Experimental methods in sociology

An earlier post noted the increasing importance of experimentation in some areas of economics (link), and posed the question of whether there is a place for experimentation in sociology as well. Here I’d like to examine that question a bit further.

Let’s begin by asking the simple question: what is an experiment? An experiment is an intervention through which a scientist seeks to identify the possible effects of a given factor or “treatment”. The effect may be thought to be deterministic (whenever X occurs, Y occurs); or it may be probabilistic (the occurrence of X influences the probability of the occurrence of Y). Plainly, the experimental evaluation of probabilistic causal hypotheses requires repeating the experiment a number of times and evaluating the results statistically; whereas a deterministic causal hypothesis can in principle be refuted by a single trial.

In “The Principles of Experimental Design and Their Application in Sociology” (link) Michelle Jackson and D.R. Cox provide a simple and logical specification of experimentation:

We deal here with investigations in which the effects of a number of alternative conditions or treatments are to be compared. Broadly, the investigation is an experiment if the investigator controls the allocation of treatments to the individuals in the study and the other main features of the work, whereas it is observational if, in particular, the allocation of treatments has already been determined by some process outside the investigator’s control and detailed knowledge. The allocation of treatments to individuals is commonly labeled manipulation in the social science context. (Jackson and Cox 2013: 28)

There are several relevant kinds of causal claims in sociology that might admit of experimental investigation, corresponding to all four causal linkages implied by the model of Coleman’s boat (Foundations of Social Theory)—micro-macro, macro-micro, micro-micro, and macro-macro (link). Sociologists generally pay close attention to the relationships that exist between structures and social actors, extending in both directions. Hypotheses about causation in the social world require testing or other forms of empirical evaluation through the collection of evidence. It is plausible to ask whether the methods associated with experimentation are available to sociology. In many instances, the answer is, yes.

There appear to be three different kinds of experiments that would possibly make sense in sociology.

  1. Experiments evaluating hypotheses about features of human motivation and behavior
  2. Experiments evaluating hypotheses about the effects of features of the social environment on social behavior
  3. Experiments evaluating hypotheses about the effects of “interventions” on the characteristics of an organization or local institution

First, sociological theories generally make use of more or less explicit theories of agents and their behavior. These theories could be evaluated using laboratory-based design for experimental subjects in specified social arrangements, parallel to existing methods in experimental economics. For example, Durkheim, Goffman, Coleman, and Hedström all provide different accounts of the actors who constitute social phenomena. It is feasible to design experiments along the lines of experimental economics to evaluate the behavioral hypotheses advanced by various sociologists.

Second, sociology is often concerned with the effects of social relationships on social behavior—for example, friendships, authority relations, or social networks. It would appear that these effects can be probed through direct experimentation, where the researcher creates artificial social relationships and observes behavior. Matthew Salganik et al’s internet-based experiments (20062009) on “culture markets” fall in this category (Hedström 2006). Hedström describes the research by Salganik, Dodds, and Watts (2006) in these terms:

Salganik et al. (2) circumvent many of these problems [of survey-based methodology] by using experimental rather than observational data. They created a Web-based world where more than 14,000 individuals listened to previously unknown songs, rated them, and freely downloaded them if they so desired. Subjects were randomly assigned to different groups. Individuals in only some groups were informed about how many times others in their group had downloaded each song. The experiment assessed whether this social influence had any effects on the songs the individuals seemed to prefer. 

As expected, the authors found that individuals’ music preferences were altered when they were exposed to information about the preferences of others. Furthermore, and more importantly, they found that the extent of social influence had important consequences for the collective outcomes that emerged. The greater the social influence, the more unequal and unpredictable the collective outcomes became. Popular songs became more popular and unpopular songs became less popular when individuals influenced one another, and it became more difficult to predict which songs were to emerge as the most popular ones the more the individuals influenced one another. (787)

Third, some sociologists are especially interested in the effects of micro-context on individual actors and their behavior. Erving Goffman and Harold Garfinkel offer detailed interpretations of the causal dynamics of social interactions at the micro level, and their work appears to be amenable to experimental treatment. Garfinkel (Studies in Ethnomethodology), in particular, made use of research methods that are especially suggestive of controlled experimental designs.

Fourth, sociologists are interested in macro-causes of individual social action. For example, sociologists would like to understand the effects of ideologies and normative systems on individual actors, and others would like to understand the effects of differences in large social structures on individual social actors. Weber hypothesized that the Protestant ethic caused a certain kind of behavior. Theoretically it should be possible to establish hypotheses about the kind of influence a broad cultural factor is thought to exercise over individual actors, and then design experiments to evaluate those hypotheses. Given the scope and pervasiveness of these kinds of macro-social factors, it is difficult to see how their effects could be assessed within a laboratory context. However, there are a range of other experimental designs that could be used, including quasi-experiments (link) and field experiments and natural experiments (link),  in which the investigator designs appropriate comparative groups of individuals in observably different ideological, normative, or social-structural arrangements and observes the differences that can be discerned at the level of social behavior. Does one set of normative arrangements result in greater altruism? Does a culture of nationalism promote citizens’ propensity for aggression against outsiders? Does greater ethnic homogeneity result in higher willingness to comply with taxation, conscription, and other collective duties?

Finally, sociologists are often interested in macro- to macro-causation. For example, consider the claims that “defeat in war leads to weak state capacity in the subsequent peace” or “economic depression leads to xenophobia”. Of course it is not possible to design an experiment in which “defeat in war” is a treatment; but it is possible to develop quasi-experiments or natural experiments that are designed to evaluate this hypothesis. (This is essentially the logic of Theda Skocpol’s (1979) analysis of the causes of social revolution in States and Social Revolutions: A Comparative Analysis of France, Russia, and China.) Or consider a research question in contentious politics, does widespread crop failure give rise to rebellions? Here again, the direct logic of experimentation is generally not available; but the methods articulated in the fields of quasi-experimentation, natural experiments, and field experiments offer an avenue for research designs that have a great deal in common with experimentation. A researcher could compile a dataset for historical China that records weather, crop failure, crop prices, and incidents of rebellion and protest. This dataset could support a “natural experiment” in which each year is assigned to either “control group” or “intervention group”; the control group consists of years in which crop harvests were normal, while the intervention group would consist of years in which crop harvests are below normal (or below subsistence). The experiment is then a simple one: what is the average incidence of rebellious incident in control years and intervention years?

So it is clear that causal reasoning that is very similar to the logic of experimentation is common throughout many areas of sociology. That said, the zone of sociological theorizing that is amenable to laboratory experimentation under random selection and a controlled environment is largely in the area of theories of social action and behavior: the reasons actor behave as they do, hypotheses about how their choices would differ under varying circumstances, and (with some ingenuity) how changing background social conditions might alter the behavior of actors. Here there are very direct parallels between sociological investigation and the research done by experimental and behavioral economists like Richard Thaler (Misbehaving: The Making of Behavioral Economics). And in this way, sociological experiments have much in common with experimental research in social psychology and other areas of the behavioral sciences.

Mounk on the crisis of democracy

Yascha Mounk’s recent The People vs. Democracy: Why Our Freedom Is in Danger and How to Save It is one of several important efforts to understand the crisis that right-wing populism is creating for liberal democracies in many countries. (An abbreviated version of Mounk’s analysis is published in his contribution to the Atlantic in March 2018 (link).) Mounk shares with Madeleine Albright (Fascism: A Warning), John Keane (The New Despotism), and Levitsky and Ziblatt (How Democracies Die) the concern that the political realities that brought Donald Trump to the presidency in the United States have the potential of profoundly undermining our democracy. I share that concern (linklinklinklink). And yet after reading the book, I’m not entirely convinced that Mounk has hit the target quite right. In the end, he sometimes seems to be more of a critic of liberal democracy than of radical authoritarian populism.

To begin, Mounk makes a determined effort to separate “democracy” from “liberalism”, where the former concept refers to any system in which the “people” rule and the latter refers to any system that embodies legal and institutional protections of the rights and freedoms of all — majority as well as minority. In this way he gives credence to the claim by Viktor Orbán in Hungary to have created the basis of “illiberal democracy” in Hungary (link). Here are the definitions that Mounk offers:

  • democracy is a set of binding electoral institutions that effectively translates popular views into public policy. 
  • Liberal institutions effectively protect the rule of law and guarantee individual rights such as freedom of speech, worship, press, and association to all citizens (including ethnic and religious minorities).
  • liberal democracy is simply a political system that is both liberal and democratic—one that both protects individual rights and translates popular views into public policy.
  • Democracies can be illiberal. (27)

But democracy is not a single-stranded political conception. It is an “ideal type” that draws together several important ideas: self-rule, of course; but also the rule of law, constitutional protection of citizens’ rights, and a commitment to the neutrality of political institutions. Democracy is anti-authoritarian; and this means that there need to be principles, rules, laws, and institutions that protect the rights and freedoms of individual citizens. Therefore the only system worthy of the name as “democracy” is in fact what Mounk refers to as “liberal democracy”. And what Orbán describes is not democracy — any more than a counterfeit coin is a coin.

Mounk details the large decline in public confidence in the political institutions of liberal democracies across Europe and North America. He sees this as an especially worrisome feature of our current political realities: a rising percentage of citizens are willing to look with favor on “strong man” government or even rule by the military. And he recites the evidence of contempt for democratic values and institutions expressed by President Trump since 2016, and by the Republican Party for decades before that.

Over the course of his campaign, Donald Trump broke just about every basic rule of democratic politics. He promised to jail his political opponents. He refused to say that he would accept the outcome of the election. He bullied the press and threatened to expand libel laws. He invited a foreign power to sabotage his main competitor. He incited hatred against ethnic and religious minorities and promised to take unconstitutional action against them. (119)

What Mounk does not do is trace the connection between conservative Republican activists, their deliberate strategies aimed at discrediting and demeaning the institutions of government, and the resulting decline in public opinion that he documents. These shifts of public support for democratic values and institutions are not self-generated; they are at least in part the result of deliberate anti-government strategies of the right, in the United States and other countries. Figures such as Grover Norquist (“I simply want to reduce [government] to the size where I can drag it into the bathroom and drown it in the bathtub”), Newt Gingrich (“One of the great problems we have in the Republican Party is that we don’t encourage you to be nasty” (link)), and the Tea Party had a very consistent and extended political message: government is not to be trusted, and the institutions and values of our political system are bankrupt. Surely this propaganda offensive — fueled by Fox News, talk radio, and social networks — has played an important role in the decline of trust (and adherence) in the institutions and values of liberal democracy. On this topic I find more to learn from McAdam and Kloos, Deeply Divided: Racial Politics and Social Movements in Postwar America (linklink).

