A simple sociology

What is involved in providing a scientific study of society–a scientific sociology?

Several features of science are crucial. Scientific claims are intended to be true and rationally supportable. Scientific knowledge is based on empirical research and rigorous reasoning. Science provides a basis for explaining the phenomena it considers. And science depends upon the idea of critical research communities: peers and collaborators who challenge, test, evaluate, and extend a set of results. In addition to these core features, positivist philosophers have added a few features drawn from the experience of the natural sciences. These observers hold that science involves the discovery of strong generalizations and laws that describe and govern empirical phenomena; that explanation means subsumption under some of these laws; and that natural phenomena constitute a law-governed, interconnected system.

Positivism is a poor theory of the social sciences, because the phenomena of social life do not conform to the law-governed ontology stipulated for natural phenomena. But let us stick with the minimal set of features and consider what kind of science is possible for social life.

First, sociology involves description. Social phenomena are observable, and it is straightforward to design rigorous research efforts aimed at establishing the facts about a particular domain. This aspect of sociology involves rigorous empirical study of social phenomena. Examples of descriptive research include ethnographic research and micro-sociology along the lines of the Chicago School. But large-scale description is feasible as well, including empirical description of large social patterns and institutions.

Descriptive findings often take the form of statistical estimates of the frequency of a feature within a group–for example, rates of suicide among Protestants (Durkheim). Properties may be correlated with one another within a given population; variation in one variable may be associated with variation in another variable. Descriptive research can thus sometimes reveal patterns of behavior or social outcomes–for example, patterns of habitation and health status. And patterns such as these invite efforts to find causal relationships among the characteristics enumerated.

Second, sociology involves discovery of social causation and mechanisms. Is there such a thing as social causation? What does social causation derive from? What is the ontology of “social necessity” (analogous to natural necessity)–the way in which one set of circumstances “brings about” another set of outcomes? In general we can begin with an ontology grounded in purposive social action by agents within institutional settings and environments. Social causation derives from the patterns of behavior that are produced in this setting. (For example, we can explain the degradation of environmental quality of a common resource as the consequence of free-riding behavior.)

Third, sociology can provide explanations of some social outcomes as a causal consequence of proposed social mechanisms. Once we have a generic idea of what social causal mechanisms look like, we can turn to specifics and try to discover the processes through which behavior is created and constrained. So we can try to discover or hypothesize the mechanisms through which tropical agriculture tends to under-serve farmers (Bates). Social theories are hypotheses about social causal mechanisms; so theories provide a basis for explanation of social phenomena.

Research and explanation along these lines creates major and visible limitations on the degree of systematicity, interconnection, and determination that sould be expected of social phenomena. The social world is highly contingent, the product of many independent actors. So we should only expect a weak degree of systematic variation among social phenomena.

Finally, the epistemic setting provided by the disciplinary institutions offers a basis for estimating the rational credibility of social science knowledge: journals, peer review, tenure evaluation. Social research and explanation remains fairly close to the level of the facts. Researchers in the disciplines and sub-disciplines are charged to test and explore the empirical and theoretical claims of their peers.

The results of a science including these components will be empirically disciplined, theoretically eclectic, and systemically modest. The goal of providing an over-arching theory that demonstrates the systematic integration of the social is abandoned.

(It is worth noting that there is a period in the history of sociology when the epistemic values of the discipline were most consistent with this view. That was the period of the Chicago School. See Andrew Abbott’s Department and Discipline: Chicago Sociology at One Hundred).

Are there historical structures?

The French Revolution began in 1789. It was caused by conflict between the aristocracy and the monarchy. Eventually it developed into violent conflict in every region of France. It created more lasting change in French society than did the Russian Revolution.

These statements purport to refer to an extended but unified historical thing, the French Revolution. This thing is assigned a place within a causal system, being caused by one set of factors and having causal consequences for other factors. It is considered a suitable topic for comparison with other such things (the Russian Revolution).

But what does the historical reality of the French Revolution consist in? Notice, to begin, that the revolution comprises a huge constellation of events and actions, both small and large. Were any of these events “the definitive moment” in the revolution–the decisive event that constituted the constellation as a revolution rather than a “period of unrest”? Is it possible to distinguish clearly between core events and peripheral, minor events–not to speak of events that are wholly unrelated to the revolution? Most radically, would it be possible to construct the events of 1789 in such a way that no revolution occurred at all?

