Explaining large historical change

Great events happen; people live through them; and both ordinary citizens and historians attempt to make sense of them. Examples of the kinds of events I have in mind include the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe and the USSR; the rise of fascism in Europe in the 1930s; the violent suppression of the Democracy Movement in Tiananmen Square; the turn to right-wing populism in Europe and the United States; and the Rwandan genocide in 1994. My purpose here is to identify some of the important intellectual and conceptual challenges that present themselves in the task of understanding events on this scale. My fundamental points are these: large-scale historical developments are deeply contingent; the scale at which we attempt to understand the event matters; and there is important variation across time, space, region, culture, and setting when it comes to the large historical questions we want to investigate. This means that it is crucial for historians to pay attention to the particulars of institutions, knowledge systems, and social actors that combined to create a range of historical outcomes through a highly contingent and path-dependent process. The question for historiography is this: how can historians do the best job possible of discovering, documenting, and organizing their accounts of these kinds of complex historical happenings?

Is an historical period or episode an objective thing? It is not. Rather, it is an assemblage of different currents, forces, individual actors, institutional realities, international pressures, and popular claims, and there are many different “stories” that we can tell about the period. This is not a claim for relativism or subjectivism; it is rather the simple and well-understood point for social scientists and historians, that a social and historical realm is a dense soup of often conflicting tendencies, forces, and agencies. Weber understood this point in his classic essay “’Objectivity’ in Social Science” when he said that history must be constantly re-invented by successive generations of historians: “There is no absolutely “objective” scientific analysis of culture—or put perhaps more narrowly but certainly not essentially differently for our purposes—of “social phenomena” independent of special and “one-sided” viewpoints according to which—expressly or tacitly, consciously or unconsciously—they are selected, analyzed and organized for expository purposes” (Weber 1949: 72). Think of the radically different accounts offered of the French Revolution by Albert Soboul, Simon Schama, and Alexis de Tocqueville; and yet each offers insightful, honest, and “objective” interpretations of part of the history of this complex event.

We need to recall always that socially situated actors make history. History is social action in time, performed by a specific population of actors, within a specific set of social arrangements and institutions. Individuals act, contribute to social institutions, and contribute to change. People had beliefs and modes of behavior in the past. They did various things. Their activities were embedded within, and in turn constituted, social institutions at a variety of levels. Social institutions, structures, and ideologies supervene upon the historical individuals of a time. Institutions have great depth, breadth, and complexity. Institutions, structures, and ideologies display dynamics of change that derive ultimately from the mentalities and actions of the individuals who inhabit them during a period of time. And both behavior and institutions change over time.

This picture needs of course to reflect the social setting within which individuals develop and act. Our account of the “flow” of human action eventuating in historical change needs to take into account the institutional and structural environment in which these actions take place. Part of the “topography” of a period of historical change is the ensemble of institutions that exist more or less stably in the period: cultural arrangements, property relations, political institutions, family structures, educational practices. But institutions are heterogeneous and plastic, and they are themselves the product of social action. So historical explanations need to be sophisticated in their treatment of institutions and structures.

In Marx’s famous contribution to the philosophy of history, he writes that “men make their own history; but not in circumstances of their own choosing.” And circumstances can be both inhibiting and enabling; they constitute the environment within which individuals plan and act. It is an important circumstance that a given time possesses a fund of scientific and technical knowledge, a set of social relationships of power, and a level of material productivity. It is also an important circumstance that knowledge is limited; that coercion exists; and that resources for action are limited. Within these opportunities and limitations, individuals, from leaders to ordinary people, make out their lives and ambitions through action.

On this line of thought, history is a flow of human action, constrained and propelled by a shifting set of environmental conditions (material, social, epistemic). There are conditions and events that can be described in causal terms: enabling conditions, instigating conditions, cause and effect, … But here my point is to ask you to consider whether uncritical use of the language of cause and effect does not perhaps impose a discreteness of historical events that does not actually reflect the flow of history very well. It is of course fine to refer to historical causes; but we always need to understand that causes depend upon the structured actions of socially constituted individual actors.

A crucial idea in the new philosophy of history is the fact of historical contingency. Historical events are the result of the conjunction of separate strands of causation and influence, each of which contains its own inherent contingency. Social change and historical events are highly contingent processes, in a specific sense: they are the result of multiple influences that “could have been otherwise” and that have conjoined at a particular point in time in bringing about an event of interest. And coincidence, accident, and unanticipated actions by participants and bystanders all lead to a deepening of the contingency of historical outcomes. However, the fact that social outcomes have a high degree of contingency is entirely consistent with the idea that the idea that a social order embodies a broad collection of causal processes and mechanisms. These causal mechanisms are a valid subject of study – even though they do not contribute to a deterministic causal order.

What about scale? Should historians take a micro view, concentrating on local actions and details; or should they take a macro view, seeking out the highest level structures and patterns that might be visible in history? Both perspectives have important shortcomings. There is a third choice available to the historian, however, that addresses shortcomings of both micro- and macro-history. This is to choose a scale that encompasses enough time and space to be genuinely interesting and important, but not so much as to defy valid analysis. This level of scale might be regional – for example, G. William Skinner’s analysis of the macro-regions of China. It might be national – for example, a social history of Indonesia. And it might be supra-national – for example, an economic history of Western Europe. The key point is that historians in this middle range are free to choose the scale of analysis that seems to permit the best level of conceptualization of history, given the evidence that is available and the social processes that appear to be at work. And this mid-level scale permits the historian to make substantive judgments about the “reach” of social processes that are likely to play a causal role in the story that needs telling. This level of analysis can be referred to as “meso-history,” and it appears to offer an ideal mix of specificity and generality.

Here is one strong impression that emerges from the almost any area of rigorous historical writing. Variation within a social or historical phenomenon seems to be all but ubiquitous. Think of the Cultural Revolution in China, demographic transition in early modern Europe, the ideology of a market society, or the experience of being black in America. We have the noun — “Cultural Revolution”, “European fascism”, “democratic transition” — which can be explained or defined in a sentence or two; and we have the complex underlying social realities to which it refers, spread out over many regions, cities, populations, and decades.

In each case there is a very concrete and visible degree of variation in the factor over time and place. Historical and social research in a wide variety of fields confirms the non-homogeneity of social phenomena and the profound location-specific variations that occur in the characteristics of virtually all large social phenomena. Social nouns do not generally designate uniform social realities. These facts of local and regional variation provide an immediate rationale for case studies and comparative research, selecting different venues of the phenomenon and identifying specific features of the phenomenon in this location. Through a range of case studies it is possible for the research community to map out both common features and distinguishing features of a given social process.

What is the upshot of these observations? It is that good historical writing needs to be attentive to difference — difference across national settings, across social groups, across time; that it should be grounded in many theories of how social processes work, but wedded to none; and that it should pay close attention to the evolution of the social arrangements (institutions) through which individuals conduct their social lives. I hope these remarks also help to make the case that philosophers can be helpful contributors to the work that historians do, by assisting in teasing out some of the conceptual and philosophical issues that they inevitably must confront as they do their work.

Slime mold intelligence

We often think of intelligent action in terms of a number of ideas: goal-directedness, belief acquisition, planning, prioritization of needs and wants, oversight and management of bodily behavior, and weighting of risks and benefits of alternative courses of action. These assumptions presuppose the existence of the rational subject who actively orchestrates goals, beliefs, and priorities into an intelligent plan of action. (Here is a series of posts on “rational life plans”; linklinklink.)

It is interesting to discover that some simple adaptive systems apparently embody an ability to modify behavior so as to achieve a specific goal without possessing a number of these cognitive and computational functions. These systems seem to embody some kind of cross-temporal intelligence. An example that is worth considering is the spatial and logistical capabilities of the slime mold. A slime mold is a multi-cellular “organism” consisting of large numbers of independent cells without a central control function or nervous system. It is perhaps more accurate to refer to the population as a colony rather than an organism. Nonetheless the slime mold has a remarkable ability to seek out and “optimize” access to food sources in the environment through the creation of a dynamic network of tubules established through space.

The slime mold lacks beliefs, it lacks a central cognitive function or executive function, it lacks “memory” — and yet the organism (colony?) achieves a surprising level of efficiency in exploring and exploiting the food environment that surrounds it. Researchers have used slime molds to simulate the structure of logistical networks (rail and road networks, telephone and data networks), and the results are striking. A slime mold colony appear to be “intelligent” in performing the task of efficiently discovering and exploiting food sources in the environment in which it finds itself.