In fact, chapter 2 of Mounk’s book (“Rights without Democracy”) could serve as the letters of indictment of a fairly cerebral right-wing populist propaganda specialist. Much of the chapter seems intended to show that liberal democracy is a sham: “As long as you let us call the shots, we will pretend to let you rule” (53). Bureaucrats, judges, international lawyers, and the wealthy make the major decisions, in Mounk’s telling of the tale. Mounk gives the impression that the “founding myth” of American democracy (or British democracy) is exactly that — a myth. And here Mounk is unfair. It is of course true that citizenship was limited in the first century of the US democracy; but it is also true that, through struggle by African-Americans, women, and other excluded minorities, the political system and constitution expanded. We are not the political system we were in 1776 or 1789 or 1861. Nor is it obvious that representative democracy is less democratic than direct democracy — unless we take it as a definitional matter that democracy means direct decision-making by the population.

Mounk’s narrative here gives some credence to the radical populists’ claim that “elites are running the country” (in Britain, in Germany, in the EU, in the US), based on the extensive bureaucracies involved in modern government. He discusses bureaucrats and civil servants, judges, independent agencies, and international treaties and organizations as examples of “unelected elites making basic decisions”. But this claim is itself far too sweeping and simplistic. The fact that public health specialists offer scientific advice about wearing masks during pandemic — and governors act on this advice — is not elitism; it is the result of the principle that “good public policy should be guided by the best scientific understanding of the problems we face.” Yes, governments in liberal democracies deploy legions of “technical experts” or “technocrats”, and these men and women help to formulate public policies in directions that are often hard to sell on Fox News. But this is how governments should act; and it is part of the shameful performance of the Trump administration that Trump and his cabinet have done everything in their power to silence and ignore the advice of qualified scientists, from climate change to atmospheric science to global pandemic.

Mounk emphasizes the very substantial increase in “bureaucratization” that state agencies have undergone in western democracies — the creation of large agencies with substantial regulatory authority such as the Securities Exchange Commission, the Federal Communications Commission, and the Environmental Protection Agency (64). And he seems to suggest that this process gives some truth to the populist refrain that “elites are running our lives without control by the people”. But, as Mounk obviously agrees, a large bureaucracy is unavoidable in the administration and regulation of complex activities like the broadcast spectrum, nuclear power plants, food safety, or pollution. This is not an indication of elitism; it is rather a necessary consequence of highly complex and extended economic and social processes that serve to ensure the health, safety, and security of the public — the people. A democracy requires regulatory agencies, under the broad charter of legislative action. Government is “big” — big government exercises a great deal of decision-making authority. Of course! Democratic legitimacy requires that we make these processes more transparent to the public, but the fact of bureaucracy is not a legitimate complaint against liberal democracy.

Mounk gives an extended example from Switzerland to illustrate the way he divides “democracy” from “liberalism”. A local community sought to prevent a local mosque from building a minaret; the Federal Supreme Court declared in favor of the rights of freedom of worship of these individuals, including the right to build a minaret; and the populist right took up the issue, brought it to a national referendum, and were able to incorporate a restrictive clause  against Muslims into the Swiss constitution: “Freedom of religion and conscience is guaranteed … The construction of minarets is prohibited” (48). Mounk describes this as a case in which “democracy” and “liberalism” parted ways: “That is why I prefer to say that the controversy over minarets epitomizes the disintegration of liberal democracy into two new regime forms: illiberal democracy and undemocratic liberalism” (48). But the justices of the FSC are not elite technocrats substituting their judgment for the “will of the people”; this is exactly what a Supreme Court is charged to do within a constitutional democracy. How else are the rights and freedoms of minorities to be defended against the will of the majority?

Mounk notes that populist leaders and parties seek to undermine the press: “In the early phases, the war on independent institutions frequently takes the form of inciting distrust, or even outright hatred, of the free press” (44). He sees this effort as an attack on liberal principles. But the war waged by radical populist leaders against the press (including, of course, Donald Trump) is not merely anti-liberal; it is anti-democratic. Its aim is to disenfranchise the portion of the population that would oppose the populists’ policies and action by denying them access to information and fair interpretation by other intelligent, well-informed observers. It is to replace “freedom of thought and speech” with the power of propaganda, and the goal is not merely to deny information to potential opponents, but to shape “knowledge” and political discourse in ways that favor the political fortunes of the populist. Again — democracy without liberal institutions and values is only sham democracy.

Mounk is of course right in noticing that populists claim to advocate for democracy, by proclaiming to their followers that they are the true “people” and that their will is the political program of the populist movement. But this is charade, as Mudde and Kaltwasser (Populism: A Very Short Introductionlink) and other scholars of populism have shown. When Sarah Palin claims that the “real Americans” are those who live in small racially homogeneous towns in the Midwest, she is making an appeal to a minority segment of the American population. Her “real Americans” do not include people of color, liberals, urban people, gay people, or legal immigrants. This is not an appeal to democracy; it is an appeal to an exclusionary view of “good Americans” and “bad people living in the country”.

In brief, Mounk’s mid-semester grade for the American democracy is pretty low:

At a minimum, I suggest, any democracy should have in place a set of effective institutional mechanisms for translating popular views into public policy. In the United States, these mechanisms are now significantly impaired. The country’s commitment to liberal rights remains deeply ingrained. But the form this liberalism takes is increasingly undemocratic. (92)

This is a C- when it comes to evaluating a set of political institutions; it suggests that perhaps the student should choose a different major. But actually, we have more to work with in our liberal democracy than Mounk believes. And there is a certain amount of risk of contributing to a self-fulfilling prophecy here: part of the problem in our democracy is a declining level of confidence in political institutions and the worth of government — a decline very specifically and deliberately orchestrated by the right for the past forty years — and the C- hits us where it hurts.

This is not to suggest that liberal democracy does not need reform. The role of money in politics; the disproportionate influence of big business on public policy; the persistent and deliberate racism involved in voter suppression strategies of gerrymandering and discouragement of minority participation in elections — these are the fundamental flaws of our existing political institutions, and they clearly demand solution.

And yet — liberal democracy is the best we have to offer. Modern democratic institutions of government are not the key risk to human freedom in the twenty-first century; the real enemy of individual freedom and dignity is the sustained rise of powerful populist parties and bosses. Levitsky and Ziblatt are closer to the truth than Mounk.

Mounk has a response to these criticisms:

High-minded defenders of liberal democracy believe that there is something uniquely legitimate about the political system to which they are committed. 

Its democratic element, they claim, ensures citizens’ equality. In a monarchy, the king is elevated above his subjects by the accident of his noble birth. In a democracy, by contrast, all citizens get one vote without regard to the color of their skin or the station of their ancestors. 

Its liberal element, meanwhile, ensures citizens’ freedom. In a totalitarian regime, the government can regulate the lives of its subjects in the most minute detail and punish them at whim. In a liberal polity, by contrast, the reach of the law is limited, and citizens are protected against arbitrary interference in their lives. The peculiar genius of liberal democracy is that it is able to honor both of these values at the same time. 

This account of democratic legitimacy is a little too blithe. (129)

Really? Are we wrong to be “high-minded”? In its essence, this is precisely the defense that is needed for the institutions of a liberal democracy: it is a complex of institutions and values aimed at assuring a population of equal citizens the full exercise of their rights and liberties within a system in which they are guaranteed equal rights of political participation. The hard task is to reform, perfect, and preserve those institutions in the face of the forces of reaction.

The rhetorical structure of the book is “diagnosis, causes, remedies.” The remedies that Mounk explores include three major areas of progress that are needed for a multiethnic, multiracial democracy: a solution to the problem of “nationalism” (or more generally, of divided cultural identities); a more just set of economic institutions and opportunities for all citizens; and the rebuilding of what he calls “civic faith”. Interestingly, these areas of recommended reform align rather well with the list I mentioned in an earlier post:

  • A broad consensus that all members of society are treated fairly
  • Confidence in a high level of equality of opportunity in social, political, and economic positions
  • Confidence that government institutions and officials are reasonably honest and transparent
  • Confidence that private influence does not unduly affect the content and application of laws and regulations
  • An overriding conviction that we are “one society” consisting of many communities, and that the wellbeing of all depends on the contributions and fair treatment of all
  • An effective interlacing of communities through cross-cutting political, social, and economic organizations

The most substantial practical advice that Mounk offers as a strategy for lending strength to our liberal democracy (and resisting authoritarian impulses of some of our leaders) is popular protest and expression of our values in the public space — real, active political engagement on behalf of a just liberal democracy.

Thankfully, there is a lot that those of us who want liberal democracy to survive the dawning age of populism can do: We can take to the streets to stand up to the populists. We can remind our fellow citizens of the virtues of both freedom and self-government. We can push established parties to embrace an ambitious program capable of renewing liberal democracy’s promise of a better future for all. And if we do win—as I very much hope we shall—we can muster the grace and the determination to bring our adversaries back to the democratic fold. (265)

I find much to admire and learn from in Mounk’s book. The complaints offered here are aimed, really, at the lawyerly effort that Mounk makes to build the case against liberal democracy. Much of the narrative provided in the “diagnosis” part of the book is an impassioned argument aimed at demonstrating the correctness of many of the populists’ key complaints against the liberal state. And a lawyerly defense of the legitimacy of the institutions of contemporary liberal democracies is lacking. But this concedes too much to right-wing populists. Liberal democracy and right-wing populism are not on the same moral plane. And illiberal democracy is no kind of democracy at all; it is despotism.

A new social ontology of government

After several years of thinking about the nature of government as a network of organizations, I am happy to share the news that Palgrave Macmillan has published my short book, A New Social Ontology of Government: Consent, Coordination, and Authority (Foundations of Government and Public Administration). Thanks to Jos Raadschelders for proposing the book, and thanks to friends and colleagues at the University of Michigan, the University of Duisburg-Essen, the University of Milan, and Nankai University for helping me think through these new ideas. (What a great way to spend a year of sabbatical!)

My goal in this research was to approach the problem of analyzing the workings of government — decision-making, regulation, knowledge-gathering, enforcement, coordination — by making use of recent ideas about the nature of the social world in several disciplines. The result is an actor-centered social ontology that aims to take full advantage of recent frameworks of theory in sociology, political science, organizational studies, and philosophy.

Here is the brief description of the goals of the book:

This book provides a better understanding of some of the central puzzles of empirical political science: how does “government” express will and purpose? How do political institutions come to have effective causal powers in the administration of policy and regulation? What accounts for both plasticity and perseverance of political institutions and practices? And how are we to formulate a better understanding of the persistence of dysfunctions in government and public administration – failures to achieve public goods, the persistence of self-dealing behavior by the actors of the state, and the apparent ubiquity of corruption even within otherwise high-functioning governments?

