Generativity and emergence

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The future of our democracy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Alain Touraine on social movements

Alain Touraine, now in his tenth decade, published Défense de la modernité in 2018 as a statement of his current thinking about the meaning of modernity, and it is a striking contribution. Touraine participated in a seminar on the book at the University of Milan last week, with discussions by Profs. Marino Regini (Milan), Elena Pulcini (Florence), Fabio Rugge (Pavia), Piero Bassetti (Milan), and Davide Cadeddu (Milan), and it was a privilege to be able to attend. Touraine is one of France’s most influential sociologists who has contributed important insights into the processes of social movements and contentious politics throughout his long career.

Hearing Touraine speak in Milan made me want to read more, so I’ve picked up Solidarity: The Analysis of a Social Movement: Poland 1980-1981, and it is a tour-de-force. By happy coincidence it complements the discussion I’m having in one of my courses on McAdam, Tarrow, and Tilly’s book Dynamics of Contention, and it is a fascinating complement to the kinds of analysis that MTT apply to a number of cases of contentious politics. The book is a micro-sociology of the Solidarity Movement as a social movement, and it is based on a number of extensive sets of interviews conducted by a team of French and Polish researchers under Touraine’s direction in 1981. Here are a few especially interesting snippets from the introduction to the volume.

The most important concerns the nature of the movement: Solidarity is a trade union but, obviously, more than a trade union. It is a workers’ movement born in the factories where it is now fighting against repression, but it is also a national movement and a struggle for democratisation of society… 

The second question is less obvious, but is of greater challenge to received notions. Is Solidarity a movement, an upsurge of collective will, with all the richness which we have just suggested, or is it in fact the instrument for the reconstruction of a whole society, for the renewal of social institutions and even of those economic and social forces which may eventually enter into conflict with Solidarity itself? … 

The third question follows from the brutal rupture of December 1981. At the beginning, Solidarity managed to limit itself and tis demands to such an extent that the agreements signed after the strikes of August 1980 acknowledged the Party’s leading role in the state and the sanctity of Poland’s international alliances. But was the movement not gradually drawn into a struggle for power itself? (2-3)

These research questions are crucial, because they frame the ways in which the investigators structure their research and their interpretation of the discussions that they engage in with participants.

Touraine also explains and justifies the choice to conduct their research around interviews and discussions with rank-and-file members of the movement rather than ideological leaders. His answer is brilliant:

Because, in a social movement, the participants are far more than just a base prompted by questions of immediate self-interest which it is the leaders’ job to transform into a programme and a set of political strategies. Solidarity’s enemies have often claimed that its worker members were straightforward trade unionists, whereas the leaders were political agitators. If one listens for a moment to the rank and file, it very quickly becomes apparent that this accusation is groundless, that in each of our research groups just as in every enterprise we visited, the big questions — political freedoms, national independence, industrial management, social justice — are as constantly present as they are in the debates of Solidarity’s National Committee. (4-5)

And crucially, Touraine emphasizes the self-representation and identity formation that was a key part of this movement. “The members of Solidarity are not only conscious of being downtrodden; they have a positive awareness of themselves and of their rights…. Their movement is not a mechanical reaction to oppression which has become unbearable; it manifests ideas, choices, a collective will” (5)

Familiarity with Solidarity should convince us — and one of the aims of this book is to help establish this belief — that men and women are not subject to historical laws and material necessity, that they produce their own history through their cultural creations and social struggles, by fighting for the control of those changes which will affect their collective and in particular their national life. (5)

Touraine is ahead of his time in the study of contention and social movements in emphasizing agency and the creative human effort to define themselves in meaningful terms.
Touraine describes the method of the project as “sociological intervention”. 

The most immediately apparent feature of sociological intervention is that it seeks to define the meaning which the actors themselves attribute to their action. (7)

This can be described as ethno-sociology or micro-sociology; it is a method that is designed to allow the researchers to gain a textured and accurate view of the self-understandings of the participants (both in common and sometimes diversely).

