literature on peasant rebellion.  In fact, the moral economy debate of the 1970s illustrates both approaches. The protagonists here are Samuel Popkin’s The Rational Peasant: The Political Economy of Rural Society in Vietnam and James Scott’s The Moral Economy of the Peasant: Rebellion and Subsistence in Southeast Asia.  Popkin’s analysis of rebellion and revolution in Vietnam is thoroughly grounded in the assumptions of rational choice theory.  Popkin tries to understand the actions of each of the players according to their rational behavior in the face of risk and uncertainty and the strategic behavior of others.  Peasants rebel when the likelihood of success is great enough to make the discounted rewards of rebellion greater than the discounted costs of failure. 

Scott understands rebellion in Southeast Asia in very different terms.  He finds that the “moral economy of the peasant” is a powerful source of behavior for villagers as they consider the options of resistance and subordination.  He is sympathetic to the idea that peasant perceptions of society, of the power structure, and of the future are powerfully shaped by shared social assumptions and frameworks, here and in other works like Weapons of the Weak: Everyday Forms of Peasant Resistanceand Domination and the Arts of Resistance: Hidden Transcripts.  So Popkin’s assumptions are an almost pure example of rational-choice social research; whereas Scott’s assumptions have a very close match with the premises of pragmatist theory of action, as I’ve reconstructed it here. 

So perhaps James Scott too — like Tilly, in Gross’s interpretation — has a deeply pragmatist side lurking within his sociological imagination.


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