Social change and agency

Much of the drama of history is found in processes of large social and political change, both slow and rapid. The sudden collapse of the Soviet system in 1989 and 1990, the success of the Chinese Communist Revolution in 1949, the decades-long rise of the nationalist right in France and the United States, the rise of fascism in Germany, Austria, and Spain in the 1930s, the success of movements for female suffrage in most western democracies since the beginning of the twentieth century — these are examples of social and political change that are of great importance for the future of humanity, for better and worse.

There is a school of thought that wants to think of social change as being largely the result of human agency: parties, leaders, social movements, organizations, and social classes bring about changes that they “want” that they plan for. And sometimes this is true enough: the Republican tax-cutting policies of the past forty years in the United States have brought about a lot of social change, and a lot of that has been deliberate. Ideology and class interests, conjoined with a determined and persistent political party, have led to a substantial shift of wealth and income to an ever-smaller percentage of the population.

But much social and historical change doesn’t look like that story. The change associated with GOP tax activism is a large and important one; but it is a pretty simple one as well. It is more akin to a pirate band taking plunder from a defenseless coastal population than a long, complex process of engagement with social forces, groups, and structures aimed at creating change.

Unquestionably there is a vast amount of agency, both individual and group, in typical processes of large social change. But much of this agency is contentious and decentralized, with widely different objectives, plans, strategies, and coalitions associated with different configurations of actors. Groups set out with one set of objectives; internal conflicts lead to adjustment and re-prioritization of objectives; other groups hijack the activism and organization of competitors and redirect their efforts towards a different set of goals altogether. The result is a set of outcomes that often would create an enormous sense of surprise for the activists and actors who were involved in collective efforts at the beginning: is this what we were striving for?

This feature of the multiplicity of social actors is what makes the field of contentious politics so important and so interesting. Scholars like McAdam, Tarrow, and Tilly (Dynamics of Contention) have highlighted the complexity that underlies large social movements, and the social mechanisms through which multiple actors interact, compete, collaborate, and divide from each other. And it turns out that some of the same dynamics that are discovered in large processes of social movements are also found in more ordinary social environments as well; this is the special insight offered by Fligstein and McAdam in A Theory of Fields. Corporations, universities, and government agencies all embody some of the mechanisms of “contentious politics”.

But social movements represent just one important source of social change. In broad perspective, there are a handful of different kinds of social factors that are involved in important examples of social and political change. And, significantly, all of these mechanisms play out in a social world which also possesses some dynamics of its own that are largely beyond the reach of purposeful intervention.

Change through social movements

When major segments of a population are mobilized around an issue, they can become important sources of social and political change. This raises questions from several perspectives. First, what factors lead to successful mobilization of a group? Second, what tactics and strategies are available to social groups through which they can bring about change through collective action? And third, what tactics and strategies are available to “incumbents” — current power holders and the structures that they control — through which they can defeat the efforts of groups involved in collective action? Concerning mobilization: a group needs to be sensitized to an issue that it can be brought to care about, and this rarely happens spontaneously. Rather, leaders and organizations are needed to convey messages, gather resources, plan for collective action, and the like. As McAdam and Kloos show in Deeply Divided: Racial Politics and Social Movements in Post-War America, the Tea Party served such an organizational role in conservative mobilization in the 2000s. Concerning tactics: groups can exercise their political will through mass actions — demonstrations, sit-ins, occupations, boycotts, and electoral contests. They can engage in “everyday forms of resistance,” in James Scott’s words. And they can support “ideological” campaigns, promulgating and legitimizing the perspective of their group to other non-committed social actors. Finally, incumbents (governments and existing power-holders) can use ideological means to discredit the insurgent organizations. They can use the legitimate enforcement of the legal system to interfere with mass actions. And they can call upon organized force — both official (police, military) and unofficial (militias, armed organizations) against the actions of insurgents. All of these dimensions have been visible in the collective actions and reactions that have occurred around the Black Lives Matter movement in the past year and a half.

Change through influential organizations

Social mobilization is rarely spontaneous. Rather, there is a need for organizations that have resources and capacities that permit them to rally supporters, conduct strikes and demonstrations, and coordinate efforts with other groups and potential allies. Coordinated collective action requires communication, confidence-building, and resources. Organizations like labor unions, political organizations, religious hierarchies, and kin groups are all able to fill these roles. Charles Tilly highlights the importance of the Catholic Church during the uprising in the Vendée (The Vendee); the Solidarity organization in Poland originating in Gdansk provided this impetus in 1980 (link); and SNCC was able to offer substantial organizational impetus to civil rights activism in the South in the 1960s. So organizations are a highly important ingredient of social mobilization; further, they can play an important role in determining the direction and strategy of a social movement. Labor unions in the United States in the 1960s played an important role in advancing the cause of civil rights, and much of this effort was prompted by the emergence of dissident union activism within unions like the United Auto Workers, including the Dodge Revolutionary Union Movement (DRUM) and Ford Revolutionary Union Movement (FRUM). Activism by African-American auto workers pushed the UAW into a more active position on the struggle for racial equality. (Here is a brief description of some of this history; link.)

Change through state power

The New Deal and the social agenda of the Roosevelt administration were examples of largescale social change initiated by a government. FDR and his political allies were able to enact programs and legislation that profoundly changed the relationship between ordinary people and the economy in which they lived. A generation later the enactment of the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act, supported by the advocacy and political efforts of the Johnson administration, led to a significant change in the political status of African-American citizens. As McAdam shows in Political Process and the Development of Black Insurgency, 1930-1970, these changes would not have been possible without wide and persistent activism and mass mobilization of the civil rights movement; but equally, they would not have occurred without the political efforts of the Johnson administration.

Change through education, media, entertainment

Public perception and worldview plainly play a crucial role in social mobilization and engagement in a struggle for social change. It is evident, then, that the content and pervasiveness of the institutions through which the opinions and perceptions of ordinary citizens are shaped are significant factors in the impulse towards social change. If children and young adults are exposed to values of human equality, freedom, and democracy throughout their education, it is more likely that they will be responsive to issues of racism and authoritarian state behavior later in their lives. On the other hand, if the content of the educational system downplays the importance of equality and democracy and minimizes the history of racial and sexual discrimination, then many in the population will be unmoved by calls for mobilization for greater equality. The influence of right-wing media on political attitudes has been well documented for the past several decades, and this is intentional: the owners of Fox News and similar sources have a message they want to convey, and their programs embody that message. And social media like Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, or right-wing sites like Parler and Rumble have proven to have an enormous capacity for generating hate-based activism. The institutions of education, media, and entertainment must be counted as causal factors in the occurrence of social and political change.