One possible answer to these questions is to reply that the events directly associated with the overthrow of the monarchy and the establishment of a different form of political power constituted the essence of the revolution. But what if later historians were to conclude that the transfer of power was illusory, and that the same interests in society continued to govern? In fact, if the monarchy had been restored in 1830 we might reasonably say that “no revolution occurred, only an interruption of monarchy.” Would either of these possibilities represent a refiguring of the historical picture in which the seizure of power is minor and background rather than major and foreground? And would this not be a basis for doubting that “a revolution occrred in 1789”?

It seems best to understand “the French Revolution” as an intellectual construction–one possible way of knitting together the congeries of events that occurred during this time in France. Some constructions of these facts are more plausible than others, so it is possible to have rational dispute about the alternative construals of the constellation of events. But there is no essential fact of the matter that a revolution occurred in France in 1789. This doesn’t derogate the status or facticity of the constituent events. But it does assert that the historian’s act of composing events and actions into a large historical structure is an act of construction rather than recognition.

The heterogeneous social: institutions

Populations and groups are inherently diverse; virtually any property that might be attached to an individual shows variance across the group. So we have to pay special attention to specifying what we mean when we ask for a “measurement” of a property of a group. This is the basic ontological fact that undergirds a critical approach to quantitative social and behavioral science. And it means that we need always to be considering the variance within the group with respect to the property, the shape of the distribution, as well as the mean value of the property.

It turns out that social phenomena are heterogeneous at the level of institutions, mentalities, practices, and causes as well. Later posts will consider other forms of social heterogeneity. The topic here is institutional heterogeneity. An institution is a system of rules through which a set of social behaviors are mediated. Rules may be enforced through clear third-party enforcement powers (formal institutions) or diffuse participant enforcement practices (informal institutions). Examples of institutions include contract law (formal), cooperative labor-sharing (informal), marriage systems (formal and informal), and tenure systems (formal). Institutions are embodied in the beliefs, values, attitudes, and motivations of socially constructed individuals at various levels of action; they act to constrain and incentivize individual behavior in ways that are to some extent independent of the actions and preferences of those individuals. (That is, the individual is rarely in a position to directly change the rules of the institution so as to serve his/her goals better.) So institutions are both caused by (embodied in) the social consciousness of an extended set of social actors, and are causal in shaping the future behavior of an extended set of social actors.

Institutions have origins — they come into being at a time and place. So we can ask the question, “what explains the fact of the emergence of the institution and the particular characteristics it possesses at that point?” And institutions undergo processes of development over time — they undergo change in some characteristics, incorporate new scope and function, and gain new coalitions of supporters and opponents. So we can ask the question, “what factors explain the processes of change that the institution undergoes?” (Kathleen Thelen’s How Institutions Evolve: The Political Economy of Skills in Germany, Britain, the United States, and Japan provides a very good account of the ways in which we need to investigate the origins and development of various important social institutions.)

Institutions are sometimes grouped together into broad categories or classes in terms of social function (what does the institution do?), observable characteristics (what does the institution look like?), and social functioning (how does the institution work?). So, for example, we might want to study institutions of marriage-partner selection, irrigation management, or institutions that regulate common property resources such as forests or wetlands; Governing the Commons: The Evolution of Institutions for Collective Action. In each case the group of institutions is defined in terms of the common social problem that they solve.

Now we can frame the task of one important area of sociology and political science research: to undertake careful comparative research concerning the instances of institutions included within a category. In what ways are different examples similar and different from each other? How have parallel or divergent institutional complexes emerged to solve broadly similar social problems? What causal processes can be observed in the workings of these several examples? How do these institutional matrices influence and constrain the forms of behavior that flow through them? (So, in the book by Kathleen Thelen mentioned above, the author considers the national-level institutions of skilled-labor training that have evolved in Germany, UK, USA, and Japan; she considers the effects that these different regimes have on the flow of skilled workers; and she analyzes the political coalitions that were relevant in establishing a particular configuration of the institution.)