One of the earliest explorations of this parallel between biological networks and human-designed networks was Tero et al, “Rules for Biologically Inspired Adaptive Network Design” in Science in 2010 (link). Here is the abstract of their article:

Abstract Transport networks are ubiquitous in both social and biological systems. Robust network performance involves a complex trade-off involving cost, transport efficiency, and fault tolerance. Biological networks have been honed by many cycles of evolutionary selection pressure and are likely to yield reasonable solutions to such combinatorial optimization problems. Furthermore, they develop without centralized control and may represent a readily scalable solution for growing networks in general. We show that the slime mold Physarum polycephalum forms networks with comparable efficiency, fault tolerance, and cost to those of real-world infrastructure networks—in this case, the Tokyo rail system. The core mechanisms needed for adaptive network formation can be captured in a biologically inspired mathematical model that may be useful to guide network construction in other domains.

Their conclusion is this:

Overall, we conclude that the Physarum networks showed characteristics similar to those of the [Japanese] rail network in terms of cost, transport efficiency, and fault tolerance. However, the Physarum networks self-organized without centralized control or explicit global information by a process of selective reinforcement of preferred routes and simultaneous removal of redundant connections. (441)

They attempt to uncover the mechanism through which this selective reinforcement of routes takes place, using a simulation “based on feedback loops between the thickness of each tube and internal protoplasmic flow in which high rates of streaming stimulate an increase in tube diameter, whereas tubes tend to decline at low flow rates” (441). The simulation is successful in approximately reproducing the observable dynamics of evolution of the slime mold networks. Here is their summary of the simulation:

Our biologically inspired mathematical model can capture the basic dynamics of network adaptability through iteration of local rules and produces solutions with properties comparable or better than those real-world infrastructure networks. Furthermore, the model has a number of tunable parameters that allow adjustment of the benefit-cost ratio to increase specific features, such as fault tolerance or transport efficiency, while keeping costs low. Such a model may provide a useful starting point to improve routing protocols and topology control for self-organized networks such as remote sensor arrays, mobile ad hoc networks, or wireless mesh networks. (442)

Here is a summary description of what we might describe as the “spatial problem-solving abilities” of the slime mold based on this research by Katherine Harman in a Scientific American blog post (link):

Like the humans behind a constructed network, the organism is interested in saving costs while maximizing utility. In fact, the researchers wrote that this slimy single-celled amoeboid can “find the shortest path through a maze or connect different arrays of food sources in an efficient manner with low total length yet short average minimum distances between pairs of food sources, with a high degree of fault tolerance to accidental disconnection”—and all without the benefit of “centralized control or explicit global information.” In other words, it can build highly efficient connective networks without the help of a planning board.

This research has several noteworthy features. First, it seems to provide a satisfactory account of the mechanism through which slime mold “network design intelligence” is achieved. Second, the explanation depends only on locally embodied responses at the local level, without needing to appeal to any sort of central coordination or calculation. The process is entirely myopic and locally embodied, and the “global intelligence” of the colony is entirely generated by the locally embodied action states of the individual mold cells. And finally, the simulation appears to offer resources for solving real problems of network design, without the trouble of sending out a swarm of slime mold colonies to work out the most efficient array of connectors.

We might summarize this level of slime-mold intelligence as being captured by:

  • trial-and-error extension of lines of exploration
  • localized feedback on results of a given line leading to increase/decrease of the volume of that line

This system is decentralized and myopic with no ability to plan over time and no “over-the-horizon” vision of potential gains from new lines of exploration. In these respects slime-mold intelligence has a lot in common with the evolution of species in a given ecological environment. It is an example of “climbing Mt. Improbable” involving random variation and selection based on a single parameter (volume of flow rather than reproductive fitness). If this is a valid analogy, then we might be led to expect that the slime mold is capable of finding local optima in network design but not global optima. (Or the slime colony may avoid this trap by being able to fully explore the space of network configurations over time.) What the myopia of this process precludes is the possibility of strategic action and planning — absorbing sacrifices at an early part of the process in order to achieve greater gains later in the process. Slime molds would not be very good at chess, Go, or war.

I’ve been tempted to offer the example of slime mold intelligence as a description of several important social processes apparently involving collective intentionality: corporate behavior and discovery of pharmaceuticals (link) and the aggregate behavior of large government agencies (link).

On pharmaceutical companies:

So here’s the question for consideration here: what if we attempted to model the system of population, disease, and the pharmaceutical industry by representing pharma and its multiple research and discovery units as the slime organism and the disease space as a set of disease populations with different profitability characteristics? Would we see a major concentration of pharma slime around a few high-frequency, high profit disease-drug pairs? Would we see substantial under-investment of pharma slime on low frequency low profit “orphan” disease populations? And would we see hyper-concentrations around diseases whose incidence is responsive to marketing and diagnostic standards? (link)

On the “intelligence” of firms and agencies:

But it is perfectly plain that the behavior of functional units within agencies are only loosely controlled by the will of the executive. This does not mean that executives have no control over the activities and priorities of subordinate units. But it does reflect a simple and unavoidable fact about large organizations. An organization is more like a slime mold than it is like a control algorithm in a factory. (link)

In each instance the analogy works best when we emphasize the relative weakness of central strategic control (executives) and the solution-seeking activities of local units. But of course there is a substantial degree of executive involvement in both private and public organizations — not fully effective, not algorithmic, but present nonetheless. So the analogy is imperfect. It might be more accurate to say that the behavior of large complex organizations incorporates both imperfect central executive control and the activities of local units with myopic search capabilities coupled with feedback mechanisms. The resulting behavior of such a system will not look at all like the idealized business-school model of “fully implemented rational business plans”, but it will also not look like a purely localized resource-maximizing network of activities.

******

Here is a very interesting set of course notes in which Prof. Donglei Du from the University of New Brunswick sets the terms for a computational and heuristic solution to a similar set of logistics problems. Du asks his students to consider the optimal locations of warehouses to supply retailers in multiple locations; link. Here is how Du formulates the problem:
*     Assuming that plants and retailer locations are fixed, we concentrate on the following strategic decisions in terms of warehouses.

  • Pick the optimal number, location, and size of warehouses 
  • Determine optimal sourcing strategy
    • Which plant/vendor should produce which product 
  • Determine best distribution channels
    • Which warehouses should service which retailers

The objective is to design or reconfigure the logistics network so as to minimize annual system-wide costs, including

  • Production/ purchasing costs
  • Inventory carrying costs, and facility costs (handling and fixed costs)
  • Transportation costs

As Du demonstrates, the mathematics involved in an exact solution are challenging, and become rapidly more difficult as the number of nodes increases.

Even though this example looks rather similar to the rail system example above, it is difficult to see how it might be modeled using a slime mold colony. The challenge seems to be that the optimization problem here is the question of placement of nodes (warehouses) rather than placement of routes (tubules).

Methods of causal inquiry

This diagram provides a map of an extensive set of methods of causal inquiry in the social sciences. The goal here is to show that the many approaches that social scientists have taken to discovering causal relationships have an underlying order, and they can be related to a small number of ontological ideas about social causation. (Here is a higher resolution version of the image; link.)

We begin with the idea that causation involves the production of an outcome by a prior set of conditions mediated by a mechanism. The task of causal inquiry is to discover the events, conditions, and processes that combine to bring about the outcome of interest. Given that causal relationships are often unobservable and complexly intertwined with multiple other causal processes, we need to have methods of inquiry to allow us to use observable evidence and hypothetical theories about causal mechanisms to discover valid causal relationships.

The upper left node of the diagram reviews the basic elements of the ontology of social causation. It gives priority to the idea of causal realism — the view that social causes are real and inhere in a substrate of social action constituted by social actors and their relations and interactions. This substrate supports the existence of causal mechanisms (and powers) through which causal relations unfold. It is noted that causes are often manifest in a set of necessary and/or sufficient conditions: if X had not occurred, Y would not have occurred. Causes support (and are supported by) counterfactual statements — our reasoning about what would have occurred in somewhat different circumstances. The important qualification to the simple idea of exceptionless causation is the fact that much causation is probabilistic rather than exceptionless: the cause increases (or decreases) the likelihood of occurrence of its effect. Both exceptionless causation and probabilistic causation supports the basic Humean idea that causal relations are often manifest in observable regularities.

These features of real causal relations give rise to a handful of different methods of inquiry.

First, there is a family of methods of causal inquiry that involve search for underlying causal mechanisms. These include process tracing, individual case studies, paired comparisons, comparative historical sociology, and the application of theories of the middle range.