I’ve tried to combine recent work in the philosophy of social science on the topic of social ontology (the nature of the social world), on the one hand, with recent developments in sociological theory about how to think about social entities. How do organizations and institutions work, from an actor-centered point of view? What do these features of ontology imply about the dynamics that governments are likely to display in routine times and moments of crisis? What is government, really?

Here is what I mean by “ontology” in this context.

What kind of things are we talking about when we refer to “government”? What sorts of processes, forces, mechanisms, structures, and activities make up the workings of government? In recent years philosophers of social science have rightly urged that we need to better understand the “stuff” of the social world if we are to have a good understanding of how it works. In philosophical language, we need to focus for a time on issues of ontology with regard to the social world. What kinds of entities, powers, forces, and relations exist in the social realm? What kinds of relations tie them together? What are some of the mechanisms and causal powers that constitute the workings of these social entities? Are there distinctive levels of social organization and structure that can be identified? Earlier approaches to the philosophy of the social sciences have largely emphasized issues of epistemology, explanation, methodology, and confirmation, and have often been guided by unhelpful analogies with positivism and the natural sciences. Greater attention to social ontology promises to allow working social scientists and philosophers alike to arrive at a more nuanced understanding of the nature of the social world. Better thinking about social ontology is important for the progress of social science. Bad ontology breeds bad science. (2)

These are empirical questions; but they are also conceptual and philosophical questions. And when we consider the scope, complexity, and fluidity of government agencies and institutions, it is clear that we need to make use of illuminating theories from sociology, organizational studies, and philosophy if we are to come to an adequate understanding of “government” as an extended social organization.

What I offer in the book is an approach to analyzing the ontology of government that proceeds from an actor-centered point of view. Government officials, functionaries, and experts are actors within organizations and institutional cultures; and government itself is a network of organizations that often proceed on the basis of independent and contradictory priorities and goals. Here is a brief description of the actor-centered approach to ontology that I have taken in this book:

Another important truth about government is that it is made up of actors—individuals who occupy roles; who have beliefs, interests, commitments, and goals; who exist within social relations and networks involving other individuals both within and outside the corridors of power; and whose thoughts, intentions, and actions are never wholly defined by the norms, organizational imperatives, and institutions within which they operate. Government officials and functionaries are not robots, defined by the dictates of role responsibilities and policies. So it is crucial to approach the ontology of government from an “actor-centered” point of view, and to understand the powers and capacities of government in terms of the ways in which individual actors are disposed to act in a range of institutional and organizational circumstances. Whether we think of the top administrators and executives, or the experts and formulators of policy drafts, or the managers of extended groups of specialized staff, or the individuals who receive complaints from the public, or the compliance officers whose job it is to ensure that policies are followed by insiders and outsiders—all of these positions are occupied by individual actors who bring their own mental frameworks, interests, emotions, and knowledge to the work they do in government. (3)

Fortunately, there are a number of important new theoretical tools and frameworks that assist in the project of analyzing the ontology of government. Fligstein and McAdam’s formulation of the theory of strategic action fields is deeply helpful (A Theory of Fields). But so are the ideas associated with assemblage theory, synthesized by Manuel DeLanda (Assemblage Theory). And new contributions to organizational theory, including especially work by Scott and Davis (Organizations and Organizing: Rational, Natural and Open System Perspectives), shed a great deal of light on aspects of government action and functioning that are otherwise obscure.

The question of collective agency is an important topic to consider when analyzing the ontology of government. I argue that governments do indeed have a form of collective agency along the lines of the ideas expressed by List and Pettit (Group Agency: The Possibility, Design, and Status of Corporate Agents); but it is a conception of group agency that depends on the organized activities and plans of the actors who constitute various units of the organization. Moreover, I argue that the disconnects, inconsistent priorities, principal-agent problems, and conflicts of interest that arise within organizations pretty much ensure that governments and other mega-organizations are myopic and unsteady.

Now think of the possibilities of overlap, interference, and inconsistency that exist among the functionings and missions of diverse agencies. Each agency has its mission and priorities; these goals imply efforts on the part of the leaders, managers, and staff of the agency to bring about certain kinds of results. And sometimes—perhaps most times— these results may be partially inconsistent with the priorities, goals, and initiatives of other governmental agencies. The Commerce Department has a priority of encouraging the export of US technology to other countries, to generate business success and economic growth in the United States. Some of those technologies involve processes like nuclear power production. But other agencies—and the Commerce Department itself in another part of its mission—have the goal of limiting the risks of the proliferation of technologies with potential military uses. Here is the crucial point to recognize: there is no “master executive” capable of harmoniously adjusting the activities of all departments so as to bring about the best outcome for the country, all things considered. There is the President of the United States, of course, who wields authority over the cabinet secretaries who serve as chief executives of the various departments; and there is the Congress, which writes legislation charging and limiting the activities of government. But it is simply impossible to imagine an overall master executive who serves as symphony conductor to all these different areas of government activity. At the best, occasions of especially obvious inconsistency of mission and effort can be identified and ameliorated. New policies can be written, memoranda of understanding between agencies can be drafted, and particular dysfunctions can be untangled. But this is a piecemeal and never-complete process. (5)

The book pays attention to the forms of dysfunction that can be seen to arise within organizations and networks of organizations, given the nature of the actor-centered activity that they encompass. (Other experts on organizational dysfunction include Charles Perrow (Normal Accidents: Living with High-Risk Technologies) and Diane Vaughan (The Challenger Launch Decision: Risky Technology, Culture, and Deviance at NASA).) So the occurrence of corruption, failure of execution, short attention span, inadequate communication, and inconsistency of effort across related agencies are dysfunctional, but can be seen to be as natural to organizations as friction is to mechanical devices. Here is the general view of dysfunction that is developed in the book:

This chapter focuses on a key consequence of the social realities of government presented to this point: the fact that agencies and bureaucracies represent loosely-linked groups of actors who have a variety of different interests, only imperfectly subject to control by the central executive. This is the key theme of the “natural systems” approach to organizations described in Chapter 4. This unavoidable looseness of bureaucratic organization creates the possibility of several kinds of lack of coherence between government’s intentions and the actual activities of agencies and departments. The chapter introduces the idea of a principal-agent problem and demonstrates that this is an unavoidable feature of organizational functioning. It also applies the idea of “loose coupling” to the challenges associated with inter-agency collaboration. And it touches on an important problem at the level of the actor, the problem of conflict of interest and commitment. The chapter considers a range of organizational mechanisms aimed at enhancing internal controls and compliance. (92)

Government is essential to preserving and enhancing the public good in a complex, interdependent society. In order to bring about effective formulation and implementation of public policy, regulation, enforcement, and protection of the health and welfare of the public, it is crucial to have a realistic understanding of how organizations work, and what can be done to make them as effective as possible. And we need to have an honest understanding of the features of organizational behavior that lead to dysfunction if we are to have any hope of creating governmental (and private) organizations that can truly be described as “high-reliability organizations” (link). Fundamentally this book offers a conception of government as a network of organizations, loosely coupled and subject to imperfect executive management. The key challenge for elected leaders and government officials and experts is how to navigate the limitations of large organizations while achieving the larger part of an agenda for the public good.

Conditions for a resilient diverse democracy

Under what conditions can a modern mass society embodying differences of race, religion, wealth, and political ideology maintain a functioning commitment to democracy and its institutions?

The past fifteen years in Western Europe have witnessed an increasingly virulent threat to democracy in the form of the rise of right-wing extremism. Racism, hatred, and violence have come to play increasing roles in the politics and governance of a wide range of western democracies. And the experience of Trumpism in the United States since 2017 makes anyone who is paying attention rightfully alarmed at the future of democratic institutions in the US as well. Trump’s attacks on the Federal courts, his efforts to remove or stifle internal government accountability processes, his explicit politics of division and white supremacy, his demonization of the press, his open admiration of autocrats in other parts of the world, and his celebration of the use of police violence and military force against peaceful protesters make the security of the institutions of liberal democracy increasingly at risk.

Most fundamentally Trump has worked systematically to undermine respect, adherence, and confidence with regard to the institutions of government, and has consistently cultivated his “base” of extremist supporters through a rhetoric of anti-government slogans and racist antagonism. The gun-toting demonstrators against governors who had established sensible policies of social distancing during the COVID-19 pandemic are the most recent example (link), and their Boogaloo networks of violent partisans deepen the threat. And only a tiny number of legislators from the president’s party are willing to express their opposition to the key Trump messages.

So the situation in Trump’s America is alarming. But Trump is merely the spark. What were the circumstances that created an environment where his brand of toxic populist, racist extremism would find substantial political support? And what can be done to help bring the American public back to a strong adherence to our shared political and legal institutions?

John Keane examines the worrisome rise of authoritarianism within western democracies in The New Despotism. His basic thesis is that authoritarian leaders and parties have learned to mimic the language of democracy for their own purposes. Here is William Scheuerman’s description of Keane’s basic theory in his review of the book in The Boston Review (link):

John Keane’s illuminating study of what he dubs the new despotism persuasively argues that its momentum in China, Hungary, Iran, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Singapore, the UAE, and many other countries offers evidence both for its viability today and its longevity in times to come. A novel political formation, the new despotism impersonates democracy as it feeds leech-like on its shortcomings. Perhaps most ominously, it threatens to make inroads even in long-standing democracies, where the political decay celebrated by Putin and others represents more than a debased, self-congratulatory fantasy. (Boston Review (link))

Here I would like to examine the symmetrical question: what kinds of activism, social reform, alliance building, and civil communication can work to build durable civic identity across groups? What concrete strategies are available, at a range of levels, to enhance the loyalty and commitment of all groups to the fundamental institutions of a liberal democracy? How can the United States — 330 million people, with huge regional, racial, religious, and social differences to potentially divide them — how can this highly diverse country build a common identity involving commitment to democratic institutions, the equal worth of all persons, and the rule of law?

There is a great deal of evidence to believe that Trump will lose the November election, and perhaps the Republicans will lose their majority in the Senate as well. Our democracy may be saved by the bell, just in time. But a successful transition to a Democratic president, though a crucial next step, will not suffice. We need to find substantial ways of reinforcing and reinvigorating a broad public consensus about the values of democracy and the crucial role that government plays in securing the conditions of justice and wellbeing for all our population. And this means finding ways of addressing the persistent underlying sources of discontent for a sizable part of our population. We must find effective ways of addressing racial inequalities, including the structural facts about our society that lead to police brutality and violence against people of color. We must address the very great inequalities of opportunity and wellbeing that exist in our society in the twenty-first century. Most persistently, we must find a political consensus around the urgency of addressing global climate change. And above all, we must reaffirm the crucial expectations and commitments that all citizens in a democracy need to share concerning the role of government in our public lives.

