Analytical sociology and contentious politics

Analytical sociology is, as its proponents say, a meta-theory of how to conduct social research. In their contribution to Gianluca Manzo’s Analytical Sociology: Actions and Networks Peter Hedström and Petri Ylikoski offer these core principles:

  1. provide explanations of social outcomes of interest based on the mechanisms that produce them;
  2. identify mechanisms at the level of the actors who make up those outcomes
  3. strive for realism in assumptions and hypotheses
  4. be pluralistic about theories of actor motivation and decision making processes; and
  5. build explanations from individuals to social outcomes.

Further, the framework is not offered merely as an abstract philosophy of social science, but rather as a heuristically valuable set of recommendations about how to approach the study of important problems of sociological interest.

So let’s take that idea seriously and ask how the study of contentious politics would look from within a rigorously applied AS approach. 

The subject matter of contentious politics is a large one: how are we to explain the “dynamics of contention” through which challengers succeed in mobilizing support among ordinary people and elites to mount a significant challenge to “incumbents” — the wielders of political power in a given set of circumstances? Here is how Chuck Tilly and Sidney Tarrow encapsulate the field in their introduction to Contentious Politics. Referring to two important cases of contention (opposition to the slave trade in 18th-century England and Ukraine’s protest movement against Viktor Yanukovych’s presidency in 2013-2014), they write:

Although we can identify many differences, these were both episodes of what we call contentious politics. In both, actors made claims on authorities, used public performances to do so, drew on inherited forms of collective action (our term for this is repertoires ) and invented new ones, forged alliances with influential members of their respective polities, took advantage of existing political regime opportunities and made new ones, and used a combination of institutional and extrainstitutional routines to advance their claims. Contentious politics involves interactions in which actors make claims bearing on other actors’ interests, leading to coordinated efforts on behalf of shared interests or programs, in which governments are involved as targets, initiators of claims, or third parties. Contentious politics thus brings together three familiar features of social life: contention, collective action, and politics. (introduction)

There is, of course, a large and vigorous literature within the field of contentious politics, and much of that research falls within the methodological umbrella of comparative historical sociology. There is a great deal of emphasis on the study of case histories, a thick conception of agency, and special interest in social movements and the dynamics of mobilization. And especially in the version offered by McAdam, Tarrow, and Tilly in Dynamics of Contention, there is explicit emphasis on explanations based on discovery of causal mechanisms and processes; and there is a principled rejection of “macro” theories of war, civil war, or revolution in favor of “meso” theories of component mechanisms and processes.

Let’s take Doug McAdam’s treatment of the US civil rights movement in Political Process and the Development of Black Insurgency, 1930-1970 as a good example of empirical and theoretical studies in contentious politics. McAdam treats the origins and growth of the civil rights movement in the South as a case of contentious politics. In his account, it was an insurgency that was broadly based, passionately pursued, supported by effective regional and national organizations, and largely successful in achieving its most important goals. Here are a few of McAdam’s central points as he formulates them in the 1999 second introduction:

Increasingly, one finds scholars from various countries and nominally different theoretical traditions emphasizing the importance of the same three broad sets of factors in analyzing the origins of collective action. These three factors are: 1) the political opportunities and constraints confronting a given challenger; 2) the forms of organization (informal as well as formal) available to insurgents as sites for initial mobilization; and 3) the collective processes of interpretation, attribution and social construction that mediate between opportunity and action. (viii)

Or in short: political opportunities, mobilizing structures, and framing processes (viii-ix). Here are brief descriptions of each of these axes of analysis.

