How to think about social identities

What is involved in having a national or racial or sexual identity? What do we mean when we say that a person has a Canadian or a Haitian identity? How can we best think about the mental frameworks and models that serve as lenses through which people understand themselves and their places in history?

Most basically, an identity is a set of beliefs and stories about one’s home and one’s people. These ideas often involve answers to questions like these: Who am I? What groups do I belong to? How did my group get to the current situation? Where did we come from? And perhaps, who are my enemies? So an identity often involves a narrative, a creation story, or perhaps a remembrance of a long chain of disasters and crimes. Identity and collective memory are intertwined; monuments, icons, and flags help to set the way points in the history of a people and the collective emotions that this group experiences.

Identities are interwoven with narratives and folk histories. They have to do with the stories we tell each other about who we are; how our histories brought us to this place; and what large events shaped us as a “people”. And, as Benedict Anderson so eloquently demonstrated in Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism, these stories are more often than not fictions of various kinds, promulgated by individuals and groups who have an interest in shaping collective consciousness in one way or another.

Identities are also often closely linked with performances of various kinds — holidays, commemorations, funerals and weddings, marches and demonstrations. It is not surprising that historians like Michael Kammen (Mystic Chords of Memory: The Transformation of Tradition in American Culture) give great attention to monuments and celebrations; these are the tangible items that contribute to the formation of an identity as an American, a Black Panther, a Serb, or a Holocaust survivor.

There is an interesting corollary question: are there requirements of consistency that appear to govern the contents of a national or racial identity? If a person’s identity involves adherence to the idea of gender equality, does this imply that the person will also value racial equality? If a person values loyalty to his friends, will he or she also be likely to value promise-keeping or truth-telling to strangers?

We might expect consistency among the elements of an identity if we assumed that individuals are reflective agents, weighing and comparing the various components of their identity against each other. This kind of mental process might be expected to lead individuals to notice a similarity between “equality between men and women” and “equality between Christians and Muslims”, and might adjust his bigoted beliefs about Muslims in order to make them more compatible with his beliefs about gender equality. If, on the other hand, we think of individuals as unreflective and dogmatic, then there may be less ground for expecting a gradual adjustment of beliefs into a more consistent whole. On that scenario, the components of a person’s identity are more similar to the likes and aversions of the palate than the considered judgments of morality.

Finally, it is also clear — as the theorists of intersectionality have demonstrated (for example, Patricia Hill Collins; link) — that most of us possess multiple identities at the same time. We are Irish, European, lesbian, working class, anti-fascist, and Green, all at the same time. And the imperatives of the several identities we wear are often different in the political actions that they call for. Here again the question of consistency arises: how are we to reconcile these different calls to action? Is there an underlying consistency of values, or are the orienting values of one’s anti-fascism largely independent from one’s commitments to a pro-environmentalist agenda?

It is clear that various kinds of identities are highly relevant to politics and collective action. Appeals to identity solidarities have powerful effects on mobilization and political activization. But given that identities are not primeval, it is also clear that identities are themselves the subject of political struggle. Leaders, activists, and organizations have powerful interests in shaping the content and focus of the identities that are realized in the groups and individuals around them.

 
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Social consciousness and critical realism

Critical realism proposes an approach to the social world that pays particular attention to objective and material features of the social realm — property relations, impersonal institutional arrangements, supra-individual social structures. Between structure and agent, CR seems most often to lean towards structures rather than consciously feeling and thinking agents. And so one might doubt whether CR has anything useful to offer when it comes to studying the subjective side of social life.

Take for example the idea of a social identity. A social identity seems inherently subjective. It is the bundle of ideas and frameworks through which one places himself or herself in the social world, the framework through which a person conceptualizes his/her relations with others, and an ensemble of the motivations and commitments that lead to important forms of social and political action. All of this sounds subjective in the technical sense — a part of the subjective and personal experience of a single individual. It is part of consciousness, not the material world.

So it is reasonable to ask whether there is anything in a social identity that is available for investigation through the lens of critical realism.

The answer, however, seems to be fairly clear. Ideas and mental frameworks have social antecedents and causal influences. Individuals take shape through concrete social development that is conducted through stable social arrangements and institutions. Consciousness has material foundations. And therefore, it is perfectly appropriate to pursue a realist materialist investigation of social consciousness. This was in fact one important focus of the Annales school of historiography.

This is particularly evident in the example of a social identity. No one is born with a Presbyterian or a Sufi religious identity. Instead, children, adolescents, and young adults acquire their religious and moral ideas through interaction with other individuals, and many of those interactions are determined by enduring social structures and institutional arrangements. So it is a valid subject of research to attempt to uncover the pathways of interaction and influence through which individuals come to have the ideas and values they currently have. This is a perfectly objective topic for social research.

But equally, the particular configuration of beliefs and values possessed by a given individual and a community of individuals is an objective fact as well, and it is amenable to empirical investigation. The research currently being done on the subcultures of right wing extremism illustrates this point precisely. It is an interesting and important fact to uncover (if it is a fact) that the ideologies and symbols of hate that seem to motivate right wing youth are commonly associated with patriarchal views of gender as well.

So ideas and identities are objective in at least two senses, and are therefore amenable to treatment from a realist perspective. They have objective social determinants that can be rigorously investigated; and they have a particular grammar and semiotics that need to be rigorously investigated as well. Both kinds of inquiry are amenable to realist interpretation: we can be realist about the mechanisms through which a given body of social beliefs and values are promulgated through a population, and we can be realist about the particular content of those belief systems themselves.

Ironically, this position seems to converge in an unexpected way with two streams of classical social theory. This approach to social consciousness resonates with some of the holistic ideas that Durkheim brought to his interpretation of religion and morality. But likewise it brings to mind Marx’s views of the determinants of social consciousness through objective material circumstances. We don’t generally think of Marx and Durkheim as having much in common. But on the topic of the material reality of ideas and their origins in material features of social life, they seem to agree.

These considerations seem to lead to a strong conclusion: critical realism can be as insightful in its treatment of objective social structures as it is in study of “subjective” features of social consciousness and identities.

Sociology of life expectations

Each individual has a distinctive personality and orienting set of values. It is intriguing to wonder how these features take shape in the individual’s development through the experiences of childhood, adolescence, and early adulthood. But we can also ask whether there are patterns of mentality and orienting values across many or most individuals in a cohort. Are there commonalities in the definition of a good life across a cohort? Is there such a thing as the millennial generation or the sixties generation, in possession of distinctive and broadly shared sets of values, frameworks, and dispositions?

These are questions that sociologists have attempted to probe using a range of tools of inquiry. It is possible to use survey methodology to observe shifts in attitudes over time, thereby pinpointing some important cohort differences. But qualitative tools seem the most appropriate for this question, and in fact sociologists have conducted extensive interviews with a selected group of individuals from the indicated group, and have used qualitative methods to analyze and understand the results.