Change through generational and demographic shifts

These factors serve to identify some of the direct and purposeful sources of social and political change. But, as historians like Emmanuel Ladurie and Ferdinand Braudel demonstrated (link), there are long waves of change in history that are only remotely related to the intentions and purposes of the current generation. Long, slow processes can lead to substantial social change over time (link). For example, Paul Abramson and Ronald Inglehart argued that a large factor driving change in post-World War II democracies was “generational change and value replacement” (link). Here the idea is that value change in a nation is less about individuals and more about the shifting mix of cohorts of individuals over time. Here is their formulation of this hypothesis in the abstract to this paper:

Generational replacement has had a major impact on the distribution of materialist/post-materialist values among Western publics. Between 1970 and 1984 the ratio of post-materialists to materialists increased substantially in West Germany, Britain, and The Netherlands, and increased somewhat in France. In Belgium and Italy materialist values increased as a result of short-term forces conducive to materialism. In Germany, Britain, and The Netherlands population replacement contributed to the rise of post-materialism. In France, it reversed short-term forces contributing to materialism, while in Belgium and Italy population replacement partially offset short-term forces that contributed to materialist values. Analysis of the impact of generational replacement sheds light on the development of value orientations in Western societies and on a process through which attitude change occurs among mass publics.

Inglehart extends this argument along with Pippa Norris in Cultural Backlash: Trump, Brexit, and Authoritarian Populism to offer a degree of reassurance about the likely future of extremist populism: the tide of progressive attitudes towards race and ethnicity is very powerful, and right-wing extremism should be expected to decline.

A similar argument can be made about demographic change in the ethnic composition of a region or country. No particular individual needs to change his or her culinary tastes, in order for the ratio of Swedish restaurants to Polish restaurants to shift as a result of largescale immigration of Swedish families into the region. And if Swedish people are, on average, more liberal than Polish people, then the region becomes more liberal — even though no individual has become more liberal.

Other longterm causes of large social and political change

It is clear that there are longterm processes of change in the world that affect us greatly, but appear to be “systemic” rather than agentic. Did anyone intend the deindustrialization of cities in what came to be known as the Rustbelt — Cleveland, Peoria, Milwaukee, Flint, Erie? Was there a grand plan behind the sudden ubiquity of the Internet, websites, and social media? Does the shift in population balance between the midwest and the south and plains states reflect a plan or policy? In all instances the answer in “no.” These are extended, anonymous processes that result from activities aimed at other goals altogether — outsourcing of manufacturing to reduce labor costs, creation of new products like iPhones and advertising-supported websites to enhance profits, individual families and employers making decisions about where their economic and social lives will be best pursued. And yet each of these changes is highly consequential for the future. Justin Gest dissects the social and political consequences of deindustrialization in The New Minority: White Working Class Politics in an Age of Immigration and Inequality; the change in social and political life created by the internet revolution is palpable; and the political map deriving from the 2020 Census is discouraging to the current Democratic majority. Populous industrial states will lose seven seats (all but one in the industrial midwest), and southern and plains states will gain seven seats (all but Oregon in the southern or plains states). This is a very significant shift in the balance of political power between regions in the House of Representatives.

What all of this implies is that we humans can affect the direction of our societies through our actions and collaborations; but the certainty and power of our efforts are distinctly limited. There are large obstacles to effective social and political struggles for a set of shared goals; there are formidable resources available to the “incumbents” who oppose the achievement of our goals; and there are large, impersonal forces that are largely impervious to agentic intervention. This does not imply the counsel of despair; but it does suggest the importance of having a realistic and fairly modest expectation of how much success can be achieved in a foreseeable period of time. Two of my favorite aphorisms on this topic are from Martin Luther King, Jr. and Karl Marx, and they are contradictory. Dr. King wrote, “The moral arc of the universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” And in The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte Marx wrote, “Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past.” Dr. King’s sentiment is probably too optimistic; there is nothing inevitable about the achievement of a just society. On this topic, Marx seems to have the more realistic view.

(Here are several earlier posts that are relevant to this topic: real utopiassocial progress, social justice movements, progressive politics, purposive social actionprotest and dissent, power and social movements, corporate powerunintended consequences, and the civil rights movement.)

Botton’s philosophy of life in the world

Image: Diogenes and his barrel

I’ve somehow missed reading any of the numerous books of philosophical reflections authored by Alain de Botton. They have often given me an impression of being written in a clever way for a literate audience, but without the heft of a Rawls or a Ricoeur. Now, with a copy of Status Anxiety to listen to through my Audible subscription, I’ve changed my mind. This book is very interesting, thought-provoking, and philosophically engaging.

The central topic is self-evaluation and its obverse — status anxiety. What do people live for? Is a person’s worth defined by her own internal standards and self-expectations? Or is she defined by the judgments of others? The perfectly self-defined person could not suffer from status anxiety, because he or she would set goals and assess his or her excellence by one’s own standards. The phenomenon of status anxiety can only arise when people define their worth in terms of the valuations that others place upon them. “If our position on the ladder is a matter of such concern, it is because our self-conception is so dependent upon what others make of us. Rare individuals aside (Socrates, Jesus), we rely on signs of respect from the world to feel tolerable to ourselves” (9). Botton’s special contribution here is his ability to consider the historical and social reality of “self-evaluation” and status envy through a wide knowledge of literature, economics, paintings, and philosophy. 

Along the way Botton lays the basis for some very critical thinking about consumerism, materialism, and lives structured around competition for the economic and social spoils of one’s environment. “Across the United States, new longings were created by the development of shopping malls, which enabled citizens to browse at all hours in climate-controlled environments. When the Southdale Mall opened in Minnesota in 1950, its advertising promised that “every day will be a perfect shopping day at Southdale” (28). This isn’t exactly a new insight; but Botton succeeds in making it poignant and existentially important. How much is enough? Can we live like Diogenes or Socrates? Is there a difference between our needs and our wants? Does the 2021 Porsche 911 Turbo S at $273,000 do a better job of moving its passengers from point A to point B than the humble 2021 Chevrolet Spark at $14,400? Is the Porsche 20 times better? And where, in the mindspace of the person who might purchase the Porsche, is there room for consideration of the needs of others, the future of the planet, or the nature of true contentment, compassion, and mortality?

Botton distills two triptychs of stories about the poor and the wealthy. 