[Expanding political opportunities.] Under ordinary circumstances, excluded groups or challengers face enormous obstacles in their efforts to advance group interests…. But the particular set of power relations that define the political environment at any point in time hardly constitutes an immutable structure of political life. Instead, the opportunities for a challenger to engage in successful collective action are expected to vary over time. It is these variations that are held to help shape the ebb and flow of movement activity. (ix)

[Extant mobilizing structures.] By mobilizing structures I mean those collective vehicles, informal as well as formal, through which people mobilize and engage in collective action. This focus on the meso-level groups, organizations, and informal networks that comprise the collective building blocks of social movements constitutes the second conceptual element in this synthesis. (ix)

[Framing or other interpretive processes.] Mediating between opportunity, organization and action are the shared meanings, and cultural understandings — including a shared collective identity — that people bring to an instance of incipient contention. At a minimum people need to feel both aggrieved about some aspect of their lives and optimistic that, acting collectively, they can redress the problem. (ix-x)

How might a researcher firmly committed to the core principles of analytical sociology assess McAdam’s work in this book? And how would such a researcher approach the problem himself or herself?

One possibility is that all of McAdam’s key theoretical statements in Political Process and the methodology that he pursues can be reformulated in analytical-sociology terms. McAdam was, perhaps, an analytical sociologist before his time. And it will turn out that this is almost true — but with an important proviso.

Mechanisms (1) and microfoundations (5):

McAdam’s approach to the civil rights movement gives central focus to the social mechanisms that contributed to the raising of grievances and the mobilization of groups in support of their claims. And, with a qualification mentioned below, he is receptive as well to the idea that “people make their own history” — that is, that the processes he is considering are embodied in the actions, thoughts, emotions, and mental frameworks of socially situated human actors.

And while I think [rational choice theory] is a truncated view of the individual, I nonetheless take seriously the need for such a model and for the articulation of mechanisms that bridge the micro, meso and macro dimensions of contentious politics. I do not pretend to deliver on a formal model of this sort in this Introduction. For now, I want to make a single foundational point: in my view a viable model of the individual must take full account of the fundamentally social/relational nature of human existence. This is not to embrace the oversocialized conception of the individual that I see informing the work of most structuralists and some culturalists. (1999 introduction)

Actor-centered approach to social change (2):

McAdam’s “actor-centered” view of social movements is evident in the preceding quotation. It is likewise evident in his approving quotation from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.:

Human beings with all their faults and strengths constitute the mechanism of a social movement. They must make mistakes and learn from them, make more mistakes and learn anew. They must taste defeat as well as success, and discover how to live with each. Time and action are the teachers. (kl 4359)

Pluralistic theory of the actor (4):

McAdam advocates for a thick theory of the actor. He is critical of the narrow view of “purposive actors” associated with rational choice theory, and he takes “framing”, “culture”, and “identity” seriously as features of the individual’s motivational space.

3. Framing or other Interpretive Processes. If a combination of political opportunities and mobilizing structures affords the group a certain structural potential for action, these elements remain, in the absence of one final factor, insufficient to account for collective action. Mediating between opportunity, organization and action are the shared meanings, and cultural understandings—including a shared collective identity—that people bring to an instance of incipient contention. At a minimum people need to feel both aggrieved about some aspect of their lives and optimistic that, acting collectively, they can redress the problem. The affective and cognitive come together to shape these two perceptions. (kl 138)

In particular, he gives explanatory importance to black culture and identity in the choices about involvement made by potential participants during the struggle for civil rights in the South:

Black culture—represents a concern for the preservation and perpetuation of black culture. Implicit in this concern is the belief that the black cultural heritage has been systematically suppressed and denigrated by the dominant white society and that blacks must recover their lost heritage if they are to maintain a sense of collective identity. (kl 5760)

Realism of assumptions (3):

McAdam’s focus on the mechanisms and processes of mobilization and contention is fundamentally realist. He is interested in identifying the actual forces, circumstances, and actor-level considerations that explain the success of mobilization in one historical circumstance and failure in another. He uses the term “model” frequently, but in context it almost always means “explanatory framework”. He is not interested in offering an abstract, formal model of mobilization; rather, he is interested in tracing out the circumstances, actions, and responses that jointly led to successful mobilization in some but not all circumstances. Further, McAdam and other researchers in the field of contentious politics pay a great deal of attention to the causal influence of social networks — another important thread in common with analytical sociology.