Here, finally, we can address the issue of institutional heterogeneity. Given the ways that institutions are formed, changed, and embodied, we should expect that there will be two forms of diversity among institutions. First, it is clear that there are normally multiple ways of solving a particular social problem (training workers for industry, managing prisoners, administering social welfare subsidies). So we should expect that there will be a range of institutional matrices that have emerged across societies to handle these challenges, and we can learn quite a bit about social causation by examining these differences and how they work. And second, given that institutions are “malleable” and dynamic, we should expect that institutions will show diversity within their own life courses. As powerful agents and coalitions shift in their powers and needs, as other constituents acquire more or less influence in setting the agenda for the institution, we should expect an ongoing process of modification of the institution over time.

The heterogeneous social: groups

A social whole — the city of Chicago, for example — is a densely various empirical reality. At virtually every level of scale there is variance with respect to social characteristics — income, health status, ethnic or social identity, political adherence and preference, age, race, or occupation. Neighborhoods differ from each other — but equally, we find variance within neighborhoods as well.

Given this fact of radical non-homogeneity of social characteristics, what is involved in arriving at knowledge about such a reality?

It is evident that we are forced to arrive at generalized descriptions, at some level of scale or granularity. It is neither feasible nor explanatory to provide a “fully” detailed description of a population, individual by individual. Instead, our challenge is to arrive at some ways of segmenting the population into groups that will prove felicitous in revealing causal connections among attributes or circumstances. Groups may be defined with unlimited range: geographically, occupationally, racially or ethnically, educationally, politically, … We can then observe and measure the distribution and means of various characteristics across these groups (attitudes towards the Patriot Act, for example) and we can consider whether there are meaningful differences across groups with respect to these characteristics. Finally, we can try to find causal explanations of these differences. Are Arab-Americans more distrustful of national security laws than Asian-Americans? Are poor people more prone to asthma than affluent people? Are doctors more favorable to higher taxes than skilled-trades workers? What factors might causally explain these differences?

The point here is that social knowledge requires recognition of the inherent heterogeneity of social phenomena and a fertile effort to find ways of segmenting this heterogeneous reality that shed light on social causation and patterns of behavior. And, importantly, it is important to recognize that any level of granularity of analysis could be further partitioned and more fully described–sometimes with important insight.

There is no “fundamental” or “optimal” level of analysis and description that captures the whole of Chicago. Instead, anthropology; sociology, and political science can continually pursue the upward and downward research journey of discovering meaningful group-level patterns or regularities, and pressing into a deeper understanding of the diversity of the phenomena under study.

Social knowledge: measurement of properties in diverse groups

When we gain knowledge about silver, DNA, or cholera, we can study virtually any samples of the item and arrive at a description of its properties and causal powers, and this description will correspond accurately to other instances as well. We learn about the type by learning about the individuals, and we don’t have to worry about substantial differences among individuals in the type. Cholera is cholera, whether it occurs in Mexico City or Bangalore. So knowledge we acquire about a few instances can be generalized to other instances. This feature of “type-uniformity” is found in many of the types of entities studied in the natural sciences.

There are exceptions in the natural sciences; there are classes of phenomena that embody substantial variance among individuals in the class. Hurricanes and volcanoes are examples of “type-heterogeneous” concepts in the natural sciences. In these examples, the phenomena are grouped together in terms of a set of crude observable characteristics; it is then a question for research to determine whether there are common structures and causal backgrounds that constitute one or more sub-groups of items within the classification. But more typical types of entities in the natural sciences fall into “natural kinds” with common structural and causal properties.

Consider now what is involved in arriving at knowledge about a complex social reality — the city of Chicago, for example. The social reality of Chicago is constituted by the social behaviors of the individuals who live in Chicago and the institutions that these individuals populate. Consider some of the topics concerning which we might want to gather knowledge:

  • What is the health status of Chicagoans?
  • What is the climate for race relations in Chicago?
  • What is the standard of living in Chicago?
  • What is the rate of economic growth in Chicago?
  • How do people in Chicago feel about higher education?
  • What is the climate for new-business startup in Chicago?
  • How well do the institutions of the mayor’s office and the city council work?
  • How are the Chicago public schools performing?