  • The poor are not responsible for their condition and are the most useful in society
  • Low status has no moral connotation
  • The rich are sinful and corrupt and owe their wealth to their robbery of the poor

And the rich:

  • The rich are the useful ones, not the poor
  • Status does have moral connotations
  • The poor are sinful and corrupt and owe their poverty to their own stupidity

If one is poor, it matters very much which story one accepts. And if one is rich, a lot rides on bringing one of the last three stories to the top of mind of the public. The first batch of stories favors the dignity of the poor and derives often from the texts of humble Christianity, while the second favors the superiority of the rich and derives from the texts of eighteenth-century political economy and social darwinism. Botton draws out the ideological importance of the second batch of stories:

Such doctrines found a receptive audience among the self-made plutocrats who dominated American business and the American media. Social Darwinism provided them with an apparently unassailable scientific argument with which to rebut entities and isms that many of them were already suspicious of, not to mention threatened by on the economic level: trade unions, Marxism and socialism. On a triumphant tour of America in 1882, Spencer was cheered by gatherings of business leaders, who were flattered at being compared to the alpha beasts of the human jungle and relieved to be absolved of any need to feel guilty about or charitable towards their weaker brethren. (80)

There are a great many interesting factlets embedded in the book. Did you ever wonder what a “snob” is? Botton has the answer: “The word ‘snobbery’ came into use for the first time in England during the 1820s. It was said to have derived from the habit of many Oxford and Cambridge colleges of writing sine nobilitate (without nobility), or ‘s.nob,’ next to the names of ordinary students on examination lists in order to distinguish them from their aristocratic peers” (84). Or what, exactly, defined the literary genius of Jane Austen, whom Botton admires? It is because Austen looks behind the status-obsessed judgments of the aristocratic class, to the forms of human virtue and kindness that are rendered invisible by the categories of class, dress, and status. “The novel’s author takes a little longer than Mrs. Norris to make up her mind as to who is deficient, and in what capacity. For a decade or more, Austen follows Fanny patiently down the corridors and into the reception rooms of Mansfield Park; listens to her mutterings in her bedroom and on her walks around the gardens; reads her letters; eavesdrops on her observations about her adoptive family; watches the movements of her eyes and mouth; and peers into her soul. In the process, she picks up on a rare, quiet virtue of her heroine’s” (133). Austen sees the human being in Fanny, not the dress. And Botton notices a similar “seeing” in Zadie Smith’s White Teeth, and the apparent invisibility of the Bangladeshi waiter Samad in London. And if only the customers could see his inner thoughts: “I AM NOT A WAITER. I HAVE BEEN A STUDENT, A SCIENTIST, A SOLDIER, MY WIFE IS CALLED ALSANA, WE LIVE IN EAST LONDON BUT WE WOULD LIKE TO MOVE NORTH. I AM A MUSLIM BUT ALLAH HAS FORSAKEN ME OR I HAVE FORSAKEN ALLAH, I’M NOT SURE. I HAVE A FRIEND—ARCHIE—AND OTHERS. I AM FORTY-NINE BUT WOMEN STILL TURN IN THE STREET. SOMETIMES” (139). Again — the human being, not the apron. 

What does it all amount to, this lifelong struggle for recognition and “status”? Botton addresses this question through the final arbiter — death. In particular, he gives a fine reading of Tolstoy’s story, The Death of Ivan Ilyich. Ivan Ilyich, it turns out, lived for status, rank, and recognition — and it brought him nothing that could sustain him when his final illness and decline to extinction finally came. 

For his part, Ivan, with only a few weeks left to him, recognises that he has wasted his time on earth by leading an outwardly respectable but inwardly barren life. He scrolls back through his upbringing, education and career and finds that everything he has ever done has been motivated by the desire to appear important in the eyes of others, with his own interests and sensitivities always being sacrificed for the sake of impressing people who, he only now sees, do not care a jot for him. One night, as he lies awake in the early hours, racked by pain, “it occurred to him that those scarcely perceptible impulses of his to protest at what people of high status considered good, vague impulses which he had always suppressed, might have been precisely what mattered, and all the rest had not been the real thing. His official duties, his manner of life, his family, the values adhered to by people in society and in his profession—all these might not have been the real thing.” (227)

So what about Status Anxiety? Is this philosophy? Is it cultural commentary? Is it an interpretation of the human condition through a historical sampling of art, literature, economic tracts, and shopping malls? It’s a little bit of all of these things. But what appeals, most fundamentally, is that it raises the question, from many points of view, of what a valuable and well-lived human life really amounts to. 

Compare for a moment this book with the personal-reflective book of philosophy written in 1989 by the forever-young star of analytic philosophy, Robert Nozick, in The Examined Life: Philosophical Meditations. Nozick wrote unflinchingly of illness and death in The Examined Life, and sadly died of cancer in 2002 at the age of 64. Here are the opening lines of Nozick’s book:

I want to think about living and what is important in life, to clarify my thinking — and also my life. Mostly we tend — I do too — to live on automatic pilot, following through the views of ourselves and the aims we acquired early, with only minor adjustments. No doubt there is some benefit–a gain in ambition or efficiency–in somewhat unthinkingly pursuing early aims in their relatively unmodified form, but there is a loss, too, when we are directed through life by the not fully mature picture of the world we formed in adolescence or young adulthood. (11)

Nozick’s book is striking for its honesty and occasionally for its insights. And the same can be said of Botton’s book. What is an “authentic” human life? Is “performance of a role” a dehumanizing act? These are questions that philosophers from Socrates and Aristotle to Sartre and Camus have found to be tremendously important and difficult, and Botton’s book stimulates fresh thinking from start to finish.

******

The publisher’s blurb for Status Anxiety seems designed to evoke exactly that initial impression that I have had in flipping through other titles by Botton — flip, clever, superficial: “Whether it’s assessing the class-consciousness of Christianity or the convulsions of consumer capitalism, dueling or home-furnishing, Status Anxiety is infallibly entertaining. And when it examines the virtues of informed misanthropy, art appreciation, or walking a lobster on a leash, it is not only wise but helpful.” Entertaining, amusing, and believe it or not — wise and helpful! What could be more of a turnoff for a person looking for some serious philosophical insights into something that matters! Lobsters on a leash, indeed!

Rational life plans and the stopping problem

Image: a poor solution to the stopping problem

In earlier posts I discussed the question of “rational plans of life” (linklinklinklink) and argued that standard theories of rational decision making under uncertainty don’t do well in this context. I argued instead that rationality in navigating and building a life is not analogous to remodeling your kitchen; instead, it involves provisional clarification of the goals and values that one embraces, and then a kind of step-by-step, self-critical direction-setting in the choices that one makes over time in ways that honor these values.

Brian Christian and Tom Griffiths’ Algorithms to Live By: The Computer Science of Human Decisions provides a very interesting additional perspective on this problem of living a life. The authors describe the algorithms that computer science has discovered to handle difficult choice problems, and they make an effort to both explain (generally) how the problem is solved formally and how it finds application in ordinary situations of human decision-making over an extended time — such as the challenging question of where to stop for a meal on a long road trip, or which candidate to hire as an executive assistant.

The key features of decision-making that drive much of their discussion are time and uncertainty. We often have to make decisions and choices among options where we do not know the qualities of the items on offer (restaurants to consider for a special meal, individuals who are prospective friends, who to hire for an important position), the likelihood of success of a given item, and where we often cannot return to a choice we’ve already rejected. (If we are driving between Youngstown and Buffalo there are only finitely many restaurants where we might stop for a meal; but once we’ve passed New Bangkok Restaurant at exit 50 on the interstate, we are unlikely to return when we haven’t found a better choice by exit 55.)