Second, the ontology of generative causal mechanisms suggests the possibility of simulations as a way of probing the probable workings of a hypothetical mechanism. Agent-based models and computational simulations more generally are formal attempts to identify the dynamics of the mechanisms postulated to bring about specific social outcomes.

Third, the fact that causes produce their effects supports the use of experimental methods. Both exceptionless causation and probabilistic causation supports experimentation; the researcher attempts to discern causation by creating a pair of experimental settings differing only in the presence or absence of the “treatment” (hypothetical causal agent), and observing the outcome.

Fourth, the fact that exceptionless causation produces a set of relationships among events that illustrate the logic of necessary and sufficient conditions permits a family of methods inspired by JS Mills’ methods of similarity and difference. If we can identify all potentially relevant causal factors for the occurrence of an outcome and if we can discover a real case illustrating every combination of presence and absence of those factors and the outcome of interest, then we can use truth-functional logic to infer the necessary and/or sufficient conditions that produce the outcome. These results constitute JL Mackie’s INUS conditions for the causal system under study (insufficient but non-redundant parts of a condition which is itself unnecessary but sufficient for the occurrence of the effect). Charles Ragin’s Boolean methods and fuzzy-set theories of causal analysis and the method of quantitative comparative analysis conform to the same logical structure.

Probabilistic causation cannot be discovered using these Boolean methods, but it is possible to use statistical and probabilistic methods in application to large datasets to discover facilitating and inhibiting conditions and multifactoral and conjunctural causal relations. Statistical analysis can produce evidence of what Wesley Salmon refers to as “causal relevance” (conditional probabilities that are not equal to background population probabilities). This is expressed as: P(O|A&B&C) <> P(O).

Finally, the fact that causal factors can be relied upon to give rise to some kind of statistical associations between factors and outcomes supports the application of methods of inquiry involving regression, correlation analysis, and structural equation modeling. 

It is important to emphasize that none of these methods is privileged over all the others, and none permits a purely inductive or empirical study to arrive at valid claims about causation. Instead, we need to have hypotheses about the mechanisms and powers that underlie the causal relationships we identify, and the features of the causal substrate that give these mechanisms their force. In particular, it is sometimes believed that experimental methods, random controlled trials, or purely statistical analysis of large datasets can establish causation without reference to hypothesis and theory. However, none of these claims stands up to scrutiny. There is no “gold standard” of causal inquiry.

This means that causal inquiry requires a plurality of methods of investigation, and it requires that we arrive at theories and hypotheses about the real underlying causal mechanisms and substrate that give rise to (“generate”) the outcomes that we observe.

Generativity and emergence

Social entities and structures have properties that exercise causal influence over all of us, and over the continuing development of the society in which we live. Schools, corporations, armies, terror networks, transport networks, markets, churches, and cities all fall in this range — they are social compounds or entities that shape the behavior of the individuals who live and work within them, and they have substantial effects on the broader society as well.

So it is unsurprising that sociologists and ordinary observers alike refer to social structures, organizations, and practices as real components of the social world. Social entities have properties that make a difference, at the individual level and at the social and historical level. Individuals are influenced by the rules and practices of the organizations that employ them; and political movements are influenced by the competition that exists among various religious organizations. Putting the point simply, social entities have real causal properties that influence daily life and the course of history.

What is less clear in the social sciences, and in the areas of philosophy that take an interest in such things, is where those causal properties come from. We know from physics that the causal properties of metallic silver derive from the quantum-level properties of the atoms that make it up. Is something parallel to this true in the social realm as well? Do the causal properties of a corporation derive from the properties of the individual human beings who make it up? Are social properties reducible to individual-level facts?

John Stuart Mill was an early advocate for methodological individualism. In 1843 he wrote his System of Logic: Ratiocinative and Inductive, which contained his view of the relationships that exist between the social world and the world of individual thought and action:

All phenomena of society are phenomena of human nature, generated by the action of outward circumstances upon masses of human beings; and if, therefore, the phenomena of human thought, feeling, and action are subject to fixed laws, the phenomena of society can not but conform to fixed laws. (Book VI, chap. VI, sect. 2)

With this position he set the stage for much of the thinking in social science disciplines like economics and political science, with the philosophical theory of methodological individualism.

About sixty years later Emile Durkheim took the opposite view. He believed that social properties were autonomous with respect to the individuals that underlie them. In 1901 he wrote in the preface to the second edition of Rules of Sociological Method:

Whenever certain elements combine and thereby produce, by the fact of their combination, new phenomena, it is plain that these new phenomena reside not in the original elements but in the totality formed by their union. The living cell contains nothing but mineral particles, as society contains nothing but individuals. Yet it is patently impossible for the phenomena characteristic of life to reside in the atoms of hydrogen, oxygen, carbon, and nitrogen…. Let us apply this principle to sociology. If, as we may say, this synthesis constituting every society yields new phenomena, differing from those which take place in individual consciousness, we must, indeed, admit that these facts reside exclusively in the very society itself which produces them, and not in its parts, i.e., its members…. These new phenomena cannot be reduced to their elements. (preface to the 2nd edition)

These ideas provided the basis for what we can call “methodological holism”.

So the issue between Mill and Durkheim is the question of whether the properties of the higher-level social entity can be derived from the properties of the individuals who make up that entity. Mill believed yes, and Durkheim believed no.

This debate persists to the current day, and the positions are both more developed, more nuanced, and more directly relevant to social-science research. Consider first what we might call “generativist social-science modeling”. This approach holds that methodological individualism is obviously true, and the central task for the social sciences is to actually perform the reduction of social properties to the actions of individuals by providing computational models that reproduce the social property based on a model of the interacting individuals. These models are called “agent-based models” (ABM). Computational social scientist Joshua Epstein is a recognized leader in this field, and his book Growing Artificial Societies: Social Science From the Bottom Up provides developed examples of ABMs designed to explain well-known social phenomena from the disappearance of the Anasazi in the American Southwest to the occurrence of social unrest. Here is his summary statement of the approach:

To the generativist, explaining macroscopic social regularities, such as norms, spatial patterns, contagion dynamics, or institutions requires that one answer the following question: How could the autonomous local interactions of heterogeneous boundedly rational agents generate the given regularity?Accordingly, to explain macroscopic social patterns, we generate—or “grow”—them in agent models. 

Epstein’s memorable aphorism summarizes the field — “If you didn’t grow it, you didn’t explain its emergence.” A very clear early example of this approach is an agent-based simulation of residential segregation provided by Thomas Schelling in “Dynamic Models of Segregation” (Journal of Mathematical Sociology, 1971; link). The model shows that simple assumptions about the neighborhood-composition preferences of individuals of two groups, combined with the fact that individuals can freely move to locations that satisfy their preferences, leads almost invariably to strongly segregated urban areas.

There is a surface plausibility to the generativist approach, but close inspection of many of these simulations lays bare some important deficiencies. In particular, a social simulation necessarily abstracts mercilessly from the complexities of both the social environment and the dynamics of individual action. It is difficult to represent the workings of higher-level social entities within an agent-based model — for example, organizations and social practices. And ABMs are not well designed for the task of representing dynamic social features that other researchers on social action take to be fundamental — for example, the quality of leadership, the content of political messages, or the high degree of path dependence that most real instances of political mobilization reflect.

So if methodological individualism is a poor guide to social research, what is the alternative? The strongest opposition to generativism and reductionism is the view that social properties are “emergent”. This means that social ensembles sometimes possess properties that cannot be explained by or reduced to the properties and actions of the participants. For example, it is sometimes thought that a political movement (e.g. Egyptian activism in Tahrir Square in 2011) possessed characteristics that were different in kind from the properties of the individuals and activists who made it up.

There are a few research communities currently advocating for a strong concept of emergence. One is the field of critical realism, a philosophy of science developed by Roy Bhaskar in A Realist Theory of Science (1975) and The Possibility of Naturalism (1979). According to Bhaskar, we need to investigate the social world by looking for the real (though usually unobservable) mechanisms that give rise to social stability and change. Bhaskar is anti-reductionist, and he maintains that social entities have properties that are different in kind from the properties of individuals. In particular, he believes that the social mechanisms that generate the social world are themselves created by the autonomous causal powers of social entities and structures. So attempting to reduce a process of social change to the actions of the individuals who make it up is a useless exercise; these individuals are themselves influenced by the autonomous causal powers of larger social forces.