Notice that almost all these questions invite us to consider the heterogeneity of the population and its organizations. There is an average level of heart disease in the city. But the average is a poor indicator of any particular person’s health, because there are socially significant differences across groups with respect to almost all these questions. So a study of health in Chicago requires that we consider some of the ways in which different groups are affected by a variety of circumstances in ways that systematically affect their health status.

These facts suggest that a statement about a social characteristic of a large population needs to be nuanced, indicating the degree of variation of the characteristic across individuals and groups within the population as well as the most significant sub-populations showing the greatest variance from the group mean behavior. Race, ethnicity, gender, geography, age, income, employment, labor-union membership, and education might be variables that define groups with significantly different measures of the variable of interest. And once we have determined that certain social characteristics (race, income, and union membership, let us say) are associated with the outcome of interest (health status, say), then we are stimulated to ask the causal question: what are the social mechanisms at work that produce the associations that are discovered?

Is industrial agriculture sustainable?

The world’s food system depends largely on a farming system with post-green-revolution techniques: new seed varieties, substantial use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides, large-scale irrigation, machine-based cultivation, production for large markets, and separation of production from consumption by long distances. This system shows the highest productivity the world has ever seen, whether measured in terms of labor, land, or cost. And the system does a fairly good job of producing enough food for the world’s 6 billion people.

But is this system sustainable?

Several large issues arise. First, the system is energy-intensive, so it poses significant demands on the petroleum economy. The use of petroleum and energy pervades the process: fuel for cultivation and transport, energy and inputs into the production of chemical fertilizers and pesticides, energy consumed in irrigation. So a part of the sustainability question has to do with the energy challenge the globe faces.

Second, industrial agriculture has massive environmental effects. Fertilizer and animal waste runoffs lead to groundwater and river pollution (extending into the Gulf of Mexico). Degradation and loss of topsoil is another large and longterm environmental effect with serious consequences for future agricultural productivity. And methane produced by large-scale cattle- and swine-rearing represents a measurable component of global warming. So the environmental effects of industrial agriculture are very large–once again raising the question of global sustainability.

Finally, industrial agriculture, and the integrated global commodity markets from which this system is inseparable, have large and destructive consequences for traditional agriculture and the communities built around traditional farming. The effect of NAFTA and the export of US corn to Mexico has been massive in its disruption of maize-based culture and communities in Mexico.

Three questions are central. First, is this system sustainable in the narrow sense, or will it collapse of its own burden of soil, water, and air pollution in the next 50 years? Second, is it a potential part of a larger sustainable global system of production and consumption from an environmental point of view? Or does global sustainability require radical change in agriculture? And finally, are there feasible alternative systems that would be less environmentally harmful, more sustainable, and less disruptive of agrarian communities? Are these alternatives scaleable to the needs of mass societies, large cities, and a global population of 6-8 billion? Can alternative systems achieve the productivity needed to feed the world’s population?

Environmentalists, global justice activists, and food activists have argued that there are alternatives. The Fair Trade movement is trying to get first-world consumers to favor fair-trade-certified products in their consumption–giving greater security and income to third-world farmers. Organic farming advocates argue that a system of smaller farms, organic fertilizers, innovative pest control, and farming techniques more suited to the local environment would have a smaller environmental footprint. “Local food” activists support the idea of shifting consumption towards products that can be grown locally–thus reducing transport and refrigeration and giving more of a market for small farmers.

So there are alternatives in technique and policy that could result in different farm characteristics that are more favorable from the points of view of justice, sustainability, and community. The hard question is whether these alternatives could be scaled to the volume needed to feed a mass population. And this is a question that demands careful scientific analysis.

(An excellent current critique of industrial agriculture is Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals.)

Historians and the philosophy of history

How should the philosophy of history interact with the practice of working historians?

The philosophy of history is challenged to discover and explore the most fundamental questions about historical inquiry and knowledge. How should this research be conducted? And how should the philosopher’s development of the subject make use of the practice of the historian? Look at this question from the point of view of the historian, and we will find that the separation between “doing” and “reflecting upon” history is not as sharp as it might appear.