The elements of political culture that appear to be needed for a stable democracy seem to include things like these:

  • A broad consensus that all members of society are treated fairly
  • Confidence in a high level of equality of opportunity in social, political, and economic positions
  • Confidence that government institutions and officials are reasonably honest and transparent
  • Confidence that private influence does not unduly affect the content and application of laws and regulations
  • An overriding conviction that we are “one society” consisting of many communities, and that the wellbeing of all depends on the contributions and fair treatment of all
  • An effective interlacing of communities through cross-cutting political, social, and economic organizations

Robert Putnam has something important to contribute to a theory of successful multicultural democracy, including especially his analysis of civic organizations, cross-community collaborations, and cultivation of shared civic values (Better Together: Restoring the American Community). And John Rawls addresses the problem of a liberal democracy with competing conceptions of the good through his idea of overlapping consensus (Political Liberalism). Fundamentally Rawls’s view endorses pluralism across multiple conceptions of the good, unified by a common commitment to the fundamental values of equal worth, equal rights and liberties, and constitutional fidelity. He refers to these core commitments as “a political conception of justice,” and he believes that individuals who grow up in a “well-ordered society” will share such a conception.

Let us say that a political conception of justice (in contrast to a political regime) is stable if it meets the following condition: those who grow up in a society well-ordered by it – a society whose institutions are publicly recognized to be just, as specified by that conception itself – develop a sufficient allegiance to those institutions, that is, a sufficiently strong sense of justice guided by appropriate principles and ideals, so that they normally act as justice requires, provided they are assured that others will act likewise. (Rawls, “The domain of the political and overlapping consensus,” Debates in Contemporary Political Philosophy: An Anthology, 165)

So we might say that a liberal democracy will be stable when it exists in a society embodying a limited range of inequalities, substantial equality of opportunity, equal rights and liberties for all citizens, communication and collaboration across different groups, and a political culture of shared commitment to the institutions of democracy that is cultivated by these enduring conditions. Under these circumstances perhaps we might have confidence that most citizens will come to possess “sufficient allegiance to those institutions” to allow democracy to continue to function.

This implies that our first task is to seriously address the inequalities and injustices that our society still embodies — racial inequalities, mistreatment of minority groups, lack of health insurance for millions of Americans, and extreme and growing inequalities of income and wealth. Second is to imagine and implement real economic changes that increase the opportunities that exist for the lower half of the socioeconomic spectrum in this country. Third is to find concrete, impactful forms of collaboration across groups in ways that allow for progress on the challenges that we all face. The broad representation across race, age, and class that is found in the massive peaceful Black Lives Matter demonstrations across the country provides an excellent model for this kind of collaboration around common demands for change.

The really hard problem is the fact that there seems to be a significant percentage of the American citizenry that rejects the “political and overlapping consensus” that Rawls postulates. The postulate of the moral and political equality of all people is inconsistent with the racism and white supremacy that Trump has encouraged, and many of his followers are receptive to these values. And yet the worldview of white supremacy is completely incompatible with democracy. Further, the appeal of the language of division and hate finds a ready audience with many of his supporters; so extremist organizations are able to build support through racist appeals. It is difficult to see how to build a democratic consensus that incorporates the 30-40% of voters who support the right-wing extremist agenda. And this seems to take us back to the dynamics of anti-democratic authoritarianism described by John Keane above.

We need a new generation of political leaders and political theorists who can offer new ideas about how to build an American consensus in favor of democracy. Here is how an earlier post on this topic closed back in January (link):

Perhaps the identity that has the greatest potential for success in the U.S. is a movement based on “reasserting the values of democracy and equality” within the context of a market economy and a representative electoral democracy. This movement would demand tax policies that work to reduce wealth inequalities and support a progressive state; environmental policies that align the U.S. with the international scientific consensus on climate change; healthcare policies that ensure adequate universal insurance for everyone; immigration policy that made sensible accommodations to the realities of the current U.S. population and workforce, including humane treatment of Dreamers; and campaign funds restrictions that limit the political influence of corporations. The slogan might be, “Moving us all forward through social justice, economic innovation, and good government.” This might be referred to as “centrist progressivism”, and perhaps it is too moderate to generate the passion that a political movement needs to survive. Nonetheless, it might be a form of progressivism that aligns well with the basic pragmatism and fair-mindedness of the American public. 

*          *          *
In a different vein, here are several performances of Aaron Copland’s 1942 powerful and moving Lincoln Portrait (linklink). Lincoln’s words begin at about the 8:00 minute mark.

Who was Angelo Herndon?

In a previous post I quoted Langston Hughes’ 1938 poem “The Kids Who Die”, which is very powerful in the context of our current crisis of police use of deadly force against black men. “Kids will die in the swamps of Mississippi / Organizing sharecroppers / Kids will die in the streets of Chicago / Organizing workers / Kids will die in the orange groves of California / Telling others to get together / Whites and Filipinos, / Negroes and Mexicans, / All kinds of kids will die / Who don’t believe in lies, and bribes, and contentment / And a lousy peace.” In the third stanza Hughes writes “To believe an Angelo Herndon, or even get together”. Who was Angelo Herndon?

Herndon was a self-educated advocate and organizer for workers’ rights and racial equality in the 1930s. He describes his early life of labor and social activism in Let Me Live, published in 1937 when he was only twenty-four years old. His life and arrest and conviction in Georgia for insurrection are described in Charles Martin’s The Angelo Herndon Case and Southern Justice. As a teenager Herndon worked as a laborer and miner under highly exploitative conditions, and eventually became an organizer for workers’ rights and racial equality. Introduced to the Communist Party in the early 1930s, he found the party to be the first organization he had encountered that was not racist, and he joined the party and became an organizer for the Unemployment Council in Atlanta. In 1932 he was arrested by Atlanta police and accused of insurrection, and was convicted on the basis of his possession of Communist literature. He was defended by the International Legal Defense, affiliated with the Communist Party. His case went to the Supreme Court, which declined to hear the case twice in 1935. Finally in 1937 the Supreme Court agreed to hear the case and found that Georgia’s anti-insurrection law was unconstitutional. Law professor Kendall Thomas refers to the Supreme Court decision of Herndon v. Lowry as “generally acknowledged as one of the great civil liberties decisions of the 1930s” (link). 

Herndon was a radical and articulate advocate for workers’ rights for both white and black workers, and he was very willing to challenge Jim Crow racism when he saw it. Kendall Thomas refers to Let Me Live as an example of “the popular tradition of Afro-American resistance literature”, and an instance of “insurgent political consciousness among African-Americans at one key moment in our national past” (2610). As a young man writing Let Me Live, Herndon was scathing in his descriptions of African-American leaders for racial justice including W.E.B. Du Bois, on the ground that they were not radical enough in their attacks on white racism. Quoting Thomas again, “The Angelo Herndon case powerfully underscores the extent to which the history of the struggle of Afro-American people against an oppressive cultural (social, political, and economic) order has also always been the history of a struggle against an oppressive discursive or symbolic order.”

The most powerful political organization that influenced Herndon in his teens and twenties was the Communist Party USA. It appears that the Communist Party’s program, leaders, and strategies were quite different in the American South, and were adapted to addressing the injustices of Jim Crow racism. Robin Kelley’s Hammer and Hoe: Alabama Communists during the Great Depression is a detailed history of black Communism in Alabama. It is a truly fascinating book to read. Here is how Kelley describes the Alabama Communist Party in the preface:

Built from scratch by working people without a Euro-American left-wing tradition, the Alabama Communist Party was enveloped by the cultures and ideas of its constituency. Composed largely of poor blacks, most of whom were semiliterate and devoutly religious, the Alabama cadre also drew a small circle of white folks—whose ranks swelled or diminished over time—ranging from ex-Klansmen to former Wobblies, unemployed male industrial workers to iconoclastic youth, restless housewives to renegade liberals.

What emerged was a malleable movement rooted in a variety of different pasts, reflecting a variety of different voices, and incorporating countless contradictory tendencies. The movement’s very existence validates literary critic Mikhail Bakhtin’s observation that a culture is not static but open, “capable of death and renewal, transcending itself, that is exceeding its own boundaries.”

The experiences of Alabama Communists, however, suggest that racial divisions were far more fluid and Southern working-class consciousness far more complex than most historians have realized. The African-Americans who made up the Alabama radical movement experienced and opposed race and class oppression as a totality. The Party and its various auxiliaries served as vehicles for black working-class opposition on a variety of different levels ranging from antiracist activities to intraracial class conflict. Furthermore, the CP attracted some openly bigoted whites despite its militant antiracist slogans. The Party also drew women whose efforts to overcome gender-defined limitations proved more decisive to their radicalization than did either race or class issues.

It is genuinely fascinating to see how the ideas of Marx and Engels were considered, debated, and reshaped in the context of racist capitalism in the American south. Herndon’s memoir provides numerous examples of his excitement at finding in Marx the language and ideas that he had been seeking to articulate his own construction of the relationship between white owners and black workers. Here is how Herndon paraphrases the Communist Manifesto in his own words (as a man of about twenty): 

The worker has no power. All he possesses is the power of his hands and his brains. It is his ability to produce things. It is only natural, therefore, that he should try and get as much as he can for his labor. To make his demands more effective he is obliged to band together with other workers into powerful labor organizations, for there is strength in numbers. The capitalists, on the other hand, own all the factories, the mines and the government. Their only interest is to make as much profit as they can. They are not concerned with the well-being of those who work for them. We see, therefore, that the interests of the capitalists and the workers are not the same. In fact, they are opposed to each other. What happens? A desperate fight takes place between the two. This is known as the class struggle. (Let Me Live, 82)

Following his release in 1937 Herndon continued to combine activism with literature where he gained some prominence, and he co-edited a short-lived journal, Negro Quarterly: A Review of Negro Life and Culture, with Ralph Ellison for a short time. Herndon left the Communist Party in the late 1940s and died in 1997. (This entry in the New Georgia Encyclopedia provides a few biographical details; link.)

Looking into the life of Angelo Herndon — stimulated by reading the poetry of Langston Hughes — I am struck once again by the fundamental multiplicity and plurality of history. It is sometimes tempting to tell a unified narrative of a large historical process — the rise of liberalism, the struggle of African-Americans for freedom and equality, or the development of radical populism — as if there were a single main current that characterizes the process. But in reality, almost any historical epoch is a swirling process of tension, conflict, and competing groups, and many stories must be told. This is certainly true in the case of African-American history, where radically different visions of the future and conceptions of needed strategies were at work at any given time. The distance between an Angelo Herndon and a W.E.B. Du Bois is as great as that between Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Eldridge Cleaver or Stokely Carmichael. And yet all of their stories are part of the long history of struggle for emancipation, equality, and dignity that America has lived. That is perhaps part of the meaning of Langston Hughes’ refrain: “(America never was America to me.)”

