Power: social movements

Social movements usually have to do with change rather than persistence. And they usually emerge from “under-class” groups who lack meaningful access to other official and institutionalized means of power. They are among the “weapons of the weak”, and their effectiveness usually turns on the ability of a sub-population to mobilize in collective action with determination and courage. Examples include the American Civil Rights movement, the use of strikes and boycotts by coal miners in the Ruhr after World War I, and the Solidarity Movement in Poland in the 1970s.

The question here is, what are the scope, limits, and mechanisms of social power wielded through social movements? Is it possible for a social movement to cause change in basic structures, policies, and distributions of wealth and power in society? (I am not thinking primarily here of revolutionary movements, but rather more prosaic struggles for improvement of some set of conditions for the under-group.)

The question arises because the terms of the problem essentially raise a social contradiction: a numerous but powerless group, advocating for a change of structure or distribution that harms the interests of the powerful, aligned against the most powerful forces in society. It would seem that this contest is inherently determined by the disproportion of powers held by the social actors. And yet we can provide memorable examples of success. So the question is, how does this work?

The first factor that provides an obvious source of potential power for the under-class group, is the size and functional role of the group in society. Several of the most obvious tactics for a social movement depend on this structural fact — the strike, boycott, and mass demonstration. By mobilizing, the group can interfere with the smooth workings of society, compelling other parties to negotiate. And it can demonstrate its broad, mass-based support.

But the obstacles to these mass-based tactics are severe – classic collective action problems, problems of coordination and communication, and the need for competent organizations and leaders. And the tactics available to the powerful (the state, police, mine owners) are imposing: repression and intimidation, divide and conquer, co-optation, control of media, and a greater ability to wait out the struggle.

Besides mass mobilization, there is the tactic of broadening the movement through alliances. This strategy requires “changing consciousness” in the broader society by the actions of the under-class group. The group (primarily through its organizations and leaders) can strive to broaden the base of its movement through alliances with other like-minded groups and with the general public. And this depends upon successful communication — setting the terms of the struggle in such a way that it aligns with the moral values and material interests of other groups.

Once again, the tactical options and advantages residing with the powerful are substantial. The powerful control the media; they have an advantage in setting the agenda; and they have an extensive ability to co-opt potential allies of the popular movement (side deals, special accommodations, playing off divisions within the mass population). But not all the face cards rest with the powerful.

So here we have several kinds of tactics for the social movement — direct mass mobilization, broadening of alliances, and a deliberate campaign to capture the moral discourse for the public. But let’s push forward and consider what comes next. Suppose there is a social constituency for an important structural change. Suppose this group is fairly strongly mobilized (in terms of the engagement of members), that it has competent organization and leadership, and that its members collectively play a significant role in the economy. Let us further suppose that the group has now engaged in all the tactics above — large peaceful demonstrations in several cities, a few successful boycotts, and a successful communications campaign that has strengthened public support for the movement. Now what, in a constitutional democracy? (The analysis will look different within a dictatorship — for example, the situation of labor unions in pre-war Nazi Germany).

It isn’t implausible to conjecture that this scenario results in legislative action in support of the program. The public visibility and popularity of the struggle seem to lead to the inference that voters care about the issue, and legislators listen. So the social movement has won the day and has secured its objective. It has won the battle. But has it won the war — is the change of policy a genuine and enduring change of structure in favor of the under-class? And here we can speculate again: the long, slow “tectonics” of power and privilege will turn back these gains in the future. The popular coalition cannot sustain its vigilance and mobilization forever; whereas the interests and strategic advantages of the powerful persist like great tectonic plates.

So on this line of thought, we can come to a provisional assessment of the causal powers of social movements in democracies: they have a fighting chance of securing tactical victories, but the prospects for achieving enduring structural change seem more remote. Their ability to change the rules of the game in a sustainable way seems limited in the face of entrenched and enduring interests opposed to such a change.

(Perhaps the Civil Rights movement is the rare exception to this statement. The rules of the game have plainly changed since 1953 with respect to race relations in the US — in spite of the pressing need for further transformation.)

(There is of course a huge literature on social movements. A few interesting sources are Charles Tilly, Social Movements, 1768-2004, Gary Marx and Douglas McAdam, Collective Behavior And Social Movements: Process and Structure, Peter Ackerman, Strategic Nonviolent Conflict: The Dynamics of People Power in the Twentieth Century, and James Scott, Weapons of the Weak: Everyday Forms of Peasant Resistance.)

Social properties: Persistence, change, and stochastic social processes

How can we explain social change and social persistence?

Society is a complex, compositional entity. Both persistence and change require explanation in such entities. Because there is a third alternative condition of such an entity: chaos, randomness, and Brownian motion of individuals in interaction with each other. Succinctly — the current state of the ensemble is simply the sum of the states of the lower-level units, and their states are in turn determined by a stochastic set of encounters with other individuals in the prior period. Both persistence and patterned change are non-random outcomes for a compositional system, and each demands explanation. (It is as if crystals formed periodically in boiling water among the micro-particles observed in the solution.) So if we observe either persistence or patterned change in spite of underlying stochastic processes, there must be causes of these non-random outcomes; so we want to be able to discover the causes of both.

To consider change and persistence, we need to answer a prior question: change and persistence of what? Logically, an ensemble demonstrates change and persistence with respect to some set of characteristics: features of organization, patterns of distribution of lower-level properties (e.g. income, attitudes), characteristics of “meso”-level behavior. In biological terms, the ensemble possesses structures, functions, and dynamics of development. And we need to be able to explain each of these gross features in a way that is consistent with the compositional nature of social entities.

We can easily produce examples of each type of condition in social life.

  • Persistence: The Federal Reserve Board retains its institutional form and its functional role within the US economy over a 50-year period. Baseball is still governed by the same basic rules as it was in the nineteenth-century (with minor variations).
  • Change: American attitudes about race shift measurably over 50 years. The percentage of workers in labor unions falls dramatically from 1970to 2000.
  • Stochastic: The frequency of the name “Harry” falls dramatically from 1950 to 1990. Traffic on Skype fluctuates from minute to minute.

Given that the ensemble is composed of lower-level elements (individuals), we want to know what it is that constrains, impels, and conditions the behavior of the individuals, such that the ensemble comes to have the observed features of persistence and change.

In order to explain either persistence or change in social arrangements, what do we have to work with? Only two sorts of things, fundamentally. We have the behavioral characteristics of the individuals who constitute the society; and we have the behaviorally relevant features that are embodied in current social institutions and practices (rules, incentives, opportunities, forms of social cooperation and social punishment). The latter “social” facts are themselves embodied in the behavioral characteristics of the persons who constitute them; but at any given time they function with apparent autonomy with respect to particular actors.

Fundamentally, then, the explanation of both persistence and change in society requires that we uncover the features of individual motivation that guide their behavior (interests, values, preferences, identities, practices); the features of the current social environment that empower and limit individual strategies; and the processes of aggregation through which the individuals’ actions come together into collective behavior in either reinforcing or disrupting the social facts of current interest. This intellectual model for social explanation is what I refer to as “methodological localism.”

(See “The Heterogeneous Social” for more on methodological localism.)

Wittgenstein on the science of psychology

Wittgenstein’s comments about the science of psychology have some resonance with the current state of the social sciences:

“The confusion and barrenness of psychology is not to be explained by calling it a “young science”; its state is not comparable with that of physics, for instance, in its beginnings… For in psychology there are experimental methods and conceptual confusion… The existence of the experimental method makes us think we have the means of solving the problems which trouble us; though problem and method pass one another by” (Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, 1968, II xiv, 232e).

We need a philosophy of social science because the methods, concepts, and framing theories of the social sciences are not yet adequate. We haven’t yet fully thought through what the central challenges of social inquiry are, and how to think about “the social” as a field of study.

Historical comparisons

Historians are sometimes interested in comparing two cases or events in order to discover something of historical importance — common causal mechanisms, important institutional differences between the cases, or ways in which the cases illustrate some larger historical pattern. For example, Kenneth Pomeranz offers an extensive comparison of European and Asian economic development in The Great Divergence: China, Europe, and the Making of the Modern World Economy. Other examples of historical comparisons might include the Russian Revolution and the Chinese Revolution; the build-out of railroads in Britain versus France; the collapse of the French Army in 1870 versus 1940; the colonial experience in Senegal versus Kenya; the development of London versus Tokyo; and many others.

The question to be considered here is this: what standards or heuristics ought to govern the choice and definition of units of comparison? Would it make sense to compare World War II with the war in Bosnia? Or the scientific cultures of Bologna in 1400 with that of London in 1960? Or the Spanish Civil War with the culture clash of the United States in the 1960s? What factors make for a historically insightful comparison?

Part of an answer is obvious at the start: there is no hard-and-fast answer to the question. It is always possible that there is a basis of comparison across apparently radically dissimilar cases. So the Spanish Civil War comparison with Madison SDS activism might seem to single out two cases that are too incommensurable to be valuable — until a creative historian notices that each historical moment revealed deeply different political and moral worldviews and that these ideological differences led to substantial inter-group hostility and conflict in each case. And this comparison might then lead this historian to ask the productive question: why did one instance result in years of warfare and the second resolved into peaceful protest?

Further, it is evident that comparison depends upon the background set of questions that we want to answer; useful comparison is topic-dependent. Comparing Bologna 1400 with London 1960 might be useful if we are investigating the cultural transmission of ideas but useless if we are investigating the causes of urban unrest. And comparing Paris 2006 with Detroit 1967 might be valuable on the second topic but beside the point for the first.

Historically insightful comparison also requires that we not be dazzled by the fact that similar language is used to describe or categorize multiple events. The Chinese Revolution and the Russian Revolution might be described in very similar terms: revolutions resulting from the overthrow of a pre-modern state by a militant party of revolutionaries leading an emerging under-class population. But this description is misleading on its face and in what it conceals. These historical events were actually very different in their political composition, the role and behavior of parties, and the relations that existed among other social forces. The Russian Revolution might be re-described as an opportunistic seizure of power by a minor political party, and the Chinese Revolution might be described as a long, slow mobilization of a mass population in support of revolutionary change. Other descriptions are possible as well. The point is that the common label of “revolution” should not mask the possibility or likelihood of extreme differences in processes, politics, parties, and mobilizations in the two instances.

To get some guidance, we need first to reflect on what the goal of the comparison is. And there are numerous goals that a historian might have. For example —

  • discover “generalizations” about similar processes. (“Each of the revolutions studied contains “state crisis” as a causally necessary factor.”)
  • identify concrete historical mechanisms that are at work in the cases — whether or not they recur in other cases as well. (“Political mobilization in the first case proceeds through pre-existing religious organizations on the ground; in the second case it proceeds through control of the national media.”)
  • identify causally salient differences across cases that explain divergence of outcomes. (Here the idea would be an argument something like this: cases A and B are similar in many ways. However, A leads to X, while B leads to Y. What explains this divergence of outcome?)
  • discover some of the substantial variety that exists underneath the surface in events that seem superficially similar. (We might pursue this “difference” strategy in urban history and choose a set of examples that will illustrate the many ways in which the world’s cities have evolved and are organized and governed.)

Thus the selection of cases will depend on what the purpose of the comparison is. But in general, the only reason to engage in comparison is the likelihood that we will learn something from the comparison that we would not have learned from study of one of the individual cases.

All this said — we might consider the heuristic that says that the cases need to be similar enough to permit comparison in terms of structures, processes, and causes; different enough to invite inquiry about the causes of the differences; and integrated enough to allow us to say that this level of unit of analysis possesses the complex set of historical characteristcs under study as a whole.

Let’s flesh this heuristic prescription out by considering one specific historical question: How did “European economic development” compare with “Asian economic development”? Before we can begin to try to answer this question, we need to give a more thoughtful definition of the units of comparison. Should the comparison be between continents, between countries, between regions within countries, or between selected cities and villages? Kenneth Pomeranz and others argue that continents and nations are too large to serve as a basis of valuable economic comparison, in a very specific sense: they encompass too much variety of social and economic processes to permit valid comparison. Pomeranz argues instead that Eurasian comparison is most valid if we select integrated economic regions of roughly comparable size; large enough to encompass the range of economic, social, and political arrangements that plausibly influence economic development, but not so large that the scale obliterates distinctive patterns and outcomes. Based on these sorts of considerations, he argues that it is most useful to consider a comparison between the core economic regions of England and the Lower Yangzi Delta in China. (James Lee offers an even more disaggregated basis for comparison of demographic regimes; he argues for a comparison based on descriptions of populations at the community level, ignoring nations and large economic regions altogether; Life Under Pressure: Mortality and Living Standards in Europe and Asia, 1700-1900.)

(See Eurasian Historical Comparisons for more on one aspect of this issue.)

Is it an interesting sociological fact that "urban people are better educated than rural people"?

Let’s suppose that this statement about urban-rural differences in educational levels summarizes census data by calculating the average number of years of formal schooling for people in cities and people in rural areas. Is this brute fact about two large populations a valid description of the two populations? Is it an important or illuminating sociological fact?

There are several types of questions we need to ask about this fact. First, there are questions to address about the statistical features of the data themselves. How are these two populations distributed around the mean? How wide is the variance around the mean? Do we get a different result if we measure the median number of years of schooling as opposed to the mean? Which of these measures is a more meaningful description of the population as a whole — median or mean?

Consider a hypothetical set of results. If the rural population is quite homogeneous around a mean of 10 years of schooling, while the urban population is widely distributed in a range from 5 years to 20 years, the fact that the urban mean is 11 years is somewhat misleading; the majority of urban people in this hypothetical case have less than 9 years (so urban is less well educated), while at the same time 20 percent of urban people have at least 14 years (so urban population is better educated). The point is this: the brute fact of a difference in the means is not particularly insightful in estimating the educational resources of the two populations.

Second, there are important sociological questions about the internal differentiation of the population into groups with very different educational patterns. Do women and men show different profiles in the two large populations? How about members of ethnic or racial groups? How about groups identified by income, wealth, or home ownership? What about groups defined by whether a parent had attended college? Arriving at this set of questions requires sociological imagination. The investigator needs to consider what internal differentiations within the large population might affect the sub-group’s educational characteristics.

Finally there is the question of finding possible causal explanations of the differences that are discovered across major populations (urban and rural) and within sub-populations (ethnic, gender, or class-defined groups), and tracing out some of the ways in which these patterns in turn cause other social outcomes (future inequalities of income, for example). Those causal mechanisms might be various: differences in the opportunities that are presented to members of different social groups (including the possibility of discrimination), differences in values and cultures, within families, differences in gender treatment, differences in religious traditions and practices, and differences in access to resources, to name a few.

Now suppose we have done quite a bit of empirical, theoretical, and causal analysis along these lines. Suppose we have found that the internal structures of eduational attainment statistics are quite different between urban and rural populations; that the taxonomy of sub-groups is different; and that the causes and social mechanisms of the differences in attainment across the rural-urban divide are substantially different as well. What salience does the original brute fact continue to have (that the means are different in the two populations)?

We might say that the brute fact is in fact a valid empirical observation; that it needs to be substantially further analyzed; and that the genuinely valuable and insightful sociological findings only emerge once we have further disaggregated the statistics across salient groups and have provided some hypotheses about the mechanisms that influence the educational attainment profiles of the various sub-groups. At that point we have some idea of the underlying sociology that produces the brute fact. But the brute fact itself is largely unilluminating.

Does historical materialism have a place in today’s social sciences?

Marx’s theory of historical materialism came with a few central concepts, a large hypothesis, and a heuristic for social research. The concepts include class, the forces and relations of production, the economic structure, the superstructure, and the idea of determination (“in the last instance”, as Althusser and Poulantzas put it) between the economic structure and elements of the superstructure. The heuristic is, “Look to the circumstances of property and class — the material circumstances of society — in order to discover the causal relationships that exist in large social change across history.” The large hypothesis is that the historical dynamic created by tension between the forces of production (the level of technology and labor skills) and the relations of production (the property relations) creates a set of imperatives and constraints for social change that leads to the formation and transformation of other social elements, such as the state, morality, or culture. Class and class conflict play a central role in mediating the effects of the economic structure on other aspects of society.

Are these elements of historical materialism still of value to sociology and historical explanation?

The concepts associated with the theory of historical materialism are legitimate macro-sociological tools for organizing and analyzing social institutions and structures within particular societies. Their utility depends on the degree to which they permit the historian to identify and explain in detail the real social processes that are underway in the society under examination. There is no a priori basis for judging that this conceptual scheme is superior to other alternatives (as Marx sometimes seems to suggest). Rather, we need to evaluate the materialist conceptual scheme through its fecundity in identifying causal mechanisms and processes within the empirical phenomena under study.

The heuristic too remains insightful — as long as we keep in mind the fact that historical change has many causes. It is fair to say that material factors have historical influence — levels of technology influence other social institutions such as the educational system, the property system creates a set of interests that have important political effects on mobilization, and struggle over the control of social wealth is plainly an important historical factor. And it is a productive strategy for historians to examine in details the ways in which material circumstances produce other kinds of social change through the actions of historically situated actors. Further, careful study of the material circumstances of a society shed important light on the circumstances of life for the almost invisible ordinary people.

The master hypothesis of historical materialism is the least enduring. Marx’s reading of history within the lenses of historical materialism was simply too deterministic, too unidirectional, and too single-factored, to provide a credible basis for explaining historical change. The difficulty with the hypothesis is its comprehensiveness and its suggestion that there is only one major historical dynamic. But take any particular historical outcome of interest — the dynamics leading to a rebellion in North China, for example. Material conflicts of interest are likely enough to be part of the motivations of the participants, and the powers associated with various groups derivative from their control of wealth and property are plausibly related to the ability of various groups to play an influential role in the developing events. However, there are plainly other social and causal factors that are unrelated to the property system — for example, a history of drought or flooding in the region, the structure and tenacity of kinship systems, the nature of local morality and justice sensibilities, the degree of transportation interconnectedness of the region, and indefinitely many other factors.

It is implausible, then, to suppose that a single factor — whether material class circumstances, ideology, or other social characteristics — is the sole important causal factor in large historical processes. Historical processes are contingent and conjunctural, so the effort to discover a single key to explain all large historical processes and outcomes is futile. At the same time, it is plausible enough that the circumstances and institutions associated with technology and property have historical effects; and in fact, it is straightforward to describe the microfoundations through which these institutions interact with ordinary human behavior and choice to lead to social outcomes. This assessment suggests that historians and sociologists are well justified in including the concepts and heuristics of historical materialism in their tool kit, but that they would be well advised to reject the almost metaphysical certainty of the grand hypothesis.

(See Gerald Cohen, Karl Marx’s Theory of History, for an analytic philosopher’s pathbreaking treatment of historical materialism.)

How not to create a classification system

Does social science require systems of classification?

From Jorge Luis Borges’ description of a fictional Chinese classification of animals:

“These ambiguities, redundancies and deficiencies remind us of those which doctor Franz Kuhn attributes to a certain Chinese encyclopaedia entitled ‘Celestial Empire of benevolent Knowledge’. In its remote pages it is written that the animals are divided into: (a) belonging to the emperor, (b) embalmed, (c) tame, (d) sucking pigs, (e) sirens, (f) fabulous, (g) stray dogs, (h) included in the present classification, (i) frenzied, (j) innumerable, (k) drawn with a very fine camelhair brush, (l) et cetera, (m) having just broken the water pitcher, (n) that from a long way off look like flies.” Jorge Luis Borges, Other Inquisitions: 1937-1952

The lesson? That a system of classification needs to rest upon a coherent, logical assessment of the causal and structural properties of the things being classified, so that the classification may lead us to a better understanding of the range of phenomena encompassed by the system.

The social science disciplines

The social sciences consist of a variety of disciplines, subject areas, and methods, and there is no reason to expect that these disciplines will eventually add up to a single unified theory of society. Political science, sociology, history, anthropology, economics, geography, and area studies all provide their own, largely independent, definitions of scope, research agenda, and research methods. And there is no grand plan according to which the disciplinary definitions jointly capture all that is of scientific interest about the social.

History rather than logic explains the particular configuration of social science disciplines that we now face. The major social science disciplines have grown up in the past century and a half by creating stylized answers to these topic areas: the “political” concerns institutions of coercion and governance; the “economic” has to do with production, exchange, and distribution of goods and services; the “anthropological” has to do with the cultures, values, and practices through which individuals and groups conduct their local lives. Area studies are defined according to a different axis; Asian studies or Latin American studies demand that we cut the social differently: not from the point of view of social domains, but from the point of view of geographical complexes of related social, cultural, economic, political, and normative regimes.

At the same time, we as “users” of the results of social inquiry have no inherent interest in the intra- and inter-disciplinary debates that have led to the constitution of the disciplines of the social sciences as they currently exist. The social world does not come to us labeled as “political,” “economic,” or “ethnographic.” We ordinary citizens have questions that cut across these boundaries recklessly: Why does the US state so commonly ignore the needs of poor people? Why are Indonesian rice farmers reluctant to make use of HYV rice strains? Why did the hi-tech bubble occur in the American economy in the 1990s? How do police departments succeed in recruiting good potential officers? When is the practice of charitable giving most likely to thrive or falter? Why did the Chinese Communist revolution occur? Why did it succeed? Note what a mixture of topics, human interactions, and methodologies is invoked by this collection of questions. Some of these queries raise the question of why individuals behaved as they did; some focus on group action, while others single out individual choices; some have to do with the institutions within which individuals live; some suggest turning to ethnography, comparative economics, or political science; and so forth.

The upshot is this: Users of the social sciences have a different way of parsing “the social” than is found in academic social science. We are interested in human agency and behavior — individual and collective. We are interested in the ways social relations and institutions work, and how they affect the behavior and choices of the individuals who operate within them. We are interested in how large agglomerations of human activity work — how they emerge, how they behave over time, and how they go wrong (cities, states, corporations, networks of friends, …), and we are interested in the dynamics of face-to-face social interaction.

This suggests that new thinking about the social sciences needs to start with the idea of acquiring a strong commitment to interdisciplinary study of common social topics.

(Here are several other posts on “social science disciplines” (tag).)

What kind of knowledge can philosophy offer?

Let us say that knowledge is “a set of true statements based on compelling reasons.” (This is the same as the familiar definition of knowledge as “justified true belief”.) Philosophers offer a variety of claims, and they offer arguments for their positions. But do they offer knowledge about anything? Is it possible to say that “Philosophical statement P is true”, or only that “Philosophical statement P is supported by strong and compelling reasons”? Are philosophical topics within the domain of things concerning which we can have knowledge at all?

We know what kind of knowledge empirical science provides: factual knowledge about the world and inferences or theories supported by empirical observation. We also know what kind of knowledge is offered by mathematics and logic : deductive knowledge derived from a set of axioms in one or another of the fields of mathematics. And we can specify the nature of the knowledge provided by linguistics and semantics: expository knowledge of the meanings of various words and phrases in ordinary usage. Putting these areas of inquiry very crudely, we might summarize them as “inductive knowledge,” “deductive knowledge,” and “semantic knowledge.” But what does philosophy add to our knowledge and understanding of human experience and knowledge?

Notice that knowledge and truth are interrelated. Truth, in turn, has to do with correspondence and reference. Statements refer to things and properties; statements are true or false depending on whether the things to which the statement refers in fact possesses the properties attributed to it. So a statement cannot be a piece of knowledge if it does not permit of correspondence to some independent set of facts.

Now consider the kinds of reasoning and statements that occur within philosophy.

First, philosophy offers assertions based on rigorous analysis of concepts and conceptual relationships. This exercise looks a bit like the linguistics/ semantics option above; but philosophers offer “value-added” by providing rational reconstruction of the concepts they consider. They reconstruct and improve upon the concepts of everyday language.

Second, philosophy may provide constructive analysis and further development of the methods and conceptual systems of various disciplines, including the empirical sciences. Here the philosopher is purporting to offer substantial findings that will improve upon the epistemic characteristics of existing scientific practices. Crudely, a deeper understanding of the logic of evolutionary explanation and the mathematics of natural selection is a philosophical effort, and it is a substantive contribution to the philosophy of biology and to biological theory. Here, we must ask whether there is a credible basis for the contribution. In what respect does the philosopher possess a distinctive basis for providing rational assessment and recommendations about the structure and practice of empirical science? Typically, philosophers would respond by saying that philosophical argumentation about the methods of science gains credibility through the understanding of rationality and reasoning that philosophers possess.

Third, philosophy can construct ethical theories that possess some degree of justification, beyond ordinary moral opinions. When John Rawls asks, “What is justice?”, he begins with some ordinary associations with the concept, but then builds out a theory of justice that goes far beyond ordinary language. And he offers a range of philosophical justifications in support of his theory of “justice as fairness”.

A major problem in answering the key question, what is the nature of philosophical knowledge, is the fact that we ordinarily divide knowledge into “empirical/contingent” and “formal/necessary” (or what Quine calls the “analytic/synthetic” distinction). But philosophers seem to advance their theories in a way that implies they are neither empirical nor purely formal. Kant puts this point in the form of a category of knowledge that is “synthetic a priori” — that is, knowledge that is based on purely philosophical reasoning but that is nonetheless not purely formal. (Kant’s claim that the statement “reality is spatially organized in Euclidean three-dimensional space” is true synthetic a priori asserts that the statement is necessarily true but is not a truth of logic.)

One possible stance that we might take is to restrict the concept of “knowledge” to statements about empirical states of affairs (where truth and falsity are possible), but to then postulate other categories of belief that have a degree of rational credibility without correspondence to the empirical world. On this approach, empirical statements, suitably supported, can constitute knowledge of the empirical world. Philosophical statements — statements about scientific method, the nature of beauty, or ethical principles — can be offered with rational justification but do not have the referential structure that would permit them to be “true” and do not count as knowledge. If we take this approach, then we may be justified in accepting the proposition “Justice is fairness,” but we would not be justified in thinking it is “true.” And therefore the statement is not an example of “knowledge”.

This approach sounds a bit parallel to the position of early twentieth-century logical positivism, which maintained the verificationist theory of meaning — the meaning of a sentence is the set of conditions that establish its truth or falsity — with the result that theology, philosophy, or ethics are strictly speaking meaningless. However, the two views are not the same, because this view permits that philosophical discourse is meaningful and rational; it simply denies that the statements that philosophers make either correspond or fail to correspond with facts about the world.

The conclusion to this line of thought is somewhat startling: philosophy does not offer knowledge at all. However, it does provide opinions and statements that are founded on good reasons, and we have rational grounds for believing these statements.

What is a social structure?

Are there such things as “social structures”? In what do they consist? What sorts of social powers do they exercise?

Consider a few candidates: the global trading system, the Federal government, the Chinese peasantry of the 1930s, the English class system, the Indian marriage system, race in the United States, the city of Chicago. Are these items examples of “social structures”?

What are the central assumptions we make in designating something as a social structure? (Note that the term “social structure” can be used in at least two important senses: first, as a causally operative institutional complex (the state or the market as causal social structures), and second, as a description of facets of the organization of society (demographic structure, urban-rural structure, structure of race and ethnicity, income structure). Here I will focus on the first sense of the term.)

Several ideas appear to be core features in our ordinary understanding of this concept. A social structure consists of rules, institutions, and practices. A social structure is socially embodied in the actions, thoughts, beliefs, and durable dispositions of individual human beings. A social structure is effective in organizing behavior of large numbers of actors. A structure is coercive of individual and group behavior. A social structure assigns roles and powers to individual actors. A social structure often has distributive consequences for individuals and groups. A social structure is geographically dispersed. Social structures can cause social outcomes involving both persistence and change.

We might try to reduce these intuitions to a definition: a social structure is a system of geographically dispersed rules and practices that influence the actions and outcomes of large numbers of social actors.

Now back to our original question: do such things exist? Before proceeding to a answer, a few points are evident. Any social entity must possess microfoundations in human mentalities and actions. There is no such thing as a social entity that lacks human embodiment–any more than there are works of art that lacks material embodiment. Social entities “supervene” upon human individuals.

This point also applies to any statements we might make about the putative causal powers of a social entity. So claims about the causal properties of social structures must be supplemented by a theory of the microfoundations of those powers. How does an extended social structure exert influence over the actions of located individuals?

And there is a final parallel point about claims about the geographical scope and coherence of a social entity. If we want to maintain that an entity exercises influence as a coherent and extended entity, we need to be able to specify the mechanisms through which this takes place. How does the Federal state exert its control and influence over the vast scope of the United States and its population?

So, with these qualifications about the unavoidable need for providing microfoundations–are there social structures?

Several of the instances offered above fit the terms of our provisional definition. They are large complexes of rules and practices that influence behavior and outcomes. And it is straightforward to begin to provide a description of the microfoundations upon which they exist: the social components through which these structures are embodied and through which they exercise influence on individuals and groups. The US Federal Government functions as a system of branches of government, each with its own departments governed by formal and informal rules. And the “reach” of the state down to the local and individual level is secured by the socially implemented forms of power that are locally expressed (bank inspectors, law enforcement agencies, tax auditors, …).

This is an example of a large social structure that operates through a high degree of formal institutionalization. But some of the examples mentioned above depend primarily on informal mechanisms — the workings of widespread beliefs and attitudes, along with a diffused willingness of individuals to “enforce” the requirements of the structure. Structures relying primarily on informal mechanisms include the Indian marriage system or the English class system.

Is “race” a structure in American society? Plainly it possesses some of the key elements identified above. The reality of race leads to an uneven distribution of opportunities and outcomes, so “race” is a social fact with distributive consequences. It has the element of coercion: racial prejudice and patterns of discrimination are imposed on individuals without an “opt-out” possibility. And we can identify many of the social mechanisms through which race and racial discrimination work; so the category possesses microfoundations. Today many of those mechanisms are “informal” rather than “formal”; but of course the legal institutionalization of racial discrimination is a recent fact in American history. So “race” is a structural feature of American society.

Several of the examples mentioned above appear to fall outside the category of social structure, however; for example, “Chinese peasantry”. These examples appear to be large factors that play a role in large social structures, but are more akin to elements than systems. So the structure that defines “Chinese peasantry” is the system of property, agriculture, and kinship that defines the peasant’s role and opportunities in society; the category of “peasant” identifies one node within that system or structure.

What about “the city of Chicago”? Is this a structure or some other category of social entity? I am inclined to say that the city of Chicago is a complex social entity, not a structure. It falls within a variety of structures in America and the world–the global trading system, the electoral process, and the politics of national funding for large cities; and it embodies within it a variety of smaller structures–the public school system, lending practices, nepotism. But the city itself does not function as a regulative system coordinating the activities of large numbers of individuals. Rather, it is a complex social entity composed of a mix of social practices, behaviors, systems, and relationships.

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