For the best historians, there is no recipe for good historical inquiry and exposition. There are methods and practices of archival research, to be sure, and there are general recommendations like “be well informed about existing knowledge about your subject matter.” But the great historians take on their subjects with fresh eyes and new questions. They often arrive at novel ways of framing their historical questions; they find new ways of using available historical evidence, or finding new historical evidence; they discover new ways of drawing inferences from historical data; they arrive at new ways of presenting their knowledge and narratives; and they question existing assumptions about “causation,” “agency,” or “historical period.” As the historian grapples with the topic of research and the evidence that pertains to the topic, he or she is forced to think creatively about issues that go to the heart of historical inquiry and reasoning. In other words, the historian is forced to think as a philosopher of history, in order to achieve new insights into the problems she considers.

There is a less creative approach to historical research, of course. One can choose a familiar topic; seek out some new sources that have not yet been fully explored; adopt some familiar theoretical motifs; and place the findings into a standard narrative for publication. This mechanical approach resembles “normal science” for historians. But the results of this type of approach are inherently disappointing; it is unlikely in the extreme that new historical insights will emerge.

So when we consider the work of really imaginative historians, we find that the researcher is functioning as a philosopher of history at the same time as he or she is developing an innovative approach to the historical question under examination. And this means that the philosopher can gain great insight by working very carefully with the writings of these great historians. The philosopher can probe questions of historical inquiry, historical reasoning, historical presentation, and historical knowledge, by thinking through these questions in conversation with the working historian.

Consider a few examples that illustrate this productive possibility. First, consider the evolving state of affairs in historical treatments of the French Revolution. In the past forty years historians have taken a shifting series of perspectives on the events, social conflicts, cultural circumstances, and political realities of the Revolution. New research and new narratives have emerged on the Ancien Regime, the revolution, the Terror, and the consolidation of power by Napoleon. Fertile historians such as Soboul, Cobb, Darnton, Schama, Sewell, or Chartier have tested and explored a variety of new perspectives — from Marxism, from social history, from cultural studies. And they have provided a much more nuanced body of knowledge about the social and cultural reality of the Revolution. This body of work provides a rich domain of conceptual and historiographical material for the philosopher of history.

A second example is the lively debate that has occurred about comparative economic history of England and China. In the past 15 years historians of Chinese economic history have challenged standard models of economic development and have argued for a more balanced comparative economic history for Eurasia. This debate has moved into great detail in the effort to answer such basic questions as whether China’s agricultural economy was declining, static, or rising in productivity in the 17th century; or whether the standard of living was higher or lower at opposite ends of Eurasia. Once again, a philosopher of history can find great stimulation to further conceptual and philosophical research by studying this debate in detail; the debate provides a living example of how historical knowledge is born.

So my answer to the primary question here is this: that the philosophy of history needs to be fully immersed in some specific historical debates involving the most creative and imaginative historians. Careful study of these debates and sustained interaction with historians like these will lead in turn to much more developed understanding of the nature of historical reasoning.

Variation across a social identity

What does possession of a social identity come down to, for the individual? And how do identities vary across the population of people who possess this identity?

First, let us stipulate that an identity is a feature of consciousness, an aspect of mentality. And let us stipulate further that an identity comes to one as a result of one’s experiences in the world, and one’s attempt to make sense of those experiences. These assumptions are not indisputable — it might be maintained that one can be unaware of one’s social identity, or that one’s social identity is constituted by one’s position in society (a structural fact rather than a fact about one’s experience). But these are credible beginnings.

Next, it is clear that an identity is not one unified element of consciousness–an ineffable but uniform sense of being “Irish,” “Southern”, or “Hindu”. Instead, an identity must be more like a flavor or a scent: a complex but distinctive blend of more basic elements (tastes or smells). This feature already implies several broad forms of differentiation across an identity group: the mix of elements may be different (a little rosemary blended into the scent of a rose), and there may be differences in the intensities of various elements in the mix.

What are the components of which an identity is composed? Here are some plausible candidates: memories and stories, values, emotions, ways of reasoning, factual beliefs, a sense of justice. (Notice that some of these are content and some are mental process–beliefs versus reasoning, for example). Presumably there are other components that should be considered; but these will do for now.