The Kerala dialogue on COVID-19

The Indian state of Kerala has taken an especially active approach to responding to the COVID-19 pandemic. Kerala, a state of more than 33 million people, is governed by the Left Democratic Front, having won state elections in 2016. LDF is a coalition of left-leaning parties, led by the Communist Party of India-Marxist and the Communist Party of India. The Kerala government has been consistently focused on equity and progress for the poorest sectors of Kerala society. Significantly, the government’s efforts in response to the COVID-19 crisis have fallen into the arenas of both public health and social wellbeing. The government quickly implemented public health strategies recommended by the WHO for responding — test, trace, quarantine — very early in the pandemic in Kerala, more quickly and consistently than the national government. Here is a nice summary by Sonia Faleiro in MIT Technology Review (link). 

In Kerala, a different style of leadership was on display. With 15 cases now confirmed across the state, Pinarayi Vijayan, the chief minister, ordered a lockdown, shutting schools, banning large gatherings, and advising against visiting places of worship. He held daily media briefings, got internet service providers to boost capacity to meet the demands of those now working from home, stepped up production of hand sanitizer and face masks, had food delivered to schoolchildren reliant on free meals, and set up a mental health help line. His actions assuaged the public’s fears and built trust.

Kerala’s experience with the pandemic has been much better than other states in India. Here is a comparison table with four other states in India as of June 30, 2020, normalized to cases and deaths per million. The comparison is striking. Kerala has less than one death per million, compared to 67 deaths per million in Maharashtra (the state in which Mumbai is located), and 141 per million in Delhi.

A crucial part of the success in Kerala in limiting the impact of the pandemic was the government’s early recognition that the pandemic would have disastrous consequences for poor people in the state. The government implemented emergency programs of food and stipends to offset the economic disruptions created by the epidemic. Faleiro describes the social sustenance program implemented in Kerala in these terms:

Vijayan, the state’s chief minister, was the first in the country to announce a relief package. He declared a community kitchen scheme to feed the public, and free provisions including rice, oil, and spices. He even moved up the date of state pension payments. (link)

Earlier this month the government of Kerala hosted a dialogue on the COVID-19 crisis involving extensive discussions with Noam Chomsky Amartya Sen, and Dr. Soumya Swaminathan, Chief Scientist of the World Health Organization. V.K. Ramachandran, vice-chairman of the Kerala State Planning Board, conducted fascinating conversations with Chomsky and Sen, and distinguished journalist N. Ram conducted an excellent conversation with Dr. Swaminathan. Links to the dialogues are provided below, and they are all worth viewing. A very good summary of the dialogues is provided in The Hindu here.

Here are a few highlights. Dr. Swaminathan provides a clear, scientifically precise summary of current knowledge about the virus and the best advice available for public health measures to contain its spread. Chomsky points out the connections he sees between the ideological and material commitments of neoliberal governments to corporate profits and their failure to respond adequately to the crisis. The United States government’s actions during this crisis are especially egregious — virtually no effective national policy, on the one hand, and a rush to loosen a raft of environmental regulations during the crisis, on the other. Chomsky underlines the magnifying effects that racial and economic inequalities have had on the distribution of cases and deaths across the population in the United States. He reminds viewers that, terrible as the immediate consequences of the COVID crisis are, the effects of global climate change will be immeasurably worse. Amartya Sen applauds the Kerala government’s consistent attention to the immediate welfare and nutrition crisis threatened by the COVID pandemic, and notes how crucial it is for government policy to be attuned to hunger and entitlement shortfall for vulnerable populations. In this respect the COVID crisis has a lot in common with the Bengal famine of 1943, when a sudden collapse of entitlements for poor people led to massive deprivation and eventually starvation (Poverty and Famines: An Essay on Entitlement and Deprivation).

Sen and Chomsky have devoted their careers to offering analysis and critique of government policy, and it is very interesting to see how they both respond to the largest public health crisis that we have seen in a century. What is especially important from the Kerala experience, it seems, is that the policy values that a government implements have enormous consequences for the wellbeing, health, and safety of the populations that they serve (or fail to serve). Chomsky’s basic view of most liberal democracies is that their policy values are chiefly oriented to the needs of big business, and that this leads to huge inequalities in normal times and in pandemic crisis. Sen has made the case throughout his career that governments should choose policies based on their impact on broad social welfare, not GDP or the stock market. And Kerala presents a fantastic test case: the LDF is a government that is distinctly not beholden to large corporations, it is committed to the welfare of the broad population, and its policies have been highly successful during this crisis in ways that benefit the whole of Kerala society.

Here are the videos.

The Kerala Dialogue on Covid-19

1. Introduction and excerpts from Swaminathan, Chomsky, Sen conversations
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JK3HqHvhJk4&t=180s

2. First conversation
N. Ram interviews Dr Soumya Swaminathan, Chief Scientist of the World Health Organization.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YwFGgrHYF4w

3. Second conversation
Dr V K Ramachandran interviews Professor Noam Chomsky, laureate professor of linguistics at the University of Arizona.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fgQKOUqwAZU

4. Third conversation
Dr V K Ramachandran interviews Professor Amartya Sen, Thomas W. Lamont University Professor of Economics and Philosophy, at Harvard University.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ynrTz-aYcfs

Professor V. K. Ramachadran, the vice-chairman of the Kerala State Planning Board, conducted the interviews with Chomsky and Sen. His work as a development economist at the Indian Statistical Institute in Bangalore is discussed herehere, and here.

N. Ram, a distinguished journalist whose work is discussed here, conducts the interview with Dr Soumya Swaminathan, Chief Scientist of the World Health Organization. 

STS and big science

A previous post noted the rapid transition in the twentieth century from small physics (Niels Bohr) to large physics (Ernest Lawrence). How should we understand the development of scientific knowledge in physics during this period of rapid growth and discovery?

One approach is through the familiar methods and narratives of the history of science. Researchers in the history of science generally approach the discipline from the point of view of discovery, intellectual debate, and the progress of scientific knowledge. David Cassidy’s book  Beyond Uncertainty: Heisenberg, Quantum Physics, and The Bomb is sharply focused on the scientific and intellectual debates in which Heisenberg was immersed during the development of quantum theory. His book is fundamentally a narrative of intellectual discovery. Cassidy also takes on the moral-political issue of serving a genocidal state as a scientist; but this discussion has little to do with the history of science that he offers. Peter Galison is a talented and imaginative historian of science, and he asks penetrating questions about how to explain the advent of important new scientific ideas. His treatment of Einstein’s theory of relativity in Einstein’s Clocks and Poincare’s Maps: Empires of Time, for example, draws out the importance of the material technology of clocks and the intellectual influences that flowed through the social networks in which Einstein was engaged for Einstein’s basic intuitions about space and time. But Galison too is primarily interested in telling a story about the origins of intellectual innovation.

It is of course valuable to have careful research studies of the development of science from the point of view of the intellectual context and concepts that influenced discovery. But fundamentally this approach leaves largely unexamined the difficult challenge: how do social, economic, and political institutions shape the direction of science?

The interdisciplinary field of science, technology, and society studies (STS) emerged in the 1970s as a sociological discipline that looked at laboratories, journals, and universities as social institutions, with their own interests, conflicts, and priorities. Hackett, Amsterdamska, Lynch, and Wajcman’s Handbook of Science and Technology Studies provides a good exposure to the field. The editors explain that they consulted widely across researchers in the field, and instead of a unified and orderly “discipline” they found many cross-cutting connections and concerns.

What emerged instead is a multifaceted interest in the changing practices of knowledge production, concern with connections among science, technology, and various social institutions (the state, medicine, law, industry, and economics more generally), and urgent attention to issues of public participation, power, democracy, governance, and the evaluation of scientific knowledge, technology, and expertise. (kl 98)

The guiding idea of STS is that science is a socially situated human activity, embedded within sets of social and political relations and driven by a variety of actors with diverse interests and purposes. Rather than imagining that scientific knowledge is the pristine product of an impersonal and objective “scientific method” pursued by selfless individuals motivated solely by the search for truth, the STS field works on the premise that the institutions and actors within the modern scientific and technological system are unavoidably influenced by non-scientific interests. These include commercial interests (corporate-funded research in the pharmaceutical industry), political interests (funding agencies that embody the political agendas of the governing party), military interests (research on fields of knowledge and technological development that may have military applications), and even ideological interests (Lysenko’s genetics and Soviet ideology). All of these different kinds of influence are evident in Hiltzik’s account in Big Science: Ernest Lawrence and the Invention that Launched the Military-Industrial Complex of the evolution of the Berkeley Rad Lab, described in the earlier post.

In particular, individual scientists must find ways of fitting their talents, imagination, and insight into the institutions through which scientific research proceeds: universities, research laboratories, publication outlets, and sources of funding. And Hiltzik’s book makes it very clear that a laboratory like the Radiation Lab that Lawrence created at the University of California-Berkeley must be crafted and designed in a way that allows it to secure the funds, equipment, and staff that it needs to carry forward the process of fundamental research, discovery, and experimentation that the researchers and the field of high-energy physics wished to conduct.

STS scholars sometimes sum up these complex social processes of institutions, organizations, interests, and powers leading to scientific and technological discovery as the “social construction of technology” (SCOT). And, indeed, both the course of physics and the development of the technologies associated with advanced physics research were socially constructed — or guided, or influenced — throughout this extended period of rapid advancement of knowledge. The investments that went into the Rad Lab did not go into other areas of potential research in physics or chemistry or biology; and of course this means that there were discoveries and advances that were delayed or denied as a result. (Here is a recent post on the topic of social influences on the development of technology; link.)

The question of how decisions are made about major investments in scientific research programs (including laboratories, training, and cultivation of new generations of science) is a critically important one. In an idealized way one would hope for a process in which major multi-billion dollar and multi-decade investments in specific research programs would be made in a rational way, incorporating the best judgments and advice of experts in the relevant fields of science. One of the institutional mechanisms through which national science policy is evaluated and set is the activity of the National Academy of Science, Engineering, and Medicine (NASEM) and similar expert bodies (link). In physics the committees of the American Physical Society are actively engaged in assessing the present and future needs of the fundamental science of the discipline (link). And the National Science Foundation and National Institutes of Health have well-defined protocols for peer assessment of research proposals. So we might say that science investment and policy in the US have a reasonable level of expert governance. (Here is an interesting status report on declining support for young scientists in the life sciences in the 1990s from an expert committee commissioned by NASEM (link). This study illustrates the efforts made by learned societies to assess the progress of research and to recommend policies that will be needed for future scientific progress.)

