I’ve argued often for the idea that social science and historical explanations need to be “actor-centered” — we need to ground our hypotheses about social and historical causation in theories of the pathways through which actors embody those causal processes. Actors in relation to each other constitute the “substrate” of social causation. Actors make up the microfoundations of social causes and processes. Actors constitute the causal necessity of social mechanisms.
In its abstract formulation this is little more than an expression of ontological individualism (link). But in application it represents a highly substantive research challenge. In order to provide concrete accounts of social processes in various cultural and historical settings, we need to have fairly specific theories of the actor in those settings (link): what motivates actors, what knowledge do they have of their environment, what cognitive and practical frameworks do they bring to their experiences of the world, what do they want, how do they reason, how do they relate to other actors, what norms and values are embedded in their action principles?
Rational choice theory and its cousins (desire-belief-opportunity theory, for example) provide what is intended to be a universal framework for understanding action. But as has been argued frequently here, these schemes are reductive and inadequate as a general basis for understanding action (link). It has also been argued here that the recent efforts to formulate a “new pragmatist” theory of the actor represent useful steps forward (link).
A very specific concern arises when we think carefully about the variety of actors found in diverse historical and cultural settings. It is obvious that actors in specific cultures have different belief systems and different cognitive frameworks; it is equally apparent that there are important and culture-specific differences across actors when it comes to normative and value commitments. So what is needed in order to investigate social causation in significantly different cultural and historical settings? Suppose we want to conduct research on social contention along the lines of work by Charles Tilly, with respect to communities with widely different cultural assumptions and frameworks. How should we attempt to understand basic elements of contention such as resistance, mobilization, and passivity if we accept the premise that French artisans in Paris in 1760, Vietnamese villagers in 1950, and Iranian professionals in 2018 have very substantial differences in their action principles and cognitive-practical frameworks?
There seem to be several different approaches we might take. One is to minimize the impact of cultural differences when it comes to material deprivation and oppression. Whatever else human actors want, they want material wellbeing and security. And when political or social conditions place great pressure on those goods, human actors will experience “grievance” and will have motives leading them to mobilize together in support of collective efforts to ameliorate the causes of those grievances.
Another possibility is to conclude that collective action and group behavior are substantially underdetermined by material factors, and that we should expect as much diversity in collective behavior as we observe in individual motivation and mental frameworks. So the study of contention is still about conflicts among individuals and groups; but the conflicts that motivate individuals to collective action may be ideological, religious, culinary, symbolic, moral — or material. Moreover, differences in the ways that actors frame their understandings of their situation may lead to very different patterns of the dynamics of contention — the outbreak and pace of mobilization, the resolution of conflict, the possibility of compromise.
Putting the point in terms of models and simulations, we might think of the actors as a set of cognitive and practical processing algorithms and who decide what to do based on their beliefs and these decision algorithms. It seems unavoidable that tweaking the parameters of the algorithms and beliefs will lead to very different patterns of behavior within the simulation. Putting the point the other way around, the successful mobilization of Vietnamese peasants in resistance to the French and the US depended on a particular setting of the cognitive-practical variables in these individual actors. Change those settings and, perhaps, you change the dynamics of the process and you change history.
Clifford Geertz is one of the people who has taken a fairly radical view on the topic of the constituents of the actor. In “Person, Time, and Conduct in Bali” in The Interpretation Of Cultures he argues that Balinese culture conceives of the individual person in radically unfamiliar ways:
One of these pervasive orientational necessities is surely the charac terization of individual human beings. Peoples everywhere have devel oped symbolic structures in terms of which persons are perceived not baldly as such, as mere unadorned members of the human race, but as representatives of certain distinct categories of persons, specific sorts of individuals. In any given case, there are inevitably a plurality of such structures. Some, for example kinship terminologies, are ego entered: that is, they denote the status of an individual in terms of his relation ship to a specific social actor. Others are centered on one or another subsystem or aspect of society and are invariant with respect to the perspectives of individual actors: noble ranks, age-group statuses, occu pational categories. Some-personal names and sobriquets-are infor mal and particularizing; others-bureaucratic titles and caste desig nations-are formal and standardizing. The everyday world in which the members of any community move, their taken-for-granted field of social action, is populated not by anonymous, faceless men with out qualities, but by somebodies, concrete classes of determinate per sons positively characterized and appropriately labeled. And the symbol systems which denote these classes are not given in the nature of things –they are historically constructed, socially maintained, and individu ally applied. (363-364)
In Bali, there are six sorts of labels which one person can apply to an other in order to identify him as a unique individual and which I want to consider against this general conceptual background: ( I ) personal names; (2) birth order names; (3) kinship terms; (4) teknonyms; (5) sta tus titles (usually called “caste names” in the literature on Bali); and (6) public titles, by which I mean quasi-occupational titles borne by chiefs, rulers, priests, and gods. These various labels are not, in most cases, employed simultaneously, but alternatively, depending upon the situa tion and sometimes the individual. They are not, also, all the sorts of such labels ever used; but they are the only ones which are generally recognized and regularly applied. And as each sort consists not of a mere collection of useful tags but of a distinct and bounded terminologi cal system, I shall refer to them as “symbolic orders of person-defini tion” and consider them first serially, only later as a more or less coher ent cluster. (368)
Also outstanding in this field is Robert Darnton’s effort to reconstruct the forms of agency underlying the “great cat massacre” in The Great Cat Massacre: And Other Episodes in French Cultural History; link.