Where do these elements come from for the individual? Through learning and lived experience. One’s rich and intimate experience of living with others — family, friends, neighbors — who possess values and who tell stories about “who we are” is a thick form of personal development. And one’s own experience of the values and emotions of others — the experience of racism and discrimination if one is black and gay — is a powerful catalyst for shaping one’s view of the world. This experience shapes one’s values, sense of justice, and key memories.

Now return to the question of variation across a group. It is clear that an identity shaped along these lines will show great variation across individuals. Each individual’s experiences are somewhat different. And each person will process those experiences somewhat differently. What makes an identity a socially shared identity is the fact that some groups have a high degree of commonality of experience — both through exposure to the prior generation and through one’s own experiences in everyday life. But at the same time it is apparent that there will be substantial variation in values, memories, narratives, and styles of thought within the identity group. So the social identity of being “Latino”, “Polish”, or “disabled” should not be expected to be a uniform and homogeneous feature of consciousness. The metaphors of “flavor” and “patchwork” serve us better.

This brings us to a preliminary conclusion: social identities should be expected to show significant variation across individuals.

[It is intriguing to note that it would be possible to pursue this theory of the psychological constitution of a social identity by trying to measure and map the variations of the components across a population. Opinion surveys would permit measurement of the distribution of certain diagnostic values and judgments of injustice, for example. We could then ask questions like these: Are these characteristics correlated within the population? Do some variables show more variance than others? How do these distributions of the variables compare with those of the general population?]

(See Mentalités, Identities, and Practices for more on this subject.)

Is morality a social factor?

Is morality a concrete sociological factor that has social consequences? Or is it simply a theoretical construction by philosophers and other moral theorists and advocates?

Human beings act, and their actions are often influenced or even determined by their moral values. This seems to be an empirical fact. (They also act out of self-interest, out of cruelty, out of disregard for others, out of impulse, and in a variety of other ways in which ethics plays no part.) An adequate theory of human deliberation and agency appears to require an account of how values and moral commitments figure into ordinary decision-making and agency. This fact, in turn, seems to provide the beginnings of a basis for a “yes” to the question of whether morality is socially real. Ethical values and norms are a behavioral reality; and this fact about individuals also has aggregative consequences for group behavior (in politics and in ordinary life).

But now shift the focus a bit and consider “philosophical ethics” — the writing and thinking about ethical principles by philosophers (Mill, Sidgwick, Kant, Aristotle, Rawls, for example). Philosophical ethics is mostly about debates concerning ethical theories. Is the principle of utility the foundation of moral truth? Is the categorical imperative rather the foundation? Are there rational grounds for choosing Kant’s moral system over Bentham’s? What does the principle of utility require — maximizing average utility or total utility? Should utility consequences of an action be assessed through the consequence of this particular action or general rules of action that might govern this particular act? Do philosophy and logic have a basis in rationality to allow confident judgment about fundamental questions of ethics? These are abstract, theoretical debates. And it is hard to see how they could have direct behavioral effects. So we might say, “philosophical ethics is not a social factor.”

So far, then, we have “morality in social behavior” and “ethics in philosophy”. Is there a connection between the two realms? One possible connection is this: Our theory of human decision-making might incorporate a rational faculty of deliberation; so when people act “morally”, a part of their deliberation is a consideration of reasons for and against a certain conduct. This is an empirical question. If we pursue this avenue, then ordinary actors are also moral philosophers; they are probing for reasons and facts that would tip the scales of judgment.

On the other hand, our theory of moral psychology might go in the direction of habit and inculcation rather than rational deliberation. We might hypothesize that individuals absorb a set of values and prohibitions, analogous to food preferences and aversions, and that these values are beyond rational deliberation and judgment. (Can one reason herself out of an aversion to eating dog?) On this approach, there is no connection between rationality and moral behavior, and philosophy and real social behavior do not intersect.

From a sociological point of view, it seems we need theories at several levels. We need a theory of the ways that individuals think, reason, and deliberate when they act (an empirical theory of practical agency). We need a theory of the social mechanisms and institutions through which individuals come to have the parameters and content of their deliberative systems set in particular ways. We need empirical descriptions of the real content of human moral deliberation in various groups and cultures.

