Moral limits on war

World War II raised great issues of morality in the conduct of war. These were practical issues during the war, because that conflict approached “total war” — the use of all means against all targets to defeat the enemy. So the moral questions could not be evaded: are there compelling reasons of moral principle that make certain tactics in war completely unacceptable, no matter how efficacious they might be said to be?

As Michael Walzer made clear in Just and Unjust Wars: A Moral Argument with Historical Illustrations in 1977, we can approach two rather different kinds of questions when we inquire about the morality of war. First, we can ask whether a given decision to go to war is morally justified given its reasons and purposes. This brings us into the domain of the theory of just war–self-defense against aggression, and perhaps prevention of large-scale crimes against humanity. And second, we can ask whether the strategies and tactics chosen are morally permissible. This forces us to think about the moral distinction between combatant and non-combatant, the culpable and the innocent, and possibly the idea of military necessity. The principle of double effect comes into play here — the idea that unintended but predictable civilian casualties may be permissable if the intended target is a legitimate military target, and the unintended harms are not disproportionate to the value of the intended target.

We should also notice that there are two ways of approaching both issues — one on the basis of existing international law and treaty, and the other on the basis of moral theory. The first treats the morality of war as primarily a matter of convention, while the latter treats it as an expression of valued moral principles. There is some correspondence between the two approaches, since laws and treaties seek to embody shared norms about warfare. And there are moral reasons why states should keep their agreements, irrespective of the content. But the rationales of the two approaches are different.

Finally, there are two different kinds of reasons why a people or a government might care about the morality of its conduct of war. The first is prudential: “if we use this instrument, then others may use it against us in the future”. The convention outlawing the use of poison gas may fall in this category. So it may be argued that the conventions limiting the conduct of war are beneficial to all sides, even when there is a shortterm advantage in violating the convention. The second is a matter of moral principle: “if we use this instrument, we will be violating fundamental normative ideals that are crucial to us as individuals and as a people”. This is a Kantian version of the morality of war: there are at least some issues that cannot be resolved based solely on consequences, but rather must be resolved on the basis of underlying moral principles and prohibitions. So executing hostages or prisoners of war is always and absolutely wrong, no matter what military advantages might ensue. Preserving the lives and well-being of innocents seems to be an unconditional moral duty in war. But likewise, torture is always wrong, not only because it is imprudent, but because it is fundamentally incompatible with treating people in our power in a way that reflects their fundamental human dignity.

The means of war-making chosen by the German military during World War II were egregious — for example, shooting hostages, murdering prisoners, performing medical experiments on prisoners, and unrestrained strategic bombing of London. But hard issues arose on the side of the alliance that fought against German aggression as well. Particularly hard cases during World War II were the campaigns of “strategic bombing” against cities in Germany and Japan, including the firebombing of Dresden and Tokyo. These decisions were taken in the context of fairly clear data showing that strategic bombing did not substantially impair the enemy’s ability to wage war industrially, and in the context of the fact that its primary victims were innocent civilians. Did the Allies make a serious moral mistake by making use of this tactic? Did innocent children and non-combatant adults pay the price in these most horrible ways of the decision to incinerate cities? Did civilian leaders fail to exercise sufficient control to prevent their generals from inflicting pet theories like the presumed efficacy of strategic bombing on whole urban populations?

And how about the decision to use atomic bombs against Hiroshima and Nagasaki? Were these decisions morally justified by the rationale that was offered — that they compelled surrender by Japan and thereby avoided tens of thousands of combatant deaths ensuing from invasion? Were two bombs necessary, or was the attack on Nagasaki literally a case of overkill? Did the United Stares make a fateful moral error in deciding to use atomic bombs to attack cities and the thousands of non-combatants who lived there?

These kinds of questions may seem quaint and obsolete in a time of drone strikes, cyber warfare, and renewed nuclear posturing. But they are not. As citizens we have responsibility for the acts of war undertaken by our governments. We need to be clear and insistent in maintaining that the use of the instruments of war requires powerful moral justification, and that there are morally profound reasons for demanding that war tactics respect the rights and lives of the innocent. War, we must never forget, is horrible.

Geoffrey Robertson’s Crimes Against Humanity: The Struggle for Global Justice poses these questions with particular pointedness. Also of interest is John Mearsheimer’s Conventional Deterrence.

How organizations adapt

Organizations do things; they depend upon the coordinated efforts of numerous individuals; and they exist in environments that affect their ongoing success or failure. Moreover, organizations are to some extent plastic: the practices and rules that make them up can change over time. Sometimes these changes happen as the result of deliberate design choices by individuals inside or outside the organization; so a manager may alter the rules through which decisions are made about hiring new staff in order to improve the quality of work. And sometimes they happen through gradual processes over time that no one is specifically aware of. The question arises, then, whether organizations evolve toward higher functioning based on the signals from the environments in which they live; or on the contrary, whether organizational change is stochastic, without a gradient of change towards more effective functioning? Do changes within an organization add up over time to improved functioning? What kinds of social mechanisms might bring about such an outcome?

One way of addressing this topic is to consider organizations as mid-level social entities that are potentially capable of adaptation and learning. An organization has identifiable internal processes of functioning as well as a delineated boundary of activity. It has a degree of control over its functioning. And it is situated in an environment that signals differential success/failure through a variety of means (profitability, success in gaining adherents, improvement in market share, number of patents issued, …). So the environment responds favorably or unfavorably, and change occurs.

Is there anything in this specification of the structure, composition, and environmental location of an organization that suggests the possibility or likelihood of adaptation over time in the direction of improvement of some measure of organizational success? Do institutions and organizations get better as a result of their interactions with their environments and their internal structure and actors?

There are a few possible social mechanisms that would support the possibility of adaptation towards higher functioning. One is the fact that purposive agents are involved in maintaining and changing institutional practices. Those agents are capable of perceiving inefficiencies and potential gains from innovation, and are sometimes in a position to introduce appropriate innovations. This is true at various levels within an organization, from the supervisor of a custodial staff to a vice president for marketing to a CEO. If the incentives presented to these agents are aligned with the important needs of the organization, then we can expect that they will introduce innovations that enhance functioning. So one mechanism through which we might expect that organizations will get better over time is the fact that some agents within an organization have the knowledge and power necessary to enact changes that will improve performance, and they sometimes have an interest in doing so. In other words, there is a degree of intelligent intentionality within an organization that might work in favor of enhancement.

This line of thought should not be over-emphasized, however, because there are competing forces and interests within most organizations. Previous posts have focused on current organizational theory based on the idea of a “strategic action field” of insiders and outsiders who determine the activities of the organization (Fligstein and McAdam, Crozier; linklink). This framework suggests that the structure and functioning of an organization is not wholly determined by a single intelligent actor (“the founder”), but is rather the temporally extended result of interactions among actors in the pursuit of diverse aims. This heterogeneity of purposive actions by actors within an institution means that the direction of change is indeterminate; it is possible that the coalitions that form will bring about positive change, but the reverse is possible as well.

And in fact, many authors and participants have pointed out that it is often enough not the case that the agents’ interests are aligned with the priorities and needs of the organization. Jack Knight offers persuasive critique of the idea that organizations and institutions tend to increase in their ability to provide collective benefits in Institutions and Social Conflict. CEOs who have a financial interest in a rapid stock price increase may take steps that worsen functioning for shortterm market gain; supervisors may avoid work-flow innovations because they don’t want the headache of an extended change process; vice presidents may deny information to other divisions in order to enhance appreciation of the efforts of their own division. Here is a short description from Knight’s book of the way that institutional adjustment occurs as a result of conflict among players of unequal powers:

Individual bargaining is resolved by the commitments of those who enjoy a relative advantage in substantive resources. Through a series of interactions with various members of the group, actors with similar resources establish a pattern of successful action in a particular type of interaction. As others recognize that they are interacting with one of the actors who possess these resources, they adjust their strategies to achieve their best outcome given the anticipated commitments of others. Over time rational actors continue to adjust their strategies until an equilibrium is reached. As this becomes recognized as the socially expected combination of equilibrium strategies, a self-enforcing social institution is established. (Knight, 143)

A very different possible mechanism is unit selection, where more successful innovations or firms survive and less successful innovations and firms fail. This is the premise of the evolutionary theory of the firm (Nelson and Winter, An Evolutionary Theory of Economic Change). In a competitive market, firms with low internal efficiency will have a difficult time competing on price with more efficient firms; so these low-efficiency firms will go out of business occasionally. Here the question of “units of selection” arises: is it firms over which selection operates, or is it lower-level innovations that are the object of selection?

Geoffrey Hodgson provides a thoughtful review of this set of theories here, part of what he calls “competence-based theories of the firm”. Here is Hobson’s diagram of the relationships that exist among several different approaches to study of the firm.

The market mechanism does not work very well as a selection mechanism for some important categories of organizations — government agencies, legislative systems, or non-profit organizations. This is so, because the criterion of selection is “profitability / efficiency within a competitive market”; and government and non-profit organizations are not importantly subject to the workings of a market.

In short, the answer to the fundamental question here is mixed. There are factors that unquestionably work to enhance effectiveness in an organization. But these factors are weak and defeasible, and the countervailing factors (internal conflict, divided interests of actors, slackness of corporate marketplace) leave open the possibility that institutions change but they do not evolve in a consistent direction. And the glaring dysfunctions that have afflicted many organizations, both corporate and governmental, make this conclusion even more persuasive. Perhaps what demands explanation is the rare case where an organization achieves a high level of effectiveness and consistency in its actions, rather than the many cases that come to mind of dysfunctional organizational activity.

(The examples of organizational dysfunction that come to mind are many — the failures of nuclear regulation of the civilian nuclear industry (Perrow, The Next Catastrophe: Reducing Our Vulnerabilities to Natural, Industrial, and Terrorist Disasters); the failure of US anti-submarine warfare in World War II (Cohen, Military Misfortunes: The Anatomy of Failure in War); and the failure of chemical companies to ensure safe operations of their plants (Shrivastava, Bhopal: Anatomy of Crisis). Here is an earlier post that addresses some of these examples; link. And here are several earlier posts on the topic of institutional change and organizational behavior; linklink.)

Divided …

Why is part of the American electoral system so susceptible to right-wing populist appeals, often highlighting themes of racism and intergroup hostility? Doug McAdam and Karina Kloos address the causes of the radical swing to the right of the Republican Party in Deeply Divided: Racial Politics and Social Movements in Postwar America. Here is the key issue the book attempts to resolve:

If the general public does not share the extreme partisan views of the political elites and party activists and, more to the point, is increasingly dismayed and disgusted by the resulting polarization and institutional paralysis that have followed from those views, how has the GOP managed to move so far to the right without being punished by the voters? Our answer — already telegraphed above — is that over the past half century social movements have increasingly challenged, and occasionally supplanted, parties as the dominant mobilizing logic and organizing vehicle of American politics. (Kindle location 303-307). 

Not surprisingly given McAdam’s long history in the social movements research field, McAdam and Kloos argue that social movements are commonly relevant to electoral and party politics; they suggest that the period of relatively high consensus around the moderate middle (1940s and 1950s) was exceptional precisely because of the absence of powerful social movements during these decades. But during more typical periods, national electoral politics are influenced by both political parties and diffuse social movements; and the dynamics of the latter can have complex effects on the behavior and orientation of the former.

McAdam and Kloos argue that the social movements associated with the 1960s Civil Rights movement and its opposite, the white segregationist movement, put in motion a political dynamic that pushed each party off of its “median voter” platform, with the Republican Party moving increasingly in the direction of white supremacy and preservation of white privilege.

More accurately, it is the story of not one, but two parallel movements, the revitalized civil rights movement of the early 1960s and the powerful segregationist countermovement, that quickly developed in response to the black freedom struggle. (lc 1220)

The dynamics of grassroots social movements are thought to explain how positions that are unpalatable to the broad electorate nonetheless become committed platforms within the parties. (This also seems to explain the GOP preoccupation with “voter fraud” and their efforts at restricting voting rights for people of color.) The primary processes adopted by the parties after the 1968 Democratic convention gave a powerful advantage to highly committed social activists, even if they do not represent the majority of a party’s members.

This historical analysis gives an indication of an even more basic political factor in American politics: the polarizing issues that surround race and the struggle for racial equality. The Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s was a widespread mobilization of large numbers of ordinary citizens in support of equal rights for African Americans in terms of voting, residence, occupation, and education. Leaders like Ralph Abernathy or Julian Bond (or of course, Martin Luther King, Jr.) and organizations like the NAACP and SNCC were effective in their call to action for ordinary people to take visible actions to support greater equality through legal means. This movement had some success in pushing the Democratic Party towards greater advocacy of reforms promoting racial justice. And the political backlash against the Democratic Party following the enactment of civil rights legislation spawned its own grassroots mobilizations of people and associations who objected to these forms of racial progress. And lest we imagine that progressive steps in the struggle for racial justice largely derived from the Democratic Party, the authors remind us that a great deal of the support that civil rights legislation came from liberal Republicans:

The textbook account also errs in typically depicting the Democrats as the movement’s staunch ally. What is missed in this account is the lengths to which all Democratic presidents—at least from Roosevelt to Kennedy—went to placate the white South and accommodate the party’s Dixiecrat wing. (kl 411)

The important point is that as long as the progressive racial views of northern liberal Democrats were held in check and tacit support for Jim Crow remained the guiding—if unofficial—policy of the party, the South remained solidly and reliably in the Democratic column. (lc 1301)

So M&K are right — issues and interests provide a basis for mobilization within social movements, and social movements in turn influence the evolution of party politics.

But their account suggests a more complicated causal story of the evolution of American electoral politics as well. M&K make the point convincingly that the dynamics of party competition by themselves do not suffice to explain the evolution of US politics to the right, towards a more and more polarized relationship between a divided electorate. They succeed in showing that social movements of varying stripes played a key causal role in shaping party politics themselves. So explaining American electoral politics requires analysis of both parties and movements. But they also inadvertently make another point as well: that there are underlying structural features of American political psychology that explain much of the dynamics of both movements and parties, and these are the facts of racial division and the increasingly steep inequalities of income and wealth that divide Americans. So structural facts about race and class in American society play the most fundamental role in explaining the movements and alliances that have led us to our current situation. Social movements are an important intervening variable, but pervasive features of inequality in American society are even more fundamental.

Or to put the point more simply: we are divided politically because we are divided structurally by inequalities of access, property, opportunity, and outcome; and the mechanisms of electoral politics are mobilized to challenge and defend the systems that maintain these inequalities.

SSHA 2017 Call for Papers

Macrohistorical Dynamics Network
42nd Annual Meeting of the Social Science History Association
Montréal, Québec Canada

 2-5 November 2017
Submission Deadline: 3 March 2017

Changing Social Connections in Time and Space
Please consider participation in Macrohistorical Dynamics (MHD) panels of the 42nd annual meeting of the Social Science History Association, November 2-5, 2017 in Montréal For more information on the meeting as well as the call for proposals, please refer to the SSHA website at Here is the SSHA call for proposals (link).

The deadline for paper and/or panel submissions is March 3, 2017.
In recognition of Canada’s policy of official bilingualism, SSHA will accept paper presentations in either English or French for our meeting in Montreal. Sessions may be monolingual English, monolingual French, or bilingual English/French. Session organizers must clearly indicate which language(s) will be spoken at their session, and paper submitters must indicate if their paper will be delivered in French. All paper abstracts must be submitted with an English version, regardless of the language in which the paper will be presented. Please contact the Program Committee co-chair Barry Eidlin ( with any questions regarding conference language policies.
The thematic topic of the annual meeting is “Changing Social Connections in Time and Space” – a theme that works very well with the research interests of many of the scholars involved in the Macrohistorical Dynamics network.

Macrohistorical Dynamics (MHD) is an interdisciplinary social science research field that focuses on problems of large-scale, comparative historical inquiry. Contributors to the field have brought perspective on a wide variety of problem areas, including macro- and historical sociology; comparative histories; world history; world-system analysis; comparative study of civilizations; philosophy of history; and studies of long-term socio-ecological, technological, demographic, cultural, and political trends and transformations.  The Macrohistorical Dynamics network brings a rigorous perspective to bear on questions having to do with “large” history.

The list of MHD panel themes for 2017 is open, and we encourage you to submit proposals for panel themes or individual paper topics.

The MHD network will be able to host at least six panels in 2017 and will also be able to place additional papers through co-sponsorship with other networks (for example, with History/Methods, Politics, Culture, State-Society, Historical Geography, etc.).

SSHA requests that submissions be made by means of its web conference management system. Paper title, brief abstract, and contact information should be submitted on the site, where the general SSHA 2017 call for papers is also available.  (If you haven’t used the system previously you will need to create an account, which is a very simple process.)  The direct link for submissions is now open for submissions (link). 

NOTE: There is an SSHA rule concerning book sessions.  For a book session to proceed, the author (or at least one of multiple authors) MUST be present.  Proposals for book sessions should only be submitted if there is high confidence that the author will be able to travel to Baltimore November 17-20, 2016.

SSHA has set up a mechanism for networks to share papers, so even if you have a solo paper, send the idea along.  It is possible and useful to identify a paper not only by the MHD network, but also by some other co-sponsoring networks–for example, Theory/Methods, Historical Geography, Politics, Culture, Economics, etc.  Co-sponsored panels and papers are encouraged by the SSHA Program Committee as a means of broadening the visibility of the various networks.

Feel free to contact the co-chairs of the Macrohistorical Dynamics network for further information.

Prof. Daniel Little
University of Michigan-Dearborn
Prof. Peter Perdue
Department of History
Yale University

Prof. James Lee
School of Humanities and Social Science
Hong Kong University of Science and Technology

University of Michigan





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Critical points in history and social media

Recent posts have grappled with the interesting topic of phase transitions in physics (link, link, link). One reason for being interested in this topic is its possible relevance to the social world, where abrupt changes of state in the social plenum are rare but known occurrences. The eruption of protest in numerous countries across the Middle East and North Africa during the Arab Spring is one example. Essentially we can describe these incidents as moments when ordinary citizens are transformed from quiescent members of civil society, pursuing their private lives as best they can, to engaged activists assembling at great risk in large demonstrations. Is this an example of a phase transition? And are there observable indicators that might allow researchers to explain and sometimes anticipate such critical points?

There is a great deal of interesting research underway on these topics in the field of complex systems and communications theory. The processes and phenomena that researchers are identifying appear to have a great deal of importance both for understanding current social dynamics and potentially for changing undesirable outcomes.

Researchers on the dynamics of mass social media have addressed the question of critical transitions. Kuehn, Martens, and Romero (2014) provide an interesting approach in their article, “Critical transitions in social network activity” (link). Also of interest is Daniel Romero’s “An epidemiological approach to the spread of political third parties”, co-authored with Christopher Kribs-Zaleta, Anuj Mubayi, and Clara Orbe (link).

Here is the abstract for “Critical transitions”:

A large variety of complex systems in ecology, climate science, biomedicine and engineering have been observed to exhibit tipping points, where the dynamical state of the system abruptly changes. For exam- ple, such critical transitions may result in the sudden change of ecological environments and climate conditions. Data and models suggest that detectable warning signs may precede some of these drastic events. This view is also corroborated by abstract mathematical theory for generic bifurcations in stochastic multi-scale systems. Whether such stochastic scaling laws used as warning signs for a priori unknown events in society are present in social networks is an exciting open problem, to which at present only highly speculative answers can be given. Here, we instead provide a first step towards tackling a simpler question by focusing on a priori known events and analyse a social media data set with a focus on classical variance and autocorrelation warning signs. Our results thus pertain to one absolutely fundamental question: Can the stochastic warning signs known from other areas also be detected in large-scale social media data? We answer this question affirmatively as we find that several a priori known events are preceded by variance and autocorrelation growth. Our findings thus clearly establish the necessary starting point to further investigate the relationship between abstract mathematical theory and various classes of critical transitions in social networks.

They use the idea of a tipping point rather than a phase transition, but there seems to be an important parallel between the two ideas. (Here are a few prior posts on continuity and tipping points; link, link.) Here is they define the idea of a critical transition: “A critical transition may informally be defined as a rapid and drastic change of a time-dependent dynamical system” (2). The warning signs they consider are formal and statistical rather than substantive: increasing variance and rising auto-correlation:

Two of the most classical warning signs are rising variance and rising auto-correlation before a critical transition [10,28]. The theory behind these warning signs is described in more detail in Appendix A. The basic idea is that if a drastic change is induced by a critical (bifurcation) point, then the underlying deterministic dynamics becomes less stable. Hence, the noisy fluctuations become more dominant as the decay rate decreases close to the critical transition. As a result, (a) the variance in the signal increases, due to the stronger fluctuations and (b) the system’s state memory (i.e., auto-correlation) increases, due to smaller deterministic contraction onto a single state [10,11]. It can be shown that both warning signs are related via a suitable fluctuation–dissipation relation [29]. (2)

Below are the data they present showing statistical associations of hashtag frequencies for impending known events — Halloween, Thanksgiving, and Christmas. The X panels represent the word frequency of the hashtag; the V panels represent the variance, and R represents autocorrelation on the time series of word frequency.

It is plain from the graphs of these variables that the frequency, variance, and autocorrelation statistics for the relevant hashtags demonstrate a rising trend as they approach the event and fall off steeply following the event; so these statistics post-dict the event effectively. But of course there is no value in predicting the occurrence of Halloween based on the frequency of #halloween earlier in October; we know that October 31 will soon occur. The difficult research question posed here is whether it is possible to identify warning signs for unknown impending events. The authors do not yet have an answer to this question, but they offer a provocative hypothesis: “These time series illustrate that there is a variety of potentially novel dynamical behaviors in large-scale social networks near large spikes that deserve to be investigated in their own right.” (4). This suggests several questions for future investigation:

  • How do we define when a critical transition occurs in the data for an a priori unknown event? 
  • For a priori unknown events, is there a possibility to identify hashtags or other aspects of the message which allow us to determine the best warning sign? 
  • Can we link warning signs in social networks to a priori unknown critical transitions outside a social network? 
  • Which models of social networks can re-produce critical transitions observed in data? 
Also of interest for issues raised previously in Understanding Society is Romero, Kribs-Zaleta, Mubayi, and Orbe’s “An epidemiological approach to the spread of political third parties” (link). This paper is relevant to the topic of the role of organizations in the spread of social unrest considered earlier (link, link). Their paper uses the example of Green Party activism as an empirical case. Here is their abstract:

Abstract. Third political parties are influential in shaping American politics. In this work we study the spread of a third party ideology in a voting population where we assume that party members/activists are more influential in recruiting new third party voters than non-member third party voters. The study uses an epidemiological metaphor to develop a theoretical model with nonlinear ordinary differential equations as applied to a case study, the Green Party. Considering long-term behavior, we identify three threshold parameters in our model that describe the different possible scenarios for the political party and its spread. We also apply the model to the study of the Green Party’s growth using voting and registration data in six states and the District of Columbia to identify and explain trends over the past decade. Our system produces a backward bifurcation that helps identify conditions under which a sufficiently dedicated activist core can enable a third party to thrive, under conditions which would not normally allow it to arise. Our results explain the critical role activists play in sustaining grassroots movements under adverse conditions.

And here is the basic intuition underlying the analysis of this paper:

We use an epidemiological paradigm to translate third party emergence from a political phenomenon to a mathematical one where we assume that third parties grow in a similar manner as epidemics in a population. We take this approach following in the steps of previous theoretical studies that model social issues via such methods. The epidemiological metaphor is suggested by the assumption that individuals’ decisions are influenced by the collective peer pressure generated by others’ behavior; the “contacts” between these two groups’ ideas are analogous to the contact processes that drive the spread of infectious diseases. (2)

Their approach makes use of a system of differential equations to describe the behavior of the population as a whole based on specific assumptions. It would seem that the problem could be approached using an agent-based model as well. This paper is relevant to the general topic of critical points in social behavior as well, since it attempts to discover the conditions under which a social movement like third-party mobilization will accelerate rather than decay.

Also of interest to the topic of large dynamic social processes and social media is R. Kelly Garrett and Paul Resnick, “Resisting political fragmentation on the Internet” (link). Here is their abstract:

Abstract: Must the Internet promote political fragmentation? Although this is a possible outcome of personalized online news, we argue that other futures are possible and that thoughtful design could promote more socially desirable behavior. Research has shown that individuals crave opinion reinforcement more than they avoid exposure to diverse viewpoints and that, in many situations, hearing the other side is desirable. We suggest that, equipped with this knowledge, software designers ought to create tools that encourage and facilitate consumption of diverse news streams, making users, and society, better off. We propose several techniques to help achieve this goal. One approach focuses on making useful or intriguing opinion-challenges more accessible. The other centers on nudging people toward diversity by creating environments that accentuate its benefits. Advancing research in this area is critical in the face of increasingly partisan news media, and we believe these strategies can help.

This research too is highly relevant to the dynamic social processes through which largescale social changes occur, and particularly so in the current climate of fake news and deliberate political polarization.

(It is interesting that social media and the Internet come into this story in several different ways. Google employee and Egyptian activist Wael Ghonim played a central role in the early stages of activation of the uprisings in Cairo in 2011. His book, Revolution 2.0: The Power of the People Is Greater Than the People in Power: A Memoir, is a fascinating exposure to some of the details of these events, and the short book Wael Ghonim… Facebook and The Uprising in Egypt by Dhananjay Bijale specifically addresses the role that Ghonim and FaceBook played in the mobilization of ordinary young Egyptians.)

SSHA 2016

Image: Palmer House lobby
The 41st annual meeting of the Social Science History Association is underway in Chicago this weekend. I’ve been a member since 1998, approaching half the lifetime of the association, and I continue to find it the most satisfying and stimulating of my professional associations.
The association was founded to create an alternative voice within the history profession, and to serve as a venue for multi-disciplinary approaches to research and explanation in history. It is very interesting that many of the earliest advocates for this new intellectual configuration — including some of the founders of the association — are still heavily involved. Bill Sewell, Andrew Abbott, Myron Gutmann (the current president), and Julia Adams all illustrate the importance of interdisciplinary work in their own research and writing, and these social researchers have all brought important innovations into the evolving task of understanding the social world.

SSHA programs have highlighted a diversity of ideas and approaches over the past four decades — historical demography, bringing culture into politics, the value of the social-causal mechanisms approach, using spatial techniques (GIS) to help further historical understanding, and the role played by identities of race, gender, and nation in historical process. A renewed interest in Eurasian history and global history is also noteworthy in recent years, offsetting the tendency towards eurocentrism in the history profession more broadly. The approaches associated with comparative historical sociology have almost always had a prominent role on the program. Memorable sessions in previous years by Chuck Tilly, George Steinmetz, Liz Clemens, and Sid Tarrow stand out in my mind. And in recent years there has been a healthy interest in issues of philosophy of history and historiography expressed in the program.Here is the SSHA’s mission statement:

The Social Science History Association is an interdisciplinary group of scholars that shares interests in social life and theory; historiography, and historical and social-scientific methodologies. SSHA might be best seen as a coalition of distinctive scholarly communities. Our substantive intellectual work ranges from everyday life in the medieval world – and sometimes earlier — to contemporary global politics, but we are united in our historicized approach to understanding human events, explaining social processes, and developing innovative theory.

The term “social science history” has meant different things to different academic generations. In the 1970s, when the SSHA’s first meetings were held, the founding generation of scholars took it to reflect their concern to address pressing questions by combining social-science method and new forms of historical evidence. Quantitative approaches were especially favored by the association’s historical demographers, as well as some of the economic, social and women’s historians of the time. By the 1980s and 1990s, other waves of scholars – including culturally-oriented historians and anthropologists, geographers, political theorists, and comparative-historical social scientists — had joined the conversation.

SSHA is a self-organizing configuration of scholars, and the annual program reflects the interests and initiative of its members. It is organized around 19 networks, each of which is managed by one of more network representatives. The program consists of panels proposed by the networks, along with a handful of presidential sessions organized by the program committee to carry out the year’s theme. (This year’s theme is “Beyond social science history: Knowledge in an interdisciplinary world”.) Here are the networks and the number of sessions associated with each:

There are several things I especially appreciate about sessions at SSHA. First, the papers and discussions are almost always of high quality — well developed and stimulating. Second, there is a good diversity of participants across rank, gender, and discipline. And finally, there is very little posturing by participants. People are here because they care about the subjects and want stimulation, not because they are looking to make a statement about their own centrality in the field. There is a healthy environment based on an interest in learning and discussing at the SSHA, not the pervasive careerism of more discipline-based associations.

Nine years of Understanding Society

image: Anasazi petroglyphs at Newspaper Rock

This week marks the ninth anniversary of Understanding Society — 1105 posts to date, or over 1.1 million words. According to Blogger, over 7 million pageviews have flowed across screens, tablets, and phones since 2010.

The blog has been an ideal forum for me to continue to develop new ideas about the social sciences, and to reflect upon new contributions by other talented observers and practitioners of the social sciences. It is a material record for me of the topics that have been of interest to me over time, like points on a map outlining a driving trip through unfamiliar country. (The photo above was such a moment for me in 1996.) Each entry describes a single idea or insight; taken together, they compose a suggestive map of intellectual development and discovery. During the year I’ve gotten interested in topics as diverse as the early work of John von Neumann on computing (link, link), Reinhart Koselleck’s approach to the philosophy of history (link), quantum computing (link, link), China’s development policies (link), and cephalopod philosophy (link). I’ve continued to work on some familiar topics — generativity, reduction, and emergence; character and plans of life; causal mechanisms; and critical realism.

It is interesting to see what posts have been the most popular over the past six years (the period for which Blogger provides data):

Key topics in the foundations of the social sciences appear on the list — structure, power, pragmatism, poverty, mobility. But several novel topics make the top ten as well — supervenience, assemblage theory, and hate. “What is a social structure?” was written during the first month of the blog. The top key words in searches are “social structure” and “social mobility”.

Some of the philosophical ideas explored in the blog have crossed over into more traditional forms of academic publishing, including especially the appearance of New Directions in the Philosophy of Social Science earlier this fall. (Here is a site I’ve created to invite discussion of the book; link.) This book bears out my original hope that Understanding Society could become a “web-based dynamic monograph”, with its own cumulative logic over time. In framing New Directions it was possible for me to impose a more linear logic and organization on the key ideas — for example, actor-based sociology, generativity, causal mechanisms, social ontology. As I conceived of it in the beginning, the blog has proven to be a work of open-source philosophy.

A recurring insight in the blog is the basic fact of heterogeneity and contingency in the social world. One of the difficult challenges for the social sciences is the fact that social change is more rapid and more heterogeneous than we want to think. The founders of sociology, economics, and political science wanted to arrive at theories that would permit us to understand social processes in a fairly simple and uniform way. But the experience of the social world — whether today in the twenty-first century or in the middle of the nineteenth century — is that change is heterogeneous, contingent, and diverse. So the social sciences need to approach the study of the social world differently from the neo-positivist paradigm of “theory => explanation => confirmation”. We need a meta-theory of social research that is more attentive to granularity, contingency, and heterogeneity — even as we seek for unifying mechanisms and patterns. (The very first post in Understanding Society was on the topic of the plasticity of things in the social world.)

A new theme in the past year is the politics of hate. The emergence of racism, misogyny, and religious bigotry in the presidential campaign has made me want to understand better the social dynamics of hate — in the United States and in the rest of the world. So an extended series of posts have focused on this topic in the past six months or so (link). This is a place where theory, philosophy, and social reality intersect: it is intellectually important to understand how hate-based movements proliferate, but it is also enormously important for us as a civilization to understand and neutralize these dynamics.

So thanks for reading and visiting Understanding Society! I know that without the blog my intellectual life would be a lot less interesting and a lot less creative. I am very appreciative of the many thoughtful visitors who read and comment on the blog from time to time, and I’m looking forward to discovering what the coming year will bring.

(Mark Carrigan’s Social Media for Academics is a very interesting and current discussion of how social media and blogging have made a powerful impact on sociology. Thanks, Mark, for including Understanding Society in your work!)

New Directions in the Philosophy of Social Science

I am very happy to say that my new book appeared this week, New Directions in the Philosophy of Social Science. Thanks to all the people at Rowman & Littlefield who helped bring it to completion, including especially my editor Sarah Campbell. I hope that the book will be of interest to readers of Understanding Society, in that it is my effort to put into book form many of the ideas and themes that have come in for discussion in the blog over the past several years.

Here is a free sample of the book:

Sample of New Directions

Here is how I describe the genesis of the book:

This book is one of the fruits of an experiment in philosophical writing that I began in 2007. I created Understanding Society as an online venue where I would be able to do a different kind of academic writing. It was to be a “blog”; but, more accurately, it was a venue for “open-source philosophy” where I could formulate my thinking about a series of ideas and topics about the social sciences and the nature of society without attempting to regiment my thoughts into a sequential argument consisting of “chapters” and “books.” I described the work from the start as a “web-based, dynamic monograph on the philosophy of social science,” and it has lived up to this description better than I ever could have hoped. To use a different point of reference, the blog became my laboratory notebook, representing the findings and progress of my thinking about a number of topics about the nature of society and social knowledge.

Here is the table of contents:


  •  A Better Social Ontology 
  •  Actor-centered Sociology 
  •  Social Things 
  •  Reduction and Emergence 
  •  Generativity and Complexity 
  •  Social Causation 
  •  Social Realism 




Key themes include the value of an actor-centered approach to sociology; the unavoidable features of plasticity and heterogeneity of the social world; the sources of stability in higher-level social things; the relationships between levels or strata of the social world; the nature of social causation; and the appeal of scientific realism in the social sciences.

A discussion forum

I would like to continue the social interconnectedness of this work with the international group of readers and scholars who have visited Understanding Society over the years by inviting you to contribute to an ongoing discussion and commentary on topics raised in the book. To that end I’ve created a new page specifically designed for discussion of topics and issues raised in the book. Please visit here and provide your comments, thoughts, reactions, or criticisms. This site is located at

Three conceptions of biography

A biography is a narrative of a person’s life. The biographer wants to tell the story of how the subject made it from childhood to adulthood; how he or she came to undertake certain actions in life; how various personal aspirations and commitments were played out in terms of extended projects with varying levels of success; how the adult’s character was formed through specific experiences and influences. The biographer wants to make sense of the subject’s life itinerary and character.

A biography necessarily pays attention to both external and internal factors. Externally, the biographer will investigate the nature of the family, the accidents of social class and education to which the subject was exposed, the role models and teachers by whom the subject was influenced, the habits of daily life that had unexpected consequences for the longterm development of the subject’s life. Internally, the biographer will be interested in reconstructing the character, personality, and mental life of the subject; the inclinations and motives that drove the subject’s choices; the values and commitments that shaped the ways in which the subject interacted with other people and social institutions.

There are several basic frames that the narrative of a biography might take. The biographer may tell a story that suggests that the subject possessed a well-developed conception of what he or she wanted out of life, and set out to take specific steps and strategies to bring about these outcomes. This can be called the “architect’s view”. The subject’s life is understood as the fulfillment of a detailed plan, as direct as the migration pathway of a whooping crane.

At the other extreme, the biographer may find that the subject’s life looks to be highly contingent and random. The subject moves from one experience to another, one opportunity and another discouragement, and the route is aimless. Call this the “random walk view.” The subject’s life may have had singular and valued accomplishments; but there is no overall direction to the life, only a series of stochastic and opportunistic interactions.

image: mathematical simulation of Levy walk foraging behavior (link)

There is a third possibility that incorporates both agency and contingency. The biographer may treat the subject as possessing values and ideas about the future that are guiding signposts as the subject moves through the small stages of life. The subject may have a moral sense that leads him or her to question choices through the lens of questions like “what is the right thing to do?” or “how can I contribute to a more just society?” or “what kind of person do I want to be?”. Specific steps and initiatives are the result. The subject may be reflective and reflexive: he or she may consider current states of affairs and opportunities in terms of the ways in which these states of affairs contribute to half-fulfilled values and aspirations; and the subject may undertake to act in ways that give further shape to his or her mental environment — more committed to a set of moral or spiritual values, more attentive to the satisfactions of family or creative achievement, more attuned to a sense of beauty or aesthetic balance. Call this the “bildungs view”.

image: Lewis and Clark journey of discovery

The architect’s view of life seems highly implausible for almost any given individual. Surely most people’s lives have unfolded with a high degree of contingency, improvisation, and indeterminacy. An individual is exposed to this great teacher or that unfortunate necessity; and future actions and plans take shape partly as a result of those prior chance developments. Further, life contingency seems not to be restricted to moments of high drama, but rather seem to be distributed across the full range of daily life.

The random-walk view has some empirical plausibility as an understanding of the lives of a wide range of people. It is plausible enough to imagine that some people are highly unreflective about the future; they make decisions as necessities and opportunities come along, and they make out a life as a sum of these unrelated choices. Even the complexity introduced by the notion of the “Levy walk” is relevant to the unfolding of a life. As the diagram above indicates, the behavior of the subject is not restricted to a local domain of random choices; instead, the course is interspersed with long hops, taking the subject to a new terrain to explore randomly (link).

But it is the bildungs-view that has the most appeal for anyone who favors reflectiveness and the idea of creating a somewhat coherent whole over a long span of time. Here we are to picture a person always only partially formed, but seeking new personal and situational developments that lead towards a set of goals and values that are themselves only partially articulated. This is a boot-straps understanding of a purposive life: the individual at any given stage of life has reflected on values, goals, purposes, and satisfactions, has pursued plans and opportunities that fit with those values, and has reformulated and refined his or her values and goals as life proceeds. This is what can fairly be called a reflective life, embodying both contingency and direction.

The illustration of the 1804 Lewis and Clark expedition from St. Louis to Fort Clatsop gives a metaphorical idea of the bildungs view of a life. Lewis and Clark had some partially defined goals and plans when they set out on their journey of discovery. But much of the route depended upon contingencies encountered along the way and opportunities that were exploited in an improvisational manner. Their itinerary and changes of direction were often the result of new information, changing weather, unexpected terrain, and the like. The exact course they eventually traversed was not defined in advance; and yet there was a clear directionality to the expedition.

And what about Inspector Clouseau, depicted above in the person of Peter Sellers? The hapless inspector illustrates the random-walk model as he moves through the Pink Panther movies, with a generous amount of bumbling randomness and amazing turns of favorable luck leading to unlikely success in the end. Regrettably, no one can count on cinematic luck in ordinary life, so a bit more caution and planning seem well advised.

In framing this series of posts on rational life plans I have focused on the idea of rationality over time. There is another approach in philosophy that I haven’t considered, however, that considers a similar problem from the point of view of the notion of a “meaningful life”. What features or conditions make a life “meaningful” to the individual and to others? Susan Wolf’s 2007 Tanner lectures provide a useful beginning at trying to analyze the good life in its fullness over time from the point of view of meaning and value (link). Also useful is Thaddeus Metz’s article in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy on “the meaning of life” (link). Finally, the series of posts presented earlier on the topic of “character” is relevant to this topic as well (link). Character is relevant to life plans because it is shaped by the decisions the individual makes, and it provides the cross-temporal fiber needed to persist in a life plan under adversity.

Origins of feudalism in the West

In the grand historical march postulated by historical materialism, ancient slavery and medieval feudalism preceded capitalism as distinct systems of domination and exploitation (e.g. Perry Anderson’s Passages from Antiquity to Feudalism). In each social order small elites captured great wealth from the mass of producers, whether enslaved farmers and artisans in the ancient (Roman) world or bonded serfs in the feudal world. And whether we go for “internal contradictions within the forces and relations of production” or other more contingent causes of change, the evolution of European social and economic systems from the Roman Republic through the millennium of Western European feudalism to the “breakthrough” of industrialism in Britain is one of the truly important macro-histories available for study. (China’s economic history from its earliest dynasties to the last moments of the Qing is another, and India’s longue durée economic history is equally important.)

But how should this story be understood — as the necessary unfolding of some set of systemic and historical imperatives, or as a process substantially more contingent and piecemeal than that?

Patrick Geary’s Before France and Germany: The Creation and Transformation of the Merovingian World is a fascinating study of the centuries-long transition from Romanized barbarian Europe to barbarian Roman society. The book is couched as late Roman history, and in fact the words “feudal” and “feudalism” never appear in the book. But what Geary is describing is precisely this: the emergence of a feudal society and economy out of the late Roman Empire in the West.

A big question is, what social forces and circumstances drove the evolution and transition from one social assemblage to another? The reader will note that I’ve refrained from using the terms “social system,” “social order,” or “mode of production” in this question because each of these implies a degree of systematicity which begs the question. And in fact much of the evidence offered in Geary’s book gives support to the idea that these transitions were not driven by systemic tendencies, but rather the accretion of a number of different forces, playing out differently in different locales. Technical and artisanal practices (pottery, glass, metal-working), economic demand for agricultural products, concentration of land property, military competition, the rigors of European terrain, and many other factors play into the narrative that Geary provides.

During the second through fourth centuries there was a process of gradual “de-Romanization” of the outer reaches of the Roman Empire, as Roman political institutions and cultural norms lost impact on local society. Geary describes this as a process of “barbarization of the West” — a resurgence of underlying Celtic and Germanic political and cultural forms that had never disappeared through the long centuries of Roman rule.

From the third through fifth centuries these indigenous traditions increasingly reasserted themselves as the Italian monopoly on politics and culture began to decline. (kl 205)

Barbarization was but part of the rapid changes in Roman society, culture, and government that took place during the third and fourth centuries. Partially spurred by such internal problems as plague, a falling birthrate, constitutional instability, and the failure of the Roman world to develop from a labor-intensive system based largely on slavery to a more efficient mercantile or protoindustrial system, and partially by the increased creased external pressures on its overextended frontiers, the Empire had to seek a new equilibrium. (kl 205)

The thirty-thousand-foot impression that Geary gives is one of the simultaneous development of “barbarian” societies, military alliances, and forms of rulership across much of the Western empire even as Roman rule and military strength continued. Vast land grants assigned by the Romans to local elites, clergy, and military leaders ensured great separation between elites and common farmers. A social world consisting of a combination of interpenetrated Roman and barbarian social arrangements persisted for centuries.

A key location from the point of view of later developments was the fifth- and sixth-century Clovis kingdom in what is modern Belgium (kl 1126). This configuration became the genesis of the Merovingian period of European history.

The population of Clovis’s kingdom was complex and heterogeneous in its social, cultural, and economic traditions. Not only were the Franks and Gallo-Romans different from each other culturally, but neither of these populations was itself homogeneous…. This society was deeply rooted in the nature of its economic system, which was characterized by the monopoly of landowning in the hands of a small, extraordinarily wealthy elite, with the vast majority of the population, slave and free alike, destitute and often in desperate straits. (kl 1188)

Key institutional arrangements that defined feudalism centuries later can be identified in Geary’s account of the late Roman period. A Roman origin of serfdom derives from the taxation system and the powerlessness of peasants:

In the course of the third century, the status of free tenant farmers, or coloni, grew increasingly indistinguishable from that of serru, or serf-slaves…. Such an arrangement benefited landlords, who were thereby assured labor supplies, and the Empire, which could use landlords to enforce tax collection…. Another way for oppressed freemen to obtain tax relief was to place themselves under the protection (patrociniuni) of wealthy, powerful senators or other notables who, through their military power or wealth, could exert more leverage in dealing with local curials and even imperial tax agents. (kl 482, 495)

And the key feudal institution, the manor, seems to have emerged from a much earlier Roman form of land control in Gaul, the villa:

The normal form of agricultural exploitation established by Romans in Gaul, as elsewhere in the Empire, was the villa, that is, the isolated estate of varying size (80 to 180 square meters for small ones to over 300 square meters for large ones). Within the walls of the villa were found the house of the owner and the habitations of his slaves, who provided the labor on the estate. (kl 1333)

Here is Geary’s summing up of this early stage of the formation of European feudalism:

Merovingian civilization lived and died within the framework of late antiquity. Its characteristic political structure remained the kingdom of the imperial German military commander who, by absorbing the mechanism of provincial Roman administration, was able to establish his royal family as the legitimate rulers of the western provinces north of the Pyrenees and the Alps. His rule consisted primarily of rendering justice, that is, of enforcing Roman law and Romanized barbarian law where possible or appropriate within the tradition of his people, and of commanding ing the Frankish army. The economic basis for his power was on the one hand the vast Roman fist and on the other the continuing mechanism of Roman taxation. (kl 2739)

The feature that serves most directly to define “infeudation” emerges out of this narrative as well: the parcelization of military power and reach across commanders whose behavior could not be controlled by the central authority.

These observations make clear the central thrust of the book: there was substantial continuity between the institutions and economy of the late Roman Empire in the West and the political and economic institutions of European feudalism which followed it for a thousand years. This continuity is unwelcome to the “modes of production” train of thought, which postulates a sharp break between classical and feudal systems. But Geary points out that perhaps it is unwelcome as well to modern ideas about European identity:

An essential characteristic of Francia was the fluidity of the political and cultural identities of its inhabitants. To many modern French, who identify with the Roman cultural tradition as opposed to Germanic conquest and occupation, the Gallo-Roman Roman aristocracy of the Merovingian period were a disappointing lot. Gallo-Romans were ready to defend their Roman cultural tradition even while opposing any attempt by Roman imperial government to interfere with their local control. (kl 2750)

(It is possibly far-fetched to raise the issue of Roman-centrism against Geary with his use of the terms “barbarian” and “barbarization”, but the terms do appear to be value-loaded in a way that post-colonial scholars have criticized in other contexts of cross-cultural description. Geary confronts this issue when he describes the pernicious and lingering effects of classical ethnography concerning the German barbarians (kl 539).)

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