The stopping problem seems relevant to the problem of formulating a rational plan of life, since the stream of life events and choices in a person’s life is one-directional, and it is rare to be able to return to an option that was rejected at a prior moment. In hindsight — should I have gone to Harvard for graduate school, or would Cornell or Princeton have been a better choice? The question is literally pointless; it cannot be undone. Life, like history, proceeds in only one direction. Many life choices must be made before a full comparison of the quality of the options and the consequences of one choice or another can be fully known. And waiting until all options have been reviewed often means that the earlier options are no longer available — just like that Thai restaurant on the Ohio Turnpike at exit 50.

The algorithms that surround the stopping problem have a specific role in decision-making in ordinary life circumstances: we will make better decisions under conditions of uncertainty and irreversibility if we understand something about the probabilities of the idea that “a better option is still coming up”. We need to have some intuitive grasp of the dialectic of “exploration / exploitation” that the stopping problem endorses. As Christian and Griffiths put it, “exploration is gathering information, and exploitation is using the information you have to get a known good result” (32). How long should we continue to gather information (exploration) and at what point should we turn to active choice (“choose the next superior candidate that comes along”)? If a person navigates life by exploring 90% of options before choosing, he or she is likely to do worse than less conservative decision-makers; but likewise about the person who chooses after seeing 5% of the options.

There is a very noticeable convergence between the algorithms of stopping and Herbert Simon’s theory of satisficing (link). (The authors note this parallelSimon noted that the heroic assumptions of economic rationality are rarely satisfied in actual human decision-making: full information about the probabilities and utilities associated with a finite range of outcomes, and choice guided by choosing that option with the greatest expected utility. He notes that this view of rationality requires an unlimited budget for information gathering, and that — at some point — the cost of further search outweighs the probably gains of finding the optimal solution. Simon too argues that rational decision-makers “stop” in their choices: they set a threshold value for quality and value, initiate a search, and select the first option that meets the threshold. “Good enough” beats “best possible”. If I decide I need a pair of walking shoes, I decide on price and quality — less than $100, all leather, good tread, comfortable fit — and I visit a sequence of shoe stores, with the plan of buying the first pair of shoes that meets the threshold. But the advantage of the search algorithm described here is that it does not require a fixed threshold in advance, and it would appear to give a higher probability of making the best possible choice among all available options. As a speculative guess, it seems as though searches guided by a fixed threshold would score lower over time than searches guided by a balanced “explore, then exploit” strategy, without the latter being overwhelmed by information costs.

In one of the earlier posts on “rational life plans” I suggested that rationality comes into life-planning in several different ways:

We might describe this process as one that involves local action-rationality guided by medium term strategies and oriented towards long term objectives. Rationality comes into the story at several points: assessing cause and effect, weighing the importance of various long term goals, deliberating across conflicting goals and values, working out the consequences of one scenario or another, etc. (link)

The algorithms of stopping are clearly relevant to the first part of the story — local action-rationality. It is not so clear that the stopping problem arises in the same way in the other two levels of life-planning rationality. Deliberation about longterm objectives is not sequential in the way that deciding about which highway exit to choose for supper is; rather, the deliberating individual can canvas a number of objectives simultaneously and make deliberative choices among them. And choosing medium-term strategies seems to have a similar temporal logic: identify a reasonable range of possible strategies, compare their strengths and weaknesses, and choose the best. So the stopping problem seems to be relevant to the implementation phase of living, not the planning and projecting parts. We don’t need the stopping algorithm to decide to visit the grandchildren in Scranton, or in deciding which route across the country to choose for the long drive; but we do need it for deciding the moment-to-moment options that arise — which hotel, which restaurant, which stretch of beach, which tourist attraction to visit along the way. This seems to amount to a conclusion: the stopping problem is relevant to a certain class of choices that come as an irreversible series, but not relevant to deliberation among principles, values, or guiding goals.

(Christian and Griffiths describe the results of research on the stopping problem; but the book does not give a clear description of how the math works. Here is a somewhat more detailed explanation of the solution to the stopping problem in American Scientistlink. Essentially the solution — wait and observe for the first 37% of options, then taken the next option better than any of those seen to date — follows from a calculation of the probability of the distribution of “best choices” across the random series of candidates. And it can be proven that both lower and higher thresholds — less exploration or more exploration — lead to lower average payoffs.)

The place for thick theories of the actor in philosophy

 
image: Bruegel, The Dutch Proverbs (1559)
 

When philosophers of the social sciences take seriously the importance of individual action within the social realm, we often look in the direction of methodological individualism and the methods of “aggregation dynamics”. That is, agent-centered theorists are usually interested in finding ways of climbing the upward strut of Coleman’s boat through efforts at modeling the interactive dynamics of purposive individuals and the social outcomes they produce. This leads to an interest in applying microeconomics, game theory, or agent-based modeling as ways of discovering the aggregate consequences of a certain theory of the actor (purposive, calculating, strategic rationality). We then get a ready basis for accounting for causal relations in the social world; the medium of causal powers and effects is the collection of purposive actors who live in social relationships and institutions with a fairly homogeneous form of agency.

This is a perfectly valid way of thinking about social causation and explanation. But the thrust of the argument for thick descriptions of actors, coming from microsociologists, ethnomethodologists, and historical sociologists, is that the abstractions associated with thin theories of the actor (goal-directed behavior driven by rational-self-interest) are often inadequate for understanding real social settings. If we attach weight to sociologists like Goffman and Garfinkel, some of the most interesting stuff is happening along the bottom edge of Coleman’s boat — the interactions among socially situated individuals. So how should we think about the challenge of incorporating a richer theory of the actor into the project of supporting an adequate set of ideas about social inquiry and social explanation?

One approach is to simply acknowledge the scientific relevance and importance of research into the mentality of real social actors. This approach accepts the point that we cannot always make use of the very sparse assumptions of thin theories of the actor if we want to understand social phenomena like the politics of hate, the rise of liberal democracy, or the outbreak of ethnic violence. We can then attempt to address the theoretical and methodological problems associated with research into more nuanced understanding of historically and socially situated persons in specific circumstances involving the phenomena of interest. We can give attention to fields like cultural sociology and ethnography and attempt to offer support for those research efforts. This approach also permits the possibility of attempting to formulate a conception of social explanation that fits thick theories of the actor.

This approach seems to lead most naturally to a conception of explanation that is more interpretive than causal, and it suggests that the hard work of social research will go into the effort to find evidence permitting the researcher to form a theory of the attitudes, beliefs, and mental frameworks of the actors involved in the social setting of interest. The example of Robert Darnton’s study of “The Great Cat Massacre” illustrates the value and difficulty of this kind of inquiry (link). And it highlights the crucial role that concrete historical and documentary evidence play in the effort (link). At the same time, the explanations offered are almost inevitably particular to the case, not generalizable.

Is there an approach to social explanation that makes use of a thick theory of the actor but nonetheless aspires to providing largescale social explanations? Can thick theories of the actor, and rich accounts of agency in specific circumstances, be incorporated into causal theories of specific kinds of social organization and change? Can we imagine a parallel masterpiece to Coleman’s Foundations of Social Theory, which incorporates the nuances of thick sociology and points towards a generalizing sociology?

Yes and no. Yes, in that important and large-scale works of comparative historical sociology depend directly on analysis of the thick mentalities of the actors who made up great events — e.g. Mann on fascism (demobilized soldiers), Steinmetz on German colonialism (professional administrators), Frank Dobbin on French technology planning (technocrats), or Charles Sabel on Italian mechanical culture (machinists versus engineers). And this kind of social research depends upon its own kind of generalization — the claim to identify a cultural type that was current in a given population at a certain time. This is the project of discovering a historically concrete mentalité (link). But no, if we think the primary mode of social explanation takes the form of system models demonstrating the genealogy of this social characteristic or that.

This sounds a bit like the heart of the methodenstreit of the last century, between historicists and nomological theorists. Does the social world admit of generalizing explanations (nomothetic), or is social explanation best understood as particular and historically situated (idiographic)? Fortunately we are not forced to choose. Both kinds of explanation are possible in the social realm, and some problems are more amenable to in approach or the other. Only the view that insists on the unity of science find this dilemma unacceptable. But for a methodological pluralist, this is a perfectly agreeable state of affairs.

Emotions as neurophysiological constructs

Are emotions real? Are they hardwired to our physiology? Are they pre-cognitive and purely affective? Was Darwin right in speculating that facial expressions are human universals that accurately represent a small repertoire of emotional experiences (The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals)? Or instead are emotions a part of the cognitive output of the brain, influenced by context, experience, expectation, and mental framework? Lisa Feldman Barrett is an accomplished neuroscientist who addresses all of these questions in her recent book How Emotions Are Made: The Secret Life of the Brain, based on several decades of research on the emotions. The book is highly interesting, and has important implications for the social sciences more broadly.

Barrett’s core view is that the received theory of the emotions — that they are hardwired and correspond to specific if unknown neurological groups, connected to specific physiological and motor responses — is fundamentally wrong. She marshals a great deal of experimental evidence to the incorrectness of that theory. In its place she argues that emotional responses and experiences are the result of mental, conceptual, and cognitive construction by our central nervous system, entirely analogous to our ability to find meaning in a visual field of light and dark areas in order to resolve it as a bee (her example). The emotions are like perception more generally — they result from an active process in which the brain attempts to impose order and pattern on sensory stimulation, a process she refers to as “simulation”. She refers to this as the theory of constructed emotion (30). In brief:

Emotions are not reactions to the world. You are not a passive receiver of sensory input but an active constructor of your emotions. From sensory input and past experience, your brain constructs meaning and prescribes action. If you didn’t have concepts that represent your past experience, all your sensory inputs would just be noise. (31)

And further:

Particular concepts like “Anger” and “Distrust” are not genetically determined. Your familiar emotion concepts are built-in only because you grew up in a particular social context where those emotion concepts are meaningful and useful, and your brain applies them outside your awareness to construct your experiences. (33)

This theory has much in common with theorizing about the nature of perception and thought within cognitive psychology, where the constructive nature of perception and representation has been a core tenet. Paul Kolers’ motion perception experiments in the 1960s and 1970s established that perception is an active and constructive process, not a simple rendering of information from the retina into visual diagrams in the mind (Aspects of Motion Perception). And Daniel Dennett’s Consciousness Explained argues for a “multiple drafts” theory of conscious experience which once again emphasizes the active and constructive nature of consciousness.

One implication of Barrett’s theory is that emotions are concept-dependent. We need to learn the terms for emotions in our ambient language community before we can experience them. The emotions we experience are conceptually loaded and structured.

People who exhibit low emotional granularity will have only a few emotion concepts. In English, they might have words in their vocabulary like “sadness,” “fear,” “guilt,” “shame,” “embarrassment,” “irritation,” “anger,” and “contempt,” but those words all correspond to the same concept whose goal is something like “feeling unpleasant.” This person has a few tools — a hammer and Swiss Army knife. (106)

In a later chapter Barrett takes her theory in a Searle-like direction by emphasizing the inherent and irreducible constructedness of social facts and social relations (chapter 7). Without appropriate concepts we cannot understand or represent the behaviors and interactions of people around us; and their interactions depend inherently on the conceptual systems or frames within which we place their actions. Language, conceptual frames, and collective intentionality are crucial constituents of social facts, according to this perspective. I find Searle’s arguments on this subject less than convincing (link), and I’m tempted to think that Barrett is going out on a limb by embracing his views more extensively than needed for her own theory of the emotions.

I find Barrett’s work interesting for a number of reasons. One is the illustration it provides of human plasticity and heterogeneity. “Any category of emotion such as “Happiness” or “Guilt” is filled with variety” (35). Another is the methodological sophistication Barrett demonstrates in her refutation of two thousand years of received wisdom about the emotions, from Aristotle and Plato to Paul Ekman and colleagues. This sophistication extends to her effort to avoid language in describing emotions and research strategies that embeds the ontology of the old view — an ontology that reifies particular emotions in the head and body of the other human being (40). She correctly observes that language like “detecting emotion X in the subject” implies that the psychological condition exists as a fixed reality in the subject; whereas the whole point of her theory is that the experience of disgust or happiness is a transient and complex construction by the brain behind the scenes of our conscious experience. She is “anti-realist” in her treatment of emotion. “We don’t recognize emotions or identify emotions: we construct our own emotional experiences, and our perceptions of others’ emotions, on the spot, as needed, through a complex interplay of systems” (40). And finally, her theory of emotion as a neurophysiological construct has a great deal of credibility — its internal logic, its fit with current understandings of the central nervous system, its convergence with cognitive psychology and perception theory, and the range of experimental evidence that Barrett brings to bear.

Folk psychology and Alexa

Paul Churchland made a large splash in the philosophy of mind and cognitive science several decades ago when he cast doubt on the categories of “folk psychology” — the ordinary and commonsensical concepts we use to describe and understand each other’s mental lives. In Paul Churchland and Patricia Churchland, On the Contrary: Critical Essays, 1987-1997, Paul Churchland writes:

“Folk psychology” denotes the prescientific, commonsense conceptual framework that all normally socialized humans deploy in order to comprehend, predict, explain, and manipulate the behavior of . humans and the higher animals. This framework includes concepts such as belief, desire, pain pleasure, love, hate, joy, fear, suspicion, memory, recognition, anger, sympathy, intention, and so forth…. Considered as a whole, it constitutes our conception of what a person is. (3)

Churchland does not doubt that we ordinary human beings make use of these concepts in everyday life, and that we could not dispense with them. But he is not convinced that they have a scientifically useful role to play in scientific psychology or cognitive science.

In our ordinary dealings with other human beings it is both important and plausible that the framework of folk psychology is approximately true. Our fellow human beings really do have beliefs, desires, fears, and other mental capacities, and these capacities are in fact the correct explanation of their behavior. How these capacities are realized in the central nervous system is largely unknown, though as materialists we are committed to the belief that there are such underlying neurological functionings. But eliminative materialism doesn’t have a lot of credibility, and the treatment of mental states as epiphenoma to the neurological machinery isn’t convincing either.

These issues had the effect of creating a great deal of discussion in the philosophy of psychology since the 1980s (link). But the topic seems all the more interesting now that tens of millions of people are interacting with Alexa, Siri, and the Google Assistant, and are often led to treat the voice as emanating from an intelligent (if not very intelligent) entity. I presume that it is clear that Alexa and her counterparts are currently “question bots” with fairly simple algorithms underlying their capabilities. But how will we think about the AI agent when the algorithms are not simple; when the agents can sustain lengthy conversations; and when the interactions give the appearance of novelty and creativity?

It turns out that this is a topic that AI researchers have thought about quite a bit. Here is the abstract of “Understanding Socially Intelligent Agents—A Multilayered Phenomenon”, a fascinating 2001 article in IEEE by Perrson, Laaksolahti, and Lonnqvist (link):

The ultimate purpose with socially intelligent agent (SIA) technology is not to simulate social intelligence per se, but to let an agent give an impression of social intelligence. Such user-centred SIA technology, must consider the everyday knowledge and expectations by which users make sense of real, fictive, or artificial social beings. This folk-theoretical understanding of other social beings involves several, rather independent levels such as expectations on behavior, expectations on primitive psychology, models of folk-psychology, understanding of traits, social roles, and empathy. The framework presented here allows one to analyze and reconstruct users’ understanding of existing and future SIAs, as well as specifying the levels SIA technology models in order to achieve an impression of social intelligence.

The emphasis here is clearly on the semblance of intelligence in interaction with the AI agent, not the construction of a genuinely intelligent system capable of intentionality and desire. Early in the article they write:

As agents get more complex, they will land in the twilight zone between mechanistic and living, between dead objects and live beings. In their understanding of the system, users will be tempted to employ an intentional stance, rather than a mechanistic one.. Computer scientists may choose system designs that encourage or discourage such anthropomorphism. Irrespective of which, we need to understand how and under what conditions it works.

But the key point here is that the authors favor an approach in which the user is strongly led to apply the concepts of folk psychology to the AI agent; and yet in which the underlying mechanisms generating the AI’s behavior completely invalidate the application of these concepts. (This approach brings to mind Searle’s Chinese room example concerning “intelligent” behavior; link.) This is clearly the approach taken by current designs of AI agents like Siri; the design of the program emphasizes ordinary language interaction in ways that lead the user to interact with the agent as an intentional “person”.

The authors directly confront the likelihood of “folk-psychology” interactions elicited in users by the behavior of AI agents:

When people are trying to understand the behaviors of others, they often use the framework of folk-psychology. Moreover, people expect others to act according to it. If a person’s behavior blatantly falls out of this framework, the person would probably be judged “other” in some, e.g., children, “crazies,” “psychopaths,” and “foreigners.” In order for SIAs to appear socially intelligent, it is important that their behavior is understandable in term of the folk-psychological framework. People will project these expectations on SIA technology and will try to attribute mental states and processes according to it. (354)

And the authors make reference to several AI constructs that are specifically designed to elicit a folk-psychological response from the users:

In all of these cases, the autonomous agents have some model of the world, mind, emotions, and of their present internal state. This does not mean that users automatically infer the “correct” mental state of the agent or attribute the same emotion that the system wants to convey. However, with these background models regulating the agent’s behavior the system will support and encourage the user to employ her faculty of folk-psychology reasoning onto the agent. Hopefully, the models generate consistently enough behavior to make folk-psychology a framework within which to understand and act upon the interactive characters. (355)

The authors emphasize the instrumentalism of their recommended approach to SIA capacities from beginning to end:

In order to develop believable SIAs we do not have to know how beliefs-desires and intentions actually relate to each other in the real minds of real people. If we want to create the impression of an artificial social agent driven by beliefs and desires, it is enough to draw on investigations on how people in different cultures develop and use theories of mind to understand the behaviors of others. SIAs need to model the folk-theory reasoning, not the real thing. To a shallow AI approach, a model of mind based on folk-psychology is as valid as one based on cognitive theory. (349)

This way of approaching the design of AI agents suggests that the “folk psychology” interpretation of Alexa’s more capable successors will be fundamentally wrong. The agent will not be conscious, intentional, or mental; but it will behave in ways that make it almost impossible not to fall into the trap of anthropomorphism. And this in turn brings us back to Churchland and the critique of folk psychology in the human-human cases. If computer-assisted AI agents can be completely persuasive as mentally structured actors, then why are we so confident that this is not the case for fellow humans as well?

Actors in historical epochs

I’ve argued often for the idea that social science and historical explanations need to be “actor-centered” — we need to ground our hypotheses about social and historical causation in theories of the pathways through which actors embody those causal processes. Actors in relation to each other constitute the “substrate” of social causation. Actors make up the microfoundations of social causes and processes. Actors constitute the causal necessity of social mechanisms.

In its abstract formulation this is little more than an expression of ontological individualism (link). But in application it represents a highly substantive research challenge. In order to provide concrete accounts of social processes in various cultural and historical settings, we need to have fairly specific theories of the actor in those settings (link): what motivates actors, what knowledge do they have of their environment, what cognitive and practical frameworks do they bring to their experiences of the world, what do they want, how do they reason, how do they relate to other actors, what norms and values are embedded in their action principles?

Rational choice theory and its cousins (desire-belief-opportunity theory, for example) provide what is intended to be a universal framework for understanding action. But as has been argued frequently here, these schemes are reductive and inadequate as a general basis for understanding action (link). It has also been argued here that the recent efforts to formulate a “new pragmatist” theory of the actor represent useful steps forward (link).

A very specific concern arises when we think carefully about the variety of actors found in diverse historical and cultural settings. It is obvious that actors in specific cultures have different belief systems and different cognitive frameworks; it is equally apparent that there are important and culture-specific differences across actors when it comes to normative and value commitments. So what is needed in order to investigate social causation in significantly different cultural and historical settings? Suppose we want to conduct research on social contention along the lines of work by Charles Tilly, with respect to communities with widely different cultural assumptions and frameworks. How should we attempt to understand basic elements of contention such as resistance, mobilization, and passivity if we accept the premise that French artisans in Paris in 1760, Vietnamese villagers in 1950, and Iranian professionals in 2018 have very substantial differences in their action principles and cognitive-practical frameworks?

There seem to be several different approaches we might take. One is to minimize the impact of cultural differences when it comes to material deprivation and oppression. Whatever else human actors want, they want material wellbeing and security. And when political or social conditions place great pressure on those goods, human actors will experience “grievance” and will have motives leading them to mobilize together in support of collective efforts to ameliorate the causes of those grievances.

Another possibility is to conclude that collective action and group behavior are substantially underdetermined by material factors, and that we should expect as much diversity in collective behavior as we observe in individual motivation and mental frameworks. So the study of contention is still about conflicts among individuals and groups; but the conflicts that motivate individuals to collective action may be ideological, religious, culinary, symbolic, moral — or material. Moreover, differences in the ways that actors frame their understandings of their situation may lead to very different patterns of the dynamics of contention — the outbreak and pace of mobilization, the resolution of conflict, the possibility of compromise.

Putting the point in terms of models and simulations, we might think of the actors as a set of cognitive and practical processing algorithms and who decide what to do based on their beliefs and these decision algorithms. It seems unavoidable that tweaking the parameters of the algorithms and beliefs will lead to very different patterns of behavior within the simulation. Putting the point the other way around, the successful mobilization of Vietnamese peasants in resistance to the French and the US depended on a particular setting of the cognitive-practical variables in these individual actors. Change those settings and, perhaps, you change the dynamics of the process and you change history.

*         *         *

Clifford Geertz is one of the people who has taken a fairly radical view on the topic of the constituents of the actor. In “Person, Time, and Conduct in Bali” in The Interpretation Of Cultures he argues that Balinese culture conceives of the individual person in radically unfamiliar ways:

One of these pervasive orientational necessities is surely the charac terization of individual human beings. Peoples everywhere have devel oped symbolic structures in terms of which persons are perceived not baldly as such, as mere unadorned members of the human race, but as representatives of certain distinct categories of persons, specific sorts of individuals. In any given case, there are inevitably a plurality of such structures. Some, for example kinship terminologies, are ego entered: that is, they denote the status of an individual in terms of his relation ship to a specific social actor. Others are centered on one or another subsystem or aspect of society and are invariant with respect to the perspectives of individual actors: noble ranks, age-group statuses, occu pational categories. Some-personal names and sobriquets-are infor mal and particularizing; others-bureaucratic titles and caste desig nations-are formal and standardizing. The everyday world in which the members of any community move, their taken-for-granted field of social action, is populated not by anonymous, faceless men with out qualities, but by somebodies, concrete classes of determinate per sons positively characterized and appropriately labeled. And the symbol systems which denote these classes are not given in the nature of things –they are historically constructed, socially maintained, and individu ally applied. (363-364)

In Bali, there are six sorts of labels which one person can apply to an other in order to identify him as a unique individual and which I want to consider against this general conceptual background: ( I ) personal names; (2) birth order names; (3) kinship terms; (4) teknonyms; (5) sta tus titles (usually called “caste names” in the literature on Bali); and (6) public titles, by which I mean quasi-occupational titles borne by chiefs, rulers, priests, and gods. These various labels are not, in most cases, employed simultaneously, but alternatively, depending upon the situa tion and sometimes the individual. They are not, also, all the sorts of such labels ever used; but they are the only ones which are generally recognized and regularly applied. And as each sort consists not of a mere collection of useful tags but of a distinct and bounded terminologi cal system, I shall refer to them as “symbolic orders of person-defini tion” and consider them first serially, only later as a more or less coher ent cluster. (368)

Also outstanding in this field is Robert Darnton’s effort to reconstruct the forms of agency underlying the “great cat massacre” in The Great Cat Massacre: And Other Episodes in French Cultural History; link.

What is the role of character in action?

 

I’ve been seriously interested in the question of character since being invited to contribute to a volume on the subject a few years ago. That volume, Questions of Character, has now appeared in print, and it is an excellent and engaging contribution. Iskra Fileva was the director of the project and is the editor of the volume, and she did an excellent job in selecting topics and authors. She also wrote an introduction to the volume and introductions to all five parts of the collection. It would be possible to look at Fileva’s introductions collectively as a very short book on character by themselves.

So what is “character”? To start, it is a concept of the actor that draws our attention to enduring characteristics of moral and practical propensities, rather than focusing on the moment of choice and the criteria recommended by the ethicist on the basis of which to make choices. Second, it is an idea largely associated with the “virtue” ethics of Aristotle. The other large traditions in the history of ethics — utilitarianism and Kantian ethics, or consequentialist and deontological theories — have relatively little to say about character, focusing instead on action, rules, and moral reasoning. And third, it is distinguished from other moral ideas by its close affinity to psychology as well as philosophy. It has to do with the explanation of the behavior of ordinary people, not just philosophical ideas about how people ought to behave.

This is a fundamentally important question for anyone interested in formulating a theory of the actor. To hold that human beings sometimes have “character” is to say that they have enduring features of agency that sometimes drive their actions in ways that override the immediate calculation of costs and benefits, or the immediate satisfaction of preferences. For example, a person might have the virtues of honesty, courage, or fidelity — leading him or her to tell the truth, resist adversity, or keep commitments and promises, even when there is an advantage to be gained by doing the contrary. Or conceivably a person might have vices — dishonesty, cruelty, egotism — that lead him or her to act accordingly — sometimes against personal advantage.

Questions of Character is organized into five major sets of topics: ethical considerations, moral psychology, empirical psychology, social and historical considerations, and art and taste. Fileva has done an excellent job of soliciting provocative essays and situating them within a broader context. Part I includes innovative discussions of how the concept of character plays out in Aristotle, Hume, Kant, and Nietzsche. Part II considers different aspects of the problem of self-control and autonomy. Part III examines the experimental literature on behavior in challenging situations (for example, the Milgram experiment), and whether these results demonstrate that human actors are not guided by enduring virtues. Part IV examines the intersection between character and large social settings, including history, the market, and the justice system. And Part V considers the role of character in literature and the arts, including the interesting notion that characters in novels become emblems of the character traits they display.

The most fundamental question raised in this volume is this: what is the role of character in human action? How, if at all, do embodied traits, virtues and vices, or personal commitments influence the actions that we take in ordinary and extraordinary circumstances? And the most intriguing challenge raised here is one that casts doubt on the very notion of character: “there are no enduring behavioral dispositions inside a person that warrant the label ‘character’.” Instead, all action is opportunistic and in the moment. Action is “situational” (John Doris, Lack of Character: Personality and Moral Behavior; Ross and Nisbett, The Person and the Situation). On this approach, what we call “character” and “virtue” is epiphenomenal; action is guided by factors more fundamental than these.

My own contribution focuses on the ways in which character may be shaped by historical circumstances. Fundamentally I argue that growing up during the Great Depression, the Jim Crow South, or the Chinese Revolution potentially cultivates fairly specific features of mentality in the people who had these formative experiences. The cohort itself has a common (though not universal) character that differs from that of people in other historical periods. As a consequence people in those cohorts commonly behave differently from people in other cohorts when confronted with roughly similar action situations. So character is both historically shaped and historically important. Much of my argument was worked out in a series of posts here in Understanding Society.

This project is successful in its own terms; the contributors have created a body of very interesting discussion and commentary on an important element of human conduct. The volume is distinctly different from other collections in moral psychology or the field of morality and action. But the project is successful in another way as well. Fileva and her colleagues succeeded in drawing together a novel intellectual configuration of scholars from numerous disciplines to engage in a genuinely trans-disciplinary research collaboration. Through several academic conferences (one of which I participated in), through excellent curatorial and editorial work by Fileva herself, and through the openness of all the collaborators to listen with understanding to the perspectives of researchers in other disciplines, the project succeeded in demonstrating the power of interdisciplinary collaboration in shedding light on an important topic. I believe we understand better the intriguing complexities of actors and action as a result of the work presented in Questions of Character.

(Here is a series of posts on the topic of character; link.)

Coleman on the classification of social action

Early in his theoretical treatise of rational-choice sociology Foundations of Social Theory, James Coleman introduces a diagram of different kinds of social action (34). This diagram is valuable because it provides a finely granulated classification of kinds of social action, differentiated by the relationships that each kind stipulates among individuals within the interaction.

Here is how Coleman describes the classification system provided here:

Differing kinds of structures of action are found in society, depending on the kinds of resources involved in actions, the kinds of actions taken, and the contexts within which the actions are taken. (34)

Here is the legend for the diagram:

1. Private actions
2. Exchange relations
3. Market
4. Disjoint authority relations
5. Conjoint authority relations
6. Relations of trust
7. Disjoint authority systems
8. Conjoint authority systems
9. Systems of trust, collective behavior
10. Norm-generating structures
11. Collective-decision structures

The regions of the diagram are organized into a number of higher-order groups:

A. Purposive action
B. Transfer of rights or resources
C. Unilateral transfer
D. Rights to control action
E. System of relations
F. Events with consequences for many

For example, social events falling in zone 8 have these distinguishing characteristics: they involve a transfer of rights to control action, shifting through unilateral transfer within an existing system of relations. An example might include a party to divorce who surrenders his or her right to control whether the child is moved to another state. This would be a unilateral transfer of control from one party to the other party. Events in zone 7 differ from those in zone 8 only in that they do not reflect unilateral transfer. The same example can be adjusted to a zone 7 case by stipulating that both parties must agree to the transfer of control of the child’s residence.

It is interesting to observe that the whole diagram takes place within the domain of purposive action (A). This illustrates Coleman’s fundamental presupposition about the social world: that social outcomes result from purposive, intentional actions by individuals. If we imagined that religious rituals were purely performative, serving as expressions of inner spiritual experience — we would find that these “social events” have no place in this diagram. Likewise, if we thought that there is an important role for emotion, solidarity, hatred, or love in the social world — we would find that actions and phenomena involving these factors would have no place in the diagram.

It would be interesting to attempt to populate a more complex diagram with an initial structure something like this:

Would this modified scheme give a different orientation to the “sociological imaginary”? Might we imagine that the theories of important intersectional figures like Bourdieu, Tilly, or Foucault might fall in the intersection of all three circles? Would episodes of contentious politics involve actions that are purposive, emotive, and performative? Is there any reason (parsimony, perhaps) to attempt to reduce emotion and performance to a different kind of purpose? Or it is better to honestly recognize the diversity of kinds of action and motivation? My inclination is to think that Coleman’s choice here reflects “rational choice fundamentalism” — the idea that ultimately all human actions are driven by a calculation of consequences. And this assumption seems unjustified.

Complementarity of thick and thin theories of the actor

There is a range of approaches to the social sciences that fall under the umbrella of “actor-centered” theories (link). The chief fissure among these theories is that between “thin” and “thick” theories of the actor — theories which provide less or more detail about the mental frameworks and beliefs of the actors being described. The extremes of the two types of theories range from pure rational choice theory to social psychology and ethnography. The two types of theories have complementary strengths and weaknesses. Thin theories, including especially rational choice theory and game theory, make use of a particularly sparse theory of the actor’s decision framework. This approach provides a basis for representing the motives and decisions of actors that can be readily incorporated into powerful techniques of simulation and calculation. Thick theories, including pragmatist and ethnomethodological theories, offer a basis for investigating particular social settings of action in detail, and they provide an in-depth basis for explaining and understanding the choices, judgments, and behavior of the individuals they study. But thick theories are not so readily incorporated into simulation models, precisely because they do not provide abstract, general characterizations of the individual’s action framework.

These comments make the contrast sound like a familiar set of oppositions: nomothetic explanation versus idiographic interpretation; causal explanation versus hermeneutic interpretation. And this in turn suggests that rational choice theory will be good at arriving at generalizations, whereas pragmatist and ethnographic theories will be good at providing satisfying interpretations of the actions of individuals in concrete social and historical circumstances, but not particularly good at providing a basis for general explanations.

The situation is not quite so binary as this suggests, however. A central tool for actor-centered research is set of simulation techniques falling under the rubric of agent-based models. To date ABMs have tended to use thin theories of the actor to represent the players in the simulation. However, it is entirely possible for agent-based models to incorporate substantially greater levels of specificity and granularity about the action frameworks of the individuals in specific circumstances. An ABM can introduce different kinds of agents into a simulation, each of which embodies a specific set of beliefs and modes of reasoning. And it can be argued that this increase in granularity provides a basis for a better simulation of complex social processes involving heterogeneous kinds of actors.

For example, a simulation of the political appeal of a nationalistic politician like Donald Trump may benefit by segmenting the electorate into different categories of voters: white nationalists, aging blue-collar workers, anti-globalization young people, …. And the model should represent the fact that actors in these various segments have substantially different ways of making political judgments and actions. So ABM simulations can indeed benefit from greater “thickness” of assumptions about agents. (This was illustrated in the discussion of the Epstein rebellion model earlier; link.)

On the other hand, it is possible to use RCT and DBO theories to illuminate historically particular instances of action — for example, the analysis of historically situated collective action along the lines of Margaret Levi’s review in “Reconsiderations of Rational Choice in Comparative and Political Analysis” (link). These theories can be applied to specific social circumstances and can provide convincing and satisfying interpretations of the reasoning and actions of the agents who are involved. So narrative explanations of social outcomes can be constructed using both thick and thin assumptions about the actors.

Moreover, the explanatory strength of thick theories is not limited to the degree to which they can be incorporated into formal simulations — what can be referred to as “aggregation dynamics”. It is clear that real explanations of important phenomena emerge from research by sociologists like Michele Lamont in Money, Morals, and Manners: The Culture of the French and the American Upper-Middle Class (link), Al Young in The Minds of Marginalized Black Men: Making Sense of Mobility, Opportunity, and Future Life Chances (link), and Erving Goffman in Behavior in Public Places: Notes on the Social Organization of Gatherings (link). We understand better the dynamics of the French professional classes, inner city neighborhoods, and asylums when we read the detailed and rigorous treatments that micro-sociologists provide of these social settings.

What this suggests is that analytical sociology would be well advised to embrace pluralism when it comes to theories of the actor and methods of application of actor-based research. Thick and thin are not logical contraries, but rather complementary ways of analyzing and explaining the social worlds we inhabit.