Of particular importance for a sociology of morality is the question of the social mechanisms through which moral values and commitments are transmitted — analogous to the question of how languages and practical skills are transmitted. How are value systems and styles of moral reasoning transmitted from one generation of individuals to another? That is, we need a theory of the “micro-foundations” of moral psychology and social development. And we ought to have an account of how it is that the psychological capacity for moral thinking has emerged through human evolution; are there “moral emotions” that support the efficacy of moral thinking in action? (Allan Gibbard provides some very interesting discussion on these issues in Wise Choices, Apt Feelings: A Theory of Normative Judgment.)

The perspective I favor is one in which we understand the individual as a deliberative reasoner, subject to non-rational as well as rational factors. The individual has a spectrum of choice; he or she can consider the nature of the action being contemplated, its fit with other values he adheres to, and the consequences of the action for others. Actions are not causally determined by an antecedent set of likings and aversions. So the individual has the capacity for functioning as his own philosophical consultant. On this perspective, the philosophical concepts of “deliberation” and “reflective equilibrium” are useful and illuminating about real human reasoners. So philosophy can contribute to our understanding of social cognition and decision-making.

At the same time, it strikes me that professional philosophers can contribute best to ethical deliberation and moral development when they refrain from foundational assertions and simply provide good illustrations of how deliberation and consideration of circumstances and consequences can most thoughtfully proceed. Philosophers should consider themselves as “deliberative consultants” rather than “deductive inference engines” when it comes to ethical reasoning.

This perspective allows for morality to play a role in social causation that is analogous to the role of rationality in economics and political science. Descriptive moral sociology can function in a way that is logically similar to rational choice theory, in that it represents a hypothesis about the nature of agency: when agents deliberate in such-and-so a way, within the framework of such-and-so moral commitments and such-and-so interests and goals, they are likely to behave in such-and-so a way.

(Thomas Nagel’s The Possibility of Altruism is a particularly interesting and provocative work bringing together ethical theory and theories of real practical reasoning.)

Who has a "social identity"?

Think about the multiple ways that “identity” comes into social life. We think we know what someone means when he says he is African-American, Southern, gen-X, and professional. But of course the reality is much more complex, both within the person and across the group. Each identity label brings with it a cluster of values and attitudes that hang together across a population of people. These clusters are cross-cutting: it may be that there are values shared by many Southerners, both white and black, that differentiate them from Northerners and constitute a dimension of social identity; likewise there is a cluster of values and attitudes shared by African-Americans in both South and North; and so on for youth culture and work culture. (This is sometimes referred to as “intersectionality” and the politics of intersectionality.)

One question we can ask is how these various identities co-exist in one person. How does the individual’s psychological system incorporate and process features of identity? How does political and social cognition work at the level of the individual? What determines whether one identity is more salient than another in a given context for a given person? How do the various identity configurations interact within the person; how do behavior and preference result from the several identity configurations? Is there a problem of coherence among the identities? Can one be conflicted over the dictates and affects of the several identities he or she possesses? (Is this illustrated by religious conservative gay politicians?)

Another challenging question is how these identity configurations vary across a population of people who can be said to possess the identity. It is clear that identities are not uniform across a population; it is not the case that there is one profile of “American Baptist” that fits all Baptists. So we need to have some way of conceptualizing how a given identity is instantiated in different ways across individuals within a given group.

We also need a theory of the mechanisms of transmission and maintenance that serve to proliferate an identity across generations and through a population. What are the processes through which individuals and groups acquire their identities? There are some obvious mechanisms–personality development within the family, exposure to values and identities in schools and faith institutions, exposure to identity commitments through the media and the internet. But it would be very useful to have more focused and detailed studies of the ways in which identities are transmitted at the level of the developing individual.

Each of these questions — the individual-level question and the group-level question — has implications for political choice and behavior. A political movement requires mobilization of a group of people who are willing to act together for an outcome. And mobilization often depends on the ability of the political organization to amplify some elements of identity within a population and damp down other elements. In India, for example, it is possible to track the efforts of Hindu nationalist parties like the BJP aimed at making religious identity more salient than other civic or economic identities. Contrast this strategy with the strategy of parties like the CPM of West Bengal, which bases its political mobilization on an identity of class.

(Atul Kohli’s Democracy and Discontent: India’s Growing Crisis of Governability is an excellent discussion of some of these features of identity politics in India.)

%d bloggers like this: