Modifying an epidemiological model for party recruitment

 

Here I’ll follow up on the idea of using an epidemiological model to capture the effects of political mobilization through organization. One of the sample models provided by the NetLogo library is EpiDEM Basic (link). This model simulates an infectious disease moving through a population through person-to-person contact.

We can adapt this model to a political context by understanding “infection” as “recruitment to the party”. I’ve modified the model to allow for re-infection after an agent has been cured [disaffiliated from the party]. This corresponds to exit and re-entrance into a party or political organization. This leads the model to reach various levels of equilibrium within the population depending on the settings chosen for infectiousness, cure rates, and cure time frames. The video above represents a sample run of my extension of EpiDEM Basic. The graph represents the percentage of the population that have been recruited to the party at each iteration. The infection rate [mobilization success] surges to nearly 100% in the early ticks of the model, but then settles down to a rough equilibrium for the duration of the run. Orange figures are party members, while blue are not members (either because they have never affiliated or they have dis-affiliated).

An important shortcoming in this approach is that it is forced to represent every agent as a “cadre” for the organization as soon as he/she is recruited; whereas on the ground it is generally a much smaller set of professional cadres who serve as the vectors of proselytization for the party. This accounts for the early surge in membership to almost 100%, which then moderates to the 30% level. The initial surge derives from the exponential spread of infection prior to the period in which cures begin to occur. I’ve referenced this flaw in the realism of the model by calling this a “grassroots” party. On the current settings of recruitment and defection the population stabilizes at about 30% membership in the party. Ideally the model could be further modified to incorporate “infection” by only a specified set of cadres rather than all members.

It seems possible to merge this party-mobilization model with the Epstein model of rebellion (also provided in the NetLogo library), allowing us taking party membership into account as a factor in activation. In other words, we could attempt to model two processes simultaneously: the “infection” of new party members through a contagion model, and the differential activation of agents according to whether they are exposed to a party member or not. This is complicated, though, and there is a simpler way of proceeding: try to represent the workings of the model with an exogenously given number of party cadres. This can be implemented very simply into the Epstein Rebellion model.

As a first step, I introduce party membership as a fixed percentage of population and assume that the threshold for activation is substantially lower for members than non-members. The causal assumption is this: the presence of a party member in a neighborhood increases the threshold for action. The logic of this modification is this: for a given agent, if there is a party member in the neighborhood, then the threshold for action is low; whereas if there is no party member in the neighborhood, the threshold for action is high.

Now run the model with two sets of assumptions: no party members and 1% party members.

Scenario 1: occurrence of mobilization with no party members

Scenario 2: occurrence of mobilization with 1% party members

The two panels represent these two scenarios. As the two panels illustrate, the behavior of the population of agents is substantially different in the two cases. In both scenarios there are sudden peaks of activism (measured on the “Rebellion Index” panel). But those peaks are both higher and more frequent in the presents of a small number of activists. So we might say the model succeeds in illustrating the difference that organization makes in the occurrence of mobilization. A few party activists substantially increase the likelihood of rebellion.

Or does it? Probably not.

The modifications introduced here are very simple, and they succeed in addressing a primary concern I raised in an earlier post about the original version of Epstein’s model: the fact that it does not take the presence of organization into account as a causal factor in civil unrest. But the realism of the model is still low. For example, the Rebellion model is specifically intended to capture the relationship between cops and agents. But it is not interactive in the other way in which rebellious behavior spreads: the process in which rising density of activation in a neighborhood increases the probability of activation for each individual. In other words, neither the original implementation nor this simple extension allows introduction of the spatial dimensions of mobilization and civil unrest (aside from the original random location of party activists).

But most fundamentally, the extension I’ve presented here is still a highly abstract representation of the workings of organizations in the context of civil unrest and mobilization. I’ve boiled the workings of a political organization down to a single effect: if a neighborhood is exposed to a party cadre, the individuals in that neighborhood are substantially more likely to become active. And the model behaves accordingly; there is more activism when there are more cadres. But we can’t really interpret this as the derivation of a social effect from an independent set of assumptions; rather, the implementation of the idea of organization simply assumes the model the fact that cadres amplify activation by others in the neighborhood. In other words, the model is built to embody the effect I was expecting to see.

This exercise makes a couple of points. First, agent-based models have the virtue of being very explicit about the logic of action that is represented. So it is possible for anyone to review the code and to modify the assumptions, or to introduce factors that perhaps should be considered. (NetLogo is particularly welcoming to the non-expert in this regard, since it is easy to go back and forth between the code and the graphical representation of the model.)

But second, no one should imagine that agent-based models reproduce reality. Any ABM is implemented by (1) codifying one or more assumptions about the factors that influence a given collective phenomenon, and (2) codifying the rules of action for the kinds of agents that are to be represented. Both kinds of assumption require extreme abstraction from the reality of a social setting, and therefore models can almost invariably be challenged for a lack of realism. It is hard for me to see how an agent-based model might be thought to be explanatory of a complex social reality such as the Cairo uprising.

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Modeling organizational recruitment

One defect of the ABMs considered in the prior post about the emergence of civil conflict is that they do not incorporate the workings of organizations into the dynamics of mobilization. And yet scholars like Tilly (Dynamics of Contention) and Bianco (Peasants without the Party: Grassroots Movements in Twentieth Century China) make it clear that organizations are critical to the development and scope of mobilization of a populace. So a model of civil conflict needs to be able to incorporate the effects of organizations in the mobilization and activation of large groups of individual agents. Here I will explore what we might want from an ABM that incorporates organizations.

Ideally I would like to see a model that incorporates:

  • NxN individual actors (50×50 in the diagram above, or 2,500 agents)
  • M organizations with different characteristics competing for membership among the actors
  • A calculation of “uprising behavior” based on the net activation of a threshold percentage of actors in a circumscribed region
How might organizations be introduced into an agent-based model of social contention? I can imagine two quite different approaches. (A) We might look at organizations as higher-level agents within the process. As each organization works its way through the population it gains or loses members; and this affects individual behavior and the geographical distribution of activated agents. This would be an attempt to directly model the mechanism of mobilization through organizational mobilization. (B) Another possible and simpler approach is to represent organizations as environmental factors, analogous to disease vectors, which percolate through the population of first-order agents and alter their behavior. Let’s consider both. 
 
(A) Organizations as meso-level agents. The first approach requires that we provide rules of behavior for both kinds of agents, and recognize that the two processes (organizational recruitment and individual action) may influence each other iteratively. Organizations compete for members and strive to create collective action in support of their agendas. Membership in an organization influences the individual actor by increasing activation. And increasing membership influences the functioning of the organization.

Individual actors gain organizational properties when they are recruited to one of the organizations. Suppose that individual actors have these properties (largely drawn from the Epstein model):

  • grievance level
  • risk aversiveness
  • income level
  • salience of ethnicity for identity 
  • location
  • Organization-driven properties of activation
  • derived: level of activation (probability of involvement in response to an appeal from the organization)
If we want to model organizations as agents, then we need to specify their properties and action rules as well. We might begin by specifying that organizations have properties that affect their actions and their ability to recruit:
  • content of political agenda / call to action
  • perceived effectiveness
  • real effectiveness
  • number of cadres devoted to mobilization effort
For a simulation of inter-group conflict, we would like to include two ethnic groups, and one or more organizations competing within each group.
 

Mobilization occurs at the individual level: actors receive invitations to membership sequentially, and they respond according to the net effect of their current characteristics. Once an actor has affiliated, he/she remains susceptible to appeals from other organizations, but the susceptibility is reduced.

Membership in an organization affects an individual’s level of engagement in a set of grievance issues and his/her propensity for action. Individuals may express their organizational status at a range of levels of activism:

  • highly engaged 
  • moderately engaged
  • disengaged 

The model calculates each agent’s behavior as a function of grievance, risk, appeal, location, and organizational influence.

This approach suggests development of two stages of simulation: first a simulation of the competition of two organizations within a group; and second, a simulation of the individual-level results of calls to action by multiple organizations involving a specified distribution of organizational affiliations.

(B) Organizations as infection vectors. A simpler approach is to represent the various organizations as contagious diseases that have differential infection rates depending on agent properties, and differential effects on behavior depending on which “infection” is present in a given agent. Presumably the likelihood of infection is influenced by whether the individual has already been recruited by another organization; this needs to be represented in the rules governing infection. It also implies that there is a fair amount of path dependence in the simulation: the organization that starts first has an advantage over competitors.

It seems it would be possible to incorporate a disease mechanism into the Epstein model to give a role for organizations in the occurrence of civil unrest.

Now imagine running the model forward with two types of processes occurring simultaneously. The organizations recruit members iteratively and the activation status of each individual is calculated on each tick of the model. At each tick every individual has a membership status with respect to the organizations (“infections”), and each has an activation level (low, medium, high). When a concentration of, say, 40% of agents are activated to a high level in a region of a given size, this constitutes an episode of uprising / ethnic violence / civil unrest.

Two fundamental questions arise about this hypothetical simulation. First, is the simulation assumption that “organizational mobilization is like an infectious disease” a reasonable one? Or does organizational mobilization have different structural and population dynamics than the spread of a disease? For example, diseases percolate through direct contact; perhaps organizational mobilization has more global properties of diffusion. And second, does the resulting simulation give rise to patterns that have realistic application to real processes of social contention? Do we learn something new about social contention and mobilization by incorporating the additional factor of “organization” in this way that the Epstein model by itself does not reveal?

(It should be noted that organizations are a peculiar kind of agent. They have properties that are characteristic of “complex adaptive systems”: they are supra-individual, they are influenced by the actors they touch, and they influence the behavior of the actors they touch. So the behavioral properties of an organization perhaps should not be specified exogenously.)

(NetLogo is a sophisticated modeling package that permits researchers to develop small and medium-sized agent-based models, and it provides a number of relevant examples of simulations that are of interest to social scientists (link). Particularly interesting for the current purposes are a simulation of the Epstein model of rebellion discussed earlier (link) and an implementation of an AIDS contagion model that could be considered as a platform for modeling the spread of an organization or a set of ideas as well (link).  Here is the link for NetLogo: Wilensky, U. (1999). NetLogo. http://ccl.northwestern.edu/netlogo/. Center for Connected Learning and Computer-Based Modeling, Northwestern University, Evanston, IL.)

ABM approaches to social conflict

Source: Pfautz and Salwen (link)

An earlier post addressed the question of the dynamics through which a stable community consisting of multiple groups may begin to polarize and fission into antagonisms and conflict. I speculated there that the tools of agent-based modeling might be of use here. What I had in mind was something like this. Suppose we have an urban population spread across space in a distribution that reflects a degree of differentiation of residence by income, religion, and race. Suppose religion is more segregated than either income or race across the region. And suppose we have some background theoretical beliefs about social networks, civic associations, communication processes and other factors influencing a disposition to mobilize. Perhaps ABM methods could allow us to probe different scenarios to see what effects these different settings produce for polarization and conflict.

There is a fair amount of effort at modeling this kind of social phenomena within the field of social simulation. Carlos Lemos et al provide an overview of applications of ABM techniques in social conflict and civil violence in “Agent-based modeling of social conflict, civil violence and revolution: state-of-the-art-review and further prospects” (link). Here is an overview statement of their findings about one specific approach, the threshold-based approach:

Social conflict, civil violence and revolution ABM are inspired on classical models that use simple threshold-based rules to represent collective behavior and contagion effects, such as Schelling’s model of segregation [7] and Granovetter’s model of collective behavior [15]. Granovetter’s model is a theoretical description of social contagion or peer effects: each agent a has a threshold Ta and decides to turn “active” – e.g. join a protest or riot – when the number of other agents joining exceeds its threshold. Granovetter showed that certain initial distributions of the threshold can precipitate a chain reaction that leads to the activation of the entire population, whereas with other distributions only a few agents turn active. (section 3.1)

Here is a diagram of their way of conceptualizing the actors and the processes of social conflict into which they are sometimes mobilized.

Armano Srbljinovic and colleagues attempt to model the emergence of ethnic conflict in “An Agent-Based Model of Ethnic Mobilisation” (link). Their original impulse is to better explain the emergence of polarized and antagonistic ethnic conflict in the former Yugoslavia; their method of approach is to develop an agent-based model that might capture some of the parameters that induce or inhibit ethnic mobilization. They refer to the embracing project as “Social Correlates of the Homeland War”. They believe an ABM can potentially illuminate the messy and complex processes of ethnic mobilization observed on the ground:

Our more moderate goals are based on a seemingly reasonable assumption that the results observed in a simplified, artificial society could give us some clues of what is going on, or perhaps show us where to centre our attention in further and more detailed examination of a more complex real-world society. (paragraph 1.4)

They describe the eighties and nineties in this region in these terms:

So, by the end of the eighties and the beginning of the nineties, the ethnic roles in the society of the former Yugoslavia, that were kept toward the middle of Banton’s social roles-scale for more than forty years, now under the influence of political entrepreneurs, increased in importance. (paragraph 2.5)

And they would like to explain some aspects of the dynamics of this transition. They single out a handful of important social characteristics of individuals in the region: (a) ethnic membership, (b) ethnic mobilization, (c) civic mobilization, (d)grievance degree, (e) social network, (f) environmental conditions, and (g) appeals to action. Each actor in the model is assigned a value for factors a-e; environmental conditions are specified; and various patterns of appeals are inserted into the system over a number of trials

The algorithm of the model calculates the degree of mobilization intensity for all the agents as a function of the frequency of appeals, the antecedent grievance level of the agent, and a few features of the agents’ social networks. If we add a substantive hypothesis about the threshold of M after which group action arises, we then have a model of the occurrence of ethnic strife.

The model uses a “SWARM” methodology. It postulates 200 agents, half red and half blue; and it calculates for each agent a level of mobilization intensity for a sequence of times, according to the following formula:

  • mi(t+1) = mi(t) + (miapp + misocnet + micoolt    (paragraph 3.8)

This formula calculates the i^th individual’s new level of mobilization intensity m depending on the prior intensity, the delta created by the appeal, the delta created by the social network, and the “cooling” for the current period. (It is assumed that mobilization intensity decays over time unless re-stimulated by appeals and social network effects.)

This is a very interesting experiment in modeling of a complex interactive social process. But it also raises several important issues. One thing that is apparent from careful scrutiny of this model is that it is difficult to separate “veridical” results from artifacts. For example, consider this diagram:

Is the periodicity shown by Red and Blue mobilization intensities a real effect, or is it an artifact of the design of the model?

Second, it is important to notice the range of factors the simulation does not consider, which theorists like Tilly would think to be crucial: quality of leadership, quality and intensity of organization, content of appeals, differential pathways of appeals, and variety of political psychologies across agents. This simulation captures several important aspects of this particular kind of collective action. But it omits a great deal of substantial factors that theorists of collective action would take to be critical elements of the dynamics of the situation.

Here is a second example of an attempt to simulate aspects of ethnic mobilization provided by Stacey Pfautz and Michael Salwen, “A Hybrid Model of Ethnic Conflict, Repression, Insurgency and Social Strife” (link). Pfautz and Salwen describe their work in these terms:

Ethnic Conflict, Repression, Insurgency and Social Strife (ERIS) is a comprehensive, multi-level model of ethnic conflict that simulates how population dynamics impact state decision making and, in turn, respond to state actions and policies. Population pressures (e.g., relocation, civil unrest) affect and are affected by state actions. The long term goal of ERIS is to support operations development and analyses, enabling military planners to evaluate evolving situations, anticipate the emergence of ethnic conflict and its negative consequences, develop courses of action to defuse ethnic conflict, and mitigate the second and third order effects of U.S. actions on ethnic conflict. (211)

They refer to theirs as a hybrid model, incorporating a macro-level “systems dynamics” model and a micro-level ABM model. Their model thus attempts to represent both micro and macro causal forces on ethnic mobilization, illustrated in the diagram at the top. This model increases the level of “realism” in the assumptions represented in the simulation. Agents are heterogeneous, and their decision-making is contextualized to location on a GIS grid.

Agents represent 1000 individuals and are uniform with respect to religious affiliation. Agents are sampled with respect to age and sex ratio; however, skew sampling is used to create agents with different demographic profiles with respect to these attributes. Agents also have attributes to capture propensities to conflict and tolerance, which affect agent behavior and interact in the aggregate with the macro-level model to localize reports of conflict. (212)

Key variables in their simulation are religious identity, demographic change, population density, the history of recent inter-group conflict, and geographical location. The action space for individuals is: move location, mobilize for violence. And their model is calibrated to real data drawn from four states in Northwest India. Their basic finding is this: “Conflict is predicted in this model where islands or peninsulas of one ethnicity are surrounded by a sea of another (Figure 2.1).”

Kent McClelland offers a computational model that responds to Randall Collins’ concepts of “C-Escalation” and “D-Escalation” in inter-group conflict. McClelland’s piece is “CYCLES OF CONFLICT A Computational Modeling Alternative to Collins’s Theory of Conflict Escalation” (link). Here is how he describes his approach:

In this paper, I use a variation of systems theory to construct a multi-agent computational model of dynamic social interaction that shows how the conflict-escalation processes described by Collins can be generated in computer simulations. Like his, my model relies on feedback loops, but the mathematical formulas in my model use negative feedback loops, rather than positive feedback loops, to generate the collective processes of positive feedback described in Collins’s model of conflict escalation. My analysis relies on perceptual control theory (PCT), a dynamic-systems model of human behavior, which proposes that neural circuits in the brain are organized into hierarchies of negative-feedback control systems, and that individuals use these control systems to manipulate their own environments in order to control the flow of perceptual input in accordance with their internally generated preferences and expectations. (6)

Lars-Erik Cederman uses an ABM approach to model geopolitical boundaries (link). Here is how he describes his goals:

A decade ago, the Soviet Union ceased to exist, Yugoslavia started to disintegrate, and Germany reunified. Marking the end of the Cold War, these epochal events illustrate vividly that change in world politics features not just policy shifts but also can affect states’ boundaries and, sometimes, their very existence. Clearly, any theory aspiring to explain such transformations or, more generally, the longue durée of history, must endogenize the actors themselves.The current paper describes how agent based modeling can be used to capture transformations of this boundary transforming kind. This is a different argument from that advanced by most agent-based modelers, who resort to computational methods because they lend themselves to exploring heterogeneous and boundedly rational, but otherwise fixed, actors in complex social environments (1, 2). Without discounting the importance of this research, I will use illustrations from my own modeling framework to illustrate how it is possible to go beyond this mostly behavioral agenda. The main emphasis will be on the contribution of specific computational techniques to conceptualization of difficult to grasp notions such as agency, culture, and identity. Although a complete specification of the models goes beyond the current scope, the paper closes with a discussion of some of their key findings.

Cederman’s model incorporates three primary dynamics: “Emergent Polarity” (the idea that boundaries result from a process of conquest); “Democratic Cooperation” (the idea that “Democracy” functions as a tag facilitating cooperation among subsets of actors); and “Nationalist Systems Change” (the idea that boundaries result from actors seeking locations placing them in proximity to other actors possessing the same ethnic identity).

Here is a diagram representing stylized results of the simulation.

Epstein, Steinbruner, and Parker offer a model of civil violence (link). Here are the parameters that are assigned to all actors (population and cops): grievance, hardship, perceived legitimacy, risk aversiveness, field of vision, net risk, location, and decision to act. This is a very simple analysis of collective action, plainly derivative from a rational-choice approach. Each actor decides to act or not depending on his/her calculation of risk and hardship/grievance. These assumptions are vastly weaker than those offered by students of contentious politics like McAdam, Tarrow, and Tilly; but they generate interesting collective results when embodied in a generative ABM.

This research is specifically interesting in the context of the question posed here about fissioning. Consider this series of frames from an animation reflecting the results of random fluctuation of densities in an ethnically mixed community:

Peaceful coexistence
Animation of process leading to ethnic separation / ethnic cleansing

With “peace-keepers” the results are different:

These are interesting results. Plainly the presence or absence of peace-enforcers is relevant to the extent of ethnic violence that occurs. But notice once again how sparse the behavioral assumptions are. The simulations essentially serve to calculate the interactive effects of this particular set of assumptions about agents’ behavior — with no ability to represent organizations, communication, variations in motivation, etc.

All these models warrant study. They attempt to codify the behavior of individuals within geographic and social space and to work out the dynamics of interaction that result. But it is very important to recognize the limitations of these models as predictors of outcomes in specific periods and locations of unrest. These simulation models probably don’t shed much light on particular episodes of contention in Egypt or Tunisia during the Arab Spring. The “qualitative” theories of contention that have been developed probably shed more light on the dynamics of contention than the simulations do at this point in their development.

Social conflict and group mobilization

source: Du Shiyu and Qi Jiayan, “Multi-agent Modeling and Simulation on Group Polarization Behavior in Web 2.0”

An earlier post drew attention to the fact that there are sometimes powerful forces leading to the disintegration of previously peaceful populations of people into violent opposition across groups (link). A population concentrated in a geographical space (city, region) almost always represents a variety of sources of differentiation across groups: racial differences, economic differences, and cultural and religious differences, to mention several important ones. And virtually any sources of group identity and group wellbeing can potentially be a source of conflict and opposition within the population. So the earlier post asked the question, what are the factors that lead these latent conflicts to break out into active conflict? What leads individuals within a group to begin to mobilize together with the goal of resisting or attacking members of other groups?

Several factors are evident. First, there are multiple kinds of agents in play, both individual and collective. The cohesion-fission results are the complex consequence of the agency and strategies of these many agents and their strategic interactions. And there are agents working to secure cohesion at the same time as other agents work to bring about conflict across groups. Second, there are multiple sources of collective grievance that may serve to provide the raw materials for mobilization — fields over which groups have different levels of access to outcomes that they want to control. And third, there are a variety of structural factors that appear to be relevant to the dynamic processes of mobilization that may occur. Let’s look at each of these.

 
Agents

Leaders. Leaders sometimes have an interest in using inter-group conflict as a basis for mobilization of supporters around them, for the purpose of extending their power and the resources they control. (This is often referred to as “political entrepreneurship.”) Political leaders can provoke polarization by giving particular salience to one set of group characteristics over another. Lies, distortions, and emotional exhortation can provoke rank-and-file followers to increase their emotional level of commitment to the program of this group or that. The history of BJP in India as a provoker of Hindu-Muslim antagonism is a case in point (Atul Kohli, Democracy and Discontent: India’s Growing Crisis of Governability). (A good illustration is Sam Popkin’s “Political entrepreneurs and peasant movements in Vietnam” in Michael Taylor, Rationality and Revolution.) Here is Popkin’s description:

This chapter examines the mobilization of peasants during the Vietnamese revolution. It shows how, out of the rational choices of myriad individual, peasant society can be restructured and new institutions constructed. It shows in particular how peasant organizers, starting with limited material resources and using only their organizational skills, can “bootstrap” their organizations into existence and so “build something from nothing”. Through small interventions in the patterns of daily life these political and religious organizers, here called political entrepreneurs, build institutions which generate a “revolutionary surplus” or profit, and financed by this surplus they then use their local bases to recruit people to a national struggle. (9) 

Organizations. Organizations have the ability to communicate with their members; they can supply resources to support mobilization (lease buses to transport demonstrators to the capital city); and they can educate and indoctrinate followers into a particular social world view. There is a wide range of organizations that are relevant to mobilization in a social environment:

  • Community-based organizations
  • Youth and student organizations
  • Gangs and criminal organizations
  • Business and industry
  • Religious organizations and leaders
Organizations also have the opportunity of building a high degree of emotional adherence in their members. Michael Mann emphasizes each of these avenues of influence in his analysis of fascist paramilitary organizations in the 1930s (link). 

Ordinary rank-and-file actors. Most people at any given time are not actively engaged in protest or militant activity. So the success or failure of efforts to polarize a population depend on the ability of leaders and organizations to activate these ordinary actors.

Grievances

 

Now turn to the grievances that may lead actors to mobilize for action against another group. The primary source of conflict among groups within Marxist theory is property. Class conflict is the primary social conflict. But much social conflict seems to arise from non-material factors —

  • Material conflict of interest across communities (property, wealth, income, jobs)
  • Cultural and religious conflict of practice
  • Conflict over political power within the state over resources
  • Kinship relations and conflicts across kinship groups

So there is a wide range of potential causes for polarization. However, at most times and places these potential grievances remain latent rather than expressed. Leaders and organizations can extend efforts towards mobilizing the emotions and adherence of members of society for solidarity around one or another set of grievances.

Influences on the spread of conflictual mobilization

Proximity. The spatial distribution of people across a region influences the ease with which they communicate with each other. Neighbors are more likely to be influenced in their beliefs and motives for action than are strangers from widely separated parts of the city. C. K. Lee points out the impact that dormitory-style living arrangements had for workers in “sunset” industries in China; rumors and calls to action flowed easily through the residential buildings (Against the Law: Labor Protests in China’s Rustbelt and Sunbelt).

Social networks of affiliation. Social networks create communications pathways; they also create differentiated networks of trust. The fact that Suneel’s brother-in-law Atul attends the same temple as Suneel gives Suneel elevated grounds for trusting and relying upon Atul when it comes to learning current information and in responding to calls for action conveyed by Atul.

Incidents. Mobilization within a subcommunity is often triggered by an instigating incident — a traffic accident, an incidence of police brutality, an ethnic slur, a rumor of bad behavior by a member of another subcommunity. The police raid on the blind pig in Detroit in 1967 unleashed a cycle of mobilization and counter-mobilization within Detroit’s population and the state and federal governments.

Tools

Broadcast media. As was evident in the Rwanda genocide (link), control of radio or television stations is a major advantage for organizations and leaders who are seeking to mobilize their followers for a given kind of action.

Direct face-to-face mobilization. Organizations like labor unions, community-based organizations, and industry associations often have substantial personnel on the ground — cadres — who serve to communicate with and motivate the rank-and-file members and potential adherents. One important example is the GOTV efforts that various organizations are able to mount in times of elections. Another is the visibility and influence in urban neighborhoods that the Black Panthers created in the 1960s through their food programs.

 

Social media. It is widely believed, especially since the rapid mobilizations associated with the Arab Spring, that social media like Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram can serve as effective pathways of mobilization and activization. (link)

We still haven’t gotten to a clear answer to the question: under what conditions does a community begin to fission into conflicting components? But this analysis of the elements of the situation sheds some light on the facilitating or inhibiting factors that are relevant to such a process of fissioning. When leaders and organizations emerge who have a political interest in creating division (not an uncommon situation); when genuine underlying tensions exist (pertaining to resources or identity markers); and when features of proximity, interrelatedness, and weakness of policing permit the spread of divisive messages of faction; then fissioning is increasingly like.

Social conflict and group mobilization

source: Du Shiyu and Qi Jiayan, “Multi-agent Modeling and Simulation on Group Polarization Behavior in Web 2.0”

An earlier post drew attention to the fact that there are sometimes powerful forces leading to the disintegration of previously peaceful populations of people into violent opposition across groups (link). A population concentrated in a geographical space (city, region) almost always represents a variety of sources of differentiation across groups: racial differences, economic differences, and cultural and religious differences, to mention several important ones. And virtually any sources of group identity and group wellbeing can potentially be a source of conflict and opposition within the population. So the earlier post asked the question, what are the factors that lead these latent conflicts to break out into active conflict? What leads individuals within a group to begin to mobilize together with the goal of resisting or attacking members of other groups?

Several factors are evident. First, there are multiple kinds of agents in play, both individual and collective. The cohesion-fission results are the complex consequence of the agency and strategies of these many agents and their strategic interactions. And there are agents working to secure cohesion at the same time as other agents work to bring about conflict across groups. Second, there are multiple sources of collective grievance that may serve to provide the raw materials for mobilization — fields over which groups have different levels of access to outcomes that they want to control. And third, there are a variety of structural factors that appear to be relevant to the dynamic processes of mobilization that may occur. Let’s look at each of these.

 
Agents

Leaders. Leaders sometimes have an interest in using inter-group conflict as a basis for mobilization of supporters around them, for the purpose of extending their power and the resources they control. (This is often referred to as “political entrepreneurship.”) Political leaders can provoke polarization by giving particular salience to one set of group characteristics over another. Lies, distortions, and emotional exhortation can provoke rank-and-file followers to increase their emotional level of commitment to the program of this group or that. The history of BJP in India as a provoker of Hindu-Muslim antagonism is a case in point (Atul Kohli, Democracy and Discontent: India’s Growing Crisis of Governability). (A good illustration is Sam Popkin’s “Political entrepreneurs and peasant movements in Vietnam” in Michael Taylor, Rationality and Revolution.) Here is Popkin’s description:

This chapter examines the mobilization of peasants during the Vietnamese revolution. It shows how, out of the rational choices of myriad individual, peasant society can be restructured and new institutions constructed. It shows in particular how peasant organizers, starting with limited material resources and using only their organizational skills, can “bootstrap” their organizations into existence and so “build something from nothing”. Through small interventions in the patterns of daily life these political and religious organizers, here called political entrepreneurs, build institutions which generate a “revolutionary surplus” or profit, and financed by this surplus they then use their local bases to recruit people to a national struggle. (9) 

Organizations. Organizations have the ability to communicate with their members; they can supply resources to support mobilization (lease buses to transport demonstrators to the capital city); and they can educate and indoctrinate followers into a particular social world view. There is a wide range of organizations that are relevant to mobilization in a social environment:

  • Community-based organizations
  • Youth and student organizations
  • Gangs and criminal organizations
  • Business and industry
  • Religious organizations and leaders
Organizations also have the opportunity of building a high degree of emotional adherence in their members. Michael Mann emphasizes each of these avenues of influence in his analysis of fascist paramilitary organizations in the 1930s (link). 

Ordinary rank-and-file actors. Most people at any given time are not actively engaged in protest or militant activity. So the success or failure of efforts to polarize a population depend on the ability of leaders and organizations to activate these ordinary actors.

Grievances

 

Now turn to the grievances that may lead actors to mobilize for action against another group. The primary source of conflict among groups within Marxist theory is property. Class conflict is the primary social conflict. But much social conflict seems to arise from non-material factors —

  • Material conflict of interest across communities (property, wealth, income, jobs)
  • Cultural and religious conflict of practice
  • Conflict over political power within the state over resources
  • Kinship relations and conflicts across kinship groups

So there is a wide range of potential causes for polarization. However, at most times and places these potential grievances remain latent rather than expressed. Leaders and organizations can extend efforts towards mobilizing the emotions and adherence of members of society for solidarity around one or another set of grievances.

Influences on the spread of conflictual mobilization

Proximity. The spatial distribution of people across a region influences the ease with which they communicate with each other. Neighbors are more likely to be influenced in their beliefs and motives for action than are strangers from widely separated parts of the city. C. K. Lee points out the impact that dormitory-style living arrangements had for workers in “sunset” industries in China; rumors and calls to action flowed easily through the residential buildings (Against the Law: Labor Protests in China’s Rustbelt and Sunbelt).

Social networks of affiliation. Social networks create communications pathways; they also create differentiated networks of trust. The fact that Suneel’s brother-in-law Atul attends the same temple as Suneel gives Suneel elevated grounds for trusting and relying upon Atul when it comes to learning current information and in responding to calls for action conveyed by Atul.

Incidents. Mobilization within a subcommunity is often triggered by an instigating incident — a traffic accident, an incidence of police brutality, an ethnic slur, a rumor of bad behavior by a member of another subcommunity. The police raid on the blind pig in Detroit in 1967 unleashed a cycle of mobilization and counter-mobilization within Detroit’s population and the state and federal governments.

Tools 

Broadcast media. As was evident in the Rwanda genocide (link), control of radio or television stations is a major advantage for organizations and leaders who are seeking to mobilize their followers for a given kind of action.

Direct face-to-face mobilization. Organizations like labor unions, community-based organizations, and industry associations often have substantial personnel on the ground — cadres — who serve to communicate with and motivate the rank-and-file members and potential adherents. One important example is the GOTV efforts that various organizations are able to mount in times of elections. Another is the visibility and influence in urban neighborhoods that the Black Panthers created in the 1960s through their food programs.

 

Social media. It is widely believed, especially since the rapid mobilizations associated with the Arab Spring, that social media like Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram can serve as effective pathways of mobilization and activization. (link

We still haven’t gotten to a clear answer to the question: under what conditions does a community begin to fission into conflicting components? But this analysis of the elements of the situation sheds some light on the facilitating or inhibiting factors that are relevant to such a process of fissioning. When leaders and organizations emerge who have a political interest in creating division (not an uncommon situation); when genuine underlying tensions exist (pertaining to resources or identity markers); and when features of proximity, interrelatedness, and weakness of policing permit the spread of divisive messages of faction; then fissioning is increasingly like.

Fissioning community

What is a community, and what forces exist to either preserve the strands of community or to erode those strands?

To start, a community is a population within a defined geographical space. It is a group of people who have their own interests, identities, and affinities. It is a group of people who act in a variety of ways — work, garden, vote in elections, raise children, join protest movements, support the government, steal cars, and attend public events. It is a group of people who are located within a space of social relationships — a set of social network graphs detailing their relations to family, friends, co-workers, fellow worshippers, fellow members of sports teams and civic associations. It is a group of people who have strong ties and weak ties to a range of other people and organizations. And it is a group of individuals who have ideas about how society should work, what is fair, who benefits from current social and political arrangements.

What makes a collection of people into a community rather than a jumble of unrelated individuals? There needs to be something in common, something that ties individuals together so they are to some degree willing to act in consideration of others in the group—a set of values, a set of shared purposes, a set of shared commitments to rules and laws of action in society. A strong community demonstrates a high degree of common respect for these values, rules, and laws. A weak community is the society that Hobbes feared—an agglomeration of self-interested actors competing for power and wealth, in which life is nasty, brutish, and short.

We might specify that sometimes a population embodies a plurality of sub-communities, each of which has a set of shared values and purposes—the Catholics and the Protestants, the Hindus and the Muslims, the bourgeois and the proles. Sub-groups may have very different cultural and religious beliefs, and they may also have very different positions in the social-property system and the political system. These sub-groups may have strong links among themselves but only weak links with individuals in the other sub-group. They may have strong adherence to a set of values and norms shared by their group but not across groups, and their norms may specify different behavior towards in-group and out-group individuals.

Crucially, a population with nested sub-communities may also possess an overarching unifying identity. That is, a mixed society may contain sub-groups that have their own norms and affinities, but that also share higher-level norms and commitments with other sub-groups. “We X’s live our lives differently from those Y’s; but we all accept the legitimacy of law and the freedom of worship.” Those higher-level commitments might include items along these lines:

  • recognition of the legitimacy of government
  • commitment to the rule of law
  • commitment to rights of association, speech, religion, movement
  • commitment to the equal rights and worth of all members of the community
  • a compassionate regard for the lives and flourishing of members of other communities

It is very appealing in our multi-cultural world to conceive of a mixed community — a city or a region, say — as a harmonious and stable set of relationships among groups who differ in many important ways but who recognize the basic legitimacy and rights of the other groups, and who strive towards better inter-group understanding and cooperation. And we do in fact have good examples of such communities.

But all too often this ideal of a tolerant and stable community embracing multiple racial and ethnic groups is broken on the rocks of inter-group mistrust and violence. Groups polarize, individuals in one group develop mistrust or animosity against members of other groups, isolated instances of disrespect or violence escalate into conflict or pogroms. The civility that existed in one period breaks down into hostility and violence in another period.

It is important to understand the social mechanisms and strategies that exist in this arena in both directions: the strategies that exist for promoting mutual understanding and peaceful cooperation, and the mechanisms that exist that have the potential for undermining peaceful relations among groups in a population.

There are a number of familiar strategies and mechanisms that work in support of civility within a multi-ethnic or multi-religious community: organizations devoted to promoting inter-group understanding, institutions that encourage the formation of ties across group lines (like universities), leaders who promote the values of civility and mutual respect, effective law enforcement that quickly addresses violent actions by individuals in one group against those of another. The ways that these strategies work are also fairly plain. Equitable law enforcement enhances confidence that everyone will be treated fairly, no matter what group they identify with. Good leadership is exerted to make salient the unifying collective commitments that extend across all groups, and these commitments become motivationally effective. Cross-group organizations create new ties among individuals from different groups which gives them resilience in resisting the impulse of hostility when conflicts arise.

What are some of the mechanisms that come into play in multi-group populations that lead to instability and conflict? Here are some common factors that lead to the breakdown of community: mistrust, failures of assurance, political entrepreneurship, media incitement, rumor, and conflicts of interest over property and political arrangements. Some groups and leaders have a political interest in elevating tensions between groups. Rumors of bad actions by members of the other group lessen the resolve of group members to maintain their stance of solidarity. (Atul Kohli considers some of these mechanisms in India in Democracy and Discontent: India’s Growing Crisis of Governability.)

It seems apparent that the mechanisms and impulses towards fission are perennial and need to be contained if a multi-ethnic or multi-religious community is to be sustained over time. Work by scholars like Donald Horowitz (Ethnic Groups in Conflict) and Ashu Varshney (Ethnic Conflict and Civic Life: Hindus and Muslims in India) illustrate the historical processes through which mixed communities have broken down into ethnic violence. It would be very interesting to attempt to use agent-based modeling to model the workings of pro- and anti-solidarity mechanisms in a mixed population, along the lines of a public health simulation of disease, to evaluate the conditions that favor or disfavor the survival of community in a population incorporating a number of groups.

What is a European?

 

One of the great achievements of the establishment of the European Union was the beginnings of a broader transnational identity from Spain to Finland — or so it seemed for a decade or so. But is this even a coherent idea? Is it credible to imagine that the citizens of Spain, Greece, Latvia, France, and Finland would come to see themselves as fellow “Europeans” rather than Spaniards, Greeks, Latvians, Frenchmen and women, and Finns? What would be the content of such a pan-European identity? How would it come about?

One of the theorists who believed that a pan-European identity was possible was Karl Marx. His view was partial but emphatically trans-national: he believed that international working men and women could come to have a shared class identity that transcended national boundaries. But the mobilization of working class men and women into the armies of Britain, France, Italy, Germany, and Russia in 1914 provided a harsh reality check on that notion, at least in the historical circumstances of the early twentieth century. It appeared that nation and patriotic feelings trumped class and international solidarity. (Here is a very interesting collection edited by Marcello Musto, The International Workingmen’s Association, that provides some of the founding documents and later discussions of Marx’s version of internationalism.)

Willem Maas has given thought to this topic. Maas is the author of Creating European Citizens and Democratic Citizenship and the Free Movement of People. Maas’s work focuses on an emerging consensus about rights and citizenship that transcends the various national cultures of the continent.

Since the end of the Second World War, an extensive set of supranational rights has been created in Europe. These rights extend entitlements, impose obligations, and have increasingly been designated with a term traditionally reserved for the relationship between individuals and states: citizenship. (Creating European Citizens, vii)

One part of this very interesting analysis is the notion that people develop their political affinities through the concrete work of building institutions and legislation. So the simple fact that the European Parliament convenes in Strasbourg is itself a potential pathway to a growing collective identity around the civic values articulated within that institution. The establishment and enforcement of civic rights for individuals qua citizens of Europe — including crucially the right of free movement from one country to another — created a basis for civic bonds that could play a much larger role in precipitating a European collective identity. And the creation of transnational educational institutions — the Erasmus project in particular — has perhaps laid a basis for a more full movement of people and ideas across the face of Europe (link).

An Ur-text on social identities is Ben Anderson’s notion of “imagined communities” (Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism, Revised Edition). According to Anderson, national identities are made, not discovered; social and collective identities are social constructs. In order to understand the collective identities of “Basques”, “socialists,” or “Tennesseans”, we need to identify the mechanisms and pathways through which common political ideas and cultural images are adopted by a group of people. Emmanuel Todd and others describe such a process for the case of France (linklink). And it is not incredible to imagine a social-cultural process through which a thread of “European-ness” could come to play an important role across all these national settings.

At the same time, it is striking to take note of the very great diversity that exists in local cultures and identities across the map of Europe, in terms of values, moral frameworks, personality characteristics, and social perceptions. This is true across countries; but it is also true within countries, with substantial regional, religious, and class differentiation within each country. So it is challenging to speak of a “Spanish identity” without asking, “Which region of Spain? What social class? What ethnic or national minority?” And even more challenging is the idea that there is an emerging “super-identity” that may serve to unify the political consciousness and values of the people of the continent.

What might constitute the core elements of a pan-European identity? We might think of shared beliefs and values; we might think of ideologies and political movements; and we might think of key elements of culture that transcend national boundaries. But it is clear that there is enough diversity across the face of Europe to make substantial convergence around any of these large axes very likely. Are Europeans more sympathetic to the plight of the poor? Some are — but some are not. Are Europeans more progressive and liberal than North Americans? The resurgence of the right in Europe makes this dubious as well. Are Europeans more tolerant and accepting of others? The rise of anti-immigrant parties and movements in almost every European country makes that idea dubious as well.

Several of these considerations suggest that there are institutional and legal changes underway in Europe through the institutions of the European Union that may slowly permit a greater cultural and political integration of the people of the continent. Perhaps the very idea of “Europe” may come to play a larger role in the more specific identities that people have in the various countries of Europe — as the idea of “Canada” serves to bring together the people of British Columbia and Nova Scotia, and the idea of “France” unifies Bretons, Alsatians, and Provençals. But it is also clear that there are cultural and political forces working against European integration that are powerful as well. So the future of the “European” in place of the Briton, the German, or the Spaniard is still in doubt.

(See an earlier discussion of an exchange of views between John Rawls and Philippe van Parijs on the topic of a European identity; link. See also this discussion of Andreas Wimmer’s theory of methodological nationalism; link.)

A sense of injustice in China?

 

Quite a few years ago Barrington Moore explored in his book Injustice the idea that a sense of justice sometimes plays an important role in history. Here is how he put his central question:

This is a book about why people so often put up with being the victims of their societies and why at other times they become very angry and try with passion and forcefulness to do something about their situation. For the most part, the book focuses on people at or near the bottom of the social order: those with little or no property, income, education, power, authority, or prestige. (xiii)

Moore is interested in a particular moment in history, the moment when …

… people come to believe that a new and different set of criteria ought to go into effect for the choice of those in authority and the manner of its exercise, for the division of labor, and for the allocation of goods and services… In this chapter we are looking for general processes that occur at the level of culture, social structure, and individual personality, as groups of people cease to take their social surroundings for granted and come to reject or actively to oppose them. (81)

We might summarize this idea in these terms:

  • A sense of justice is a broadly shared set of factual and normative beliefs about how existing society works when it comes to fair and equitable treatment of individuals by institutions and groups.
  • People are likely to mobilize in an effort to change the social order when their sense of justice is profoundly offended.

Moore offers examples of how offenses to a prevalent sense of justice can influence collective behavior, mostly drawn from German working class history. But for other examples we can also turn to E.P. Thompson’s concept of the moral economy of the crowd (link; also included in Customs in Common: Studies in Traditional Popular Culture) and James Scott’s application of this concept to the situation of rebellion and mobilization in SE Asia (The Moral Economy of the Peasant: Rebellion and Subsistence in Southeast Asia, Weapons of the Weak: Everyday Forms of Peasant Resistance).

This set of ideas raises two different sets of questions. First, can we confirm the idea that the motivations that arise from the experience of justice and injustice are in fact important in influencing the outcomes of specific cases of social life? Or is the sense of justice simply an epiphenomenon? And second, can we empirically investigate the particulars of the sense of justice and injustice of a particular people at a point in time? Is the sense of justice itself a social fact that can be investigated and mapped?

These ideas seem especially relevant to the case of China since the Revolution. On the one hand, the Chinese Communist Revolution depended upon a set of values that couched social justice in terms of equality across classes. On the other hand, China’s economy and society have witnessed an explosion of inequalities of income and influence since the 1980s. It is natural to ask, then, whether people who came to adulthood in the 1930s and 1940s in China acquired an egalitarian sense of justice and injustice; and whether they and their children experience today’s inequalities as being unjust. And in fact, some observers believe that rising inequalities in China are contributing to dangerously high levels of dissatisfaction and outrage among ordinary citizens. Or in other words, China is ripe for the kind of morally induced protest and resistance that Barrington Moore described. China is a “social volcano” in the early stage of venting and steaming, with an eruption to follow.

Martin Whyte’s recent study of this question leads to surprising findings (for me, anyway). In Myth of the Social Volcano: Perceptions of Inequality and Distributive Injustice in Contemporary China Whyte sets out to use the tools of survey research to assess and measure the contours of the assumptions about justice and inequality that are shared by several generations of Chinese men and women. He and research colleagues (including Shen Mingming and Yang Ming) conducted a national survey in 2004 aimed at probing Chinese attitudes towards inequalities. The survey involved responses from about 4,344 individuals, stratified in terms of region and rural/urban status.

Here is Whyte’s assessment of the survey data (chapter 3):

How can we summarize Chinese citizens’ feelings about issues of inequality and distributive justice? Which aspects of current inequalities in China do they accept and view as fair, and which do they see as basically unjust? In general, our survey results indicate that the majority of respondents accept and view as fair most aspects of the unequal, market-based society in which they now live. There is little sign in our results of strong feelings of distributive injustice, of active rejection of the current system, or of nostalgia for the distributional policies of the planned socialist era. (kl 1191)

In fact, Whyte describes a set of attitudes that place China squarely within what we might call the values of social democracy, favoring a social safety net and a market society that provides widespread opportunities for advancement. Here is a particularly relevant chart (figure 3.3):

The results in this chart display an intriguing blend of liberal and socialist commitments. Equal distribution (the Mao principle) receives 29.1% support, significantly lower than the 44.7% who oppose the principle. But another anti-liberal principle, government guarantee of jobs, receives higher positive than negative support (57.3% in support, 23.9% against). And there is overwhelming support for the idea of a government guarantee of a minimum living standard (80.8%).

Whyte singles out a number of principles of legitimacy and justice that he discerns in the survey findings (quoting from chapter 3, kl 1191 ff.):

  • There should be government-sponsored efforts to provide job and income guarantees to the poor …
  • There should be abundant opportunities for individuals and families to improve their livelihoods …
  • There should be equality of opportunity …
  • Material advancement and success should be determined by merit factors …
  • The pronounced social cleavage between China’s rural and urban citizens … are unfair
  • Since individuals and families vary in their talents, diligence, and cultivation and deployment of merit-based strategies for success, society will have a considerable amount of inequality …
  • Upper limits should not be set on incomes …
  • It is acceptable for the rich to use their advantages to provide better lives for their families
  • People in positions of political power should not be entitled to special privileges …

It is the generally optimistic character of these findings that leads Whyte to doubt that China is a “social volcano”. He finds that the bulk of the Chinese population possesses a conception of justice and economic expectation that aligns fairly well with China’s current social and economic realities. He does not find a rising sense of injustice and resentment that might fuel anti-regime mobilization. So China is not approaching a social eruption driven by a deepening sense of injustice among ordinary people; or at least this is how Whyte reads the data.

But it seems possible to read the data in another way as well. The principle of equal distribution — the Maoist principle — does actually correspond to the moral sense of a very large number of Chinese men and women in the survey (29.1%). (This number falls to 11.3% if it is specified that inequalities derive from a system of equal opportunity; figure 3.5.) How strongly does this minority hold this egalitarian view? Who are they? Is there a generational split on this question? And how about perceptions of conflict? Figure 3.7 presents opinions about the severity of conflict between various groups in Chinese society; there we find that 38.5% of respondents find large or very large conflicts between poor and wealthy people. Is this a large number or a small number?

In fact, there is an alternative reading of Whyte’s data that comes to a somewhat darker conclusion. It is true that there is a large majority in Chinese society who are optimistic about the direction of change China is undergoing, and who are optimistic about their futures and those of their children. But there also seems to be a meaningful percentage of China’s population who do not share these attitudes and beliefs. And perhaps this group is large enough to portend the kind of social conflict that Whyte is so skeptical about. When it comes to the likelihood of social unrest, perhaps it is not the modal individual but the disadvantaged minority who is most salient. So maybe a Moore-ian crisis is brewing in China after all.

Deliberation for activists

What is involved in deliberating within an activist group? This isn’t quite as simple a question as it might appear. Deliberation has to do with a discussion among a number of people aimed at arriving at a degree of consensus about facts, policies, and strategies. But it grades off into several other collective activities: contention over power and influence, efforts to deceive or manipulate, efforts to mobilize people over emotional issues.

I am led to think about these questions by a very stimulating seminar by a colleague, Lara Rusch, in which she presented some of her current research on the specific features of collective decision-making by activist groups in Detroit. (Here is an article of Lara’s on one aspect of the issue, the challenge of creating trust within a group of activists; link.)

What I’m interested in examining here is grassroots activist deliberation — the kinds of decision-making and action that are associated with movements like the anti-globalization movement, the Occupy Wall Street movement, and a variety of grassroots environmentalist movements. This kind of deliberation seems to be structurally different from those that are often highlighted within the literature of deliberative democracy. (Erik Olin Wright and Archon Fong’s Deepening Democracy: Institutional Innovations in Empowered Participatory Governance (The Real Utopias Project) (v. 4) is a great statement of current thinking about deliberative democracy. Here is an earlier post on deliberative democracy and here is another post on the Real Utopias project.)

Most examples in the deliberative democracy literature involve processes in which the task is simply to arrive at a majority recommendation about a fairly well defined issue, with the process increasing in persuasive force according to the strength of the majority. But a process like this doesn’t have to cope with the issue of maintaining the coalition after this one action. Activist groups, by contrast, are not regulated by formal rules of voting leading to a single adopted resolution, they are not bound by majority vote, and they are not concerned about simply coming to a decision about a single resolution.

So let’s consider one aspect of activist debate: the communicative effort by members of a group to sort out what they should do collectively, given the framing goals and values they share. The individuals and groups have come together because they share commitment to some purpose or goal. (Though there is always the possibility of uncommitted visitors and even provocateurs whose goals involve side-tracking the purposes of the rest of the group.) So how can individuals and sub-groups engage in a process that leads to a degree of consensus about future actions?

Here I take it for granted that activists share goals and values. But this is not wholly true. They may share a high-level concern — ending racism, pushing for sustainability — but may disagree sharply about finer details. So reaching consensus about action is often made more difficult by the fact of disagreement about important goals and values. For example, an environmental activist group may disagree about the scope of their collective efforts — global sustainability or improvement of their own region’s environmental quality.

Another important source of disagreement arises a step closer to action, deriving from differing theories of how social change works. One segment may think that the primary tactics should involve getting effective messages to the broader public through media coverage, whereas another group may think that it is essential to get the attention of policy makers through consequential and visible direct action. With broad disagreement about efficacy of various possible strategies, it is difficult to achieve consensus.

One option that exists in this case is for each camp to make an empirical or historical argument supporting its claims of efficacy; to the extent that opponents are open to rational assessment of evidence at this level, it is possible to narrow disagreement about efficacy.  In other words, rational persuasion based on evidence and inference is one possible avenue of communicative interaction within a group of similar-minded activists. But often partisan groups are as committed to their models of social action as they are to the ultimate outcomes.

The whole situation of activist deliberation is complicated by the fact that a social movement at any level of scale depends on the willing participation of individuals and sub-groups. So a degree of consensus is a practical necessity, if the movement is to maintain itself as an active and activist conglomeration capable of any form of collective action. To the extent that a proposed plan of action diverges substantially from the preferences and interests of a sub-group, there is the likelihood of defection of that group.

There are a couple of features of collective action that seem to make the problem of factions somewhat more manageable than it first appears. First,there is a degree of solidarity involved in almost every social movement; and a widespread feeling of solidarity provides some degree of motivation for each individual to join the collective action even if it is not one’s first choice.  In other words, activists often have a degree of willingness to support the decisions of the group even if they are on the losing side — unless the differences are sufficiently fundamental! Second, individuals and groups are capable of compromising: they can agree to an action plan in which Group A gets most of what it wants, but it promises to pursue part of what Group B wants as well.  And if there is a degree of inter-group trust, this may be sufficient to get both A and B to work together on the agree-upon plan.

David Graeber’s Direct Action: An Ethnography is a fascinating ethnography of anti-globalization activists preparing for a complex series of actions at the 2001 Summit of the Americas meeting in Quebec. As Graeber makes clear, these loosely affiliated anarchist groups were effective at planning and coordinating action. Here is an earlier discussion of Graeber’s book (link).

Ostrom’s central idea

 

Elinor Ostrom was a very important contributor to the theory of public rationality and the institutions that underlie cooperation, and she was most deserving of the recognition that accompanied her receipt of the Nobel Prize in Economics in 2009.  Her passing today is a sad loss for the academic world.

Her key contributions were included in Governing the Commons: The Evolution of Institutions for Collective Action, a masterful book that presents a new theoretical framework and body of empirical evidence for conceiving of the ways in which human communities can handle common property resources — forests, fishing grounds, grazing areas, water supplies. Anyone interested in the ways that collective action works in practice will want to read the book. (See also Baden and Noonan, Managing the Commons, Second Edition for an important set of perspectives on “managing the commons” and solving common property resource problems.)

Rational choice theory has been unfriendly to the idea that communities can self-regulate when it comes to public goods and public harms.  Garrett Hardin offered the theory of the “tragedy of the commons”, in which he argues that rational egoists will inevitably overuse a common resource. And Mancur Olson offered similar arguments about the feasibility of collective action in an extended group in The Logic of Collective Action: Public Goods and the Theory of Groups. Against these views, Ostrom and her research collaborators demonstrated that human communities have actually created a number of informal institutional complexes for regulating access to common resources that succeed in creating a stable balance between use and resource renewal.

Here is how Ostrom casts the problem in Governing the Commons:

The term “common-pool resource” refers to a natural or man-made resource system that is sufficiently large as to make it costly (but not impossible) to exclude potential beneficiaries from obtaining benefits from its use. (30)

Instead of presuming that the individuals sharing a commons are inevitably caught in a trap from which they cannot escape, I argue that the capacity of individuals to extricate themselves from various types of dilemma situations varies from situation to situation. The cases to be discussed in this book illustrate both successful and unsuccessful efforts to escape tragic outcomes. (14; kl 306)

Institutions are rarely either private or public — “the market” or “the state.” Many successful CPR intitutions are rich mixtures of “private-like” and “public-like” institutions defying classification in a sterile dichotomy. By “successful,” I mean institutions that enable individuals to achieve productive outcomes in situations where temptations to free-ride and shirk are ever present. A competitive market — the epitome of private institutions — is itself a public good. (14; kl 311)

Ostrom demonstrated, both theoretically and empirically, that legal regulation is not the only possible solution to public goods problems. Instead she documents community-based solutions to common property resource problems that have proved successful over multiple generations. These are quasi-voluntary arrangements through which a community of users (fishers, grazers, irrigators) are able to manage the resource collectively and control violators, in such a way as to preserve the resource over time. And she points out that these institutions can be self-maintaining, in that participants have an incentive to watch out for cheaters and shirkers.  In describing the Alanya inshore fishing system in detail she writes, “The process of monitoring and enforcing the system is, however, accomplished by the fishers themselves as a by-product of the incentive created by the rotation system” (19-20; kl 378).

Given that common property resource problems are ubiquitous, her policy recommendation are sensible ones:

An important challenge facing policy scientists is to develop theories of human organization based on realistic assessment of human capabilities and limitations in dealing with a variety of situations that initially share some or all aspects of a tragedy of the commons. (23; kl 436)

What is missing from the policy analyst’s tool kit — and from the set of accepted, well-developed theories of human organization — is an adequately specified theory of collective action whereby a group of principals can organize themselves voluntarily to retain the residuals of their own efforts. Examples of self-organized enterprises abound. (24; kl 449)

Essentially her research comes down to this point: There are multiple possible property systems through which access to natural resources can be mediated. A simple Lockean theory of private property holds that all goods have individual private owners. It is possible, however, to conceive of forms of “social property” or community property through which at least some assets are held in common, and for which there are fair and well-defined procedures for providing rights of access to the use and enjoyment of the social property.

As Ostrom demonstrated in depth, there are socially feasible arrangements in which a “common property resource” such as a fish stock is exploited by a number of independent producers within the context of a stable community.  In this instance we have a combination of private property (nets and boats) and social property (the waterway and fish stock), and Ostrom documents several different sets of social rules that establish the terms of access and use that individuals will have to the common property resource.

There is extensive debate over the economic efficiency or viability of social property arrangements such as these. Concerning fisheries and traditional practices of forestry, for example, there is the familiar argument that rationally induced free-riding will eventually undermine the community-based rules of use. The point here not that social property regimes are superior, but rather that they are possible. And Ostrom’s research illustrates a great variety of common-property resource regimes that appear to be efficient and stable.  It is therefore a matter of public debate which particular rules and institutions ought to govern the use of property. And there may be something in this finding that provides new ways of thinking about economic arrangements in the twenty-first century as well.

(I had an interesting exchange with Ostrom on the occasion of her receiving an honorary degree from the University of Michigan in 2006. I raised the topic of agriculture and food within the world economy and referred to a continuing debate I’d been having with my daughter about traditional farming versus largescale industrial agriculture.  My argument was that traditional farming was not productive enough to feed the world’s population, and my daughter’s view was that industrial agriculture is unsustainable and destructive of existing rural communities.  I asked Ostrom about her opinion.  Her response was: “you are both right.” In hindsight, after rereading Governing the Commons, I’m inclined to interpret her response as expressing the idea that solutions to our large global problems need to be mixed solutions. Her work on self-governing community-based systems for making use of resources suggests that she would have some sympathy for the continuing significance of traditional farming systems within the larger context of the world agriculture system. But at the same time, she was always insistent that we need to be realistic about the assumptions about behavior that underly the solutions we recommend.)

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