Meso-level causation and the role of organizations

The primary tension between McAdam’s approach in Political Process and the Development of Black Insurgency and the idealized meta-theory described above is the AS assumption that all explanations must ascend from individuals to collective outcomes (#5). The AS meta-theory gives primary emphasis to explanations located on the rising strut of Coleman’s boat — the aggregation dynamics through which individual properties and actions interact and bring about changes at the macro-level. By contrast, McAdam gives ineliminable causal importance to structures at the meso- and macro-levels throughout the account he offers, and he invokes these structures in his explanations. The circumstances of Cold War competition between the United States and the Soviet Union represent a macro-level structural factor that influenced the course of the civil rights struggle, according to McAdam (kl 422). And intermediate-level organizations like CORE, the NAACP, the SNCC, and the SCLC play key causal roles in the account he offers of success and failure of specific efforts at mobilization and collective action. The social movement he describes cannot be analyzed in a way that ignores the activity and coordinating capabilities of organizations like these, and these organizations cannot be exogenized as fixed and unchanging conditions setting part of the environment of mobilization. Rather, McAdam describes a dynamic process in which individuals, neighborhoods, leaders, regional organizations, and national organizations react to the actions of others and respond strategically. So McAdam’s account does not conform to the explanatory dictum associated with analytical sociology — the idea that explanations must proceed from features of individual choice and action to the higher-level outcomes we want to explain. Instead, McAdam’s explanations typically involve both individual actors and groups, intermediate political organizations, and higher-level structural factors like the Cold War.

But at the moment, I see this final point as a friendly amendment to the AS manifesto. It is evident that meso-level organizations (labor unions, civil rights organizations, student organizations, racist organizations like Citizens Councils and the KKK, …) played a causal role in contentious action against the Jim Crow state; and it is evident as well that it is entirely possible and fruitful to offer actor-centered accounts of how these organizations work. So there is no fundamental incompatibility between McAdam’s explanatory framework and the AS meta-theory. It seems open to analytical sociologists from Peter Hedström to Delia Baldassarri to embrace Political Process and the Development of Black Insurgency as a welcome contribution to a substantive sociological problem, and one that is largely compatible with the AS manifesto.

Agent-based modeling as an approach to contentious politics

There is an important final qualification, however. Agent-based modeling techniques find a natural home within analytical sociology because they strictly embody the “generativist” paradigm: explanation must proceed from facts about individuals to derived facts about social ensembles (#5). In a series of posts, I have argued that ABM models do a poor job of explaining social unrest and contention (linklinklink). This finding derives directly from the methodological restrictions of ABM — only individual actors and standing constraints can be considered in construction of an agent-based model. ABM models are “localistic”. But this means that it is hard to see how an agent-based model can incorporate the causal effectiveness of a spatially distributed and dynamic organization. ABM techniques are relevant to one limited part of the analysis of contentious politics offered by McAdam — the person-to-person processes of mobilization that occur during a period of activism. But ABM techniques do not seem applicable to explaining the contributions of organizations like the Polish Solidarity movement in 1980, the UAW’s struggle for labor rights in the 1930s, or the role of SNCC as catalysts for activism in the 1960s. So on this point we might conclude that McAdam’s multi-level analysis of the large, complicated case of the US civil rights movement is superior to a methodology restricted to the generativist’s credo, that seeks to explain outcomes in the US South strictly on the basis of stylized assumptions about individual actors in different locations.

This implies a nuanced conclusion about the relationship between analytical sociology and the field of contentious politics. McAdam’s methods and explanations in Political Process and the Development of Black Insurgency are largely compatible with the premises of the AS meta-theory, with the proviso that McAdam legitimately gives a causal role to organizations and other meso-level entities. This suggests that AS needs to think again about how it will handle the causal role of meso-level entities — not an impossible task. But one of the main explanatory tools of AS, the methodology of agent-based modeling, does not provide a credible basis for understanding the dynamics of the civil rights movement or other social movements of contention. So even if one judges that AS can be formulated in a way that welcomes nuanced multi-level case studies like that provided by McAdam, the explanations offered by McAdam cannot be replaced with agent-based models. And this supports the view argued elsewhere in the blog as well, that ABM fundamentalism must be rejected (linklink).

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