Generativism

There is a seductive appeal to the idea of a “generative social science”. Joshua Epstein is one of the main proponents of the idea, most especially in his book, Generative Social Science: Studies in Agent-Based Computational Modeling. The central tool of generative social science is the construction of an agent-based model (link). The ABM is said to demonstrate the way in which an observable social outcome of pattern is generated by the properties and activities of the component parts that make it up — the actors. The appeal comes from the notion that it is possible to show how complicated or complex outcomes are generated by the properties of the components that make them up. Fix the properties of the components, and you can derive the properties of the composites. Here is Epstein’s capsule summary of the approach:

The agent-based computational model — or artificial society — is a new scientific instrument. It can powerfully advance a distinctive approach to social science, one for which the term “generative” seems appropriate. I will discuss this term more fully below, but in a strong form, the central idea is this: To the generativist, explaining the emergence of macroscopic societal regularities, such as norms or price equilibria, requires that one answer the following question: 

The Generativist’s Question 

*How could the decentralized local interactions of heterogeneous autonomous agents generate the given regularity?  

The agent-based computational model is well-suited to the study of this question, since the following features are characteristic: [heterogeneity, autonomy, explicit space, local interactions, bounded rationality]

(5-6)

And a few pages later:

Agent-based models provide computational demonstrations that a given microspecification is in fact sufficient to generate a macrostructure of interest. . . . To the generativist — concerned with formation dynamics — it does not suffice to establish that, if deposited in some macroconfiguration, the system will stay there. Rather, the generativist wants an account of the configuration’s attainment by a decentralized system of heterogeneous autonomous agents. Thus, the motto of generative social science, if you will, is: If you didn’t grow it, you didn’t explain its emergence. (8)

Here is how Epstein describes the logic of one of the most extensive examples of generative social science, the attempt to understand the disappearance of Anasazi population in the American Southwest nearly 800 years ago.

The logic of the exercise has been, first, to digitize the true history — we can now watch it unfold on a digitized map of Longhouse Valley. This data set (what really happened) is the target — the explanandum. The aim is to develop, in collaboration with anthropologists, microspecifications — ethnographically plausible rules of agent behavior — that will generate the true history. The computational challenge, in other words, is to place artificial Anasazi where the true ones were in 80-0 AD and see if — under the postulated rules — the simulated evolution matches the true one. Is the microspecification empirically adequate, to use van Fraassen’s phrase? (13)

Here is a short video summarizing the ABM developed under these assumptions:

The artificial Anasazi experiment is an interesting one, and one to which the constraints of an agent-based model are particularly well suited. The model follows residence location decision-making based on ground-map environmental information.

But this does not imply that the generativist interpretation is equally applicable as a general approach to explaining important social phenomena.

Note first how restrictive the assumption is of “decentralized local interactions” as a foundation to the model. A large proportion of social activity is neither decentralized nor purely local: the search for muons in an accelerator lab, the advance of an armored division into contested territory, the audit of a large corporation, preparations for a strike by the UAW, the coordination of voices in a large choir, and so on, indefinitely. In all these examples and many more, a crucial part of the collective behavior of the actors is the coordination that occurs through some centralized process — a command structure, a division of labor, a supervisory system. And by its design, ABMs appear to be incapable of representing these kinds of non-local coordination.

Second, all these simulation models proceed from highly stylized and abstract modeling assumptions. And the outcomes they describe capture at best some suggestive patterns that might be said to be partially descriptive of the outcomes we are interested in. Abstraction is inevitable in any scientific work, of course; but once recognizing that fact, we must abandon the idea that the model demonstrates the “generation” of the empirical phenomenon. Neither premises nor conclusions are fully descriptive of concrete reality; both are approximations and abstractions. And it would be fundamentally implausible to maintain that the modeling assumptions capture all the factors that are causally relevant to the situation. Instead, they represent a particular stylized hypothesis about a few of the causes of the situation in question.  Further, we have good reason to believe that introducing more details at the ground level will sometimes lead to significant alteration of the system-level properties that are generated.

 
So the idea that an agent-based model of civil unrest could demonstrate that (or how) civil unrest is generated by the states of discontent and fear experienced by various actors is fundamentally ill-conceived. If the unrest is generated by anything, it is generated by the full set of causal and dynamic properties of the set of actors — not the abstract stylized list of properties. And other posts have made the point that civil unrest or rebellion is rarely purely local in its origin; rather, there are important coordinating non-local structures (organizations) that influence mobilization and spread of rebellious collective action. Further, the fact that the ABM “generates” some macro characteristics that may seem empirically similar to the observed phenomenon is suggestive, but far from a demonstration that the model characteristics suffice to determine some aspect of the macro phenomenon. Finally, the assumption of decentralized and local decision-making is unfounded for civil unrest, given the important role that collective actors and organizations play in the success or failure of social mobilizations around grievances (link).
The point here is not that the generativist approach is invalid as a way of exploring one particular set of social dynamics (the logic of decentralized local decision-makers with assigned behavioral rules). On the contrary, this approach does indeed provide valuable insights into some social processes. The error is one of over-generalization — imagining that this approach will suffice to serve as a basis for analysis of all social phenomena. In a way the critique here is exactly parallel to that which I posed to analytical sociology in an earlier post. In both cases the problem is one of asserting priority for one specific approach to social explanation over a number of other equally important but non-equivalent approaches.

Patrick Grim et al provide an interesting approach to the epistemics of models and simulations in “How simulations fail” (link). Grim and his colleagues emphasize the heuristic and exploratory role that simulations generally play in probing the dynamics of various kinds of social phenomena.

 

Snippets from the Roman world

image: Arch of Septimius Severus, Forum (203 CE)

The history of Rome has a particular fascination for twenty-first century readers, especially in the West. Roman law, Roman philosophy, Roman legions, and Roman roads all have a powerful resonance for our imaginations today. Mary Beard’s recent SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome is an interesting recent synthesis of the long sweep of Rome’s history.

Beard affirms the continuing importance of Roman history in these terms:

Ancient Rome is important. To ignore the Romans is not just to turn a blind eye to the distant past. Rome still helps to define the way we understand our world and think about ourselves, from high theory to low comedy. After 2,000 years, it continues to underpin Western culture and politics, what we write and how we see the world, and our place in it…. The layout of the Roman imperial territory underlies the political geography of modern Europe and beyond. The main reason that London is the capital of the United Kingdom is that the Romans made it the capital of their province Britannia – a dangerous place lying, as they saw it, beyond the great Ocean that encircled the civilised world. Rome has bequeathed to us ideas of liberty and citizenship as much as of imperial exploitation, combined with a vocabulary of modern politics, from ‘senators’ to ‘dictators’. (15)

Much of Beard’s treatment is deflationary: she demonstrates that Rome’s reality in the first five hundred years was substantially more ordinary and less grand than Roman historians from the time of the Republic and Empire wanted to believe. The population of the city was in the tens of thousands; the armies were more often the retainers of local “big men” (and as often as not ran away when confronted with superior forces); and law and political institutions were very little developed. And yet by the end of the period of the Republic in the first century BCE, Rome had in fact become grand: grand in population (more than a million inhabitants), grand in military power, and grand in the scope of control it exercised over other parts of the known world.

One of the events that Beard deflates is the slave rebellion of Spartacus.

In 73 BCE, under the leadership of Spartacus, fifty or so slave gladiators, improvising weapons out of kitchen equipment, escaped from a gladiatorial training school at Capua in southern Italy and went on the run. They spent the next two years gathering support and withstanding several Roman armies until they were eventually crushed in 71 BCE, the survivors crucified in a grisly parade along the Appian Way. 

It is hard now to see through the hype, both ancient and modern, to what was really going on. Roman writers, for whom slave uprisings were probably the most alarming sign of a world turned upside down, wildly exaggerate the number of supporters Spartacus attracted; estimates go as high as 120,000 insurgents. Modern accounts have often wanted to make Spartacus an ideological hero, even one who was fighting the very institution of slavery. That is next to impossible. Many slaves wanted freedom for themselves, but all the evidence from ancient Rome suggests that slavery as an institution was taken for granted, even by slaves. If they had a clearly formulated aim, the best guess is that Spartacus and his fellow escapees wanted to return to their various homes – in Spartacus’ case probably Thrace in northern Greece; for others, Gaul. One thing is certain, though: they managed to hold out against Roman forces for an embarrassingly long time. 

What explains that success? It was not simply that the Roman armies sent out against them were ill trained. Nor was it just that the gladiators had discipline and fighting skills developed in the arena and were powered by the desire for freedom. Almost certainly the rebel forces were stiffened with the discontented and the dispossessed among the free, citizen population of Italy, including some of Sulla’s ex-soldiers, who may well have felt more at home on military campaign, even against the legions in which they had once served, than on the farm. Seen in these terms, Spartacus’ uprising was not only an ultimately tragic slave rebellion but also the final round in a series of civil wars that had started twenty years earlier with the massacre of Romans at Asculum that marked the beginning of the Social War. (pp. 248-249). 

Her view is, apparently, that there was a great deal of hype surrounding the revolt of Spartacus even among the ancients — embellishment of the size and ideological purposes of the revolt and the heroism of the gladiators. She wants us to understand the ordinary significance of the uprising. But in turn she gives the revolt a larger social significance — it was a part of the “civil wars” that had wracked Rome for twenty years prior.

From the tragic to the comic — Beard spends a few pages on the bar scene in the early Empire.

Elite Romans were often even more dismissive – and anxious – about what the rest of the population got up to when they were not working. Their keenness for shows and spectacles was one thing, but even worse were the bars and cheap cafés and restaurants where ordinary men tended to congregate. Lurid images were conjured up of the types of people you were likely to meet there. Juvenal, for example, pictures a seedy drinking den at the port of Ostia patronised, he claims, by cut-throats, sailors, thieves and runaway slaves, hangmen and coffin makers, plus the occasional eunuch priest (presumably off duty from the sanctuary of the Great Mother in the town). And writing later, in the fourth century CE, one Roman historian complained that the ‘lowest’ sort of person spent the whole night in bars, and he picked out as especially disgusting the snorting noise the dice players made as they concentrated on the board and drew in breath through their snotty noses.  

There are also records of repeated attempts to impose legal restrictions or taxes on these establishments. Tiberius, for example, apparently banned the sale of pastries; Claudius is supposed to have abolished ‘taverns’ entirely and to have forbidden the serving of boiled meat and hot water (presumably to be mixed, in the standard Roman fashion, with wine – but then why not ban the wine?); and Vespasian is said to have ruled that bars and pubs should sell no form of food at all except peas and beans. Assuming that all this is not a fantasy of ancient biographers and historians, it can only have been fruitless posturing, legislation at its most symbolic, which the resources of the Roman state had no means to enforce.

Elites everywhere tend to worry about places where the lower orders congregate, and – though there was certainly a rough side and some rude talk – the reality of the normal bar was tamer than its reputation. For bars were not just drinking dens but an essential part of everyday life for those who had, at best, limited cooking facilities in their lodgings. As with the arrangement of apartment blocks, the Roman pattern is precisely the reverse of our own: the Roman rich, with their kitchens and multiple dining rooms, ate at home; the poor, if they wanted much more than the ancient equivalent of a sandwich, had to eat out. Roman towns were full of cheap bars and cafés, and it was here that a large number of ordinary Romans spent many hours of their non-working lives. (pp. 455-456)

There is much to enjoy and to reflect upon in Beard’s narrative. It is a thought-provoking book. But it is worth asking — what kind of history is SPQR? Essentially it is the product of a deeply learned historian, a distinguished classicist, who has set out to write an engaging narrative telescoping the history of a thousand years of Roman life into a single volume, necessarily providing a very selective set of stories and themes. It is not a detailed work of scholarship itself; rather, it is a selective narrative presenting description and commentary on some of the outlines of this world-historical tapestry. A large portion of the book takes the form of stories and snippets of ordinary life, intended to give the reader a more vivid engagement with the lives of these long-dead Romans. And the reader can bring a degree of confidence to the reading, knowing that Beard is a genuine expert bringing to bear the most recent historical and archeological evidence to the main questions of interpretation. Many of the powerful themes that have interested observers for a century are there — the social conflicts, the emerging institutions of governance, the arrangements of military power — but none are treated in the detail that would be expected of a monograph. Instead, the reader is offered a story with many strands, interesting and engaging, but an appetizer rather than the main course for a thorough study of Roman history.

Strategies for resisting right-wing populism

Social Europe is a vibrant publisher of current progressive thought in Europe. Readers can find data, opinion, and policy analysis on the site, highly relevant to the core priorities of progressives across the continent and Britain — social opportunity, inequalities, work, the threat of right-wing populism, the refugee crisis, and the future of the European Union. Here is the Twitter feed for Social Europe (link).

SE also publishes a bi-annual journal called the Social Europe Journal. The most recent issue is focused on a recurring theme in Understanding Society, the menace posed by the rise of extreme-right populism. The volume is available as a digital book under the title, Understanding the Populist Revolt, edited by Henning Meyer.

Several chapters of Understanding the Populist Revolt are particularly interesting, including Bo Rothstein’s contribution, “Why has the white working class abandoned the left?”. Rothstein’s title poses a critical question, which Rothstein unpacks in these terms:

Maybe the most surprising political development during this decade is why increased inequality in almost all capitalist market societies has not resulted in more votes for left parties. Especially telling is the political success of Donald Trump and why such a large part of the American working class voted for him. In a country with staggering and increasing economic inequality, why would people who will undoubtedly lose economically from his policies support him? Why did his anti-government policies such as cutting taxes for the super-rich and slashing the newly established health care insurance system succeed to such a large extent? Moreover, why were these policies especially effective in securing votes from the white working class? 

One answer may be in an issue often neglected by the left, namely how people perceive the quality of their government institutions. The idea behind this “quality of government” approach is that when people take a stand on what policies they are going to support, they do not only evaluate the policy as such. In addition, they also take into consideration the quality of the government institutions that are going to be responsible for its implementation.

Surveys show that the reason for Trump’s unexpected victory was his ability to get massive support from what has historically been a stronghold for the Democratic Party, namely low-educated white working class voters. However, as has recently been pointed out by, among others, Paul Krugman, this is a group likely to be the big losers from the policies Trump said he will launch. Many would say that race and immigration determined this election, but this can only be a part of the story because in many of the areas where Trump got most of the white working class votes there are few immigrants and no significant multi-ethnic population. (Kindle Locations 461-469)

This is indeed a key question for politicians and activists in the United States to consider. However, Rothstein’s answer is a fairly narrow one; he argues that a widespread belief about corruption and favoritism in Democratic elites is a primary factor leading to the disaffection of the white working class in the US. This seems to be only a secondary factor, however.

A more comprehensive attempt at an answer to the question, why is populism on the rise?, is suggested in the concluding chapter of the volume in an interview with Jurgen Habermas. Habermas calls out several factors in the past twenty-five years that have led to a rising appeal of right-wing populism among large segments of the populations of democratic countries in Europe and the United States. First among these factors is the steep and continuing increase in inequalities that neoliberal economies brought about since 1989. He believes that this trend could only be offset by an active state policy of social welfare — the policies of social democracy — and that advanced capitalist democracies have retreated from such policies.

Second, he highlights the deliberate politics and rhetoric of the right in both Europe and the United States in pursuing a politics of division and resentment. People suffer; and politicians aim their resentment at vulnerable others.

Third, Habermas emphasizes the fact that neoliberal globalization has not delivered on the promises made on its behalf in the 1970s, that globalization will improve everyone’s standard of living. In fact, he argues that globalization has led to stagnation of living standards in many countries and has led to an overall decline of the importance of the western capitalist economies within the global system overall. This trend in turn has given new energy to the nationalistic forces underlying right-wing populism.

So what advice does Habermas offer to the progressive parties in western democracies? He argues that the progressive left needs to confront the root of the problem — the increasing inequalities that exist both nationally and internationally. Moreover, he argues that this will require substantial international cooperation:

The question is why left-wing parties do not go on the offensive against social inequality by embarking upon a co-ordinated and cross-border taming of unregulated markets. As a sensible alternative – as much to the status quo of feral financial capitalism as to the agenda for a völkisch or left-nationalist retreat into the supposed sovereignty of long-since hollowed-out nation states – I would suggest there is only a supranational form of co-operation that pursues the goal of shaping a socially acceptable political reconfiguration of economic globalisation. (Kindle Locations 566-569)

In Habermas’s judgment, the fundamental impetus to right-wing populism was the cooptation of “social-democrat” parties like the Democratic Party in the United States and the Labour Party in Britain by the siren song of neoliberalism:

Since Clinton, Blair and Schröder social democrats have swung over to the prevailing neoliberal line in economic policies because that was or seemed to be promising in the political sense: in the “battle for the middle ground” these political parties thought they could win majorities only by adopting the neoliberal course of action. This meant taking on board toleration of long-standing and growing social inequalities. Meantime, this price – the economic and socio-cultural “hanging out to dry” of ever-greater parts of the populace – has clearly risen so high that the reaction to it has gone over to the right. (Kindle Locations 573-578)

So what is the path to broad support for the progressive left? It is to be progressive — to confront the root cause of the economic stagnation of the working class people whose lives are increasingly precarious and whose standard of living has not advanced materially in twenty-five years.

But this requires being willing to open up a completely different front in domestic politics and doing so by making the above-mentioned problem the key point at issue: How do we regain the political initiative vis-à-vis the destructive forces of unbridled capitalist globalisation? Instead, the political scene is predominantly grey on grey, where, for example, the left-wing pro-globalisation agenda of giving a political shape to a global society growing together economically and digitally can no longer be distinguished from the neoliberal agenda of political abdication to the blackmailing power of the banks and of the unregulated markets. (Kindle Locations 590-595)

So the distance between Rothstein and Habermas is substantial: Rothstein ultimately chalks up the Trump victory to a successful marketing campaign (“crooked Hillary”), whereas Habermas believes that very large forces within the neoliberal financial and trade regimes of the past twenty-five years have in fact worked to the disadvantage of the very people needed for achieving a majority for progressive politics.

I find it interesting that Habermas does not address the themes of radical nationalism, xenophobia, racism, and anti-Semitism that are raised by populist parties in many European countries and the United States. In his telling of the story, it is an issue of interests and structural advantages and disadvantages for various groups. By implication, the racism of the far right will subside if the US Democratic Party or progressive parties in France, Germany, or the Netherlands succeed in redefining the social contract in a way that is more favorable for the less advantaged citizens in their societies. Interestingly, this is exactly the argument constructed by Manuel Muñiz in his contribution to the volume, “Populism and the need for a new social contract.” Here are Muñiz’s central ideas:

The decoupling of productivity and wages is the explanation behind the structural stagnation of salaries of the middle class and the increase in inequality within our societies. Wealth is being concentrated in the hands of those that invest in and own the robots and algorithms while most of those living off labour wages are struggling. The McKinsey Global Institute recently reported that over 80% of US households had seen their income stagnate or decline in the period 2009-2016. (Kindle Locations 224-227)

The people most negatively affected by these trends are the abandoned of our time, the ignored, and are beginning to constitute a new political class. The embodiment of this new class is not just the unemployed but also the underemployed and the working poor – people who have seen economic opportunity escape from them over the last few decades. (Kindle Locations 230-232)

And here is a preliminary description of the new social contract he believes we will need:

The appearance and design of the new social contract that we need is only now starting to be discussed. What is clear, however, is that it will require a big change in the way the state procures its income, possibly through a reinvigorated industrial policy, large public venture capital investments and others. In essence, if wealth is concentrated in capital some form of democratisation of capital holding will be required. On the spending side, changes will also be required. This might adopt the form of negative income taxes, the establishment of a universal basic income, or the launch of public employment schemes. (Kindle Locations 246-250)

So there seems to be a degree of consensus among these contributors to Social Europe: the best strategy for fighting radical right-wing populism, and the tendencies towards racism and authoritarianism that it brings with it, is to re-establish the robust terms of social democracy that have the potential to offset the destructive structural dynamics of contemporary neoliberal capitalism. This means a more active state; more redistribution; more regulation of the financial industry and other sectors; and a more level playing field for all citizens in our democracies. And these are precisely the political values that Tea Party conservativism, Trumpism, and mainstream Republicans agree about; their rhetoric has demonized precisely these kinds of policies for decades. What would it take for the parties of the left to embrace the pro-working class policies described here? And is the underlying suspicion voiced by Rothstein above actually correct: that the Democratic Party is so beholden to large corporate interests that it is incapable of adopting these kinds of platforms?

Perspectives on transport history

I view transport as a crucial structuring condition in society that is perhaps under-appreciated and under-studied. The extension of the Red Line from Harvard Square (its terminus when I was a graduate student) to Davis Square in Somerville a decade later illustrated the transformative power of a change in the availability of urban transportation; residential patterns, the creation of new businesses, and the transformation of the housing market all shifted rapidly once it was possible to get from Davis Square to downtown Boston for a few dollars and 30 minutes. The creation of networks of super-high-speed trains in Europe and Asia does the same for the context of continental-scale economic and cultural impacts. And the advent of container shipping in the 1950’s permitted a substantial surge in the globalization of the economy by reducing the cost of delivery of products from producer to consumer. Containers were a disruptive technology. It is clear that transportation systems are a crucial part of the economic, political, and cultural history of a place larger than a village; and this is true at a full range of scales.

We can look at the history of transport from several perspectives. First, we can focus on the social imperatives (including cultural values) that have influence on the development and elaboration of a transportation system. (Frank Dobbin considers some of these factors in his Forging Industrial Policy: The United States, Britain, and France in the Railway Age, where he considers the substantial impact that differences in political culture had on the build-out of rail networks in France, Germany, and the United States; link.) Second, we can focus on the social and political consequences that flow from the development of a new transportation system. For example, ideas and diseases spread further and faster; new population centers arise; businesses develop closer relationships with each other over greater distances. And third, we can consider the historiography of the history of transport — the underlying assumptions that have been made by various historians who have treated transport as an important historical phenomenon.

Over fifty years ago L. Girard treated these kinds of historical effects in his contribution to Cambridge Economic History of Europe: Volume VI (Parts I and II), Part I, in a chapter dedicated to “Transport”. He provides attention to the main modalities of transport — roads, sea, rail. In each case the technology and infrastructure are developed in ways that illustrate significant contingency. Consider his treatment of the development of the English road network.

Eventually the English network, the spontaneous product of local decisions, progressed out of this state of disorganization. Its isolated segments were linked up and ultimately provided a remarkably comprehensive network corresponding to basic national requirements. By trial and error and by comparing their processes, the trustees and their surveyors arrived at a general notion of what a road should be. (217) 

(Notice the parallels that exist between this description and the process through which the Internet was built out in the 1980s and 1990s.)

 Similar comments are offered about the American rail system.

The American railroad was the product of improvisation, in contrast to the English track, which was built with great care. At first all that was required was a fairly rough and ready line which could operate with a minimum amount of equipment. Then as traffic increased and profits began to be made, the whole enterprise was transformed to take account of the requirements of increased traffic and of the greater financial possibilities. (232)

Despite all their improvisations and wastage, the American railroads astonished Europe, which saw a whole continent come to life in the path of the lines. The railways opened up America for a second time. By 1850 the east-west link between western Europe and the Mississippi valley was already created by means of the States on the Atlantic seaboard. The supremacy of the Chicago-New York axis had become established, at the expense of the South and of Canada, which were taking more time to get organized. America swung away from a north-south to an east-west orientation. (233)

And here is a somewhat astounding claim:

The northern railways allowed the Union to triumph in the Civil War, which was fought in part to determine the general direction to be taken by the future railways. (233-234)

Also surprising is the role that Girard attributes to the politics of railroads in the ascendancy of Napoleon III in 1851 (239).

Here is Girard’s summary of the large contours of the development of transport during this critical period:

Whatever the course of future history, the century of the railway and the steamer marks a decisive period in the history of transport, and that of the world. Particular events in political history often tend to assume less and less importance as time goes on. But the prophecies of Saint-Simon on the unification of the planet, and the meeting of the races for better or for worse, remain excitingly topical. Man has changed the world, and the world has changed man — in a very short time indeed. (273)

This history was written in 1965, over fifty years ago. One thing that strikes the contemporary reader is how disinterested the author appears to be in cause and effect. He does not devote much effort to the question, what forces drove the discoveries and investments that resulted in a world-wide network of railways and steamships? And he does not consider in any substantial detail the effects of this massive transformation of activities at a national and global scale. Further, Gerard gives no indication of interest in the social context or setting of transport — how transport interacted with ordinary people, how it altered the environment of everyday life, how it contributed to social problems and social solutions. It seems reasonable to believe that the history of transport during this period would be written very differently today.

(Prior posts have given attention to transport as a causal factor in history; link.)

New understandings of populism

 

It is apparent, on this first round of the presidential elections in France, that we urgently need to understand better the dynamics and causes of radical populism in democratic polities. What is populism? Why does it have such virulence in the current moment as a political movement? What roles do racism, xenophobia, resentment, and economic fear play in the readiness of ordinary citizens in Europe and America to support radical populist candidates and platforms?

The topic has been the subject of research by very talented investigators over the past twenty years. Several recent books are especially relevant in the current moment. Particularly relevant are Cas Mudde and Cristobal Rovira Kaltwasser’s Populism: A Very Short Introduction; Jan-Werner Muller’s What Is Populism?; and a recent collection by Social Europe edited by Henning Meyer, Understanding the Populist Revolt. Taken together, the three sources provide an excellent basis for thinking further about the nature of radical populism.

Mudde and Kaltwasser argue that populism differs from other political umbrella terms (socialism, fascism) in one important respect: it is less specific in identifying a well defined ideological program. It is, in their words, “an essentially contested concept”. Here are a few of their central ideas:

A more recent approach considers populism, first and foremost, as a political strategy employed by a specific type of leader who seeks to govern based on direct and unmediated support from their followers. It is particularly popular among students of Latin American and non-Western societies. The approach emphasizes that populism implies the emergence of a strong and charismatic figure, who concentrates power and maintains a direct connection with the masses. (kl 677-680)

Beyond the lack of scholarly agreement on the defining attributes of populism, agreement is general that all forms of populism include some kind of appeal to “the people” and a denunciation of “the elite.” Accordingly, it is not overly contentious to state that populism always involves a critique of the establishment and an adulation of the common people. More concretely, we define populism as a thin-centered ideology that considers society to be ultimately separated into two homogeneous and antagonistic camps, “the pure people” versus “the corrupt elite,” and which argues that politics should be an expression of the volonté générale (general will) of the people. (kl 700-705)

This means that populism can take very different shapes, which are contingent on the ways in which the core concepts of populism appear to be related to other concepts, forming interpretative frames that might be more or less appealing to different societies. Seen in this light, populism must be understood as a kind of mental map through which individuals analyze and comprehend political reality. It is not so much a coherent ideological tradition as a set of ideas that, in the real world, appears in combination with quite different, and sometimes contradictory, ideologies. (kl 713-717)

A common thread of populist rhetoric is that the movement is “anti-elitist” and that it speaks on behalf of “the people”. Elites, according to populist leaders, have dominated policy and captured the benefits of society; “the people” have been left behind by elites who care nothing for their wellbeing. These tropes make perfect interpretive sense of Trumpism — the campaign’s attack on the media, scientists, politicians, and universities, its virulent personal attacks against Hillary Clinton, and its efforts to divide “the real Americans” from others — immigrants, Mexicans, Muslims, Jews, and urban dwellers. And this is the most important point: by claiming to speak uniquely for “the people”, there is an implicit openness to authoritarianism in populist politics.

So what is “not-Populism”? What is a political ideology and movement that falls outside the populist rubric? They identify pluralism as the main rival:

Pluralism is the direct opposite of the dualist perspective of both populism and elitism, instead holding that society is divided into a broad variety of partly overlapping social groups with different ideas and interests. Within pluralism diversity is seen as a strength rather than a weakness. Pluralists believe that a society should have many centers of power and that politics, through compromise and consensus, should reflect the interests and values of as many different groups as possible. Thus, the main idea is that power is supposed to be distributed throughout society in order to avoid specific groups— be they men; ethnic communities; economic, intellectual, military or political cadres, etc.— acquiring the capacity to impose their will upon the others. (kl 733-738)

Mudde and Kaltwasser pay close attention to what seems like the most important current problem: mobilization around populist political agendas.

By mobilization we mean the engagement of a wide range of individuals to raise awareness of a particular problem, leading them to act collectively to support their cause. Overall, three types of populist mobilization can be identified: personalist leadership, social movement, and political party. (kl 1246-1248)

They highlight three kinds of mechanisms of mobilization: social movements, charismatic leaders, and local grassroots organizations. (See an earlier post on work by McAdam and Kloos on racialized social movements in the United States; link.)

What factors lead to success in populist mobilization?

For any political actor to be successful, there has to be a demand for her message. Most populist actors combine populism with one or more so-called host ideologies, such as some form of nationalism or socialism. Although populism is often noted as a reason for their success, many electoral studies instead focus exclusively on the accompanying features, such as xenophobia in western Europe or socioeconomic support for disadvantaged groups in Latin America. This is in part a consequence of the lack of available data at the mass level. Empirical studies of populist attitudes are still in their infancy, but they do show that populist attitudes are quite widespread among populations in countries with relevant populist parties (e.g., Netherlands) and social movements (e.g., the United States) as well as in countries with no relevant populist actors (e.g., Chile). (Kindle Locations 2063-2069)

This passage highlights some of the kinds of messages that populists have deployed to support mobilization — xenophobia and its cousins, and “nation first!” appeals for economic improvement for “the people”. Mudde and Kaltwasser highlight the use of mistrust as a political theme — “elites” are abusing “the people’s” interests and needs, the elites cannot be trusted.  Appeals by populist leaders to fear, mistrust, and resentment of others have proven widespread and durable in numerous countries, including the recent presidential campaign in the United States.

A crucially important question before us is why racist and xenophobic attitudes appear to be becoming more common and more readily mobilized, in Europe and in the United States. Why is the rhetoric of division and hate so powerful in today’s politics? Mudde and Kaltwasser do not shed much light on this question; indeed, they barely confront the topic. The terms “hate” and “race” do not appear in the book at all. They address the topic of xenophobia more generally (largely in the context of immigration issues). But they do not consider the more basic question: why is hate such a powerful political theme in the politics of extremist populism?

The other two books mentioned above provide more insight into this question, and I will return to them in a subsequent post.

*     *     *

There is today a little bit of good news for everyone concerned about the ascendancy of extremist populist politics in modern democracies. It appears that political novice and moderate candidate Emmanuel Macron has slightly bested far-right populist Marine Le Pen in today’s French election results (23.7% vs. 21.8%, with 96% of polls reported). So the final round will involve a run-off election between the two leading candidates, and almost all commentators agree that the advantage in the second round will go to Macron. So the anxiety felt by many around the world that France would follow Great Britain (Brexit) and the United States (Trump) with an unexpected victory for the extreme right populist position is now much abated.

Complexity and contingency

One of the more intriguing currents of social science research today is the field of complexity theory. Scientists like John Holland (Complexity: A Very Short Introduction), John Miller and Scott Page (Complex Adaptive Systems: An Introduction to Computational Models of Social Life), and Joshua Epstein (Generative Social Science: Studies in Agent-Based Computational Modeling) make bold and interesting claims about how social processes embody the intricate interconnectedness of complex systems.

John Holland describes some of the features of behavior of complex systems in these terms in Complexity:

  • self-organization into patterns, as occurs with flocks of birds or schools of fish  
  • chaotic behaviour where small changes in initial conditions (‘ the flapping of a butterfly’s wings in Argentina’) produce large later changes (‘ a hurricane in the Caribbean’)  
  • ‘fat-tailed’ behaviour, where rare events (e.g. mass extinctions and market crashes) occur much more often than would be predicted by a normal (bell-curve) distribution  
  • adaptive interaction, where interacting agents (as in markets or the Prisoner’s Dilemma) modify their strategies in diverse ways as experience accumulates. (p. 5)

In CAS the elements are adaptive agents, so the elements themselves change as the agents adapt. The analysis of such systems becomes much more difficult. In particular, the changing interactions between adaptive agents are not simply additive. This non-linearity rules out the direct use of PDEs in most cases (most of the well-developed parts of mathematics, including the theory of PDEs, are based on assumptions of additivity). (p. 11)

Miller and Page put the point this way:

One of the most powerful tools arising from complex systems research is a set of computational techniques that allow a much wider range of models to be explored. With these tools, any number of heterogeneous agents can interact in a dynamic environment subject to the limits of time and space. Having the ability to investigate new theoretical worlds obviously does not imply any kind of scientific necessity or validity— these must be earned by carefully considering the ability of the new models to help us understand and predict the questions that we hold most dear. (Complex Adaptive Systems, kl 199)

Much of the focus of complex systems is on how systems of interacting agents can lead to emergent phenomena. Unfortunately, emergence is one of those complex systems ideas that exists in a well-trodden, but relatively untracked, bog of discussion. The usual notion put forth underlying emergence is that individual, localized behavior aggregates into global behavior that is, in some sense, disconnected from its origins. Such a disconnection implies that, within limits, the details of the local behavior do not matter to the aggregate outcome. Clearly such notions are important when considering the decentralized systems that are key to the study of complex systems. Here we discuss emergence from both an intuitive and a theoretical perspective. 

(Complex Adaptive Systems, kl 832)

As discussed previously, we have access to some useful “emergence” theorems for systems that display disorganized complexity. However, to fully understand emergence, we need to go beyond these disorganized systems with their interrelated, helter-skelter agents and begin to develop theories for those systems that entail organized complexity. Under organized complexity, the relationships among the agents are such that through various feedbacks and structural contingencies, agent variations no longer cancel one another out but, rather, become reinforcing. In such a world, we leave the realm of the Law of Large Numbers and instead embark down paths unknown. While we have ample evidence, both empirical and experimental, that under organized complexity, systems can exhibit aggregate properties that are not directly tied to agent details, a sound theoretical foothold from which to leverage this observation is only now being constructed. 

(Complex Adaptive Systems, kl 987)

And here is Joshua Epstein’s description of what he calls “generative social science”:

The agent-based computational model— or artificial society— is a new scientific instrument. 1 It can powerfully advance a distinctive approach to social science, one for which the term “generative” seems appropriate. I will discuss this term more fully below, but in a strong form, the central idea is this: To the generativist, explaining the emergence2 of macroscopic societal regularities, such as norms or price equilibria, requires that one answer the following question:  

The Generativist’s Question 

*     How could the decentralized local interactions of heterogeneous autonomous agents generate the given regularity?  

The agent-based computational model is well-suited to the study of this question since the following features are characteristics. (5)

Here Epstein refers to the characteristics of heterogeneity of actors, autonomy, explicit space, local interactions, and bounded rationality. And he believes that it is both possible and mandatory to show how higher-level social characteristics emerge from the rule-governed interactions of the agents at a lower level.
 
There are differences across these approaches. But generally these authors bring together two rather different ideas — the curious unpredictability of even fairly small interconnected systems familiar from chaos theory, and the idea that there are simple higher level patterns that can be discovered and explained based on the turbulent behavior of the constituents. And they believe that it is possible to construct simulation models that allow us to trace out the interactions and complexities that constitute social systems.

So does complexity science create a basis for a general theory of society? And does it provide a basis for understanding the features of contingency, heterogeneity, and plasticity that I have emphasized throughout? I think these questions eventually lead to “no” on both counts.

Start with the fact of social contingency. Complexity models often give rise to remarkable and unexpected outcomes and patterns. Does this mean that complexity science demonstrates the origin of contingency in social outcomes? By no means; in fact, the opposite is true. The outcomes demonstrated by complexity models are in fact no more than computational derivations of the consequences of the premises of these models. So the surprises created by complex systems models only appear contingent; in fact they are generated by the properties of the constituents. So the surprises produced by complexity science are simulacra of contingency, not the real thing.

Second, what about heterogeneity? Does complexity science illustrate or explain the heterogeneity of social things? Not particularly. The heterogeneity of social things — organizations, value systems, technical practices — does not derive from complex system effects; it derives from the fact of individual actor interventions and contingent exogenous influences.

Finally, consider the feature of plasticity — the fact that social entities can “morph” over time into substantially different structures and functions. Does complexity theory explain the feature of social plasticity? It does not. This is simply another consequence of the substrate of the social world itself: the fact that social structures and forces are constituted by the actors that make them up. This is not a systems characteristic, but rather a reflection of the looseness of social interaction. The linkages within a social system are weak and fragile, and the resulting structures can take many forms, and are subject to change over time.

The tools of simulation and modeling that complexity theorists are in the process of developing are valuable contributions, and they need to be included in the toolbox. However, they do not constitute the basis of a complete and comprehensive methodology for understanding society. Moreover, there are important examples of social phenomena that are not at all amenable to treatment with these tools.

This leads to a fairly obvious conclusion, and one that I believe complexity theorists would accept: that complexity theories and the models they have given rise to are a valuable contribution; but they are only a partial answer to the question, how does the social world work?

Observation, measurement, and explanation

An earlier post reiterated my reasons for doubting that the social sciences can in principle give rise to general theories that serve to organize and predict the domain of social phenomena. The causes of social events are too heterogeneous and conjunctural to permit this kind of systematic representation.

 
That said, social behavior and social processes give rise to very interesting patterns at the macro scale. And it is always legitimate took ask what the causes are that produce these patterns. Consider the following graphs. They are drawn very miscellaneously from a range of social science disciplines.

 
 
 

These graphs represent many different kinds of social behavior and processes. A few are synchronic — snapshots of a variable at a moment in time. The graph of India’s population age structure falls in this category, as do the graphs of India’s literacy rates. Most are diachronic, representing change over time. The majority show an apparent pattern of stochastic change, even in cases where there is also a measurable direction of change indicating underlying persistent causes. Graphs of stock market activity fall in this category, with random variations of prices even during a consistent period of rising or falling prices.

The graph representing the evolution of China’s agricultural economy tells an interesting and complicated story. It shows rising productivity in agriculture and (since 1984) a sharp decline in the proportion of the labor force involved in agriculture — an important cause of China’s urban growth and the growth of its internal migrant population. And it shows a long-term decline in the share of the national economy played by agricultural production overall, from about 40% in 1969 to less than 15% in 2005. What these statistics convey is a period of fundamental change in China, in economy, urbanization, and ultimately in politics.

The graph of the composition of the US population is a time series graph that tells a complicated story as well — a smooth rise in total national population composed of shifting shares of population across the regions of the country. These shifts of population shares across the region’s of the country demand historical and causal explanation.

The graph of India’s literacy rates over age warrants comment. It appears to give a valid indication of several important social realities — a persistent gap between men and women of all ages, and lower literacy among older men and women. But the graph also displays variation that can only reflect some sort of artifact from the data collection: literacy rates plummet at the decade and half decade, for both men and women. Plainly there is a problem with the data represented in this graph; nothing could explain a 15% discrepancy in literacy rates between 57-year-old men and 60-year-old men. The same anomalous pattern is evident in the female graph as well. Essentially there are two distinct data series represented here: the decade and half-decade series (low) and the by-year series (high). There is no way of telling from the graph which series should be given greater credibility. The other chart representing state literacy rates is of interest as well. It allows us to see that there are substantial gaps across states in terms of literacy — Kerala’s literacy rate in 1981 is 2.5 times higher than that of Bihar in that year. And some states have made striking progress in literacy between 1981 and 2001 (Arunachal Pradhesh) while other states have shown less proportional increases (Kerala). Here though we can ask whether the order of states on the graph makes sense. The states are ranked from high to low literacy rates. Perhaps it would be more illuminating to group states by regions so it is possible to draw some inferences and comparisons about similarly situated states.

The graph representing grain price correlations across commodities in Qing China demands a different kind of explanation. We need to be able to identify a mechanism that causes prices in different places to converge to a common market price separated by the cost of transport between these places and the relative utilities of wheat, sorghum, and millet. The mechanism is that of mobile price-sensitive traders responding to information about prices in different locations. The map demonstrates the existence of these mechanisms of communication and transportation on the ground. This is a paradigm example of a mechanism-based explanation. (This example comes from Rawski and Li, eds., Chinese History in Economic Perspective (Studies on China).)

The graph representing the rank order of city sizes is perhaps the most intriguing among all of these. There is nothing inherently implausible about a population distributed across five cities of comparable size and a hundred towns of comparable size — and yet this hypothetical case would display a size distribution radically different from the Zipf law. So what explanation is available to account the account for the empirical pattern almost universally observed? Various scholars have argued that the regularity is the result of very simple conditions that apply to city growth rates over time, and that the cities in a growing population will come to conform to the Zipf regularity over time  as a simple statistical consequence of size and growth (link). It is an example, perhaps, of what Schelling calls “the inescapable mathematics of musical chairs” (Micromotives and Macrobehavior).

What these examples have in common is that they illustrate two of the key tasks of the social sciences: to measure important social variables over time and space, and to identify the social mechanisms that lead to variation in these variables. There are large problems of methodology and conceptual clarification that need to be addressed in both parts of this agenda. On the side of measurement, we have the problems of arriving at consistent and revealing definitions of economic wellbeing, using incomplete historical sources to reconstruct estimates of prices and wages, and using a range of statistical methods to validate and interpret the results. And on the explanatory side, we are faced with the difficult task of reconstructing social processes and forces in the past that may have powered the changes we are able to document, and with the task of validating the hypotheses we have put forward on the basis of historical evidence.

Science policy and the Cold War

The marriage of science, technology, and national security took a major step forward during and following World War II. The secret Manhattan project, marshaling the energies and time of thousands of scientists and engineers, showed that it was possible for military needs to effectively mobilize and conduct coordinated research into fundamental and applied topics, leading to the development of the plutonium bomb and eventually the hydrogen bomb. (Richard Rhodes’ memorable The Making of the Atomic Bomb provides a fascinating telling of that history.) But also noteworthy is the coordinated efforts made in advanced computing, cryptography, radar, operations research, and aviation. (Interesting books on several of these areas include Stephen Budiansky’s Code Warriors: NSA’s Codebreakers and the Secret Intelligence War Against the Soviet Union and Blackett’s War: The Men Who Defeated the Nazi U-Boats and Brought Science to the Art of Warfare Warfare, and Dyson’s Turing’s Cathedral: The Origins of the Digital Universe.) Scientists served the war effort, and their work made a material difference in the outcome. More significantly, the US developed effective systems for organizing and directing the process of scientific research — decision-making processes to determine which avenues should be pursued, bureaucracies for allocating funds for research and development, and motivational structures that kept the participants involved with a high level of commitment. Tom Hughes’ very interesting Rescuing Prometheus: Four Monumental Projects that Changed Our World tells part of this story.

But what about the peace?

During the Cold War there was a new global antagonism, between the US and the USSR. The terms of this competition included both conventional weapons and nuclear weapons, and it was clear on all sides that the stakes were high. So what happened to the institutions of scientific and technical research and development from the 1950s forward?

Stuart Leslie addressed these questions in a valuable 1993 book, The Cold War and American Science: The Military-Industrial-Academic Complex at MIT and Stanford. Defense funding maintained and deepened the quantity of university-based research that was aimed at what were deemed important military priorities.

The armed forces supplemented existing university contracts with massive appropriations for applied and classified research, and established entire new laboratories under university management: MIT’s Lincoln Laboratory (air defense); Berkeley’s Lawrence Livermore Laboratory (nuclear weapons); and Stanford’s Applied Electronics Laboratory (electronic communications and countermeasures). (8)

In many disciplines, the military set the paradigm for postwar American science. Just as the technologies of empire (specifically submarine telegraphy and steam power) once defined the relevant research programs for Victorian scientists and engineers, so the military-driven technologies of the Cold War defined the critical problems for the postwar generation of American accidents and engineers…. These new challenges defined what scientists and engineers studied, what they designed and built, where they went to work, and what they did when they got there. (9)

And Leslie offers an institutional prediction about knowledge production in this context:

Just as Veblen could have predicted, as American science became increasingly bound up in a web of military institutions, so did its character, scope, and methods take on new, and often disturbing, forms. (9)

The evidence for this prediction is offered in the specialized chapters that follow. Leslie traces in detail the development of major research laboratories at both universities, involving tens of millions of dollars in funding, thousands of graduate students and scientists, and very carefully focused on the development of sensitive technologies in radio, computing, materials, aviation, and weaponry.

No one denied that MIT had profited enormously in those first decades after the war from its military connections and from the unprecedented funding sources they provided. With those resources the Institute put together an impressive number of highly regarded engineering programs, successful both financially and intellectually. There was at the same time, however, a growing awareness, even among those who had benefited most, that the price of that success might be higher than anyone had imagined — a pattern for engineering education set, organizationally and conceptually, by the requirements of the national security state. (43)

Leslie gives some attention to the counter-pressures to the military’s dominance in research universities that can arise within a democracy in the closing chapter of the book, when the anti-Vietnam War movement raised opposition to military research on university campuses and eventually led to the end of classified research on many university campuses. He highlights the protests that occurred at MIT and Stanford during the 1960s; but equally radical protests against classified and military research happened in Madison, Urbana, and Berkeley.

This is a set of issues that are very resonant with Science, Technology and Society studies (STS). Leslie is indeed a historian of science and technology, but his approach does not completely share the social constructivism of that approach today. His emphasis is on the implications of the funding sources on the direction that research in basic science and technology took in the 1950s and 1960s in leading universities like MIT and Stanford. And his basic caution is that the military and security priorities associated with this structure all but guaranteed that the course of research was distorted in directions that would not have been chosen in a more traditional university research environment.

The book raises a number of important questions about the organization of knowledge and the appropriate role of universities in scientific research. In one sense the Vietnam War is a red herring, because the opposition it generated in the United States was very specific to that particular war. But most people would probably understand and support the idea that universities played a crucial role in World War II by discovering and developing new military technologies, and that this was an enormously important and proper role for scientists in universities to play. Defeating fascism and dictatorship was an existential need for the whole country. So the idea that university research is sometimes used and directed towards the interests of national security is not inherently improper.

A different kind of worry arises on the topic of what kind of system is best for guiding research in science and technology towards improving the human condition. In grand terms, one might consider whether some large fraction of the billions of dollars spent in military research between 1950 and 1980 might have been better spent on finding ways of addressing human needs directly — and therefore reducing the likely future causes of war. Is it possible that we would today be in a situation in which famine, disease, global warming, and ethnic and racial conflict were substantially eliminated if we had dedicated as much attention to these issues as we did to advanced nuclear weapons and stealth aircraft?

Leslie addresses STS directly in “Reestablishing a Conversation in STS: Who’s Talking? Who’s Listening? Who Cares?” (link). Donald MacKenzie’s Inventing Accuracy: A Historical Sociology of Nuclear Missile Guidance tells part of the same story with a greater emphasis on the social construction of knowledge throughout the process.

(I recall a demonstration at the University of Illinois against a super-computing lab in 1968 or 1969. The demonstrators were appeased when it was explained that the computer was being used for weather research. It was later widely rumored on the campus that the weather research in question was in fact directed towards considering whether the weather of Vietnam could be manipulated in a militarily useful way.)

Social science or social studies?

A genuinely difficult question is this: does the idea of a rigorous “social science” really make sense, given what we know of the nature of the social world, the nature of human agency, and the nature of historical change?

There are of course large areas of social inquiry that involve genuine observation and measurement: demography, population health statistics, survey research, economic activity, social statistics of various kinds. Part of science is careful observation of a domain and analysis of the statistical patterns that emerge; so it is reasonable to say that demography, public health, and opinion research admit of rigorous empirical treatment.

Second, it is possible to single out complex historical events or processes for detailed empirical and historical study: the outbreak of WWI, the occurrence and spread of the Spanish influenza epidemic, the rise of authoritarian populism in Europe. Complex historical events like these admit of careful evidence-based investigation, designed to allow us to better understand the sequence of events and circumstances that made them up. And we can attempt to make sense of the connections that exist within such sequences, whether causal, cultural, or semiotic.

Third, it is possible to identify causal connections among social events or processes: effective transportation networks facilitate the diffusion of ideas and germs; price rises in a commodity result in decreases in consumption of the commodity; the density of an individual’s social networks influences the likelihood of career success; etc. It is perfectly legitimate for social researchers to attempt to identify these causal connections and mechanisms, and further, to understand how these kinds of causal influence work in the social world. A key goal of science is explanation, and the kinds of inquiry mentioned here certainly admit of explanatory hypotheses. So explanation, a key goal of science, is indeed feasible in the social realm.

Fourth, there are “system” effects in the social world: transportation, communication, labor markets, electoral systems — all these networks of interaction and influence can be seen to have effects on the pattern of social activity that emerge in the societies in which they exist. These kinds of effects can be studied from various points of view — empirical, formal, simulations, etc. These kinds of investigation once again can serve as a basis for explanation of puzzling social phenomena.

This list of legitimate objects of empirical study in the social world, resulting in legitimate and evidence-based knowledge and explanation, can certainly be extended. And if being scientific means no more than conducting analysis of empirical phenomena based on observation, evidence, and causal inquiry, then we can reasonably say that it is possible to take a scientific attitude towards empirical problems like these.

But the hard question is whether there is more to social science than a fairly miscellaneous set of results that have emerged through study of questions like these. In particular, the natural sciences have aspired to formulating fundamental general theories that serve to systematize wide ranges of natural phenomena — the theory of universal gravitation or the theory of evolution through natural selection, for example. The goal is to reduce the heterogeneity and diversity of natural phenomena to a few general theoretical hypotheses about the underlying reality of the natural world.

Are general theories like these possible in the social realm?

Some theorists have wanted to answer this question in the affirmative. Karl Marx, for example, believed that his theory of the capitalist mode of production provided a basis for systematizing and explaining a very wide range of social data about the modern social world. It was this supposed capacity for systematizing the data of the modern world that led Marx to claim that he was providing a “science of society”.

But it is profoundly dubious that this theory, or any similarly general theory, can play the role of a fundamental theory of the social world, in the way that perhaps electromagnetic theory or quantum mechanics play a fundamental role in understanding the natural world.

The question may seem unimportant. But in fact, to call an area of inquiry “science” brings some associations that may not be at all justified in the case of study of the social world. In particular, science is often thought to be comprehensive, predictive, and verifiable. But knowledge of the social world falls short in each of these ways. There is no such thing as a comprehensive or foundational social theory, much as theorists like Marx have thought otherwise. Predictions in the social realm are highly uncertain and contingent. And it is rare to have a broad range of social data that serves to “confirm” or “verify” a general social theory.

Here is one possible answer to the question posed above, consistent with the points made here. Yes, social science is possible. But what social science consists in is an irreducible and pluralistic family of research methods, observations, explanatory hypotheses, and mid-level theories that permit only limited prediction and that cannot in principle serve to unify the social realm under a single set of theoretical hypotheses. There are no grand unifying theories in the social realm, only an open-ended set of theories of the middle range that can be used to probe and explain the social facts we can uncover through social and historical research.

In fact, to the extent that the ideas of contingency, heterogeneity, plasticity, and conjuncturality play the important role in the social world that I believe they do, it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that there are very narrow limits to the degree to which we can aspire to systematic or theoretical explanation in the social realm. And this in turn suggests that we might better describe social inquiry as a set of discrete and diverse social studies rather than unified “social science“. We might think of the domain of social knowledge better in analogy to the contents of a large and diverse tool box than in analogy to an orrery that predicts the “motions” of social structures over time.

 

The soft side of critical realism

Critical realism has appealed to a range of sociologists and political scientists, in part because of the legitimacy it renders for the study of social structures and organizations. However, many of the things sociologists study are not “things” at all, but rather subjective features of social experience — mental frameworks, identities, ideologies, value systems, knowledge frameworks. Is it possible to be a critical realist about “subjective” social experience and formations of consciousness? Here I want to argue in favor of a CR treatment of subjective experience and thought.

First, let’s recall what it means to be realist about something. It means to take a cognitive stance towards the formation that treats it as being independent from the concepts we use to categorize it. It is to postulate that there are facts about the formation that are independent from our perceptions of it or the ways we conceptualize it. It is to attribute to the formation a degree of solidity in the world, a set of characteristics that can be empirically investigated and that have causal powers in the world. It is to negate the slogan, “all that is solid melts into air” with regard to these kinds of formations. “Real” does not mean “tangible” or “material”; it means independent, persistent, and causal.

So to be realist about values, cognitive frameworks, practices, or paradigms is to assert that these assemblages of mental attitudes and features have social instantiation, that they persist over time, and that they have causal powers within the social realm. By this definition, mental frameworks are perfectly real. They have visible social foundations — concrete institutions and practices through which they are transmitted and reproduced. And they have clear causal powers within the social realm.

A few examples will help make this clear.

Consider first the assemblage of beliefs, attitudes, and behavioral repertoires that constitute the race regime in a particular time and place. Children and adults from different racial groups in a region have internalized a set of ideas and behaviors about each other that are inflected by race and gender. These beliefs, norms, and attitudes can be investigated through a variety of means, including surveys and ethnographic observation. Through their behaviors and interactions with each other they gain practice in their mastery of the regime, and they influence outcomes and future behaviors. They transmit and reproduce features of the race regime to peers and children. There is a self-reinforcing discipline to such an assemblage of attitudes and behaviors which shapes the behaviors and expectations of others, both internally and coercively. This formation has causal effects on the local society in which it exists, and it is independent from the ideas we have about it. It is by this set of factors, a real part of local society. (If is also a variable and heterogeneous reality, across time and space.) We can trace the sociological foundations of the formation within the population, the institutional arrangements through which minds and behaviors are shaped. And we can identify many social effects of specific features of regimes like this. (Here is an earlier post on the race regime of Jim Crow; link, link.)

Here is a second useful example — a knowledge and practice system like Six Sigma. This is a bundle of ideas about business management. It involves some fairly specific doctrines and technical practices. There are training institutions through which individuals become expert at Six Sigma. And there is a distributed group of expert practitioners across a number of companies, consulting firms, and universities who possess highly similar sets of knowledge, judgment, and perception.  This is a knowledge and practice community, with specific and identifiable causal consequences.

These are two concrete examples. Many others could be offered — workingclass solidarity, bourgeois modes of dress and manners, the social attitudes and behaviors of French businessmen, the norms of Islamic charity, the Protestant Ethic, Midwestern modesty.

So, indeed, it is entirely legitimate to be a critical realist about mental frameworks. More, the realist who abjures study of such frameworks as social realities is doomed to offer explanations with mysterious gaps. He or she will find large historical anomalies, where available structural causes fail to account for important historical outcomes.

Consider Marx and Engels’ words in the Communist Manifesto:

All fixed, fast-frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions, are swept away, all new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify. All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face with sober senses his real conditions of life, and his relations with his kind.

This is an interesting riff on social reality, capturing both change and persistence, appearance and reality. A similar point of view is expressed in Marx’s theory of the fetishism of commodities: beliefs exist, they have social origins, and it is possible to demystify them on occasion by uncovering the distortions they convey of real underlying social relations.

There is one more perplexing twist here for realists. Both structures and features of consciousness are real in their social manifestations. However, one goal of critical philosophy is to show how the mental structures of a given class or gender are in fact false consciousness. It is a true fact that British citizens in 1871 had certain ideas about the workings of contemporary capitalism. But it is an important function of critical theory to demonstrate that those beliefs were wrong, and to more accurately account for the underlying social relations they attempt to describe. And it is important to discover the mechanisms through which those false beliefs came into existence.

So critical realism must both identify real structures of thought in society and demystify these thought systems when they systematically falsify the underlying social reality. Decoding the social realities of patriarchy, racism, and religious bigotry is itself a key task for a critical social sciences.

Dave Elder-Vass is one of the few critical realists who have devoted attention to the reality of a subjective social thing, a system of norms. In The Causal Power of Social Structures: Emergence, Structure and Agency he tries to show how the ideas of a “norm circle” helps explicate the objectivity, persistence, and reality of a socially embodied norm system. Here’s is an earlier post on E-V’s work (link).

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