Another important current line of thought that defends the idea of emergence is the theory of assemblage, drawn from Gilles Deleuze but substantially developed by Manuel DeLanda in A New Philosophy of Society: Assemblage Theory and Social Complexity (2006) and Assemblage Theory (2016). This theory argues for a very different way of conceptualizing the social world. This approach proposes that we should understand complex social entities as a compound of heterogeneous and independent lesser entities, structures, and practices. Social entities do not have “essences”. Instead, they are continent and heterogenous ensembles of parts that have been brought together in contingent ways. But crucially, DeLanda maintains that assemblages too have emergent properties that do not derive directly from the properties of the parts. A city has properties that cannot be explained in terms of the properties of its parts. So assemblage theory too is anti-reductionist. 

The claim of emergence too has a superficial appeal. It is clear, for one thing, that social entities have effects that are autonomous with respect to the particular individuals who compose them. And it is clear as well that there are social properties that have no counterpart at the individual level (for example, social cohesion). So there is a weak sense in which it is possible to accept a concept of emergence. However, that weak sense does not rule out either generativity or reduction in principle. It is possible to hold both generativity and weak emergence consistently. And the stronger sense — that emergent properties are unrelated to and underivable from lower level properties — seems flatly irrational. What could strongly emergent properties depend on, if not the individuals and social relations that make up these higher-level social entities?

For this reason it is reasonable for social scientists to question both generativity and strong emergence. We are better off avoiding the strong claims of both generativity and emergence, in favor of a more modest social theory. Instead, it is reasonable to advocate for the idea of the relative explanatory autonomy of social properties. This position comes down to a number of related ideas. Social properties are ultimately fixed by the actions and thoughts of socially constituted individuals. Social properties are stable enough to admit of direct investigation. Social properties are relatively autonomous with respect to the specific individuals who occupy positions within these structures. And there is no compulsion to perform reductions of social properties through ABMs or any other kind of derivation. (These are ideas that were first advocated in 1974 by Jerry Fodor in “Special sciences: Or: The disunity of science as a working hypothesis” (link).)

It is interesting to note that a new field of social science, complexity studies, has relevance to both ends of this dichotomy. Joshua Epstein himself is a complexity theorist, dedicated to discovering mathematical methods for understanding complex systems. Other complexity scientists like John Miller and Scott Page are open to the idea of weak emergence in Complex Adaptive Systems: An Introduction to Computational Models of Social Life. Here is how Miller and Page address the idea of emergence in CAS:

The usual notion put forth underlying emergence is that individual, localized behavior aggregates into global behavior that is, in some sense, disconnected from its origins. Such a disconnection implies that, within limits, the details of the local behavior do not matter to the aggregate outcome. (CAS, p. 44)

Herbert Simon is another key contributor to modern complexity studies. Simon believed that complex systems have properties that are irreducible to the properties of their components for pragmatic reasons, including especially computational intractability. It is therefore reasonable, in his estimation, to look at higher-level social properties as being emergent — even though we believe in principle that these properties are ultimately determined by the properties of the components. Here is his treatment in the third edition of The Sciences of the Artificial – 3rd Edition (1996):

[This amounts to] reductionism in principle even though it is not easy (often not even computationally feasible) to infer rigorously the properties of the whole from knowledge of the properties of the parts. In this pragmatic way, we can build nearly independent theories for each successive level of complexity, but at the same time, build bridging theories that show how each higher level can be accounted for in terms of the elements and relations of the next level down. (172)

The debate over generativity and emergence may seem like an arcane issue that is of interest only to philosophers and the most theoretical of social scientists. But in fact, disputes like this one have real consequences for the conduct of an area of scientific research. Suppose we are interested in the sociology of hate-based social movements. If we begin with the framework of reductionism and generativism, we may be led to focus on the social psychology of adherents and the aggregative processes through which potential followers are recruited into a hate-based movement. If, on the other hand, we believe that social structures and practices have relatively autonomous causal properties, then we will be led to consider the empirical specifics of the workings of organizations like White Citizens Councils, legal structures like the laws that govern hate-based political expressions in Germany and France, and the ways that the Internet may influence the spread of hate-based values and activism. In each of these cases the empirical research is directed in important measure to the concrete workings of the higher-level social institutions that are hypothesized to influence the emergence and shape of hate-based movements. In other words, the sociological research that we conduct is guided in part by the assumptions we make about social ontology and the composition of the social world.

The future of our democracy

How can the United States recover its culture of civility and mutual respect among citizens after the bitter, unlimited toxicity of the first three years of Donald Trump’s presidency? Trump’s political movement, and the President himself, have gone in for an unbridled rhetoric of hatred, suspicion, racism, and white supremacist ideology that seems to have created a durable constituency for these hateful ideas. Even more troublingly, the President has cast doubt on the democratic process itself and the legitimacy of our electoral and judicial institutions.

Deeply troubling is the fact that the President consistently attempts to mobilize support purely on the basis of division, hatred, and contempt for his opponents. He has provided virtually no sustained exposition or defense of the policy positions he advocates — anti-immigrant, anti-trade, anti-NATO, anti-Federal Reserve, anti-government. Instead, his appeals amount ultimately to no more than a call to hatred and rejection of his opponents. His current shameful threats against those who supported his impeachment (including Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, pictured above) are simply the latest version of his politics of threat, hatred, and intimidation. This president has never understood his responsibility to serve all the people of our country — not merely his supporters — and to support its constitution and governing institutions faithfully and in support of the public good.

And almost all Republican leaders (with the admirable exception of Mitt Romney) have swallowed their own principles and have accepted these political appeals — even as some observers have noted how much the current rhetoric resembles that of Benito Mussolini (link). If even a fraction of the voters who currently support the Trump movement do so with a positive endorsement of the racism and white-supremacy that the President and his supporters project, then there are tens of millions of hate-based partisans in our polity.

It is an urgent and pressing problem to find strategies for beginning to bring these citizens back from the brink of right wing extremism and hate.

One possible view is that the goal is unattainable. We might judge that it is very uncommon for hate-based partisans to change their attitudes and actions. So the best we can do is to minimize the likelihood that these individuals will do harm to others, and to maximize the impact and public visibility of more liberal people and movements. (The term “liberal” here isn’t grounded in left-right orientation but rather the values of open-mindedness, tolerance, mutual respect, belief in democracy, and civility. Conservatives can be liberal in this sense.)

Another possibility is that the extremism currently visible among Trump supporters is just a short term eruption, which will subside following the 2020 election. This doesn’t seem very likely, given the virulence of animosity, suspicion, and hatred currently on display among many of Trump’s supporters. It seems to be easier to incite hatred than to quench it, and it seems unlikely that these activists will quietly morph into tolerant and civil citizens.

A third possibility is that we will have to acknowledge the presence of hate-based extremists and organizations among us and work aggressively to build up a younger constituency for progressive and tolerant values to present a stronger voice in support of inclusion and democracy. This is not so different from the current situation in some Western European democracies today, where virulent extremist political organizations compete with more inclusive and democratic organizations.

The difference of our current circumstances in the winter of 2020 and those of November 2016 is the steady degradation of our institutions that the Trump administration has successfully undertaken. Packing the Federal courts with right-wing ideologues (often rated unqualified by the American Bar Association), treating the Congress and its elected members with contempt, derision, and threat, flouting the laws and ethics surrounding the status of whistle-blowers, appointing unqualified ideologues to direct Federal agencies like the EPA, Homeland Security, and Commerce, and subverting the ethics and political neutrality of the Department of Justice — these are harms that may never be fully repaired. The moral corruption of the leaders of the GOP — their fundamental and all but universal unwillingness to publicly reject the outrageous and anti-democratic behavior of this President — will never be forgotten.

What is the future of our democracy? Can we regain the fundaments of a tolerant, institutionally stable polity in which government is regulated by institutions and politicians are motivated to work to enhancing the preconditions of civility and democratic equality? Or are we headed to an even more personalized form of presidential rule — a twenty-first century version of nationalist authoritarianism, or fascism?

Madeline Albright expressed just such worries almost two years ago about the future of our democracy in Fascism: A Warning, and her words are deeply worrisome, perhaps prophetic.