Touraine and his colleagues regard the suppression of Solidarity by the military in Poland in 1981 as the beginning of the end for totalitarian control of the Polish people:

Today, in Communist Central Europe, totalitarianism is dying. The Hungarian revolution, the Prague Spring and then Solidarity fuelled hopes, which lasted for a few days, a few months or more than a year, that it would be replaced by democracy. Everywhere, forces of arms won the day: Hungary and Czechoslovakia were invaded by a foreign army, while in Poland a military and political ruler acted as the Soviet Union wished, so avoiding the heavy diplomatic price which would have been paid for open intervention. But popular movements and uprisings are not the only victim of this violence. From now on, the Communist regime can no longer claim to speak in the name of society and history: its only foundation is force, and it has lost the legitimacy on which it based its totalitarian ambitions. (191)

These were prophetic words.

Responsible innovation and the philosophy of technology

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sociology of Trumpism

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

Ideology and culture

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

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

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

Parallels with European populist extreme right parties

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

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

The mobilization strategies and mechanisms of hate

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

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

The alt-right and white supremacy

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

International aggressivity

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

The material causes of a propensity for responding to these messages

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

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

The inevitable disappointment

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

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

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

We have our work cut out for us.

Academic social media

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The power of case studies in system safety

Images: Andrew Hopkins titles

Images: Other safety sources

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Non-action in times of catastrophe

Ivan Ermakoff’s 2008 book Ruling Oneself Out: A Theory of Collective Abdications is dense, rigorous, and important. It treats two historical episodes in close detail — the passing of Hitler’s enabling bill by the German Reichstag in the Kroll Opera House in March 1933 (“Law for the Relief of the People and of the Reich”) and the decision by the National Assembly of the French Third Republic in the Grand Casino of Vichy to transfer constitutional authority to Marshal Pétain in July 1940. These legislative actions were momentous; “the enabling bill granted Hitler the right to legally discard the constitutional framework of the Weimar Republic,” and the results in France were similar for Pétain’s government. In both events major political parties and groups acquiesced in the creation of authoritarian legislation that predictably led to dictatorship in their countries and repression of their own parties and groups. Given that these two events largely set the terms for the course of the twentieth century, this study is of great importance.

The central sociological category of interest to Ermakoff here is “abdication” — essentially an active decision by a group not to continue to oppose a social or political process with which it disagrees. Events are made by the actions of the actors, individual and collective. But Ermakoff demonstrates that sometimes events are made by non-action as well — deliberate choices by actors to cease their activity in resistance to a process of concern.

Abdication is different from surrender. It is surrender that legitimizes one’s surrender. It implies a statement of irrelevance. When the act is collective, the statement is about the group that makes the decision. The group dismisses itself. It surrenders its fate and agrees to do so, thereby justifying its subservience. This broad characterization sets the problem. Why would a group legitimize its own subservience and, in doing so, abdicate its capacity for self-preservation? (xi)

Based on a great deal of archival research as well as an apparently limitless knowledge of the secondary literature, the book sheds great light on the actions and inactions of the individual and collective actors involved in these enormously important episodes of twentieth-century history. As a result it provides a singular contribution to the theories and methods of contentious politics as well as comparative historical sociology.

The book is historical; but even more deeply, it is a sustained contribution to an actor-centered theory of collective behavior. Ermakoff wants to understand, at the level of the actors involved, what were the dynamics of decision making and action that led to abdication by experienced politicians in the face of anti-constitutional demands by Hitler and Pétain. Ermakoff believes that the obvious theories — coercion, ideological sympathy, and the structure of existing political conflicts — are inadequate. Instead, he proposes a dynamic theory of belief formation and decision making at the level of the actor through which the political actors arrive at the position they will adopt based on their observations and inferences of the behavior of others with regard to this choice. Individuals retain agency in their choices in momentous circumstances: “Individuals fluctuate because (1) they are concerned about the behavioral stance of those whom they define as peers and (2) they do not know where these peers stand. Individual oscillations are the seismograph of collective perceptions. Their uncertainty fluctuates with the degree of irresolution imputed to the group.” Ermakoff wants to understand the dynamic processes through which individuals arrive at a decision — to abdicate or to remain visibly and actively in opposition to the threatened action — and how these decisions relate to judgments made by individuals about the likely actions of other actors.

Ermakoff’s key theoretical concept is alignment: the idea that the individual actor is seeking to align his or her actions with those of members of a relevant group (what Ermakoff calls a “reference group”). “By alignment I mean the act of making oneself indistinguishable from others. As a collective phenomenon, alignment describes the process whereby the members of a group facing the same decision align their behavior with one another’s.” For individuals within a group it is a problem of coordination in circumstances of imperfect knowledge about the intentions of other actors. And Ermakoff observes that alignment can come about through several different kinds of mechanisms (sequential alignment, local knowledge, and tacit coordination), leading to substantially different dynamics of collective behavior.

Jon Elster and other researchers in the field of contentious politics and collective action refer to this kind of situation as an “assurance game” (link): an opportunity for collective action which a significant number of affected individuals would join if they were confident that sufficient others would do so as well in order to give the action a reasonable likelihood of success.

Though Ermakoff does not directly suggest this possibility, it would appear that the kinds of decision-making processes within groups involved here are amenable to treatment using agent-based models. It would seem straightforward to model the behavior of a group of actors with different “thresholds” and different ways of gaining information about the likely behavior of other actors, and then aggregating their choices through an iterative computational process.

Much of the substance of the book goes into evaluating three common explanations of acquiescence: coercion, miscalculation, and ideological collusion. And Ermakoff argues that the only way to evaluate these hypotheses is to gain quite a bit of evidence about the basis of decision-making for many of the actors. A meso-level analysis won’t distinguish the hypotheses; we need to connect the dots for individual decision-makers. Did they defer because of coercion? Because of miscalculation? Or perhaps because they were not so adamantly opposed to the fascist ideology as they professed? But significantly, Ermakoff finds that individual-level information fails to support any of these three factors as being decisive.

Part III moves from description of the cases to an effort at formulating a formal decision model that would serve to explain the processes of alignment and abdication described in the first half of the book. This part of the book has something in common with formal research in game theory and the foundations of collective action theory. Ermakoff undertakes to provide an abstract mid-level description of the processes and mechanisms through which individuals arrive at a decision about a collective action, illustrating some of the parameters and mechanisms that are central for the emergence of abdication as a coordination solution. This part of the book is a substantial addition to the literature on the theory of collective action and mobilization. It falls within the domain of theories of the mechanics of contentious politics along the lines of McAdam, Tarrow, and Tilly’s Dynamics of Contention; but it differs from the treatment offered by McAdam, Tarrow, and Tilly by moving closer to the mechanics of the individual actor. The level of analysis is closer to that offered by Mancur Olsen, Russell Hardin, or Jon Elster in describing the logic of collective action.

Consider the logic of the “abdication game” that Ermakoff presents (47):

The “authoritarian challenger” is the leader who wishes to extend his powers beyond what is currently constitutionally permissible. The “target actors” are the groups and parties who have a say in modification of the constitution and legislative framework, and in this scenario these actors are assumed to have a blocking power in the legislative or constitutional process. If they remain unified in opposition the constitutional demands will be refused and either the status quo or an attempt at an unconstitutional seizure of power will occur. If they acquiesce, the authoritarian challenger will immediately undertake a transformation of the state that gives him unlimited executive power.

There is a difficult and important question that arises from reading Ermakoff’s book. It is the question of our own politics in 2020. We have a president who has open contempt for law and political morality, who does not even pretend to represent all the people or to respect the rights of all of us; and who is entirely willing to call upon the darkest motivations of his followers. And we have a party of the right that has abandoned even the pretense of maintaining integrity, independent moral judgment, and a willingness to call the president to account for his misdeeds. How different is that environment from that of 1933 in Berlin? Is the current refusal of the Republican Party to honestly judge the president’s behavior anything other than an act of abdication — shameful, abject, and self-interested abdication?

It seems quite possible that the dilemmas created by authoritarian demands and less-than-determined defenders of constitutional principles will be in our future as well. This book was published in 2008, at the beginning of what appeared to be a new epoch in American politics — more democratic, more progressive, more concerned about ordinary citizens. The topic of abdication would have been very distant from our political discourse. Today as we approach 2020, the threat of an authoritarian, anti-democratic populism has become an everyday reality for American society.

One other aspect of the book bears mention, though only loosely related to the theory of collective action and abdication that is the primary content of the book. Ermakoff’s discussion of the challenges that come along with defining “events” is excellent (chapter 1). He correctly observes that an event is a nominal construct, amenable to definition and selection by different observers depending on their theoretical and political interests.

Events are nominal constructs. Their referents are bundles of actions and decisions that analysts and commentators abstract from the flow of historical time. This abstraction is based on a variety of criteria—temporal contiguity, causal density, and significance for subsequent happenings—routinely mobilized by synthetic judgments about the past. Because events are temporal constructs, their temporal boundaries can never be taken for granted. They take on different values depending on whether we derive these boundaries from the subjective statements left by contemporary actors (Bearman et al. 1999) or construct them in light of an analytical relevance criterion derived from the problem at hand (Sewell 1996, 877).

Ermakoff returns to this theme at the end of the book in chapter 11. The approach here taken towards “events” is indicative of one of the virtues of Ermakoff’s book (as well as the work of many of the comparative historical sociologists who have influenced him): respect for the contingency, plasticity, and fluidity of historical processes. We have noted elsewhere (linklinklink) Andrew Abbott’s insistence on the fluidity of the social world. There is some of that sensibility in Ermakoff’s book as well. None of the processes and sequences that Ermakoff describes are presented as deterministic causal chains; instead, choice and contingency remain part of the story at every level.

(Levitsky and Ziblatt’s How Democracies Die provides a stark companion piece for Ermakoff’s historical treatment of the ascendancy of authoritarianism.)

High reliability organizations

Charles Perrow takes a particularly negative view of the possibility of safe management of high-risk technologies in Normal Accidents: Living with High-Risk Technologies. His summary of the Three Mile Island accident is illustrative: “The system caused the accident, not the operators” (12). Perrow’s account of TMI is chiefly an account of complex and tightly-coupled system processes, and the difficulty these processes create for operators and managers when they go wrong. And he is doubtful that the industry can safely manage its nuclear plants.

It is interesting to note that systems engineer and safety expert Nancy Leveson addresses the same features of “system accidents” that Perrow addresses, but with a greater level of confidence about the possibility of creating engineering and organizational enhancements. A recent expression of her theory of technology safety is provided in Engineering a Safer World: Systems Thinking Applied to Safety (Engineering Systems) and Resilience Engineering: Concepts and Precepts

In examining the safety of high-risk industries, our goal should be to identify some of the behavioral, organizational, and regulatory dysfunctions that increase the likelihood and severity of accidents, and to consider organizational and behavioral changes that would serve to reduce the risk and severity of accidents. This is the approach taken by a group of organizational theorists, engineers, and safety experts who explore the idea and practice of a “high reliability organization”. Scott Sagan describes the HRO approach in these terms in The Limits of Safety:

The common assumption of the high reliability theorists is not a naive belief in the ability of human beings to behave with perfect rationality, it is the much more plausible belief that organizations, properly designed and managed, can compensate for well-known human frailties and can therefore be significantly more rational and effective than can individuals. (Sagan, 16)

Sagan lists several conclusions advanced by HRO theorists, based on a small number of studies of high-risk organizational environments. Researchers have identified a set of organizational features that appear to be common among HROs:

  • Leadership safety objectives: priority on avoiding altogether serious operational failures
  • Organizational leaders must place high priority on safety in order to communicate this objective clearly and consistently to the rest of the organization
  • The need for redundancy. Multiple and independent channels of communication, decision-making, and implementation can produce a highly reliable overall system
  • Decentralization — authority must exist in order to permit rapid and appropriate responses to dangers by individuals closest to the problems
  • culture – recruit individuals who help maintain a strong organizational culture emphasizing safety and reliability
  • continuity – maintain continuous operations, vigilance, and training
  • organizational learning – learn from prior accidents and near-misses.
  • Improve the use of simulation and imagination of failure scenarios

Here is Sagan’s effort to compare Normal Accident Theory with High Reliability Organization Theory:

The genuinely important question here is whether there are indeed organizational arrangements, design principles, and behavioral practices that are consistently effective in significantly reducing the incidence and harmfulness of accidents in high-risk enterprises, or whether on the other hand, the ideal of a “High Reliability Organization” is more chimera than reality.

A respected organizational theorist who has written on high-reliability organizations and practices extensively is Karl Weick. He and Kathleen Sutcliffe attempt to draw some useable maxims for high reliability in Managing the Unexpected: Sustained Performance in a Complex World. They use several examples of real-world business failures to illustrate their central recommendations, including an in-depth case study of the Washington Mutual financial collapse in 2008.

The chief recommendations of their book come down to five maxims for enhancing reliability:

  1. Pay attention to weak signals of unexpected events
  2. Avoid extreme simplification
  3. Pay close attention to operations
  4. Maintain a commitment to resilience
  5. Defer to expertise

Maxim 1 (preoccupation with failure) encourages a style of thinking — an alertness to unusual activity or anomalous events and a commitment to learning from near-misses in the past. This alertness is both individual and organizational; individual members of the organization need to be alert to weak signals in their areas, and managers need to be receptive to hearing the “bad news” when ominous signals are reported. By paying attention to “weak signals” of possible failure, managers will have more time to design solutions to failures when they emerge.

Maxim 2 addresses the common cognitive mistake of subsuming unusual or unexpected outcomes under more common and harmless categories. Managers should be reluctant to accept simplifications. The Columbia space shuttle disaster seems to fall in this category, where senior NASA managers dismissed evidence of foam strike during lift-off by subsuming it under many earlier instances of debris strikes.

Maxim 3 addresses the organizational failure associated with distant management — top executives who are highly “hands-off” in their knowledge and actions with regard to ongoing operations of the business. (The current Boeing story seems to illustrate this failure; even the decision to move the corporate headquarters to Chicago, very distant from the engineering and manufacturing facilities in Seattle, illustrates a hands-off attitude towards operations.) Executives who look at their work as “the big picture” rather than ensuring high-quality activity within the actual operations of the organization are likely to oversee disaster at some point.

Maxim 4 is both cognitive and organizational. “Resilience” refers to the “ability of an organization (system) to maintain or regain a dynamically stable state, which allows it to continue operations after a major mishap and/ or in the presence of a continuous stress”. A resilient organization is one where process design has been carried out in order to avoid single-point failures, where resources and tools are available to address possible “off-design” failures, and where the interruption of one series of activities (electrical power) does not completely block another vital series of activities (flow of cooling water). A resilient team is one in which multiple capable individuals are ready to work together to solve problems, sometimes in novel ways, to ameliorate the consequences of unexpected failure.

Maxim 5 emphasizes the point that complex activities and processes need to be managed by teams incorporating experience, knowledge, and creativity in order to be able to confront and surmount unexpected failures. Weick and Sutcliffe give telling examples of instances where key expertise was lost at the frontline level through attrition or employee discouragement, and where senior executives substituted their judgment for the recommendations of more expert subordinates.

These maxims involve a substantial dose of cognitive practice, changing the way that employees, managers, and executives think: the importance of paying attention to signs of unexpected outcomes (pumps that repeatedly fail in a refinery), learning from near-misses, making full use of the expertise of members of the organization, …. It is also possible to see how various organizations could be evaluated in terms of their performance on these five maxims — before a serious failure has occurred — and could improve performance accordingly.

It is interesting to observe, however, that Weick and Sutcliffe do not highlight some factors that have been given strong priority in other treatments of high-reliability organizations: the importance of establishing a high priority for system safety in the highest management levels of the organization (which unavoidably competes with cost and profit pressures), the organizational feature of an empowered safety executive outside the scope of production and business executives in the organization, the possible benefits of a somewhat decentralized system of control, the possible benefits of redundancy, the importance of well-designed training aimed at enhancing system safety as well as personal safety, and the importance of creating a culture of honesty and compliance when it comes to safety. When mid-level managers are discouraged from bringing forward their concerns about the “signals” they perceive in their areas, this is a pre-catastrophe situation.

There is a place in the management literature for a handbook of research on high-reliability organizations; at present, such a resource does not exist.

(See also Sagan and Blanford’s volume Learning from a Disaster: Improving Nuclear Safety and Security after Fukushima.)

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