But what if the institutions through which these decisions are made are decidedly non-expert and bureaucratized — Congress or the Department of Energy, for example, in the case of high-energy physics? What if the considerations that influence decisions about future investments are importantly directed by political or economic interests (say, the economic impact of future expansion of the Fermilab on the Chicago region)? What if companies that provide the technologies underlying super-conductor electromagnets needed for one strategy but not another are able to influence the decision in their favor? What are the implications for the future development of physics and other areas of science of these forms of non-scientific influence? (The decades-long case of the development of the V-22 Osprey aircraft is a case in point, where pressures on members of Congress from corporations in their districts led to the continuation of the costly project long after the service branches concluded it no longer served the needs of the services; link.)

Research within the STS field often addresses these kinds of issues. But so do researchers in organizational studies who would perhaps not identify themselves as part of the STS field. There is a robust tradition within sociology itself on the sociology of science. Robert Merton was a primary contributor with his book The Sociology of Science: Theoretical and Empirical Investigations (link). In organizational sociology Jason Owen-Smith’s recent book Research Universities and the Public Good: Discovery for an Uncertain Future provides an insightful analysis of how research universities function as environments for scientific and technological research (link). And many other areas of research within contemporary organizational studies are relevant as well to the study of science as a socially constituted process. A good example of recent approaches in this field is Richard Scott and Gerald Davis, Organizations and Organizing: Rational, Natural and Open Systems Perspectives.

The big news for big science this week is the decision by CERN’s governing body to take the first steps towards establishment of the successor to the Large Hadron Collider, at an anticipated cost of 21 billion euros (link). The new device would be an electron-positron collider, with a plan to replace it later in the century with a proton-proton collider. Perhaps naively, I am predisposed to think that CERN’s decision-making and priority-setting processes are more fully guided by scientific consensus than is the Department of Energy’s decision-making process. However, it would be very helpful to have in-depth analysis of the workings of CERN, given the key role that it plays in the development of high-energy physics today. Here is an article in Nature reporting efforts by social-science observers like Arpita Roy, Knorr Cetina, and John Krige to arrive at a more nuanced understanding of the decision-making processes at work within CERN (link).

The arc of justice

It has been over a month since the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis. The horror, brutality, and relentless cruelty of George Floyd’s death moves everyone who thinks about it. But George Floyd is, of course, not alone. Michael Brown was murdered by police in Ferguson, Missouri, in 2014, and Eric Garner was choked to death by New York City police in the same year. The Washington Post has created a database of police shootings since 2015 (link), which includes shootings but not other causes of death. According to the data reported there for more than 5,000 deaths recorded in 2015-2020, black individuals are 2.38 times as likely to be shot and killed by police as white individuals, and Hispanic individuals are 1.77 times as likely to be shot and killed by police as white individuals. During the past five years, persons shot and killed by police included 2,479 white individuals (13 per million), 1,298 black individuals (31 per million), 904 Hispanic individuals (23 per million), and 219 “other” individuals (4 per million). Plainly there are severe racial disparities in these data. Black and brown people are much more likely to be shot by police than white people. Plainly these data demonstrate beyond argument the very clear arithmetic that black men and women are treated very differently from their white counterparts when it comes to police behavior.

Thanks to the availability of video evidence, a small number of these deaths at the hands of police have provoked widespread public outrage and protest. The Black Lives Matter movement has demanded that policing must change, and that police officers and superiors must be held accountable for unjustified use of force. But it is evident from the Washington Post data that most cases do not gain much public recognition or concern; and even worse, nothing much has changed in the five years since Michael Brown’s death and Eric Garner’s death in terms of the frequency of police killings. There has not been a sea change in the use of deadly force against young men of color by police across the country. According to the WP data, there were an average of more than 250 shooting deaths per year of black individuals, and only a few of these received national attention.

What change can we observe since Michael Brown’s death and Eric Garner’s death? The Black Lives Matter movement has been a persistent and courageous effort to demand we put racism and racist oppression aside. The public reaction to George Floyd’s murder in the past month has been massive, sustained, and powerful. The persistent demonstrations that have occurred across the country — with broad support across all racial groups — seem to give some hope that American society is finally waking up to the deadly, crushing realities of racism in our country — and is coming to realize that we must change. We must change our thinking, our acceptance of racial disparities, our toleration of hateful rhetoric and white supremacy, and our social and legal institutions. Is it possible that much of white America has at last emerged from centuries of psychosis and blindness on the subject of race, and is ready to demand change? Can we finally make a different America? In the words of Langston Hughes, “O, yes, I say it plain, America never was America to me, And yet I swear this oath—America will be!”

Michael Brown was killed at about the time of the 2014 annual meeting of the American Sociological Association. A small group of sociologists undertook to write a letter — a manifesto, really — concerning the pervasiveness and impact of racism and racial disparities in America. Sociologist Neda Maghbouleh organized a small group of sociologists in attendance to draft the letter during the ASA conference in San Francisco, and over 1800 sociologists signed the letter. Nicki Lisa Cole contributed to writing the letter and summarizes its main points and recommendations here, and the text of the document can be found here. It is a powerful statement, both fact-based and normatively insistent. The whole document demands our attention, but here are two paragraphs that are especially important in today’s climate of outrage about violent and unjustified use of force by police:

The relationship between African Americans and law enforcement is fraught with a long history of injustice, state violence and abuse of power. This history is compounded by a string of recent police actions that resulted in the deaths of Michael Brown (Ferguson, Mo.), Ezell Ford (Los Angeles, Calif.), Eric Garner (Staten Island, N.Y.), John Crawford (Beavercreek, Ohio), Oscar Grant (Oakland, Calif.), and the beating of Marlene Pinnock (Los Angeles, Calif.) by a California Highway Patrol officer. These events reflect a pattern of racialized policing, and will continue to occur in the absence of a national, long-term strategy that considers the role of historic social processes that have institutionalized racism within police departments and the criminal justice system more broadly.

Law enforcement’s hyper-surveillance of black and brown youth has created a climate of suspicion of people of color among police departments and within communities. The disrespect and targeting of black men and women by police departments across the nation creates an antagonistic relationship that undermines community trust and inhibits effective policing. Instead of feeling protected by police, many African Americans are intimidated and live in daily fear that their children will face abuse, arrest and death at the hands of police officers who may be acting on implicit biases or institutional policies based on stereotypes and assumptions of black criminality. Similarly, the police tactics used to intimidate protesters exercising their rights to peaceful assembly in Ferguson are rooted in the history of repression of African American protest movements and attitudes about blacks that often drive contemporary police practices.

These descriptions are not ideological, and they are not statements of political opinion. Rather, they are fact-based observations about racial disparities in our society that any honest observer would agree with. Alice Goffman’s On the Run: Fugitive Life in an American City is an ethnographic documentation of many of the insights about surveillance, disrespect, and antagonism in Philadelphia (link).

Sociologists, public health experts, historians, and other social scientists have honestly and passionately about the nature of the race regime in America. Michelle Alexander captures the thrust of much of this analysis in her outstanding book The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, and the phrase “the New Jim Crow” is brilliant as a description of life today for tens of millions of African-Americans. But the current moment demands more than simply analysis and policy recommendations — it demands an ability to listen and a better ability of all of America to understand and feel the life experience that racism has created in our country. It seems that we need to listen to a poetic voice as well as a sociological or political analysis.

One of those voices is Langston Hughes. Here are two of Langston Hughes’ incredibly powerful poems from the 1930s that speak to our times, “The Kids Who Die” and “Let America Be America Again”.

The Kids Who Die
1938

This is for the kids who die,
Black and white,
For kids will die certainly.
The old and rich will live on awhile,
As always,
Eating blood and gold,
Letting kids die.

Kids will die in the swamps of Mississippi
Organizing sharecroppers
Kids will die in the streets of Chicago
Organizing workers
Kids will die in the orange groves of California
Telling others to get together
Whites and Filipinos,
Negroes and Mexicans,
All kinds of kids will die
Who don’t believe in lies, and bribes, and contentment
And a lousy peace.

Of course, the wise and the learned
Who pen editorials in the papers,
And the gentlemen with Dr. in front of their names
White and black,
Who make surveys and write books
Will live on weaving words to smother the kids who die,
And the sleazy courts,
And the bribe-reaching police,
And the blood-loving generals,
And the money-loving preachers
Will all raise their hands against the kids who die,
Beating them with laws and clubs and bayonets and bullets
To frighten the people—
For the kids who die are like iron in the blood of the people—
And the old and rich don’t want the people
To taste the iron of the kids who die,
Don’t want the people to get wise to their own power,
To believe an Angelo Herndon, or even get together

Listen, kids who die—
Maybe, now, there will be no monument for you
Except in our hearts
Maybe your bodies’ll be lost in a swamp
Or a prison grave, or the potter’s field,
Or the rivers where you’re drowned like Leibknecht
But the day will come—
You are sure yourselves that it is coming—
When the marching feet of the masses
Will raise for you a living monument of love,
And joy, and laughter,
And black hands and white hands clasped as one,
And a song that reaches the sky—
The song of the life triumphant
Through the kids who die.

Let America be America again
1935

Let America be America again.
Let it be the dream it used to be.
Let it be the pioneer on the plain
Seeking a home where he himself is free.

(America never was America to me.)

Let America be the dream the dreamers dreamed—
Let it be that great strong land of love
Where never kings connive nor tyrants scheme
That any man be crushed by one above.

(It never was America to me.)

O, let my land be a land where Liberty
Is crowned with no false patriotic wreath,
But opportunity is real, and life is free,
Equality is in the air we breathe.

(There’s never been equality for me,
Nor freedom in this “homeland of the free.”)

Say, who are you that mumbles in the dark?
And who are you that draws your veil across the stars?

I am the poor white, fooled and pushed apart,
I am the Negro bearing slavery’s scars.
I am the red man driven from the land,
I am the immigrant clutching the hope I seek—
And finding only the same old stupid plan
Of dog eat dog, of mighty crush the weak.

I am the young man, full of strength and hope,
Tangled in that ancient endless chain
Of profit, power, gain, of grab the land!
Of grab the gold! Of grab the ways of satisfying need!
Of work the men! Of take the pay!
Of owning everything for one’s own greed!

I am the farmer, bondsman to the soil.
I am the worker sold to the machine.
I am the Negro, servant to you all.
I am the people, humble, hungry, mean—
Hungry yet today despite the dream.
Beaten yet today—O, Pioneers!
I am the man who never got ahead,
The poorest worker bartered through the years.

Yet I’m the one who dreamt our basic dream
In the Old World while still a serf of kings,
Who dreamt a dream so strong, so brave, so true,
That even yet its mighty daring sings
In every brick and stone, in every furrow turned
That’s made America the land it has become.
O, I’m the man who sailed those early seas
In search of what I meant to be my home—
For I’m the one who left dark Ireland’s shore,
And Poland’s plain, and England’s grassy lea,
And torn from Black Africa’s strand I came
To build a “homeland of the free.”

The free?

Who said the free? Not me?
Surely not me? The millions on relief today?
The millions shot down when we strike?
The millions who have nothing for our pay?
For all the dreams we’ve dreamed
And all the songs we’ve sung
And all the hopes we’ve held
And all the flags we’ve hung,
The millions who have nothing for our pay—
Except the dream that’s almost dead today.

O, let America be America again—
The land that never has been yet—
And yet must be—the land where every man is free.
The land that’s mine—the poor man’s, Indian’s, Negro’s, ME—
Who made America,
Whose sweat and blood, whose faith and pain,
Whose hand at the foundry, whose plow in the rain,
Must bring back our mighty dream again.

Sure, call me any ugly name you choose—
The steel of freedom does not stain.
From those who live like leeches on the people’s lives,
We must take back our land again,
America!

O, yes,
I say it plain,
America never was America to me,
And yet I swear this oath—
America will be!

Out of the rack and ruin of our gangster death,
The rape and rot of graft, and stealth, and lies,
We, the people, must redeem
The land, the mines, the plants, the rivers.
The mountains and the endless plain—
All, all the stretch of these great green states—
And make America again!

Big physics and small physics

When Niels Bohr traveled to Britain in 1911 to study at the Cavendish Laboratory at Cambridge, the director was J.J. Thompson and the annual budget was minimal. In 1892 the entire budget for supplies, equipment, and laboratory assistants was a little over about £1400 (Dong-Won Kim, Leadership and Creativity: A History of the Cavendish Laboratory, 1871-1919 (Archimedes), p. 81). Funding derived almost entirely from a small allocation from the University (about £250) and student fees deriving from lectures and laboratory use at the Cavendish (about £1179). Kim describes the finances of the laboratory in these terms:

Lack of funds had been a chronic problem of the Cavendish Laboratory ever since its foundation. Although Rayleigh had established a fund for the purchase of necessary apparatus, the Cavendish desperately lacked resources. In the first years of J.J.’s directorship, the University’s annual grant to the laboratory of about £250 did not increase, and it was used mainly to pay the wages of the Laboratory assistants (£214 of this amount, for example, went to salaries in 1892). To pay for the apparatus needed for demonstration classes and research, J.J. relied on student fees. 

Students ordinarily paid a fee of £1.1 to attend a lecture course and a fee of £3.3 to attend a demonstration course or to use space in the Laboratory. As the number of students taking Cavendish courses increased, so did the collected fees. In 1892, these fees totaled £1179; in 1893 the total rose a bit to £1240; and in 1894 rose again to £1409. Table 3.5 indicates that the Cavendish’s expenditures for “Apparatus, Stores, Printing, &c.” (£230 3s 6d in 1892) nearly equaled the University’s entire grant to the Cavendish (£254 7s 6d in 1892). (80)

The Cavendish Laboratory exerted great influence on the progress of physics in the early twentieth century; but it was distinctly organized around a “small science” model of research. (Here is an internal history of the Cavendish Lab; link.) The primary funding for research at the Cavendish came from the university itself, student fees, and occasional private gifts to support expansion of laboratory space, and these funds were very limited. And yet during those decades, there were plenty of brilliant physicists at work at the Cavendish Lab. Much of the future of twentieth century physics was still to be written, and Bohr and many other young physicists who made the same journey completely transformed the face of physics. And they did so in the context of “small science”.

Abraham Pais’s intellectual and scientific biography of Bohr, Niels Bohr’s Times: In Physics, Philosophy, and Polity, provides a detailed account of Bohr’s intellectual and personal development. Here is Pais’s description of Bohr’s arrival at the Cavendish Lab:

At the time of Bohr’s arrival at the Cavendish, it was, along with the Physico-Technical Institute in Berlin, one of the world’s two leading centers in experimental physics research. Thomson, its third illustrious director, successor to Maxwell and Rayleigh, had added to its distinction by his discovery of the electron, work for which he had received the Nobel Prize in 1906. (To date the Cavendish has produced 22 Nobel laureates.) In those days, ‘students from all over the world looked to work with him… Though the master’s suggestions were, of course, most anxiously sought and respected, it is no exaggeration to add that we were all rather afraid he might touch some of our apparatus.’ Thomson himself was well aware that his interaction with experimental equipment was not always felicitous: ‘I believe all the glass in the place is bewitched.’ … Bohr knew of Thomson’s ideas on atomic structure, since these are mentioned in one of the latter’s books which Bohr had quoted several times in his thesis. This problem was not yet uppermost in his mind, however, when he arrived in Cambridge. When asked later why he had gone there for postdoctoral research he replied: ‘First of all I had made this great study of the electron theory. I considered… Cambridge as the center of physics and Thomson as a most wonderful man.’ (117, 119)

On the origins of his theory of the atom:

Bohr’s 1913 paper on α-particles, which he had begun in Manchester, and which had led him to the question of atomic structure, marks the transition to his great work, also of 1913, on that same problem. While still in Manchester, he had already begun an early sketch of these entirely new ideas. The first intimation of this comes from a letter, from Manchester, to Harald: ‘Perhaps I have found out a little about the structure of atoms. Don’t talk about it to anybody… It has grown out of a little information I got from the absorption of α-rays.’ (128)

And his key theoretical innovation:

Bohr knew very well that his two quoted examples had called for the introduction of a new and as yet mysterious kind of physics, quantum physics. (It would become clear later that some oddities found in magnetic phenomena are also due to quantum effects.) Not for nothing had he written in the Rutherford memorandum that his new hypothesis ‘is chosen as the only one which seems to offer a possibility of an explanation of the whole group of experimental results, which gather about and seems to confirm conceptions of the mechanismus [sic] of the radiation as the ones proposed by Planck and Einstein’. His reference in his thesis to the radiation law concerns of course Planck’s law (5d). I have not yet mentioned the ‘calculations of heat capacity’ made by Einstein in 1906, the first occasion on which the quantum was brought to bear on matter rather than radiation. (138)

But here is the critical point: Bohr’s pivotal contributions to physics derived from exposure to the literature in theoretical physics at the time, his own mathematical analysis of theoretical assumptions about the constituents of matter, and exposure to laboratories whose investment involved only a few thousand pounds.

Now move forward a few decades to 1929 when Ernest Lawrence conceived of the idea of the cyclical particle accelerator, the cyclotron, and soon after founded the Radiation Lab at Berkeley. Michael Hiltzik tells this story in Big Science: Ernest Lawrence and the Invention that Launched the Military-Industrial Complex, and it is a very good case study documenting the transition from small science to big science in the United States. The story demonstrates the vertiginous rise of large equipment, large labs, large funding, and big science. And it demonstrates the deeply interwoven careers of fundamental physics and military and security priorities. Here is a short description of Ernest Lawrence:

Ernest Lawrence’s character was a perfect match for the new era he brought into being. He was a scientific impresario of a type that had seldom been seen in the staid world of academic research, a man adept at prying patronage from millionaires, philanthropic foundations, and government agencies. His amiable Midwestern personality was as much a key to his success as his scientific genius, which married an intuitive talent for engineering to an instinctive grasp of physics. He was exceptionally good-natured, rarely given to outbursts of temper and never to expressions of profanity. (“ Oh, sugar!” was his harshest expletive.) Raising large sums of money often depended on positive publicity, which journalists were always happy to deliver, provided that their stories could feature fascinating personalities and intriguing scientific quests. Ernest fulfilled both requirements. By his mid-thirties, he reigned as America’s most famous native-born scientist, his celebrity validated in November 1937 by his appearance on the cover of Time over the cover line, “He creates and destroys.” Not long after that, in 1939, would come the supreme encomium for a living scientist: the Nobel Prize. (kl 118)

And here is Hiltzik’s summary of the essential role that money played in the evolution of physics research in this period:

Money was abundant, but it came with strings. As the size of the grants grew, the strings tautened. During the war, the patronage of the US government naturally had been aimed toward military research and development. But even after the surrenders of Germany and Japan in 1945, the government maintained its rank as the largest single donor to American scientific institutions, and its military goals continued to dictate the efforts of academic scientists, especially in physics. World War II was followed by the Korean War, and then by the endless period of existential tension known as the Cold War. The armed services, moreover, had now become yoked to a powerful partner: industry. In the postwar period, Big Science and the “military-industrial complex” that would so unnerve President Dwight Eisenhower grew up together. The deepening incursion of industry into the academic laboratory brought pressure on scientists to be mindful of the commercial possibilities of their work. Instead of performing basic research, physicists began “spending their time searching for ways to pursue patentable ideas for economic rather than scientific reasons,” observed the historian of science Peter Galison. As a pioneer of Big Science, Ernest Lawrence would confront these pressures sooner than most of his peers, but battles over patents—not merely what was patentable but who on a Big Science team should share in the spoils—would soon become common in academia. So too would those passions that government and industry shared: for secrecy, for regimentation, for big investments to yield even bigger returnsParticle accelerators became the critical tool in experimental physics. A succession of ever-more-powerful accelerators became the laboratory apparatus through which questions and theories being developed in theoretical physics could be pursued by bombarding targets with ever-higher energy particles (protons, electrons, neutrons). Instead of looking for chance encounters with high-energy cosmic rays, it was possible to use controlled processes within particle accelerators to send ever-higher energy particles into collisions with a variety of elements. (kl 185)

What is intriguing about Hiltzik’s story is the fascinating interplay of separate factors the narrative invokes: major developments in theoretical physics (primarily in Europe), Lawrence’s accidental exposure to a relevant research article, the personal qualities and ambition of Lawrence himself, the imperatives and opportunities for big physics created by atomic bomb research in the 1940s, and the institutional constraints and interests of the University of California. This is a story of the advancement of physics that illustrates a huge amount of contingency and path dependency during the 1930s through 1950s. The engineering challenges of building and maintaining a particle accelerator were substantial as well, and if those challenges could not be surmounted the instrument would be impossible. (Maintaining a vacuum in a super-large canister itself proved to be a huge technical challenge.)

Physics changed dramatically between 1905 and 1945, and the balance between theoretical physics and experimental physics was one important indicator of this change. And the requirements of experimental physics went from the lab bench to the cyclotron — from a few hundred dollars (pounds, marks, krone, euros) of investment to hundreds of millions of dollars (and now billions) in investment. This implied, fundamentally, that scientific research evolved from an individual activity taking place in university settings to an activity involving the interests of the state, big business, and the military — in addition to the scientific expertise and imagination of the physicists.

Guest post by Nicholas Preuth

Nicholas Preuth is a philosophy student at the University of Michigan. His primary interests fall in the philosophy of law and the philosophy of social science. Thanks, Nick, for contributing this post!

Distinguishing Meta-Social Ontology from Social Ontology

Social ontology is the study of the properties of the social world. Conventional claims about social ontology proceed by asking and answering questions such as, “what is the existential status of social entities (e.g. institutions, governments, etc.)?”, “can institutions exert causal influence?”, “what is the causal relationship between micro, meso, and macro-level social entities?”, etc. Daniel Little is one of the many philosophers and sociologists who has written extensively on the topic of social ontology (see discussions herehere, and here). The types of arguments and discussions found in those blog posts represent conventional social ontology discussions—conventional in the sense that the content of the posts constitute the sort of commonly agreed-upon purview of social ontology discussions.

However, in recent years, many works of social ontology have embedded a new type of claim in their works that differs from the conventional discussions of social ontology. These new claims are a series of methodological claims about the role and importance of ontology in conducting social scientific research. Unlike conventional claims about ontology that try to answer substantive questions about the nature of the social world, these methodological claims ask why ontology matters and what role ontology should play in the conduct of social science research. Here is an example of Brian Epstein making such a claim in his work, The Ant Trap: Rebuilding the Foundations of the Social Sciences:

Ontology has ramifications, and ontological mistakes lead to scientific mistakes. Commitments about the nature of the entities in a science—how they are composed, the entities on which they ontologically depend—are woven into the models of science.…despite Virchow’s expertise with a microscope, his commitment to cell theory led him to subdivide tissues into cells where there are none. And that led to poor theories about how anatomical features come to be, how they are changed or destroyed, and what they do. (Brian Epstein, The Ant Trap: Rebuilding the Foundations of the Social Sciences (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015, 40-41))

Notice how in this passage Epstein makes a claim about why ontology is important and, consequently, tacitly takes a stance on a methodological relationship between ontology and research. According to Epstein, ontology matters because ontology shapes the very way that we investigate the world. He believes that bad ontology leads researchers into scientific mistakes because ontology distorts a researcher’s ability to objectively investigate phenomena. Epstein’s evident unstated conclusion here—which is never explicitly formulated in his book, even though it is a very important underlying premise in his project—is that ontological theorizing must take methodological priority over scientific experimentation. As Epstein might sum up, we ought to think about ontology first, and then conduct research later.

Yet Epstein’s statement is not the only way of construing the relationship between ontology and research. Epstein’s unstated assumption that ontological work should be done before research is a highly contested assertion. Why should we just accept that ontology should come before empirical research? Are there no other ways of thinking about the relationship between ontology and social science research? These methodological questions are better suited being treated as separate, distinct questions rather than being embedded within the usual set of conventional questions about social ontology. There should be a conceptual distinction between the conventional claims about social ontology that actually engage with understanding the social world, and these new kinds of methodological claims about the relationship between ontology and research. If we adhere to such a distinction, then Epstein’s methodological claims do not belong to the field of social ontology: they are claims about meta-social ontology.

Meta-social ontology aims to explicitly illuminate the methodological relationship between ontological theorizing in the social sciences and the empirical practice of social science research. The field of meta-social ontology seeks to answer two crucial questions:

  1. What methodology best guides the practice of ontological theorizing?
  2. To what extent should we be existentially committed to the ontological statements we make about the social world?

Let’s spend some time examining both questions, as well as proposed answers to each question.

The first question is a clear formulation of the kind of question that Epstein wants to answer in his book. There are two typical approaches to answering this question. Epstein’s approach, that ontological theorizing must occur prior to and outside of scientific experimentation, is called apriori ontology. Apriori ontology argues that ontology can be successfully crafted through theoretical deductions and philosophical reasoning, and that it is imperative to do so because ontological mistakes lead to scientific mistakes. Here is another philosopher, John Searle, supporting the apriori social ontology position:

I believe that where the social sciences are concerned, social ontology is prior to methodology and theory. It is prior in the sense that unless you have a clear conception of the nature of the phenomena you are investigating, you are unlikely to develop the right methodology and the right theoretical apparatus for conducting the investigation. (John Searle, “Language and Social Ontology,” Theory and Society, Vol. 37:5, 2008, 443).

Searle’s formulation of apriori ontology here gives an explicit methodological priority to ontological theorizing. In other words, he believes that the correct ontology needs to be developed first before scientific experimentation, or else the experimentation will be misguided. No doubt Epstein agrees with this methodological priority, but he does not explicitly state it. Nevertheless, both Searle and Epstein are clear advocates of the apriori ontology position.

However, there is another approach to ontological theorizing that challenges apriori ontology as being too abstracted from the actual conduct of social science experimentation. This other approach is called aposteriori ontology. Aposteriori ontology rejects the efficacy of abstract ontological theorizing derived from speculative metaphysics. Instead, aposteriori ontology advocates for ontology to be continually constructed, informed, and refined by empirical social science research. Here is Little’s formulation of aposteriori ontology:

I believe that ontological theorizing is part of the extended scientific enterprise of understanding the world, and that efforts to grapple with empirical puzzles in the world are themselves helpful to refine and specifying our ontological ideas…. Ontological theories are advanced as substantive and true statements of some aspects of the social world, but they are put forward as being fundamentally a posteriori and corrigible. (D. Little, “Social Ontology De-dramatized,” Philosophy of the Social Sciences, I-11, 2020, 2-4)

Unlike apriori ontology, aposteriori ontology does not look at ontology as being prior to scientific research. Instead, aposteriori ontology places scientific experimentation alongside ontological developments as two tools that go hand-in-hand in guiding our understanding of the social world. In sum, the apriori vs. aposteriori debate revolves around whether ontology should be seen as an independent, theoretical pursuit that determines our ability to investigate the world, or if ontology should be seen as another collaborative tool within the scientific enterprise, alongside empirical research and theory formation, that helps us advance our understanding of the nature of the social world.

The second question in the field of meta-ontology is a question of existential commitment: to what extent do we need to actually believe in the existence of the ontological statements we posit about the world? This is less complicated than it sounds. Consider this example: we often talk about the notion of a “ruling class” in society, where “ruling class” is understood as a social group that wields considerable influence over a society’s political, economic, and social agenda. When we employ the term “ruling class,” do we actually mean to say that such a formation really exists in society, or is this just a helpful term that allows us to explain the occurrence of certain social phenomena while also allowing us to continue to generate more explanations of more social phenomena? This is the heart of the second issue in meta-ontology.

Similar to the apriori vs. aposteriori debate, proposed answers to this question tend to be dichotomous. The two main approaches to this question are realism and anti-realism (sometimes called pragmatism). Realism asserts that we should be existentially committed to the ontological entities that we posit. Epstein, Searle, and Little are among those who fall into this camp. Here is Epstein’s approximate formulation of realism:

What are social facts, social objects, and social phenomena—these things that the social sciences aim to model and explain?… How the social world is built is not a mystery, not magical or inscrutable or beyond us. (Epstein, The Ant Trap, 7)

As Epstein expresses here, realists believe that it is possible to discover the social world just as scientist discover the natural world. Realists maintain that their ontological statements about the world reflect social reality, meaning that the discovery and explanatory success of the “ruling class” hypothesis is like finding a new theory of the natural world.

Contrarily, anti-realists/pragmatists argue that ontology is only useful insofar as it advances scientific inquiry and enables successful inferences to a larger number of social phenomena. They do not believe that ontological statements reflect social reality, so they are not existentially committed to the truth of any particular ontology of the social world. Richard Lauer, a proponent of an anti-realist/pragmatist meta-social ontology, defines it like this:

The function of these statements is pragmatic. Such statements may open new possibilities that can further scientific aims, all without requiring a realist attitude…instead of concerning ourselves with whether there really are such [things], we may ask about the empirical merits of moving to [such] a view. (Richard Lauer, “Is Social Ontology Prior to Social Scientific Methodology,” Philosophy of the Social Sciences, Vol. 49:3, 2019, 184)

Taking the ruling class example above, an anti-realist/pragmatist like Lauer would suggest that the concept of ruling class is useful because it allows us to generate more explanations of social phenomena while rejecting the idea that there is such a thing as “ruling classes” that actually exists.

There is, however, some room for middle ground between realism and anti-realism. Harold Kincaid, another well-known philosopher of social science, has tried to push the realism/anti-realism debates in a more fruitful direction by asserting that a better way to answer the question is by addressing the question towards empirical research in specific, localized contexts:

“I think we can go beyond blanket realism or instrumentalism if we look for more local issues and do some clarification. A first step, I would argue, is to see just when, where, and how specific social research with specific ontologies has empirical success…The notion of a ‘ruling class’ at certain times and places explains much. Does dividing those at the top differently into ruling elites also explain? That could well be the case and it could be that we can do so without contradicting the ruling class hypothesis…These are the kind of empirical issues which give ‘realism’ and ‘pluralism’ concrete implications.” (Harold Kincaid, “Concrete Ontology: Comments on Lauer, Little, and Lohse,” Philosophy of the Social Sciences, I-8, 2020, 4-5)

Kincaid suggests here that a better way of arguing for the efficacy of a realist or anti-realist meta-ontology is by looking at the particular success of specific ontological statements in the social sciences and thereby determining an answer from there. Taking our ruling class example, Kincaid would suggest that we investigate the success of the ruling class hypothesis in localized contexts, and then from there evaluate our existential commitment to it based on its ability to successfully explain social phenomena and provoke new research regarding new social phenomena. This is still a clear endorsement of realism with respect to social concepts and entities. However, it pushes the conversation away from blanket realism (like Epstein) and blanket pragmatism (like Lauer). Instead, Kincaid emphasizes the interaction of empirical research on the subsequent development of our realist/anti-realist meta-ontological position towards specific social phenomena. Thus, as Kincaid sums up his position, “we need to get more concrete!” (Kincaid, 8).

So, there are many ways one can think about the methodological relationship between social ontology and social science research. If we were to categorize the philosophers discussed here, it would look like this:

  1. Apriori realism ontology (Searle, Epstein)
  2. Aposteriori realism ontology (Little, Kincaid)
  3. Anti-realist pragmatism ontology (Lauer)

In light of these discussions, it is important that works of social ontology maintain a conceptual distinction between social ontology arguments and meta-social ontology arguments. As we saw with Epstein, it can be tempting to throw in meta-social ontological justifications in a new work of social ontology. However, this both blurs the distinction between the field of social ontology and the field of meta-social ontology, and it obscures the view that meta-social ontological discussions deserve a treatment in their own right. As a complex, abstract field that deals with difficult subject matter, social ontology should strive for the utmost clarity. Adding meta-social ontological considerations as a quick aside in a work on social ontology just muddies the already murky water.

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