Fascist attitudes take hold when there are no social anchors and when the perception grows that everybody lies, steals, and cares only about him-or herself. That is when the yearning is felt for a strong hand to protect against the evil “other”—whether Jew, Muslim, black, so-called redneck, or so-called elite. Flawed though our institutions may be, they are the best that four thousand years of civilization have produced and cannot be cast aside without opening the door to something far worse. The wise response to intolerance is not more intolerance or self-righteousness; it is a coming together across the ideological spectrum of people who want to make democracies more effective. We should remember that the heroes we cherish—Lincoln, King, Gandhi, Mandela—spoke to the best within us. The crops we’ll harvest depend on the seeds we sow. (kl 94)

Fascism, most of the students agreed, is an extreme form of authoritarian rule. Citizens are required to do exactly what leaders say they must do, nothing more, nothing less. The doctrine is linked to rabid nationalism. It also turns the traditional social contract upside down. Instead of citizens giving power to the state in exchange for the protection of their rights, power begins with the leader, and the people have no rights. Under Fascism, the mission of citizens is to serve; the government’s job is to rule. (kl 261)

Or consider how Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt pose their fears in How Democracies Die:

But now we find ourselves turning to our own country. Over the past two years, we have watched politicians say and do things that are unprecedented in the United States—but that we recognize as having been the precursors of democratic crisis in other places. We feel dread, as do so many other Americans, even as we try to reassure ourselves that things can’t really be that bad here. After all, even though we know democracies are always fragile, the one in which we live has somehow managed to defy gravity. Our Constitution, our national creed of freedom and equality, our historically robust middle class, our high levels of wealth and education, and our large, diversified private sector—all these should inoculate us from the kind of democratic breakdown that has occurred elsewhere.

Yet, we worry. American politicians now treat their rivals as enemies, intimidate the free press, and threaten to reject the results of elections. They try to weaken the institutional buffers of our democracy, including the courts, intelligence services, and ethics offices. American states, which were once praised by the great jurist Louis Brandeis as “laboratories of democracy,” are in danger of becoming laboratories of authoritarianism as those in power rewrite electoral rules, redraw constituencies, and even rescind voting rights to ensure that they do not lose. And in 2016, for the first time in U.S. history, a man with no experience in public office, little observable commitment to constitutional rights, and clear authoritarian tendencies was elected president. (1)

Albright, Levitsky, and Ziblatt are not alarmists; they are experienced, knowledgeable, and wise observers of and participants in democratic politics. Their concerns should worry us all.

Responsible innovation and the philosophy of technology

Several posts here have focused on the philosophy of technology (linklinklinklink). A simple definition of the philosophy of technology might go along these lines:

Technology may be defined broadly as the sum of a set of tools, machines, and practical skills available at a given time in a given culture through which human needs and interests are satisfied and the interplay of power and conflict furthered. The philosophy of technology offers an interdisciplinary approach to better understanding the role of technology in society and human life. The field raises critical questions about the ways that technology intertwines with human life and the workings of society. Do human beings control technology? For whose benefit? What role does technology play in human wellbeing and freedom? What role does technology play in the exercise of power? Can we control technology? What issues of ethics and social justice are raised by various technologies? How can citizens within a democracy best ensure that the technologies we choose will lead to better human outcomes and expanded capacities in the future?

One of the issues that arises in this field is the question of whether there are ethical principles that should govern the development and implementation of new technologies. (This issue is discussed further in an earlier post; link.)

One principle of technology ethics seems clear: policies and regulations are needed to protect the future health and safety of the public. This is the same principle that serves as the ethical basis of government regulation of current activities, justifying coercive rules that prevent pollution, toxic effects, fires, radiation exposure, and other clear harms affecting the health and safety of the public.

Another principle might be understood as exhortatory rather than compulsory, and that is the general recommendation that technologies should be pursued by private actors that make some positive contribution to human welfare. This principle is plainly less universal and obligatory than the “avoid harm” principle; many technologies are chosen because their inventors believe they will entertain, amuse, or otherwise please members of the public, and will thereby permit generation of profits. (Here is a discussion of the value of entertainment; link.)

A more nuanced exhortation is the idea that inventors and companies should subject their technology and product innovation research to broad principles of sustainability. Given that large technological change can potentially have very large environmental and collective effects, we might think that companies and inventors should pay attention to the large challenges our society faces, now and in the foreseeable future: addiction, obesity, CO2 production, plastic waste, erosion of privacy, spread of racist politics, fresh water depletion, and information disparities, to name several.

These principles fall within the general zone of the ethics of corporate social responsibility. Many companies pay lip service to the social-benefits principle and the sustainability principle, though it is difficult to see evidence of the effectiveness of this motivation. Business interests often seem to trump concerns for positive social effects and sustainability — for example, in the pharmaceutical industry and its involvement in the opioid crisis (link).

It is in the context of these reflections about the ethics of technology that I was interested to learn of an academic and policy field in Europe called “responsible innovation”. This is a network of academics, government officials, foundations, and non-profit organizations working together to try to induce more directionality in technology change (innovation). René von Schomberg and Jonathan Hankins’s recently published volume International Handbook on Responsible Innovation: A Global Resource gives an in-depth exposure to the thinking, research, and policy advocacy that this network has accumulated. A key actor in the advancement of this field has been the Bassetti Foundation (link) in Milan, which has made the topic of responsible innovation central to its mission for several decades. The Journal of Responsible Innovation provides a look at continuing research in this field.

The primary locus of discussion and applications in the field of RRI has been within the EU. There is not much evidence of involvement in the field from United States actors in this movement, though the Virtual Institute of Responsible Innovation at Arizona State University has received support from the US National Science Foundation (link).

Von Schomberg describes the scope and purpose of the RRI field in these terms:

Responsible Research and Innovation is a transparent, interactive process by which societal actors and innovators become mutually responsive to each other with a view to the (ethical) acceptability, sustainability and societal desirability of the innovation process and its marketable products (in order to allow a proper embedding of scientific and technological advances in our society). (2)

The definition of this field overlaps quite a bit with the philosophy and ethics of technology, but it is not synonymous. For one thing, the explicit goal of RRI is to help provide direction to the social, governmental, and business processes driving innovation. And for another, the idea of innovation isn’t exactly the same as “technology change”. There are social and business innovations that fall within the scope of the effort — for example, new forms of corporate management or new kinds of financial instruments — but which do not fall within the domain of technological innovations.

Von Schomberg has been a leading thinker within this field, and his contributions have helped to set the agenda for the movement. In his contribution to the volume he identifies six deficits in current innovation policy in Europe (all drawn from chapter two of the volume):

  1. Exclusive focus on risk and safety issues concerning new technologies under governmental regulations
  2. Market deficits in delivering on societal desirable innovations
  3. Aligning innovations with broadly shared public values and expectations
  4. A focus on the responsible development of technology and technological potentials rather than on responsible innovations
  5. A lack of open research systems and open scholarship as a necessary, but not sufficient condition for responsible innovation
  6. Lack of foresight and anticipative governance for the alternative shaping of innovation in sectors

Each of these statements involves very complex ideas about society-government-corporate relationships, and we may well come to judge that some of the recommendations made by Schomberg are more convincing than others. But the clarity of this statement of the priorities and concerns of the RRI movement is enormously valuable as a way of advancing debate on the issues.
The examples that von Schomberg and other contributors discuss largely have to do with large innovations that have sparked significant public discussion and opposition — nuclear power, GMO foods, nanotechnology-based products. These example focus attention on the later stages of scientific and technological knowledge when it comes to the point of introducing the technology into the public. But much technological innovation takes place at a much more mundane level — consumer electronics and software, enhancements of solar technology, improvements in electric vehicle technology, and digital personal assistants (Alexa, Siri), to name a few.

A defining feature of the RRI field is the explicit view that innovation is not inherently good or desirable (for example, in the contribution by Luc Soete in the volume). Contrary to the assumptions of many government economic policy experts, the RRI network is unified in criticism of the idea that innovation is always or usually productive of economic growth and employment growth. These observers argue instead that the public should have a role in deciding which technological options ought to be pursued, and which should not.

In reading the programmatic statements of purpose offered in the volume, it sometimes seems that there is a tendency to exaggerate the degree to which scientific and technological innovation is (or should be) a directed and collectively controlled process. The movement seems to undervalue the important role that creativity and invention play within the crucial fact of human freedom and fulfillment. It is an important moral fact that individuals have extensive liberties concerning the ways in which they use their talents, and the presumption needs to be in favor of their right to do so without coercive interference. Much of what goes on in the search for new ideas, processes, and products falls properly on the side of liberty rather than a socially regulated activity, and the proper relation of social policy to these activities seems to be one of respect for the human freedom and creativity of the innovator rather than a prescriptive and controlling one. (Of course some regulation and oversight is needed, based on assessments of risk and harm; but von Schomberg and others dismiss this moral principle as too limited.)

It sometimes seems as though the contributors slide too quickly from the field of government-funded research and development (where the public has a plain interest in “directing” the research at some level), to the whole ecology of innovation and discovery, whether public, corporate, or academic. As noted above, von Schomberg considers the governmental focus on harm and safety to be the “first deficit” — in other words, an insufficient basis for “guiding innovation”. In contrast, he wants to see public mechanisms tasked with “redirecting” technology innovations and industries. However, much innovation is the result of private initiative and funding, and it seems that this field appropriately falls outside of prescription by government (beyond normal harm-based regulatory oversight). Von Schomberg uses the phrase “a proper embedding of scientific and technological advances in society”; but this seems to be a worrisome overreach, in that it seems to imply that all scientific and technology research should be guided and curated by a collective political process.

This suggests that a more specific description of the goals of the movement would be helpful. Here is one possible specification:

  • Require government agencies to justify the funding and incentives that they offer in support of technology innovation based on an informed assessment of the public’s preferences;
  • Urge corporations to adopt standards to govern their own internal innovation investments to conform to acknowledged public concerns (environmental sustainability, positive contributions to health and safety of citizens and consumers, …);
  • Urge scientists and researchers to engage in public discussion of their priorities in scientific and technological research.
  • Create venues for open and public discussion of major technological choices facing society in the current century, leading to more articulate understanding of priorities and risks.

There is an interesting parallel here with the Japanese government’s efforts in the 1980s to guide investment and research and development resources into the highest priority fields to advance the Japanese economy. The US National Research Council study, 21st Century Innovation Systems for Japan and the United States: Lessons from a Decade of Change: Report of a Symposium (2009) (link), provides an excellent review of the strategies adopted by the United States and Japan in their efforts to stimulate technology innovation in chip production and high-end computers from the 1960s to the 1990s. These efforts were entirely guided by the effort to maintain commercial and economic advantage in the global marketplace. Jason Owen-Smith addresses the question of the role of US research universities as sites of technological research in Research Universities and the Public Good: Discovery for an Uncertain Futurelink.

The “responsible research and innovation” (RRI) movement in Europe is a robust effort to pose the question, how can public values be infused into the processes of technology innovation that have such a massive potential effect on public welfare? It would seem that a major aim of the RRI network is to help to inform and motivate commitments by corporations to principles of responsible innovation within their definitions of corporate social responsibility, which is unmistakably needed. It is worthwhile for U.S. policy experts and technology ethicists alike to pay attention to these debates in Europe, and the International Handbook on Responsible Innovation is an excellent place to begin.

What are the prospects for a progressive movement in the United States?

It is hard to remember that American politics has experienced times of profound reflection upon and criticism of the premises of modern urban, capitalist, democratic life. Engagement in progressive issues and progressive political movements has a strong history in the U.S. The period of Civil Rights and the Vietnam War was one such time, when institutionalized racism and imperialistic use of military power were the subjects of political debate and activism. An earlier period of profound reflection about our premises was the Progressive era at the beginning of the twentieth century. And the resonance that Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez have had with large numbers of younger voters suggests that it is not impossible that we may experience another period of serious progressive thought. It’s hard to remember today, in the grips of the most right-wing extremist government our country has seen in a century, that the temper of a time often changes in unpredictable ways.

What would it take for a progressive political movement to become mainstream in the U.S.? For one thing, it seems unlikely to imagine that it will all come from a “youth movement”. The sixties anti-war movement did in fact find a very strong base in universities, but those circumstances were probably fairly exceptional and context-specific: for example, the fact that young men faced the Selective Service focused the minds of many young people on the apparent looniness of the war in Southeast Asia. But the social and cohort composition of the Civil Rights movement seems to have been somewhat different — a broader range of ordinary people were involved, at a variety of levels, and young people played a role that was only part of the activism of the time. There were student-based organizations, of course; but there were also broad-based coalitions of faith-based, occupation-based, and regionally-based individuals who were ready and willing to be mobilized. And the Progressive Movement at the beginning of the twentieth century appears to have involved many hundreds of thousands of ordinary working people, farmers, and professionals. The Pullman Strike of 1894 involved at least 250,000 workers in 27 states, and in the presidential election of 1904 Eugene Debs received some 403,000 votes as candidate for the Socialist Party of America, some 3% of the total vote.

What issues seem to be key for building a strong and impactful progressive movement in the U.S. in the 2020s? Activism about the imperative of addressing climate change is one. The issue of extreme, unjustified, and growing inequalities of wealth and income is another. And the failures of American society in addressing the inequalities associated with race and immigration status constitute another urgent issue of concern for progressives.

If we take as a premise that the issues that are most likely to stimulate activism and sustained political commitment are those that are perceived to be key to the future of one’s group, each of these issues has an obvious constituency. Climate change affects everyone, and it affect young people the most. They will live their lives in a world that is in permanent environmental crisis — intense storms, rising ocean levels, destruction of habitat — that will create enormous disruption and hardship. Rising inequalities represent a crisis of justice and fairness; how can it possibly be justified that the greatest share of the new wealth created by innovation and economic recovery flowed to the top 1% or the top 10%? And why should the 99% or the 90% tolerate this injustice, decade after decade? And the social harm of racism affects everyone, not just people of color. The Civil Rights movement demonstrated the potency of this issue for mobilizing people across racial groups and across regions to protest and to demand change.

And yet, these issues are not new. The Occupy movement focused on the inequalities issue, but it came and went. There is broad support in the population for policies that will slow down the processes of climate change, but this support does not appear to be easy to turn into activism and effective popular demands against our government. The government continues to push back environmental regulation and to go out of its way to flout the global consensus about CO2 emissions and climate change. And activism about racism arises periodically, often around police shootings and the Black Lives Matter movement; but this activism is sporadic and intermittent, and doesn’t seem to have created much meaningful change.

The question of uncovering the factors that lead to a widespread shift of engagement with new politics is one of the key topics in Doug McAdam’s account of mobilization during the Civil Rights movement in the introduction to the second edition of Political Process and the Development of Black Insurgency, 1930-1970, 2nd Edition. Consider this diagram of his view of the interactive nature of contention:

Here is McAdam’s description of the theory involved here. 

The figure depicts movement emergence as a highly contingent outcome of an ongoing process of interaction involving at least one set of state actors and one challenger. In point of fact, while I focus here on state/challenger interaction, I think this perspective is applicable to episodes of contention that do not involve state actors. (KL 280)

 This implies that new political thinking and a corresponding social movement do not generally emerge on their own, but rather through contention with another group or the state concerning issues that matter to both. It is a dynamic process of contention and mental formulation involving both status-quo power holders and challengers. And it is an interactive process through which each party develops its own interpretations of the current situation and the opportunities and threats that currently exist through interaction with the other group. This process leads to the formation of “organization / collective identity” — essentially a shared vision of who “we” are, what we believe in and care about, which in turn supports the emergence of a round of “innovative collective action”. The crucial part of his theory is that there is interaction between the two groups at every stage — interpretation, formation of collective identity, and choice of collective actions. Each party influences and shapes the identity and behavior of the other.

So let’s say that the “challengers” of the decade of the 2020s care primarily about three things: reducing the enormous economic inequalities that exist in our society, controlling climate change, and increasing the power of dispossessed groups to advocate for the issues they care about (abortion rights, Black Lives Matter, and achieving more favorable treatment of immigrants). And the forces of the status quo want three things as well: a favorable environment for corporate profits, secure control of the Federal court system, and no change in racial equality and immigrant status. How might the dynamic that McAdam describes play out?

Some of the political mechanisms of mobilization that are described in Dynamics of Contention are relevant for thinking about this scenario. Brokerage, coalition formation, and escalation are strategies available to the “new progressives”. They can seek to find common ground among a range of groups in society who are poorly served by the reigning conservative government. But it will also emerge that there are serious disagreements about priorities, rankings, and willingness to struggle for a common set of goals. The goal of brokerage and coalition formation is to create broader and more numerous (and therefore potentially more influential) groups who will support a common agenda. But achieving collaboration and consensus is hard, and often not achieved.

And what about the “forces of the status quo”? The strategies available to them are already visible through their actions since 2008 to entrench their blocking powers within state and federal government: retreat on voter rights and voter participation; use the primary process to ensure that extreme versions of the conservative agenda find support in candidates nominated for office; undermine the political power of labor unions; use the ideological power of government to discredit the progressive opposition (disloyal, favorable to terrorists, enemies of business, …); and, in the extreme case, use the police and surveillance powers of the state to discredit and undermine the organizations of the progressive movement. (Think of the use of agents provocateurs against the Black Panther party in the 1960s and 1970s through infiltration and misdirection as well as the murder of Fred Hampton in Chicago.)

All too often the balance of forces between coalition building on the left and the right seems to favor the right; somehow the groups on the left in the United States in the past several decades seem to have been more insistent on ideological purity than those on the right, with the result that the progressive end of the spectrum seems more fragmented than the right. And somehow the organs of the media that have the greatest influence on political values in voters seem to be in the hands of the far right — Fox News and its commentators in particular. There is also the common background assumption on the left that only profound structural “revolutionary” change (socialism, rejection of electoral politics) will do; whereas typical voters seem to want change that proceeds through the institutions we currently have. 

Current activism in France over reforms of the pension system has several features that make it more feasible than progressive politics in the U.S. First, it is a focused single issue whose consequences are highly visible to everyone. Second, there is a long tradition in France of using strikes, demonstrations, and street protests to apply pressure on the government. These are the “repertoires of contention” that are so important in Charles Tilly’s analysis of French popular politics. Third, the “gilets jaunes” present a very recent and potent example of collective action that was successful in applying a great deal of pressure on the government. It is possible to think of steps that the U.S. government might take that would spark similar levels of national protests (abolition of the Social Security system, for example), but many other provocations by the Trump administration have not sparked ongoing and effective protests (reversal of EPA regulations, withdrawal from the Paris climate accords, legislative attacks on the Voting Rights Act, appointments of hundreds of reactionary  and unqualified hacks to seats on the Federal bench, a “feed the rich” tax reform, massive ICE roundups of immigrants, …). 

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

Sociology of Trumpism

What does sociology have to offer when it comes to understanding the political phenomenon of Donald Trump as president? It seems that there are a number of different kinds of questions that sociologists ought to consider (link).

Ideology and culture

A political movement needs to mobilize a significant population of followers around a set of ideas and values, and a narrative of blame and praise for the current situation (link). There are meaningful themes of communication that help to convey a political movement to the public. There are also pervasive cultural elements that are invoked by a movement — images, sounds, bits of music and video — that convey its values in less direct and cognitive ways. It is important to probe those ideological and cultural themes in detail.

As a candidate Donald Trump put forward a hodgepodge of themes and tropes — birtherism, hateful slanders about immigrants, the need for a strong leader, inflammatory language about race (“What do you have to lose?”), anti-Muslim slurs, and international bellicosity, hostility to “political correctness”, and antagonism to women’s rights. This really is a dog’s breakfast of ideas, failing to add up to a coherent ideology. But as a collection of emotional red flags for various groups of disaffected people, it worked pretty well. And it did appear to succeed in creating a movement of true believers. These true believers are not a majority of American voters, but they appear to be a firmly committed political force.

We need a twenty-first century equivalent to Fritz Stern with his masterful analysis of The Politics of Cultural Despair: A Study in the Rise of the Germanic Ideology as an attempt to account for the rise of National Socialism in Weimar Germany (link). Some of that work is being done by scholars who are trying to get to the heart of right-wing populism (link).

Parallels with European populist extreme right parties

There is a high degree of consistency of the Trump rhetoric and ideology, with the xenophobic, anti-immigrant ideology of extreme right parties in various European countries. Even though Trump may seem like a sui generis American extremist, his vision and rhetoric have strong resonance with the extreme right in Europe. Sociologists need to examine the substantial degree of parallel that exists between Trumpism and the far right in Europe. This is work for which comparative historical social scientists are very well prepared. (Here are a few prior discussions of this point; link, link, link.)

It is evident that there is a great deal of similarity across the ideologies of these various extreme-right movements. What accounts for the diffusion and mobilization impact of these kinds of ideologies? Jorg Flecker’s collection on the socioeconomic factors influencing right-wing mobilization, Changing Working Life and the Appeal of the Extreme Right (first published in 2007), is a useful resource. Mileti and Plomb provide an excellent review essay, “Addressing the link between socio-economic change and right-wing populism and extremism: A critical review of the European literature”. They usefully distinguish between the “conditions of emergence” and the “conditions of success” (quoting Mazzoleni). Significantly, the work described in this volume was written long before Donald Trump was a serious political figure — suggesting clearly that Trumpism is not a singular American phenomenon.

The mobilization strategies and mechanisms of hate

We cannot underestimate the contagious nature of hate and hateful behavior and speech. Hateful mobilization is powerful and rapid. Better understanding of the mechanisms of social networks, fake news, big lies, and manipulation of belief through right-wing channels like talk radio, Fox News, white supremacist YouTube channels, and targeted FaceBook advertising needs intensive investigation. It is clear today that social media platforms were weaponized by interested political groups, including right-wing extremist organizations, and that these efforts continue. The unwillingness of Facebook to address this problem is indicative of a serious problem of corporate values and corporate responsibility on the part of this multi-billion member social media platform. This failure represents a serious threat to our democracy.

We need to achieve a better and more sophisticated understanding of the mechanisms through which hate spreads in a population, and the means that are deliberately employed by hate-based groups to gain support for their positions (link, link).

The alt-right and white supremacy

A key ideological asset of this oppositional, divisive program for political mobilization is the aggressive propaganda machine of the alt-right. Publications like Breitbart have created a space of legitimacy for racism, anti-Muslim bigotry, anti-Semitism, and white supremacy that is a crucial part of the mobilization of the Trump constituency. And with the appointment of Steve Bannon as chief strategist for newly-elected President Trump, these hateful currents came directly into the White House itself.

International aggressivity

Also essential to Trump’s vision is a bellicose, aggressive approach to international relations. He threatens China with naval power, he bullies Mexico, he denigrates Merkel (a key linchpin in a unified Europe), and he speaks carelessly about the use of nuclear weapons. His message of “America first” promises a reckless, bullying approach to international relations that bodes ill for a peaceful future. What role does this bellicosity play? It seems to be a key part of his message

The material causes of a propensity for responding to these messages

Observers right and left have tried to understand the Trump constituency in terms of the “forgotten white lower middle class”, with few of the gains of growth of recent decades flowing to these men and women. Shrinking job prospects, hourly wages declining, and other material forces make this group psychologically ripe for anti-establishment, xenophobic, racist, resentful mobilization. Trump panders to this constituency; he will inevitably disappoint them. It is a theme that Justin Gest explores in The New Minority: White Working Class Politics in an Age of Immigration and Inequality (link). It is a fair question to ask whether this picture is accurate, or whether the social causes of the rise of extremism lie elsewhere.

Trump’s real agenda has proven to be fundamentally at odds with the desires of this group. He has made wild promises, he has denigrated the groups these individuals blame, and he has promised populist and nationalist change. But simultaneously he has appointed a room full of multi-millionaires to his cabinet whose economic interests are patently clear. The economic and tax policies that emanate from the Trump administration are demonstrably ones that favor the one percent. And the first steps the administration undertook concerning health care bore this out. Attacking the Affordable Care Act hurts only lower middle-class people, with the likelihood of eliminating great numbers of people from health insurance and materially shortening their lives.

The inevitable disappointment

So where does our country go when Trumpism fails? One possibility is that the Democratic party in opposition can rebuild its policy platform in a way that realistically works to level the playing field for all Americans. A genuinely progressive plan can create avenues of opportunity that drain a different swamp — the swamp of resentful, racist neo-fascist groups who brought this strongman to power. But the other possibility exists as well: the resentments and hatreds stoked very deliberately by the Trump political machine have nowhere else to go except into greater extremism. And the politics of hatred, division, and resentment gain even greater support. Cas Mudde’s recent The Far Right Today provides a basis for thinking about our future in light of these political currents, and his conclusions are not entirely encouraging.

The far right is here to stay. This even applies to the extreme right, which also survived the repressive aftermath of the 1945 defeat of the fascist movements and regimes that originally inspired it. To be clear, there are few indications that extreme right parties or politicians are returning to political power. Even in Greece, which probably resembles Weimar Germany more than any other democracy, the neo-Nazi XA is remarkably stable at roughly 5–7 percent of the vote. That said, extreme right actors and ideas have recently been praised by two of the most powerful men in the world, Brazilian president Bolsonaro (military dictatorship) and US president Trump (“ alt-right” demonstrators in Charlottesville). Moreover, antisemitism and racism have returned to the center of the political debate, be it more implicitly in traditional media or more explicitly on social media. (The Far Right Today, 174)

The ultimate goal of all responses to the far right should be the strengthening of liberal democracy. Put simply, only fighting the far right does not necessarily strengthen liberal democracy, but strengthening liberal democracy will, by definition, weaken the far right. That the two do not always go hand in hand is not always acknowledged. Limiting free speech or the right to demonstrate not only infringes on the democratic rights of far-right activists, it undermines these rights in general, and thereby the liberal democratic regime. This is not even to speak of the tendency for repressive measures aimed at one group to be later applied to other groups, including some that are neither radical nor right. (178)

We have our work cut out for us.