A very interesting example of this kind of research is Jennifer Silva’s Coming Up Short: Working-Class Adulthood in an Age of Uncertainty. Silva is interested in studying the other half of the millennial generation — the unemployed and underemployed young people, mostly working class, whom the past fifteen years have treated harshly. What she finds in this segment of the cohort born in the late 1970s and early 1980s is an insecure and precarious set of life circumstances, and new modes of transition to adulthood that don’t look very much like the standard progress of family formation, career progress, and rising affluence that was perhaps characteristic of this same social segment in the 1950s.

Here is how Silva frames the problem she wants to better understand:

What, then, does it mean to “grow up” today? Even just a few decades ago, the transition to adulthood would not have been experienced as a time of confusion, anxiety, or uncertainty. In 1960, the vast majority of women married before they turned twenty-one and had their first child before twenty-three. By thirty, most men and women had moved out of their parents’ homes, completed school, gotten married, and begun having children. Completing these steps was understood as normal and natural, the only path to a complete and respectable adult life: indeed, half of American women at this time believed that people who did not get married were “selfish and peculiar,” and a full 85 percent agreed that women and men should get married and have children (Furstenberg et al. 2004). (6)

Silva is interested in exploring in detail the making of “working class life adulthood” in the early twenty-first century. And her findings are somewhat bleak:

Experiences of powerlessness, confusion, and betrayal within the labor market, institutions such as education and the government, and the family teach young working-class men and women that they are completely alone, responsible for their own fates and dependent on outside help only at their peril. They are learning the hard way that being an adult means trusting no one but yourself. (9)

At its core, this emerging working-class adult self is characterized by low expectations of work, wariness toward romantic commitment, widespread distrust of social institutions, profound isolation from others, and an overriding focus on their emotions and psychic health. Rather than turn to politics to address the obstacles standing in the way of a secure adult life, the majority of the men and women I interviewed crafted deeply personal coming of age stories, grounding their adult identities in recovering from their painful pasts—whether addictions, childhood abuse, family trauma, or abandonment—and forging an emancipated, transformed, and adult self. (10)

Key to Silva’s interpretation is the importance and coherence of the meanings that young people create for themselves — the narratives through which they make sense of the unfolding of their lives and where they are going. She locates the context and origins of these self-stories in the structural circumstances of the American economy of the 1990s; but her real interest is in finding the recurring themes in the stories and descriptions these young people tell about themselves and their lives.

For Silva, the bleakness of this generation of young working class adults has structural causes: economic stagnation, dissolution of safety nets, loss of decent industrial-sector jobs and the rise of insecure service-sector jobs, and neoliberalism as a guiding social philosophy that systematically turns its back on under-class young people. It is sobering that her research is based on interviews carried out in a few cities in the United States, but the findings seem valid for many countries in western Europe as well (Britain, Germany, France). And this in turn may have relevance for the rise of populism in many countries as well. 

What is most worrisome about Silva’s account is the very limited opportunities for social progress that it implies. As progressives we would like to imagine our democracy has the potential of evolving towards greater social dignity and opportunity for all segments of society. But what Silva describes is unpromising for this hopeful scenario. The avenues of higher education, skills-intensive work, and better life circumstances seem unlikely as a progressive end of this story. And the Sprawl of the grim anti-utopian novels of William Gibson (NeuromancerCount Zero) seem to fit the world Silva describes better than the usual American optimism about the inevitability of progress. Significantly, the young people whom Silva interviews have very little interest in engagement in politics and supporting candidates who are committed to real change; they do not really believe in the possibility of change.

It is worth noticing the parallel in findings and methodology between Silva’s work on young working class men and women and Al Young’s studies of inner city black men (The Minds of Marginalized Black Men: Making Sense of Mobility, Opportunity, and Future Life Chances). Both fall within the scope of cultural sociology. Both proceed on the basis of extensive interviews with 50-100 subjects, both make use of valuable tools of qualitative analysis to make sense of the interviews, and both arrive at important new understandings of the mentalities of these groups of young Americans.

(Here is a prior post on cultural sociology and its efforts to “get inside the frame” (link); and here is a post on “disaffected youth” that touches on some of these themes in a different way; link.)

Karl Polanyi as a critical realist?

In The Power of Market Fundamentalism: Karl Polanyi’s Critique Fred Block and Peggy
Somers focus on a phrase that Karl Polanyi uses in The Great Transformation: The Political and Economic Origins of Our Time, the idea of treating society as “real”. They address this issue in the final chapter of the book. (This is in the context, it should be noted, of their conclusion that Polanyi was fundamentally a “failed prophet” — the transformation that he expected in the next fifty years of market society following World War II has not in fact materialized.) What does this idea refer to in Polanyi’s thinking?

In the end, Polanyi is asking us to accept that we live in complex societies, the essence of which is the interdependence of persons and institutions. No person or action or institution is autonomous; every institutional movement or seemingly personal action will have consequences, often unknown, for people close and far…. A new public philosophy must be build from this foundational commitment to the reality of a complex and interdependent society. (227) 

To see the world as it is in reality, not as we might like it to be in the logic of economic thought, is for Polanyi the only way to fashion public and social policies on moral and ethical foundations. (228)

Block and Somers are insistent that “free market ideology” is very far from “realistic”. The arrangements of a “free market” are by no means self-reinforcing; they require powerful institutions to stabilize them. And markets require powerful states — governmental action — to preserve their existential prerequisites. So free market ideology and economic liberalism are not realistic from a sociological point of view.

So what is the “reality of society”, in Polanyi’s meaning? For Block and Somers, Polanyi’s realism is directly related to his distinction between formalism and substantivism. Formalists look at the social world as a pure market environment in which rational egoists seek to maximize utility, and neo-classical economics is the science of this realm. But Polanyi believes this is a fiction, and that real human beings are always embedded in concrete social, cultural, and ideational relations with each other. This is the “substantivist” view of the social world. When Polanyi refers to the “real” social world he is referring to this substantive, concrete set of relations. And it is the work of social scientists, historians, and ethnographers to map out the details of these relations in a particular social historical setting.

So the vision of the pure marketplace is a fantasy or a utopia, according to Polanyi. The real social world is constituted by normative and material relations between real human beings.

One feature of this substantive reality, in Polanyi’s view, is recognition of the unavoidable interdependence of human beings in all social settings. Once again, reality is poised in contrast to fantasy — now the fantasy of the wholly independent autonomous economic individual. Rather, real individuals are embedded in concrete social relations with each other that constrain and guide their actions.

So reality for Polanyi stands in direct opposition to the abstract social theory of economic liberalism, or what Block and Somers call “market fundamentalism”.

Peggy Somers is an advocate of critical realism for sociology (link). Is Polanyi any kind of critical realist, on this interpretation of what he means by “real society”? There are certain affinities, to be sure. Like Bhaskar, he affirms that the social world possesses real structures and relations, and that these structures wield influence on individuals and outcomes. In Bhaskar’s terms, they possess causal powers. And, like Bhaskar, he gives credence to some of Marx’s basic social categories.

But there are contrasts as well. His theory is not at all philosophical or ontological — in fact, Bhaskar might describe it as empiricist, given Polanyi’s view that the real properties of the social world are amenable to direct empirical investigation. (That is my own view as well.) Perhaps the strongest affinity with critical realism is Polanyi’s conviction that a realistic understanding of the social world brings with it a definite normative stance and program for progress — realism and human emancipation.

Here is an important statement of Polanyi’s views of social change:

Nowhere has liberal philosophy failed so conspicuously as in its understanding of the problem of change. Fired by an emotional faith in spontaneity, the common-sense attitude toward change was discarded in favor of a mystical readiness to accept the social consequences of economic improvement, whatever they might be. The elementary truths of political science and statecraft were first discredited then forgotten. It should need no elaboration that a process of undirected change, the pace of which is deemed too fast, should be slowed down, if possible, so as to safeguard the welfare of the community. Such household truths of traditional statesmanship, often merely reflecting the teachings of a social philosophy inherited from the ancients, were in the nineteenth century erased from the thoughts of the educated by the corrosive of a crude utilitarianism combined with an uncritical reliance on the alleged self-healing virtues of unconscious growth. (35)

This passage clearly advocates taking change in hand and shaping it to the needs of ordinary people, not simply accepting the fatalism of economic necessity. And this perhaps has relevance for today’s hot debates over globalization, from Bernie to Donald to Brexit. Here is Polanyi’s treatment of the enclosure acts:

Enclosures have appropriately been called a revolution of the rich against the poor. The lords and nobles were upsetting the social order, breaking down ancient law and custom, sometimes by means of violence, often by pressure and intimidation. They were literally robbing the poor of their share in the common, tearing down the houses which, by the hitherto unbreakable force of custom, the poor had long regarded as theirs and their heirs’. The fabric of society was being disrupted; desolate villages and the ruins of human dwellings testified to the fierceness with which the revolution raged, endangering the defences of the country, wasting its towns, decimating its population, turning its overburdened soil into dust, harassing its people and turning them from decent husbandmen into a mob of beggars and thieves. Though this happened only in patches, the black spots threatened to melt into a uniform catastrophe. The King and his Council, the Chancellors, and the Bishops were defending the welfare of the community and, indeed, the human and natural substance of society against this scourge. With hardly any intermittence, for a century and a half—from the 1490s, at the latest, to the 1640s they struggled against depopulation. Lord Protector Somerset lost his life at the hands of the counterrevolution which wiped the enclosure laws from the statute book and established the dictatorship of the grazier lords, after Kett’s Rebellion was defeated with several thousand peasants slaughtered in the process. Somerset was accused, and not without truth, of having given encouragement to the rebellious peasants by his denunciation of enclosures. (37)

Polanyi’s realism has substantial implications for social policy and reform. If interdependence and reciprocity are real and permanent features of the social world, if a pure self-regulating market society is a plain fiction, then some programs for social change make a lot more sense than others. Social democracy, in particular, appears to be an almost unavoidable choice. (Or rather, the old opposition of “socialism or barbarism” seems like an unavoidable historical necessity. This is the thrust of Polanyi’s anti-fascism.

It is interesting to recall that the brother of Karl Polanyi, Michael, was an anti-empiricist philosopher of science. Michael Polanyi’s book Personal Knowledge: Towards a Post-Critical Philosophy amounted to a sustained critique of simple empiricist theories of social knowledge (link).

Ethics as culture

Gabriel Abend has recently published The Moral Background: An Inquiry into the History of Business Ethics, a remarkable book on what seems initially to be a small subject — a history of the academic field of business ethics. I say “seems”, because in Abend’s hands this topic turns out to be a superb subject for the emerging field of the sociology of culture. (I should explain that the subject might seem small to a philosopher, because the discipline of business ethics is low-prestige within philosophy and is generally regarded as too applied to count as “serious” philosophical ethics. For Abend, however, it is an important subject precisely because it is “applied” and because the activity to which it pertains is highly consequential in the contemporary world and the world of nineteenth century capitalism as well.)

Michele Lamont is often cited as the person who gave new impetus to the sociology of culture in the past decade (e.g. in Money, Morals, and Manners: The Culture of the French and the American Upper-Middle Classlink, link). (Lamont is one of the editors of the Princeton series in which this book appears). Lamont has given new energy to the study of how cultural values structure ordinary life in a variety of settings, and also has provided some powerful examples of how to approach this problem empirically. And Abend brings such great detail of focus to his investigation that his study sets a new standard for what is required in a study of public culture. One of the intellectual antecedents of Abend’s approach is the micro-sociology of Erving Goffman. Like Goffman, Abend is interested in tracing the public manifestations of a cultural epoch — not the subjective experience that may underly it.

What Abend wants to understand is the actual history of the field of business ethics. He isn’t trying to discover the patterns of behavior that are found among businessmen, or the ethical ideas they embrace. Rather, he wants to tease out the material and ideological content expressed by professional “business ethicists”, largely found in schools of business. What has been the public expert discourse on business ethics over the past century, and what framing assumptions about the ethical field does this discourse presuppose?

The book scrutinizes the content of business ethicists’ understandings and prescriptions — taking into account their context, the audiences they were addressed to, and the cultural repertoires they drew upon. … Much like sociologists and anthropologists of science, I am interested in the tools, devices, technologies, methods, and tactics business ethicists came up with and avail themselves of. Manuals of proper behavior, success manuals, pamphlets, biographies, obituaries, typologies, illustrations, and codes of ethics are not neutral, interchangeable containers of information. They are social things, with particular causal histories and social functions, and whose particular modes of operation, modes of existence, and materiality must be analyzed as well. (11)

He correctly observes that there are three levels of ethics that can be considered from a sociological point of view:

First, there is the level of behavior or practices. … Second, there is the level of people’s moral judgments in the least, and societies’ and social groups’ moral norms and institutions. … In this book I introduce a third level, which up to now has not been recognized as a distant object inquiry: the moral background. (17)

His interest throughout the book is with the third level, the moral background. This refers, essentially, to the frameworks, concepts, and principles of reasoning that people have in mind when they think ethically or normatively.

Moral background elements do not belong to the level or realm of first-order morality. Rather, they facilitate, support, or enable first-order moral claims, norms, actions, practices, and institutions. (53)

Moral background includes six kinds of topics, according to Abend:

  1. Kinds of reasons or grounds that support first order morality
  2. Conceptual repertoires
  3. what can be morally evaluated
  4. what counts is proper moral methods in arguments
  5. whether first order morality is assumed to be objective
  6. metaphysical conceptions about what there is and what these things are like. (18)

He compares the moral background with the meta-scientific beliefs that scientists bring to the study of nature or society.

What is it that members of a scientific community share, exactly? For one, they likely share many social and demographic characteristics. That helps account sociologically for their having become members of that community in the first place. More important, they have common epistemological and ontological intuitions, dispositions, or assumptions. They agree on how you go about answering a scientific question, and what kind of evidence and how much of it you need to corroborate a hypothesis. (28)

This focus is particularly interesting to me because it provides additional leverage on the problem of offering a vocabulary for the background conceptual resources that are a necessary part of all social cognition. As has been noted several times in earlier posts, there is an important body of conceptual and factual presuppositions that human beings unavoidably use when they try to make sense of the world around them. And the framework itself is only rarely available for inspection. So it is a valuable contribution when sociologists like Abend, Gross, or Lamont are able to pinpoint the content and structure of such systems of tacit cognitive framework in action.
The discussion of conceptual repertoires is particularly detailed and helpful. Abend defines conceptual repertoires as “the set of concepts that are available to any given group or society, in a given time and place” (37). He makes the valid and important point that conceptual schemes are culturally specific and historically variable; “this repertoire enables and constrains their thought and speech, their laws and institutions, and, importantly, the actions they may undertake” (37). He offers as examples of moral concepts ideas like these: “dignity, decency, integrity, piety, responsibility, tolerance, moderation, fanaticism, extremism, despotism, chauvinism, rudeness, …” (38), and makes the correct point that ideas like these show up in some cultural and historical settings and not in others. So the realities that can be “seen” and experienced by historically situated people depend on the schemes or repertoires they have available to them in those settings. (The topic of conceptual schemes has come up frequently here. Here are a few earlier discussions; linklink, link.)

Abend finds two thematic sets of beliefs and concepts that largely serve to characterize most approaches to business ethics, which he refers to as “standards of practice” and “the Christian merchant.” The first approach works on the assumption that ethical standards like honesty are good for business, all things considered, and that the function of business ethics writings and teaching is to help business people come to see that their interests dictate that they should conform, even when there are strong incentives to do otherwise. The second principle argues that there are higher moral standards that govern behavior, and that prudent adherence to rules of honesty does not get to the heart of business ethics. Broadly speaking the first approach is scientific and consesquentialist (JS Mill), while the second is theological and deontological (Kant). (In Kant’s memorable phrase, “tell the truth though the world should perish.”)

Abend demonstrates that the field of business ethics is substantially older than it is usually thought to be, extending back at least a century. To demonstrate this point he makes interesting use of Google’s Ngram tool (link), a research tool based on Google’s massive collection of scanned books, and finds that the phrase “business ethics” begins to take off around 1900, passing “commercial morality” in 1912 and “business morality” in 1917. All the other phrases go into a sustained decline in books from 1920 forward, while “business ethics” takes off.

The Moral Background is a major contribution to the emerging field of cultural sociology. Especially important among the virtues of Abend’s research is his ability to work through a huge body of historical material from the subject — the founding of various business schools, speeches by public officials about business scandals, the utterances of pro-business organizations like chambers of commerce, newspaper cartoons about business scandals, philosophical writings about ethical theory — and to find meaning in these disparate sources that point back to the “moral backgrounds” from which they emanate. This is a truly gigantic task of intellectual integration, and Abend’s book sets a high bar for future studies of the cultural meaning of intellectual, practical, and normative social realities.

The status of women in India

 

Sociologists are often interested in making sense of processes of change that radiate along the axes of the great tectonics of social life, including class, race, and gender. These features of social life are particularly fundamental because they denote powerful determinants of opportunity, life-course, and personal outcomes for all of us. The positions into which individuals are born within the property system have great influence on the ways their lives unfold. The social filigree of race and ethnicity, and the ways in which these categories are socially constructed and projected, likewise creates determinative pathways of development and action for individuals in many social settings. And the social freight of gender and family creates opportunities and obstacles, expectations and stereotypes, for boys and girls, women and men. There are other large dimensions of social embeddedness that might be brought forward as well — religion, culture, normative communities, power and authority, for example. But class, race, and gender are especially profound. And each has given rise to movements of emancipation in reaction to the oppressions that they represent for specific groups in society.

Kenneth Bo Nielsen and Anne Waldrop have assembled an excellent volume on the status of women in contemporary India in their recent book Women, Gender, and Everyday Social Transformation in India. The collection brings together contributors who approach the topic using the tools of ethnographic research to better understand the everyday realities of experience of women in India today. The volume focuses on three large areas of life in contemporary India — technology and work, political institutions, and feminist activism. There is a valuable effort to attempt to understand the current upsurge of public violence and rape against women in terms of the social changes that are occurring in these areas.

The editors introduce the focus of the volume in these words:

The pace of socioeconomic transformation in India over the past two and a half decades has been formidable. In this volume we are concerned with examining how these transformations have played out at the level of everyday life to influence the lives of Indian women, and gender relations more broadly.”

Readers of Understanding Society will find the volume especially interesting because it approaches the realities of gender, class, and caste in a micro- and meso-level way, looking at specific individuals and groups of women within the concrete social relations within which they find themselves. A rich understanding of the socially constituted realities of “agency” and “structure” plays an important role in the approaches these investigators bring to their research. 

People can never act outside of the multiplicity of social relations in which they are enmeshed; … the exercise of individual agency aiming for change is thus always conditioned, and human agency is both enabled and limited by those social structures within which change is sought. (7)

Several chapters are especially interesting.

Kenneth Nielsen’s contribution on the Singur movement in West Bengal against the proposed Tata factory favored by the ruling CP/M government of the state is very interesting. He illustrates how the status rise of a caste group (Chasi Kaibartta in transition to Mahishya) also reflected a fairly deliberate effort to redefine and control the role of women. “Notably, the Mahishya caste movement for higher status entailed an appropriation of upper-caste norms and values including the Hindu elite male concern for harnessing female sexuality” (207). This account suggests a Bourdieu-like struggle within a “field”, making strategic adjustments so as to gain advantage over time. Intra- and inter-caste struggles played out into a redefinition of the nature and role of women in village society. Nielsen’s central interest is the micro-processes through which women in these villages made the transition from their traditional roles to the role of part-time activist. This is a familiar question from social movements research. (Here is a causal diagram representing the recruitment process taken from Doug McAdam, “Beyond Structural Analysis” (link).)

But Nielsen’s treatment is not theoretical; it is ethnographic, attempting to discover through interviews and participant-observation the concrete steps that occurred from household to street demonstration for some of these women.
 
Another interesting observation Nielsen offers concerns the question of “issue escalation”. It is often observed in the study of contentious politics that a movement around a specific issue often broadens its focus to include a more comprehensive set of issues. In this instance the natural progression would be from the specific issue of land confiscation to a broader concern for gender equity in rural society. But this escalation did not occur in the case of the West Bengal/Singur movement.
In contrast [to movements in Karnataka and Maharashtra], the Singur movement did not spawn reflections on the gendered nature of landownership and inheritance, even though inheritance patterns in Singur followed the broader West Bengal pattern where land is fragmented and customarily inherited through the line of male descendants. (215)

And Nielsen seems to have uncovered the root of an explanation for why this escalation did not occur: the involvement of women in the Singur movement was actually quite consistent with the patriarchal values governing women’s roles that were current in rural society in West Bengal. “The mobilization of women into the Singur movement was facilitated by the fact that it was successfully embedded in a gendered discourse and imagery in which Shantipara’s Mahishya women appeared as defenders of the common good of the family and the village” (215). (Kimberly Springer describes the complicated relationship between feminist activism and the US civil rights movement in Living for the Revolution: Black Feminist Organizations, 1968–1980.)

Turn now to another contribution that also focuses on West Bengal, Sirpa Tenhunen’s “Gender, Intersectionality and Smartphones in Rural West Bengal.” Tenhunen’s question is how this innovative communication technology affected the opportunities and agency of women in this region. (One thing I appreciate about the volume as a whole is the care that the researchers take to make it clear that their findings do not represent “India” as a whole.)

I argue that to understand how mobile phone use is shaped by and reshapes gender, it is necessary to explore how the physical properties of phones determine technical affordances — that is, the possibilities for action — according to the users’ gender, but also such parameters of identity as class and education. (33)

Tenhunen’s ethnography focuses on women’s use of the technology — the conversations they conduct in specific times and places. She had observed this village in 1999 (before the cell network had been built out), and again in 2005, 2007-08, 2010, and 2012-13. So her observations permitted her to have a perspective on the socially constructed ways in which adoption of telephony was carried out. One of her most basic observations is that the adoption of telephony initially followed caste lines (37), with upper castes adopting cell phones earlier than other caste groups. She also finds that cell phone ownership tended to be concentrated among male villagers in the early period, and that diffusion to women was often the consequence of marriage relationships. “Fathers and brothers gave phones to ensure that women could stay in touch after marriage” (37). And she finds that women’s calling patterns are different from male users in the village. Here is a table of calling patterns based on call diaries from 2008.

 

This is interesting material, and could be interpreted as a map of the patriarchal and domestic orbits of women and men in the village. Tenhunen argues that cell phones facilitated a broadening of social contacts that had favorable effects on gender opportunities for women in the village.

In rural India, the introduction of phones offered rural women a new, unobstrusive avenue to extend their contacts and space without moving out of their neighbourhood. Women’s increased contact with their natal village and female relatives in other villages forms part of the broader changes evident in the village’s gender relationships. The most pronounced of these changes are the increase in education for females, women becoming visible in formal politics, and a few high-caste women taking up white-collar jobs. (41-42)

What is particularly interesting about this research is the strength of the case Tenhunen establishes for the differential adoption and consequences of the new cellular technology. “Technology is gendered” — this is a slogan in the sociology of technology, but it is a simple and important reality in this study.

These are only two of the fifteen chapters of Women, Gender and Everyday Social Transformation in India (Anthem South Asian Studies). But every chapter is worth reading, and the book represents an important contribution to understanding the dynamics under way in India today for half of its population.

Character and personality

 

 
If we want to have a more adequate theory of the actor (link), we need to broaden our understanding of the factors and capacities that affect action.  The categories of personality and character are both relevant to the ways in which we understand how people behave in ordinary and extraordinary circumstances. So a theory of the actor ought to have a place for these concepts.

How are these concepts related? Both have to do with persistent features of behavior, but they seem to have somewhat distinct domains and have been approached by widely separated disciplines. In particular, character seems to be morally charged in ways that personality is not.

 
Here are some examples of characteristics that seem intuitively to fall into the two categories.
 

Personality
Character
Outgoing
Honest 
Sociable
Capable of carrying out commitments
Introverted
Slippery
Shy
Deceptive
Perfectionist
Manipulative
Careless
Courageous
Ambitious
Pays attention to principles
Short-sighted
Opportunistic
Agreeable
Kind
Secure / insecure
Cruel
Curious
Self-directed
 
 

Both sets of characteristics go beyond (or below) rational calculation and utility. (In fact, we might say that the purely rational individual lacks both personality and character; his/her actions are dictated by current estimates of costs and benefits of various lines of action.) Both personality and character have to do with features of behavior that are non-purposive to an important extent. They have to do with who the actor is, not so much with what he/she wants to accomplish. Rational calculation is sometimes at odds with some of these features — sometimes principles and commitments stand in the way of self interest, so character dictates a different course of action than prudence.

Personality falls within the domain of empirical psychology. There is a long tradition of research and theory in the area of personality psychology. Psychologists seem to favor to use the vocabulary of “personality traits” (Jerry Wiggins, “In Defense of Traits,” Handbook of Personality Psychology, edited by Robert Hogan et al). And a central goal of personality psychology has been to discover a taxonomy of personality types that allow classification of all normal human beings. Along with such a taxonomy, the discipline has sought to create measurement tools that permit application of the scheme to ordinary human subjects.

 
The study of character has tended to be a preoccupation of philosophers, who approach the question in a more theoretical and apriori way.  Philosophers extending back to the ancient Greeks have attempted to identify the features of a person’s inner life that enhance or diminish the person’s moral worthiness. Part of the moral connotation of features of character is captured in the linguistic fact that many of the features we attribute to character are virtues (or vices). We praise people who possess a number of virtues, and we criticize them if they lack these virtues (or possess the contrary vice). This field of study might be called “moral psychology,” but it has tended to be non-empirical. In the past two decades there has been a degree of convergence between the empirical study of behavior and the philosophical study of moral decision making, in the topic area of evolutionary moral theory (Moral Psychology: The Evolution of Morality: Adaptations and Innateness (Volume 1)Moral Psychology: The Cognitive Science of Morality: Intuition and Diversity (Volume 2)).  
 
There is academic and popular disagreement about the degree to which personality traits are acquired or innate.  Some argue, along the lines of the sociobiologists, that at least some features of social behavior are controlled by our evolutionary history. The underlying rationale for this hunch is the likelihood that personality traits have effects on reproductive success; individuals who have traits that allow them to be more successful in eliciting cooperation from others are more likely to reproduce successfully. (This is the underlying thought in Allan Gibbard’s Wise Choices, Apt Feelings: A Theory of Normative Judgment.) And others maintain that the individual is highly plastic at birth, so the developmental environment is the primary causal factor in the development of personality.

We might try to draw a distinction between personality and character along these lines. Personality has to do with the psychological “hardware” with which the individual is equipped. Just as a snappy Mustang has great acceleration and so-so gas mileage (determined by the organization of its component systems), some individuals have affable, agreeable interactions with other people (determined by the organization of their affective systems). Character has to do with moral capacities in embodied human beings: the ability to keep a promise, tell the truth, or stand resolute in the face of threat. Character has to do with the ways we conceive of ourselves and sculpt our actions to fit our expectations; personality has to do with reactive features of our psychological systems.

(Here is a very good essay on “Moral Character” by Marcia Homiak in the SEP; link.)

Does “culture” require microfoundations?

I have consistently argued for a philosophy of social science that emphasizes the actor and the availability of microfoundations. I argue for an actor-centered sociology. But I have lately been arguing as well for the idea that it is legitimate for social scientists to treat claims about the causal properties of meso-level social structures as being relatively autonomous from their microfoundations. 

This approach doesn’t satisfy all comers.  Some don’t like meso-level causal properties at all, and others don’t like the idea that meso-level properties are in any way dependent on the level of individuals and their actions and agency.

In particular, some readers would prefer a meso-autonomist strategy that dispenses with individuals altogether; one according to which we can identify certain causal factors that do not need microfoundations at the level of the individual at all. Candidates for such factors often fall under the large umbrella of culture: symbols, meanings, practices, rituals, traditions, grammars, and the like. I would say, however, that these items too require microfoundations. Cultural items are sometimes thought to be supra-individual and independent from the concrete individuals who live within their scope. And it is true that culture exercises a specific kind of independence.  But no less than any other social characteristic can cultural features evade their embodiment in individual actors and institutions.

If we take the view that the obligations of zakat (charity) are a profound part of Muslim identity and that this element of Islam explains certain social outcomes, then I want to know how these elements of identity are conveyed to children and practitioners at the local level. What are the concrete social mechanisms of inculcation and communication through which a Bangladeshi child comes to internalize a full Muslim identity, including adherence to the norms of zakat? To what extent are there important differences within Bangladeshi society in the forms of identity present in Muslims — urban-rural, male-female, rich-poor? And equally interestingly – in what ways do those processes give rise to a Muslim identity in Bangladesh that is somewhat different from that in Indonesia, Morocco, or Saudi Arabia?

Identities, cultures, and systems of meaning are no less embodied in the states of mind of actors than are the calculating features of rationality that underlie a market society.

So the fault of methodological individualists in this sphere is not that they fail to recognize the inherent autonomy of systems of cultural meaning; it is rather that they adhere to a theory of the actor that does not give sufficient attention to the variations and contingencies that characterize actors in various social and historical contexts. Ideas about the independence of cultural items from the level of individuals are suggestive and interesting, and I think they need to be fully confronted by an actor-centered sociology. But I do not believe they are incompatible with an actor-centered sociology.

Take the independence of a code of behavior from the specific individuals who are subject to the code. It is true that one individual cannot influence the code, which is embodied in the thoughts and actions of countless others. But the reality of the code at any given time is in fact entirely dependent on those thoughts and actions (and artifacts created by previous actors). Moreover, the individual’s embodiment of the code of behavior is in turn caused by a series of interactions through childhood and adulthood within a social setting. 

It is certainly true that facts about culture make a difference in meso- and macro-level outcomes. A collective farm that was populated by actors who embodied Chairman Mao’s ideal of “socialist man” would have functioning characteristics very different from those observed — no “easy riders,” lots of earnest Stakhanovites.  So standard organizational analysis of the tendencies towards low productivity in collective agriculture is dependent on something like a purposive agent theory of the actor.  Different kinds of actors give rise to different kinds of organizations.

This does not mean, however, that we could not have reasonably good understandings of “organizations” under differently realized structures of agency.  This seems to be part of the work that Andreas Glaeser (2011) is doing in Political Epistemics: The Secret Police, the Opposition, and the End of East German Socialism. Glaeser tries to understand how organizations like the Stasi functioned in a setting in which participants’ understandings and motivations were changing rapidly. 

So my answer to my own question is, yes.  Cultural entities and characteristics do require microfoundations, and it is in fact a fruitful avenue of sociological and ethnographic investigation to discover the concrete social mechanisms and pathways through which these entities come to be embodied in various populations in the ways that they are. 

Advertising and making consumers

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

There is a pervasive feature of modern economic life that never entered into the theories of the economists in the first century of the discipline: marketing, advertising, and the shaping of consumer desires. And yet this activity is itself a trillion-dollar industry, and arguably has greater effect on social values and consciousness than religion, politics, or the workplace. Our culture is flooded by marketing messages that surely have a vast cumulative effect on the ways we think about life and the things we value. And this feature of modern social life is radically different from pre-20th century — village life in France in the 1880s, city life in 17th-century London, or even life in Chicago in 1920. So it’s worth thinking about. 

The images above come from of a google image search for “advertising 1900”. They are all print ads for products around the turn of the twentieth century. There are several brands represented here that are still with us. Plainly advertising in newspapers and magazines was well entrenched by then. 

So what factors made advertising a feature of mass society but not the medieval market town? Capitalism is about selling things. Companies need to generate demand for their products. So capitalism needs effective ways of stimulating new desires for products in consumers. 

And this suggests one social factor that led to a dramatic increase in advertising and marketing in the late nineteenth century, the sharp increase in urbanization and modern transportation. These factors implied a strong increase in the density of demand and the circulation of consumers using modern transportation. When you have trolleys and railroads you have large numbers of people moving around, and they can be turned into consumers. This made it worthwhile to invest in marketing and advertising.

These observations take me in two directions. One is historical. I’m pretty sure that cities were much less visibly marketed and advertised in 1861 or 1911 than they are today. There must be some interesting work on the history of advertising, but the bottom line is this — advertising was a product of an intensive consumer product society, and consumerism didn’t really become dominant until the twentieth century. So living in Ghent, San Francisco, Grand Rapids, Stockholm, or New Orleans in 1880 would have involved a dramatically quieter environment when it came to product advertising and posters in public spaces. Here are a few street scenes to give an idea of the limited scope of street advertising at roughly the turn of the 20th century from Brussels, New York, and Manchester.

 

 

The other line of thought is more systemic. Why did we invent advertising at all in some fairly recent point in our past? Here a number of points seem salient.

Begin by considering the overall purpose of advertising. One aspect is informational. A goal of advertising is to bring information about products to the purchasing public. If everyone knows about your product, then there isn’t a need to advertise it. Second, it is to bring about a positive attitude towards this product in that set of consumers. And third, it is to make the sale — to give the consumer the emotional push needed to go ahead with the purchase. 

Being systematic about advertising means being very specific about the targets of the campaign. What segments of the public does the business want to reach?

First, there are already people who would like to purchase something like product X but are not currently doing so. Here the challenge for the company is to get information about the product in front of these would-be buyers and induce them to make a purchase.

A second group of potential buyers are people who already consume a related product Y but might be persuaded to switch to X. Here the challenge is to create dissatisfaction with Y, or a new conviction that X is better. Cigarette marketing fell partially in this category when it was legal. The goal was to persuade smokers to switch from one brand to another, by implying the experience was better or the smoker would have greater social status. One brand sells “cool,” another sells “masculine,” another sells “sexy.”

There is a third group that sellers would like to reach: people who currently don’t want X at all, but might be induced to do so through appropriate messaging. This means changing preferences and creating new desires in the potential consumer. Tobacco advertising and children’s cereals seem to fall in this category. Both have aimed to create new consumers — children who “want” Captain Crunch and adolescents who want cigarettes. 

And how about the golden grail — whole societies that haven’t yet acquired the desire for a category of product? Maybe it’s luxury skin products in Nigeria, baby nursing formula in Kenya, Weber barbecue grills in Argentina, or Volkswagens in Indonesia. Here the goal is to quickly grow the consumer public interested in acquiring this product — and positioning the brand so future competitors will have a hard time breaking into the market.

So advertising is about shaping the information people have, the desires and preferences they experience, and the attitudes and emotions they have towards products and the act of consumption. And it is fundamentally aimed at changing both consciousness and behavior. Seen from this point of view, advertising is deliberately a fundamental cause of the shaping of modern social consciousness.

There is a body of thought which focused on this aspect of capitalism and mass society, and that is the critical philosophy of the Frankfurt School. In Dialectic of Enlightenment (1944) Adorno and Horkheimer laid out an extensive critique of the culture industry and the role it played in modern capitalist society. Here are a few lines particularly relevant to advertising (link). Their interest here is the culture industry more generally, but much of their thinking sheds bright light on the role of advertising in mass consumer society.

Interested parties explain the culture industry in technological terms. It is alleged that because millions participate in it, certain reproduction processes are necessary that inevitably require identical needs in innumerable places to be satisfied with identical goods. The technical contrast between the few production centers and the large number of widely dispersed consumption points is said to demand organisation and planning by management. Furthermore, it is claimed that standards were based in the first place on consumers’ needs, and for that reason were accepted with so little resistance. The result is the circle of manipulation and retroactive need in which the unity of the system grows ever stronger. No mention is made of the fact that the basis on which technology acquires power over society is the power of those whose economic hold over society is greatest. A technological rationale is the rationale of domination itself. It is the coercive nature of society alienated from itself. Automobiles, bombs, and movies keep the whole thing together until their leveling element shows its strength in the very wrong which it furthered. It has made the technology of the culture industry no more than the achievement of standardisation and mass production, sacrificing whatever involved a distinction between the logic of the work and that of the social system.

The whole world is made to pass through the filter of the culture industry. The old experience of the movie-goer, who sees the world outside as an extension of the film he has just left (because the latter is intent upon reproducing the world of everyday perceptions), is now the producer’s guideline. The more intensely and flawlessly his techniques duplicate empirical objects, the easier it is today for the illusion to prevail that the outside world is the straightforward continuation of that presented on the screen. This purpose has been furthered by mechanical reproduction since the lightning takeover by the sound film.

The might of industrial society is lodged in men’s minds. The entertainments manufacturers know that their products will be consumed with alertness even when the customer is distraught, for each of them is a model of the huge economic machinery which has always sustained the masses, whether at work or at leisure – which is akin to work. From every sound film and every broadcast program the social effect can be inferred which is exclusive to none but is shared by all alike. The culture industry as a whole has moulded men as a type unfailingly reproduced in every product. All the agents of this process, from the producer to the women’s clubs, take good care that the simple reproduction of this mental state is not nuanced or extended in any way.

The most intimate reactions of human beings have been so thoroughly reified that the idea of anything specific to themselves now persists only as an utterly abstract notion: personality scarcely signifies anything more than shining white teeth and freedom from body odour and emotions. The triumph of advertising in the culture industry is that consumers feel compelled to buy and use its products even though they see through them.

Here is the first chapter of James Gordon Finlayson’s Habermas: A Very Short Introduction, which offers some very helpful explication of the perspectives of the Frankfurt School on this set of issues.

Violent rhetoric and violent behavior

Is there a possible causal relationship between an increasing occurrence of violent political rhetoric in broadly available media channels and the occurrence of violent political behavior?   How would a social scientist investigate this hypothetical relationship?   (Here is a pretty worrisome timeline of events, statements, and actions over the past several years involving violent rhetoric against the government and violent actions.)

Much of the debate since the Tucson shootings has focused on what seems like the wrong question: was there a direct influence from the extremist rhetoric of the past two years to the violent actions of this particular assailant?  Sometimes the answer to this kind of question is “yes” — Timothy McVeigh was directly inspired by the violent ideas and passions associated with the right-wing militia movement.  But the harder question is that of indirect and diffused influence: is it possible for a pattern of virulent media communications to create a culture of violent attitudes that leads through indirect mechanisms to political violence directed against individuals and institutions?

In order to think carefully about this set of issues, we need to think through the ways in which individuals are led to commit violent actions.  We might model the potentially violent person along these lines: Anger and hatred are emotional states that motivate violent attacks. Social inhibitions and processes of self-control work in most people to inhibit acting on hateful, violent impulses. Some social and physiological influences have the effect of weakening inhibitions. Individuals are most likely to engage in violence when hateful emotions are strongest and inhibitions are weakest. They are most likely to direct violence against symbols or representatives of the object of their anger and hatred.

Media and public discourse can affect each of these three factors. Angry speech can increase feelings of anger in the listener. It can focus angry impulses towards a specific group. And it can lower inhibitions by positively valorizing Violent action. “Your peers will admire you for taking action; other people have done so too. You are justified.”

We might model the media ranters as involved in a game of escalation, competing against each other for greater shock value and virulent language. They have an interest in generating a committed audience, and they are competing with other voices for that audience. They have an interest in escalation.  “Shock radio” is intended to shock.

It doesn’t appear that direct psychological research has yet been done on this question.  But there is a related question that has been very extensively studied, and that is the effect of dramatized television violence on children’s propensity for aggression.  It appears that there is fairly strong evidence in the social psychology and developmental psychology literatures for a causal link between exposure to television violence in children and increased aggression.  Here is a paper in Developmental Psychology by L. Rowell Huesmann, Jessica Moise-Titus, Cheryl-Lynn Podolski, and Leonard Eron (link), where the authors find a significant link between childhood exposure to TV violence and adult aggression.

Over the past 40 years, a body of literature has emerged that strongly supports the notion that media-violence viewing is one factor contributing to the development of aggression. The majority of empirical studies have focused on the effects of watching dramatic violence on TV and film. Numerous experimental studies, many static observational studies, and a few longitudinal studies all indicate that exposure to dramatic violence on TV and in the movies is related to violent behavior (Huesmann & Miller, 1994; Huesmann, Moise, & Podolski, 1997). Furthermore, a substantial body of psychological theory has developed explaining the processes through which exposure to violence in the mass media could cause both short- and long-term increases in a child’s aggressive and violent behavior (Bandura, 1977; Berkowitz, 1993; Eron, 1963; Huesmann, 1988, 1998; Zillmann, 1979). Long-term effects with children are now generally believed to be primarily due to long-term observational learning of cognitions (schemas, beliefs, and biases) supporting aggression (Berkowitz, 1993; Huesmann, 1988, 1998), whereas short-term effects with adults and children are recognized as also due to priming (Huesmann, 1998), excitation transfer (Zillmann, 1983), or imitation of specific behaviors. Most researchers of aggression agree that severe aggressive and violent behavior seldom occurs unless there is a convergence of multiple predisposing and precipitating factors such as neurophysiological abnormalities, poor child rearing, socioeconomic deprivation, poor peer relations, attitudes and beliefs supporting aggression, drug and alcohol abuse, frustration and provocation, and other factors. The evidence is already substantial that exposure to media violence is one such long-term predisposing and short-term precipitating factor. The current longitudinal study adds important additional empirical evidence that the effects of childhood exposure to media violence last into young adulthood and increase aggressive behavior at that time for both males and females. (201)

And here is a 2003 article from Psychological Science in the Public Interest by Anderson, Berkowitz, Donnerstein, Huesmann, Johnson, Linz, Malamuth and Wartella summarizing research leading to similar conclusions (link).  Here is their abstract:

Summary—Research on violent television and films, video games, and music reveals unequivocal evidence that media violence increases the likelihood of aggressive and violent behavior in both immediate and long-term contexts. The effects appear larger for milder than for more severe forms of aggression, but the effects on severe forms of violence are also substantial (r = .13 to .32) when compared with effects of other violence risk factors or medical effects deemed important by the medical community (e.g., effect of aspirin on heart attacks). The research base is large; diverse in methods, samples, and media genres; and consistent in overall findings. The evidence is clearest within the most extensively researched domain, television and film violence. The growing body of video-game research yields essentially the same conclusions.

Short-term exposure increases the likelihood of physically and verbally aggressive behavior, aggressive thoughts, and aggressive emotions. Recent large-scale longitudinal studies provide converging evidence linking frequent exposure to violent media in childhood with aggression later in life, including physical assaults and spouse abuse. Because extremely violent criminal behaviors (e.g., forcible rape, aggravated assault, homicide) are rare, new longitudinal studies with larger samples are needed to estimate accurately how much habitual childhood exposure to media violence increases the risk for extreme violence.

Well-supported theory delineates why and when exposure to media violence increases aggression and violence. Media violence produces short-term increases by priming existing aggressive scripts and cognitions, increasing physiological arousal, and triggering an automatic tendency to imitate observed behaviors. Media violence produces long-term effects via several types of learning processes leading to the acquisition of lasting (and automatically accessible) aggressive scripts, interpretational schemas, and aggression-supporting beliefs about social behavior, and by reducing individuals’ normal negative emotional responses to violence (i.e., desensitization).

Certain characteristics of viewers (e.g., identification with aggressive characters), social environments (e.g., parental influences), and media content (e.g., attractiveness of the perpetrator) can influence the degree to which media violence affects aggression, but there are some inconsistencies in research results. This research also suggests some avenues for preventive intervention (e.g., parental supervision, interpretation, and control of children’s media use). However, extant research on moderators suggests that no one is wholly immune to the effects of media violence.

Recent surveys reveal an extensive presence of violence in modern media. Furthermore, many children and youth spend an inordinate amount of time consuming violent media. Although it is clear that reducing exposure to media violence will reduce aggression and violence, it is less clear what sorts of interventions will produce a reduction in exposure. The sparse research literature suggests that counter-attitudinal and parental-mediation interventions are likely to yield beneficial effects, but that media literacy interventions by themselves are unsuccessful.

Though the scientific debate over whether media violence increases aggression and violence is essentially over, several critical tasks remain. Additional laboratory and field studies are needed for a better understanding of underlying psychological processes, which eventually should lead to more effective interventions. Large-scale longitudinal studies would help specify the magnitude of media-violence effects on the most severe types of violence. Meeting the larger societal challenge of providing children and youth with a much healthier media diet may prove to be more difficult and costly, especially if the scientific, news, public policy, and entertainment communities fail to educate the general public about the real risks of media-violence exposure to children and youth. (81)

Significantly, both reviews single out mechanisms that appear relevant to hateful and violent language by widely disseminated media commentators.  Here are some of the important psychological mechanisms cited in these two survey articles:

 

  • long-term observational learning of cognitions (schemas, beliefs, and biases) supporting aggression
  • imitation of specific behaviors
  • priming existing aggressive scripts and cognitions
  • increasing physiological arousal
  • triggering an automatic tendency to imitate observed behaviors
  • reducing individuals’ normal negative emotional responses to violence (i.e., desensitization)

These articles seem to go some ways towards framing an answer to the question posed above: can exposure to violent speech in the media create indirect causal influences leading to more violent behavior by individuals?  The psychological literature appears to support the plausible prior belief that exposure to extreme and violent language in the political media can make individuals somewhat more disposed to aggressive behavior.   And this effect doesn’t need to proceed through the direct “true believer” mechanism; virtually everyone who has a television or a computer is exposed to this kind of speech, and the literature suggests broad and diffused effects on behavior as a result.

Here are a few possible mechanisms that seem relevant today when we consider the possible causal connections from over-the-top political rhetoric to the occurrence of acts of political violence:

  • Exposure to violent language directly motivates some individuals to become “true believer” violent actors.
  • Exposure to violent language causes some unstable individuals to focus their aggression against a specific range of targets.
  • Exposure to violent language gradually reduces inhibitions against violence, leading to more readiness to commit violent acts.
  • Exposure to violent language influences groups and networks of individuals to be more favorable to the use of violence.

So these seem to be fairly strong empirical reasons for being very concerned about the inflammatory language that has become increasingly common in political discourse and media rants.  The issue isn’t simply the value of political civility; it is the very real possibility that extremist rants can influence a small number of listeners to be more prone to engage in acts of political violence, and even people who aren’t listeners can be influenced by those who are.

 

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