Academic social media

The means through which academics engage in communication and discussion of their ideas have changed significantly in the past decade through the rapid growth of the importance of social media in the dissemination of new ideas. Social media platforms like Twitter, Facebook, Medium, Blogger, Tumblr, and WordPress have become important media for communication in a range of fields, from celebrity gossip to news flashes to the dissemination of new breakthroughs in particle physics. Blogging platforms such as Blogger, Medium, and WordPress in particular have become a highly accessible place for the expression of ideas, opinions, and social commentary. An idea posted on WordPress is instantly visible in most countries in the world (not including China). And because of the amazing coverage of search engines, that idea can be located by the academic researcher in Mumbai, Helsinki, Buenos Aires, or Des Moines within minutes of posting.

The challenge of social media as a channel for serious ideas and engaged debate is the fact that there are few of the badges of reliability provided by conventional media and academic journals associated with social media. So the hard question is whether social media channels can serve a serious intellectual purpose in terms of the dissemination of knowledge.

The appearance of a second edition of Mark Carrigan’s Social Media for Academics is therefore timely. Both young academics — well versed in the mechanics of social media — and more senior scholars will find the book interesting and provocative, and many will find useful new ways of presenting and discussing their work using the resources created by social media platforms. I’ve long been convinced of the value of blogging as a platform for developing and disseminating my work in philosophy and sociology, and I celebrate Mark’s efforts to help all of us figure out constructive, intellectually valuable ways of using the various media available to us.

It is interesting to reflect a bit on what an academic — a professor, a professional political scientist or literary critic or physicist — wants to accomplish with his or her writing, and whether social media can help with those goals. There are a number of possible goals that come to mind:

  1. to explore new ideas and get useful feedback from others about those ideas
  2. to achieve solid, well argued results on a topic that will be a permanent part of the corpus in one’s field
  3. To contribute to important contemporary debates through better insights into current problems (global climate change, war in the Middle East, the threat of rising nationalist-populism)
  4. to elevate one’s position in the status-hierarchy of the profession
  5. to create a “celebrity” reputation in a field that leads to invitations as commentator on public television or CNN

The first motivation is well suited to social media. If one can gather a small network of people with similar interests and a willingness to interact, a blog can be a very good mechanism for testing and improving one’s ideas. The second motivation can also be served by social media, in the sense that exposure of one’s ideas through social media can help to deepen and refine one’s thinking. In order for these ideas to become part of the permanent corpus of one’s field of study, it seems likely enough that the ideas and theories will need to find more traditional forms of academic expression — book chapters, peer-reviewed articles, and books. But these two goals are entirely consistent with being an authentic scholar and academic; they have to do with the pursuit of truth and insight. And they fall in the category of the “new collegiality” that Carrigan discusses (232).

The third goal is a respectable academic goal as well. It is entirely legitimate and appropriate for academics to bring their voices to bear on the issues of the day. Certainly some of the Twitter feeds I appreciate the most come from academics like Michael E. Mann (@MichaelEMann), Branko Milanovic (@BrankoMilan), Juan Cole (@jricole), and Dan Nexon (@dhnexon). And what I appreciate about their tweets is the honesty and relevance their ideas (and links) have in addressing topics like climate change, global inequalities, and issues of war and peace.

The final pair of goals — status, reputation, and well-paid television gigs — seem a bit antagonistic to the most important academic values. I suppose that Aristotle and Kant both would find these goals obnoxious because they are narrowly self-interested and unrelated to the virtues or duties of an academic — pursuit of truth and the advancement of knowledge. But, sad to say, it is clear enough how social media can support these goals as well, as Carrigan discusses in several places (136).

I am very glad that Mark has brought a discussion of the “dark side” of social media into the discussion in the second edition. Like all things digital, the hate-based Internet has moved rapidly since the first edition of this book, and it is now a very important part of the rise of right-wing populism in many countries. Likewise, the use of social media to bully and harass people in the most abhorrent ways is a plague that we haven’t learned how to control. And the weaponization of social media that has occurred since the first edition of the book is a genuine threat to democratic institutions.

Mark Carrigan is an astute and well-informed follower of the topic of the rising role of social media in the academic world, and the book is well worth a close reading. And it raises an interesting question: what would Socrates’ Twitter stream have looked like?

The power of case studies in system safety

Images: Andrew Hopkins titles

Images: Other safety sources

One of the genuinely interesting aspects of the work of Andrew Hopkins is the extensive case studies he has conducted of the causation of serious industrial accidents. A good example is his analysis of the explosion of an Esso natural gas processing plant in Longford, Australia in 1998, presented in Lessons from Longford: The ESSO Gas Plant Explosion, with key findings also presented in this video. Also valuable is Hopkins’ analysis of the Deepwater Horizon blowout in the Gulf of Mexico (link). Here he dispassionately walks through the steps of the accident and identifies faults at multiple levels (operator, engineering, management, corporate policy).

In addition to these books about major accidents and disasters, Hopkins has also created a number of very detailed videos based on the analysis presented in the case studies. These videos offer vivid recreation of the accidents along with a methodical and evidence-based presentation of Hopkins’ analysis of the causes of the accidents at multiple levels.

It is intriguing to consider whether it would be possible to substantially improve the “safety thinking” of executives and managers in high-risk industries through an intensive training program based on case studies like these. Intensive system safety training for executives and managers is clearly needed. If complex processes are to be managed in a way that avoids catastrophic failures, executives and managers need to have a much more sophisticated understanding of safety science. Further, they need more refined skills in designing and managing risky processes. And yet much training about industrial safety focuses on the wrong level of accidents — shop floor accidents, routine injuries, and days-lost metrics — whereas there is a consensus among safety experts that the far larger source of hazard in complex industrial processes lies at the system level.

We might think of Hopkins’ case studies (and others that are available in the literature) as the basis of cognitive and experiential training for executives and managers on the topic of system safety, helping them gain a broader understanding of the kinds of failures that are known to lead to major accidents and better mental skills for managing risky processes. This might be envisioned in analogy with the training that occurs through scenario-based table-top exercises for disaster response for high-level managers, where the goal is to give participants a practical and experiential exposure to the kinds of rare situations they may be suddenly immersed in and a set of mental tools through which to respond. (My city’s top fire official and emergency manager once said to a group of senior leaders at my university at the end of a presentation about the city’s disaster planning: “When disaster strikes, your IQ will drop by 20 points. So it is imperative that you work with lots of scenarios and develop a new set of skills that will allow you to respond quickly and appropriately to the circumstances that arise. And by the way — a tornado has just blown the roof off the humanities building, and there are casualties!”)

Consider a program of safety training for managers along these lines: simulation-based training, based on detailed accident scenarios, with a theoretical context introducing the ideas of system accidents, complexity, tight coupling, communications failures, lack of focus on organizational readiness for safety, and the other key findings of safety research. I would envision a week-long training offering exposure to the best current thinking about system safety, along with exposure to extensive case studies and a number of interactive simulations based on realistic scenarios.

I taught a graduate course in public policy on “Organizational causes of large technology failures” this year that made substantial use of case materials like these. Seeing the evolution that masters-level students underwent in the sophistication of their understanding of the causes of large failures, it seems very credible that senior-manager training like that described here would indeed be helpful. The learning that these students did on this subject was evident through the quality of the group projects they did on disasters. Small teams undertook to research and analyze failures as diverse as the V-22 Osprey program, the State of Michigan Unemployment Insurance disaster (in which the state’s software system wrongly classified thousands of applicants as having submitted fraudulent claims), and the Chinese melamine milk adulteration disaster. Their work products were highly sophisticated, and very evidently showed the benefits of studying experts such as Diane Vaughan, Charles Perrow, Nancy Leveson, and Andrew Hopkins. I feel confident that these students would be able to take these perspectives and skills into the complex organizations in which they may work in the future, and their organizations will be safer as a result.

This kind of training would be especially useful in sectors that involve inherently high risks of large-scale accidents — for example, the rail industry, marine shipping, aviation and space design and manufacturing, chemical and petrochemical processing, hospitals, banking, the electric power grid, and the nuclear industry.

(I should note that Hopkins himself provides training materials and consultation on the subject of system safety through FutureMedia Training Resources (link).)

%d bloggers like this: