The moral emotions of liberal democracy

Recent discussions in a class on democracy and the politics of hate (link) have been very stimulating and thought provoking. We have spent several weeks discussing Rawls’s ideas in Justice as Fairness: A Restatement (JF) about the features of social life in a just society that might serve to make a just democracy stable over time. Rawls explicitly raises the question of the stability of a just society — the question of whether citizens within such a society develop the social psychology necessary to support its institutions. Do just institutions work to create the moral emotions in its citizens that are necessary to sustain those institutions? This question seems to have two parts. Will citizens acquire the motivation to act in accordance with the requirements of justice and the constitution? And will citizens acquire the motivation to actively defend the institutions of democracy when they are threatened? The first might be thought of as a fairly routine duty of reciprocity, whereas the second is more demanding.

Here is how Rawls raises the question of the stability of a just society:

The second part of the argument concerns the question of the stability of justice as fairness. This is the question whether justice as fairness is able to generate sufficient support for itself. The parties are to ask whether people who grow up in a society well ordered by the two principles of justice … acquire a sufficiently strong and effective sense of justice so that they normally comply with just arrangements and are not moved to act otherwise, say, by social envy and spite, or by a will to dominate or a tendency to submit. (JF 54.2)

Rawls does not believe this is inevitable, because a liberal democracy is committed to pluralism and a diversity of “comprehensive conceptions of the good.” And some of those conceptions are fundamentally anti-democratic.

Given the actual comprehensive views existing in society, no matter what their content, there is plainly no guarantee that justice as fairness, or any reasonable conception for a democratic regime, can gain the support of an overlapping consensus and in that way underwrite the stability of its political institutions. Many doctrines are plainly incompatible with the values of democracy. (11.6)

But Rawls does believe that it is likely that a just society will create the basis for stability and continuing support by its citizens. Rawls’s ideas of the citizen’s sense of justice, the idea of an overlapping consensus, and the idea of a well-ordered society provide an embryonic theory of a political sociology for liberal democracy: citizens living in a society that they regard as just are likely (in Rawls’s view) to gain a moral psychology of trust and loyalty that leads them to act in support of the institutions of liberal democracy. He appears to believe that the conditions of justice — equal liberties, fair system of economic cooperation, limited inequalities that work to everyone’s advantage — work to encourage a specific kind of “overlapping consensus”. And he believes that these social arrangements will be respected and adhered to because they are seen to be good for each individual and good for society. Finally, he believes that this will contribute to a social psychology of cohesion and political commitment that will make a just society with a secure liberal democracy a sociologically stable set of arrangements.

When they believe that institutions or social practices are just, or fair … citizens are ready and willing to do their part in those arrangements provided they have sufficient assurance that others will also do theirs. (59.1)

A well-ordered society is stable, then, because citizens are satisfied, all things considered, with the basic structure of their society. (60.4)

Thus Rawls seems to advance the idea that children who are raised within a well-ordered society in which the requirements of justice are largely satisfied will develop into adults who have a sense of justice and a motivated and reasoned willingness to support the institutions of this society. But this idea raises a number of difficult questions. Is this a plausible view? Is it partially true? Is it just wishful thinking? And is this “moral emotion” sufficient to create the level of active support that a liberal democracy needs in times of stress?

So far we have an argument for the emergence of a set of moral emotions that produce actions based on reciprocity — compliance with institutions and laws that benefit us all. This is a limited view of what is needed to stabilize democracy in the face of anti-democratic attacks, however.

And what about the countervailing, anti-democratic emotions that are so evident today? Rawls refers to “special attitudes” like envy or spite that may interfere with the moral emotions supporting justice. But we must also consider special attitudes more specific to current concerns in a contested democracy: hatred, fear, mistrust, bigotry, and racism. These latter emotions are the building blocks of mobilization for social movements based on division and hate — the politics of the extreme right, and current circumstances in the world make clear how much of a threat to liberal democracy these movements are. Do ordinary human beings have these motivations? And do they undermine the stability of justice? Is there an ongoing contest within a pluralistic society between the emotions of justice and the emotions of hate?

There is another question to pose as well: are the political motivations that Rawls postulates strong enough to ensure the stability of democracy in the presence of militant attack by the political organizations of the extreme right? Do the emotions of fair reciprocity suffice to defeat the aggressive and violent groups of white supremacists we now confront in our society? Stability of a constitutional democracy requires a willingness of citizens to extend themselves in its defense, to act altruistically in support of principle, and to make sacrifices for its preservation during times of crisis or stress. The journalist in Turkey who continues to publish her investigative reports even in the face of threats and coercion from the state or non-state actors is an example. It would seem, then, that the motivations needed in support of democratic citizenship go beyond a simple disposition to act according to the law and constitution, which might be described as “duties of reciprocity”. There seems to be another aspect of the motivational relationship between an individual and the society in which he or she lives — what we refer to as patriotism, love of country, or devotion to the constitution and political institutions of a just society. What are these motivations? How do they arise within citizens?

Abraham Lincoln’s writings about democracy prior to the American Civil War evoke this question in particularly powerful ways. He captures effortlessly the idea of an individual’s moral allegiance to country, to fellow citizens, and to the institutions that establish the environment of “equality and liberty for all”. Especially memorable are the final lines of his first Inaugural Address in 1861:

I am loath to close. We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield, and patriot grave, to every living heart and hearthstone, all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.

These are powerful words, and what they evoke is important: the moral emotions of patriotism based on a reasoned recognition of the justice of the constitutional arrangements and values of one’s country. This is not nationalism or an expression of ethnic loyalty; rather, it is an appeal to a powerful civil emotion — the emotion of commitment to an existing constitutional order.

It is evident, then, that this topic requires significant empirical and theoretical research. What kinds of moral emotions are needed to sustain a liberal democracy? What is “democratic loyalty and patriotism”, and how does it emerge as an active feature of the moral psychology of citizens within a democracy? What conditions are needed in society to lead to the cultivation and extension of these emotions? Will citizens nurtured within circumstances governed by the principles of justice acquire the motivations needed to sustain the institutions in which the principles of justice are embodied? When democracy is threatened, will its citizens come to its defense?

Issues about microfoundations


I believe that hypotheses, theories, and explanations in the social sciences need to be subject to the requirement of microfoundationalism. This requirement can be understood in a weak and a strong version, and sometimes people understand the idea as a requirement of reductionism.  In brief, I defend the position in a weak form that does not imply a reductionist theory of social explanation. Recent discussions with Julie Zahle have led me to sharpen my understanding of the requirement of microfoundations in social theorizing and explanation. Here I would like to clarify my own thinking about the role and scope of the principle of microfoundationalism.

A microfoundation is something like this: an account of the mechanisms at the individual actor level (and perhaps at levels intermediate between actors and the current level — e.g. institutions) that work to create the structural and causal properties that we observe at the meso or macro level. A fully specified microfoundational account of a meso-level feature consists of an account that traces out (1) the features of the actors and (2) the characteristics of the action environment (including norms and institutions) which jointly lead to (3) the social pattern or causal power we are interested in. A microfoundation specifies the individual-level mechanisms that lead to the macro- or meso-level social fact. This is the kind of account that Thomas Schelling illustrates so well in Micromotives and Macrobehavior.

My thinking about the need for microfoundations has changed over the years from a more narrow requirement (“we need to have a pretty good idea of what the individual-level mechanisms are for a macro-property”) to a less restrictive requirement (“we need to have reason to believe that there are individual-level mechanisms for a macro-property”). In The Scientific Marx I liked the idea of “aggregative explanations”, which are really explanations that move from features of individual actors and their interactions, to derivations about social and collective behavior. In Varieties of Social Explanation I relaxed the idea along these lines:

This doctrine [of microfoundationalism] may be put in both a weak and a strong version. Weakly social explanations must be compatible with the existence of microfoundations of the postulated social regularities, which may, however, be entirely unknown. More strongly social explanations must be explicitly grounded on an account of the microfoundations that produce them. I will argue for an intermediate form—that we must have at least an approximate idea of the underlying mechanisms at the individual level if we are to have a credible hypothesis about explanatory social regularities at all, A putative explanation couched in terms of high-level social factors whose underlying individual-level mechanisms are entirely unknown is no explanation at all. (kl 4746)

My adherence to microfoundationalism today is a little bit weaker still. I now advocate a version of microfoundationalism that specifies only that we must be confident (an epistemic concept) that such micro-to-macro relations exist. We must be confident there are such mechanisms but not obliged to specify them. (I also hold that the best ground for having that confidence is being able to gesture plausibly towards roughly how they might work.) Another way to put it is this requirement: “No magical thinking!” That is, we exclude explanations that would only be possible if we assumed action at a distance, blocks of wood that have complicated mental lives, or intelligent beings with infinite computational faculties. A convincing way of discrediting a meso-level assertion is to give an argument that it is unlikely that real human agents would in fact act in ways that lead to this meso-level situation. (Example: Chinese planners who created the collective farming system in the Great Leap Forward assumed that collective farms would be highly productive because a “new socialist man” would emerge. This was unlikely, and therefore the individual behavior to be expected on collective farms would lead to “easy riding” and low productivity.)

Here is an effort to simplify these issues into a series of assertions:

  1. All social forces, powers, structures, processes, and laws (social features) are ultimately constituted by mechanisms at the level of individual actors. (ontological principle)
  2. When we assert the reality or causal powers of a social entity, we need to be confident that there are microfoundations that cause this social entity to have the properties we attribute to it. (microfoundations principle)
    1. A description of the microfoundations of a social entity S is an account of the circumstances and individual mechanisms that bring about patterns of individual activity resulting in the properties of S.
    2. Strong version: we must provide a credible statement of the microfoundations.
    3. Intermediate version: we must have a back-of-envelope sketch of possible microfoundations.
    4. Weak version: we must have confidence that there are microfoundations, but we don’t have to have any specific ideas about what they are.
  3. A “vertical” social explanation of the features of a social entity S is a derivation of S from facts about the individual level. This is equivalent to providing a specification of the microfoundations of S; a derivation of the properties of S from a model of the action situation of the individuals involved; an agent-based model. This is what JZ calls an individualist explanation.
  4. A “horizontal” social explanation is one in which we explain a social entity or structure S by referring to the causal properties of other meso-level entities and conditions. This is what we call a meso-level explanation. (The diagram above illustrates these ideas.)
    1. Horizontal explanations are likewise subject to the microfoundations requirement 2: the entities and powers postulated need to be such that we have good reason to believe that there are microfoundations available for these entities and properties. (Epistemic requirement)
    2. Or slightly stronger: we need to be able to offer at least a plausible sketch of the microfoundations / individual-level mechanisms that would support the postulated entities. (Epistemic+ requirement)
  5. Providing or hypothesizing about microfoundations always involves modeling the behaviors and interactions of individuals; so it requires assuming a theory of the actor. So when we try to specify or hypothesize about microfoundations for something we are obliged to make use of some theory of the actor.
  6. Traditional theories of the actor are generally too abstract and too committed to a rational-choice model.
  7. Social scientists will be better able to hypothesize microfoundations when they have richer theories of the actor. (heuristic principle)

So the ontological principle is simply that social entities are wholly fixed by the properties and dynamics of the actions of the actors that constitute them. The requirement of microfoundations simply reproduces the ontological principle, ruling out ontologically impossible relations among social entities. The requirement of microfoundations is not a requirement on what an explanation needs to look like; rather, it is a requirement about certain beliefs we need to be justified in accepting when we advance a claim about social entities. It is what JZ calls a “confirmation” requirement (or perhaps better, a justificatory requirement). A better theory of the actor supports the discovery of microfoundations for social assertions. Further, it provides a richer “sociological imagination” for macro- and meso-level sociologists. So the requirement of microfoundations and the recommendation that social scientists seek out better theories of the actor are also valuable as heuristics for social research: they provide intellectual resources that help social researchers decide where to look for explanatory links, and what kinds of mechanisms might turn out to be relevant.

Institutional designs for progressive reform

One place where Jon Elster’s philosophical thinking intersects with empirical social science is in the field of institutional design. This involves an important question: What features of institutional design can be identified as having beneficent features of operation when exercised by normal groups of individuals?

This topic has cropped up several times in Elster’s career. One important instance is the work he highlighted about alternatives to market society in Alternatives to Capitalism (Jon Elster and Karl Ove Moene, eds., 1989).  Here is how Elster and Moene put the point in their introduction:

Capitalism — actually existing capitalism — appears in many respects to be an ugly, irrational, wasteful way of organising the production and distribution of goods and services…. Five of the essays in the present volume discuss whether there could be alternatives to presently existing capitalism other than central planning. Could, for instance, central planning be tempered by the market, or capitalism tempered by planning? (1-2) 

So the core questions that arise here are these: Are there workable alternatives concerning the coordination of work and the management of property that work better than laissez-faire capitalism and wage labor? And what does “better” mean in this context? A partial answer to the “better” question might go along these lines: we want workable institutions that better embody equality and self-control than an unregulated market. “Workable” means “reasonably efficient and productive”, and self-control means something like “shop floor self-determination.”

It is important to be specific about the normative aspects of institutional design. In order to assess the goodness or badness of an institution, we need to have specific virtues that we hope it will fulfill. Here is the list of virtues that Elster and Moene identify for basic economic institutions:

We discuss some of the main normative criteria that are relevant to a comparison of different economic systems. These include static efficiency (including full employment), dynamic efficiency, self-realisation, participation, community, quality of preferences, stability, economic freedom, and income distribution. (3)

These desiderata need to be spelled out more fully. Static and dynamic efficiency as well as stability have to do with the economic performance of a set of institutional arrangements when populated by normal human beings. Are resources allocated across productive activities in an efficient way? Is labor productivity high? Do the institutions encourage high-quality production? Self-realization, participation,  economic freedom, and community are all normative goals we may have for basic social institutions. Do the institutions provide ordinary human beings the opportunities they need to fulfill their human talents and aspirations? Do the institutions provide opportunities for all participants to take part in the decision-making processes of the institution? Do these institutions afford individuals a broad range of choice in terms of how they conduct their lives?  Do the specific arrangements of the institutions promote trust, solidarity, and mutual respect among the persons involved in them? Quality of preferences has to do with the effects these institutions have on the formation of the goals and desires of the individuals involved. Do the institutions help to cultivate an appetite for what J. S. Mill described as the higher pleasures — a preference for Pushkin over push-pin? And income distribution is a feature that has both normative and empirical characteristics; highly unequal distributions may undermine stability, and they may also undermine self-realization and participation.

One alternative economic institution that is considered in detail in the volume is workers’ cooperatives — systems where the cooperative owns the capital of the enterprise and democratic rules of decision-making permit cooperative members to define work rules and income distributions. Karl Ove Moene explores this institutional variant in his contribution. Here is how Elster and Moene introduce the idea of a cooperative in the introduction:

What is a cooperative? The answer to the question might seem obvious: A cooperative is a firm in which the workers own the means of production and have full control over all economic decisions. Yet the answer, as it stands, is ambiguous and incomplete. It fails to capture the variety and complexity of existing cooperatives. (22)

A more complete and differentiated taxonomy of cooperatives is needed, since variations in institutional design can have very large consequences for the behavior of the overall institution. Here are some of the ways that cooperatives vary in the historical record:

  • Full ownership by workers or just workers’ control over decisions? (22)
  • Equal ownership rights or stratified ownership rights? (24)
  • Shop-floor democracy for all workers, or professional management team selected by the workers? (24)
  • Static business environment or rapidly changing business environment? (27)
  • Large firms or small firms? (27)
  • Production process that permits high/low level of monitoring by other workers (27)

Elster and Moene suggest that these variations of internal design and external business and technical environment make a large difference to the effectiveness of cooperative firms.

Elster and Moene argue that the workers’ cooperative alternative needs to be carefully evaluated with respect to the desiderata mentioned here.  They argue that this evaluation needs to be comparative, and it needs to proceed along two tracks — observation of the actual experience of such institutions, and application of economic theory to the fundamentals of the institutional arrangement. The economic theory of cooperatives is weak, in their assessment, but there is a fair amount of empirical data about how they work. And the empirical data is favorable to cooperatives. “The empirical literature suggests, but far from unambiguously, that cooperation and participation increase productivity” (29). They cite studies documenting lower turnover of the labor force, lower rates of absenteeism, and no strikes (29).

Also worth highlighting is Elster’s own contribution to the volume, “Self-realisation in work and politics: the Marxist conception of the good life” (127 ff.). Here Elster takes issue with several foundational premises of the pro-capitalist argument as a normative position: “(a) The best life for the individual is one of consumption … (b) Consumption is to be valued because it promotes happiness or welfare, which is the ultimate good” (127). Against these comsumerist ideals, Elster argues for the importance of self-realization — the full and free development of one’s talents and aspirations, to a reasonable extent. He contrasts self-realizing activities (mastering the piano) with activities of pure consumption (eating a tuna sandwich at your desk) and drudgery (sweeping the streets for forty years). This is plainly a normative position: a life involving self-realization is better than a life of consumption and drudgery. And it has a long pedigree, from J. S. Mill and J. J. Rousseau to Kant to Sen and Nussbaum. What Elster adds to the tradition is important, though: the idea that our ideal of personal fulfillment and a good human life is in fact a key element of the matrix by which we should evaluate alternative institutions.

This is a very interesting volume, for several reasons. The individual essays are very good, by experts like G. A. Cohen, Alec Nove, and John Roemer as well as Elster and Moene. But even more interesting is the shock value of its topic in the neo-liberal environment in which we have found ourselves for the past twenty years or so. To have serious scholars making careful, rigorous efforts to explore and evaluate “alternatives to capitalism” is very surprising in today’s environment; and yet the essays were written as recently as the late 1980s. Plainly there was practical and political interest in the topic of alternatives to capitalism in those years that has largely disappeared in today’s discourse. This suggests that somehow serious progressive thought has been muffled for the past twenty years. It is time to resurrect it.

Alford Young on race and sociology

Alford Young is professor of sociology at the University of Michigan and an expert on the life experience of inner-city African-American men. He is also chair of the department of sociology at Michigan. His 2006 book, The Minds of Marginalized Black Men: Making Sense of Mobility, Opportunity, and Future Life Chances, is based on several dozen interviews in Chicago of young men in one of the most segregated parts of the city.

Professor Young’s research falls within “cultural sociology,” and is an effort to gain more nuanced understandings of the mentalities and thinking of one segment of America’s racialized society. Young is unambiguous in endorsing the value of qualitative methods in sociology, although he observes late in the interview that his conversations with young black men are always set in the context of a set of structures of race, economy, and opportunity that need to be investigated through other methods as well.

Young has some boundary-breaking ideas about how urban sociology can be pursued, and his research is an important contribution to contemporary sociology. Here is an earlier post on Young’s work; link.

This month Young agreed to participate with me in a wide-ranging discussion about the content and aims of his research and the ways that it relates to his own early experiences as an African-American young man growing up in East Harlem. The discussion ranges over a number of topics of interest to anyone wanting to understand contemporary sociology better. He talks about the methods and content of his research (wide-ranging, intensive conversations with young inner-city men); some of the surprises this research leads to; the importance of this kind of research as an antidote to the stereotypes that white Americans and commentators often share about inner-city youth; and the question of how these qualitative interviews contribute to a level of generalization about contemporary inner-city experience.

Another important thread in the conversation has to do with Young’s own childhood and adolescence in Harlem, and the ways in which his family’s status in the world of African-Americans professionals in New York intersected with his residential experience in one of the most segregated and impoverished parts of the city. This duality of experience gave Young a cultural fluency that allow him to navigate both worlds as a social science researcher.

Young also talks about the importance that specific role models played for him in the formation of his own career goals and intellectual values: exposure to African-American civil rights lawyers as a high school student and exposure to a charismatic African-American professor in college. The professor served as a mentor to Young, permitting him to gain an appetite for a career as a researcher and teacher in the university.

Young’s work focuses on the experience of young African-American men in segregated American cities. But the insights and approach are equally relevant to a very wide range of subjects, both domestically and internationally. How do Chinese migrant workers perceive the choices open to them and the working conditions they find in Chinese cities? What is the worldview of young immigrant men and women in Stockholm, and how does that fit into the outbreak of extended rioting there in the past month? How do homeless people in Boston or Chicago think about their situations and the choices available to them? Everywhere there are distinctive human communities and bodies of experience that are worth knowing more about, and almost always the preliminary stereotypes we have about those communities are wrong or seriously incomplete. So the kind of qualitative cultural sociology to which Al Young has contributed is an important addition to sociology that can be extended in many different ways.

Here is a link to the interview.


Lack of character?

image: Stanford prison experiment

John Doris argues in Lack of Character: Personality and Moral Behavior that the basic theory of action associated with virtue ethics and the theory of moral character is most likely incorrect. The character theory maintains that individuals have stable traits that lead them to behave similarly in a range of relevant but differing circumstances. A person with the traits of honesty or compassion will behave truthfully or benevolently in a range of circumstances, when it is easy to do so and when it is more difficult.

Situationism is the competing view that maintains that people’s actions are more sensitive to features of the situation of action than to enduring underlying traits. Doris largely endorses situationism — for example, he cites experiments showing that subjects make different choices when confronted with a situation of a need for help by another person, depending on whether or not the subject recently found a small amount of money. Apparently situations that induce a “good mood” make a large difference in benevolent behavior. Rachana Kamtekar does a good job of explaining situationism as presented by moral philosophers such as Gilbert Harman; link. Kamtekar summarizes situationism in these terms:

Situationist social psychologists tell us that information about people’s distinctive character traits, opinions, attitudes, values, or past behavior is not as useful for determining what they will do as is information about the details of their situations. (458)

Doris’s argument is almost entirely grounded on the findings of experimental psychology drawn from a number of experiments designed to observe how people will behave when faced with a particular situation involving the wellbeing of others. Particularly well known are the Milgram experiment and the Stanford prison experiment performed by Philip Zimbardo and colleagues, which Doris discusses extensively; but there are many others with similar results that have been performed within social psychology as well.
It isn’t Doris’s view that there are no personality traits at all, but rather that they are small and context-specific in contrast to the general character traits cited in the literature of virtue ethics. “I allow for the possibility of temporally stable, situation-particular, ‘local’ traits that are associated with important individual differences in behavior” (25). In particular, he takes issue with the “globalism” of many theories of moral virtues and character. Those theories typically make three important assumptions about the virtues of character that Doris finds to be contradicted by the evidence of empirical research in psychology:
  1. Consistency. Character and personality traits are reliably manifested in trait-relevant behavior across a diversity of trait-relevant eliciting conditions…
  2. Stability. Character and personality traits are reliably manifested in trait-relevant behaviors over iterated trials of similar trait-relevant eliciting conditions.
  3. Evaluative integration. In a given character or personality the occurrence of a trait with a particular evaluative valence is probabilistically related to the occurrence of other traits with similar evaluative valences. (23)

He concludes that these three features are not supported by the evidence:

Systematic observation typically fails to reveal the behavioral patterns expected by globalism; globalist conceptions of personality are empirically inadequate. (23)

There are several things about Doris’s approach that I like. His insistence that moral philosophy needs to be attentive to the findings of empirical psychological research is compelling. His care in treating the philosophical theories he challenges in thoughtful detail is appealing.

What Doris doesn’t provide is any kind of theory of the actor of his own. He doesn’t favor the idea that actors possess character traits; but we are left in the dark about how he thinks our actions actually proceed. Is it a form of calculation? Is it the result of intuition and snap judgment (along the lines of Daniel Kahneman’s arguments in Thinking, Fast and Slow)? Doris doesn’t offer an alternative theory of how the actor processes a situation and arrives at an action. And in fact, it’s somewhat difficult to see how we would characterize any human behavior without recourse to something like character traits and dispositions. Is every moment a new occasion for spontaneous choice or rational calculation? Is action at a moment simply the result of unconscious prior stimulation and a little bit of cognition about the current situation?

Doris discusses a possible solution to this worry, the theory of “social cognitivism” (76 ff.).

[Social cognitivists] understand behavior as a function of each person’s “cognitive-affective personality system”: the organization of beliefs, feelings, goals, competencies, and strategies that is supposed to support “stable and distinctive patterns of intraindividual variability in behavior”. (77)

I don’t know whether the social cognitivists (e.g. Walter Mischel and Yuichi Shoda) succeed in offering a compelling empirical case for their view; but at least it provides a somewhat developed theory of the actor. In any case, it is not a framework that Doris endorses. And that seems to leave his account with a large hole in the middle: we would like to have an answer to the question, how do actors process the situations they encounter and arrive at actions to perform? What is the theory of the actor that is most plausible given a commitment to situationalism?

Here is Rachana Kamtekar’s most fundamental objection to the kinds of arguments offered by Doris and others:

It should by now be clear that the experiments which find character traits to correlate poorly with behavior rely on a very particular conception of a character trait: as an isolable and nonrational disposition to manifest a given stereotypical behavior that differs from the behavior of others and is fairly situation insensitive. (477)

In fact, Kamtekar suggests that situationism in the extreme is incompatible with almost every form of moral or practical reasoning:

Perhaps, if situationism is true, then the answer to the practical question “what can I do to take charge of my situation?”is“nothing”— the features of situations that determine behavior are so subtle and surprising that no ordinary rational strategies could enable us to be masters of our situations. But such pessimism is premature, and if it were ever to become warranted, then it is not only virtue ethics and the notion of character that we would have to jettison, but the power of practical reasoning. (491)

Pure situationism seems to run deeply contrary to our ordinary, commonsense understandings of how and why people behave as they do. Doris doesn’t have too much regard for commonsense when it comes to understanding behavior, though he does address the topic. But if we think about the people we’ve observed most closely in professional contexts, personal life, and politics, it seems hard to avoid the sober conclusion that these individuals do indeed have “character”, for better or worse, and that their characters differ. This one can be counted on to deflect responsibility for bad outcomes in his or her division; that one is solidly committed to his spouse; and that one is forever expedient in appealing for votes. People differ in these ways in our ordinary experience; so it is difficult to find the experiments of Milgram or Zimbardo sufficient to erase our reliance on the idea of persistent character traits in ordinary people. (Could we design experiments that seek to evaluate characteristics like “avoids responsibility,” “honors familial commitments,” “acts out of devotion to principle”?)

Hirschman on the passions

Numerous previous posts have emphasized the importance of having a theory of the actor when we do social science or history. Are people impulsive, emotional, envious, prudent, or moral — or a mix of all of these things in different settings? We need to have some explicit and fact-based ideas about how and why people act as they do. This is not a new discovery for philosophers, and in fact much of the history of Western philosophy has wrestled with this question — Aristotle, Augustine, Spinoza, Hume, Kant, and Hegel included.

Albert Hirschman is an important social theorist, generally classified as an economist, who often placed the varieties and sources of action at the center of his writings. (Here is an appreciation of Hirschman by Cass Sunstein in the New York Review of Books; link.) This interest in the actor is particularly evident in Hirschman’s book, The Passions and the Interests (1977) — with an interesting twist. The book is a contribution to the history of ideas rather than contemporary social theory. Hirschman wants to know how the pursuit of personal gain came to be viewed as the central human virtue, the foundational assumption of much of the social sciences, and the foundation of the liberal ideal of society. And implicitly, he wants to know if we can arrive at a more adequate theory of the good society by reconsidering some of those assumptions.

One way of characterizing Hirschman’s leading intuition in this book is the question of whether different kinds of society reflect different mentalities at the level of the ordinary actors within them. Is there a “spirit” of capitalism, a characteristic set of motives and ways of thinking that its denizens possess? Is this spirit different from those associated with feudalism or the socioeconomic system of the ancient world? And how would various passions be linked to various features of the social order? Here is a revealing passage from Vico that Hirschman thinks captures much of this agenda:

Out of ferocity, avarice, and ambition, the three vices which lead all mankind astray, [society] makes national defense, commerce, and politics, and thereby causes the strength, the wealth, and the wisdom of the republics; out of these three great vices which would certainly destroy man on earth, society thus causes the civil happiness to emerge. This principle proves the existence of divine providence: through its intelligent laws the passions of men who are entirely occupied by the pursuit of their private utility are transformed into a civil order which permits men to live in human society. (kl 240)

On this line of thought, we might say that greed and self-interest are the spirit of capitalism, honor is the spirit of feudalism, and power is the spirit of the ancient world. And it turns out that each of these ideas corresponds to a passion in traditional philosophy of action (greed for material wealth, quest for glory, thirst for power).

The central problem, according to Hirschman, was how to control the passions in action. Some theorists came to believe that the only way to control the passions was through the workings of other passions. Here is Spinoza on this idea:

An affect cannot be restrained nor removed unless by an opposed and stronger affect. (kl 294)

So how have reflective people (philosophers, social theorists) thought about the springs of human action in different epochs? Hirschman’s essay offers a careful history and review of one important strand of thinking about action, the extended debate that has existed over the nature and role of the passions in human action. He looks at this idea through a careful reading of thinkers like Augustine, Machiavelli, Spinoza, Montesquieu, the Duke of Rohan, and others. He tries to piece together the meaning that the ideas of passions and interests possessed in medieval and modern thought, how the concept of interest changed over time, and how the ideals concerning society and government were refracted as a consequence. Hirschman goes into exegetical detail about how a series of thinkers in the history of philosophy have thought about the virtues and passions, and how these were thought to contribute to various kinds of society. Here he makes the historical point linking ideas to social forms:

With or without such sophisticated justification [as offered by St. Augustine], striving for honor and glory was exalted by the medieval chivalric ethos even though it stood at odds with the central teachings … of a long line of religious writers, from St. Thomas Aquinas to Dante, who attacked glory-seeking as both vain and sinful. (kl 186)

It is Hirschman’s view that there was a very interesting evolution in thought about the passions during the early modern period. The heroic ideal was replaced by the idea that it is best for people to follow their own best interests. And this transition occurred, in part, through the swing towards positive science in the treatment of the world as expressed by Galileo and Hobbes.

Eventually self-interest came to be thought of as the antidote to arbitrary, capricious action based on more unruly passions. David Hume plays a central role in Hirschman’s account. Hume advocated for restraining the “love of pleasure” by the “love of gain” (kl 321). And “Hume similarly uses the terms ‘passion of interest’ or the ‘interested affection’ as synonyms for the ‘ avidity of acquiring goods and possessions’ or the ‘love of gain'” (kl 424). (It is significant to recall that Hume and Adam Smith were neighbors and friends in the Scottish Enlightenment.)

So the transition is more or less complete; the vice of avarice has become the virtue of the pursuit of self-interest.

Once money-making wore the label of “interests” and reentered in this disguise the competition with other passions, it was suddenly acclaimed and even given the task of holding back those passions that had long been thought to be much less reprehensible.  (kl 459)

It appears that the case for giving free rein and encouragement to private acquisitive pursuits was both the outcome of a long train of Western thought and an important ingredient of the intellectual climate of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. (kl 679)

The pursuit of gain (commerce) becomes the hidden hand that guides individual activities towards the collective good. And this idea does not originate with Adam Smith. Here is Montesquieu in the Spirit of the Laws on the advantages of commerce as a foundation for society:

The spirit of commerce brings with it the spirit of frugality, of economy, of moderation, of work, of wisdom, of tranquility, of order, and of regularity. In this manner, as long as this spirit prevails, the riches it creates do not have any bad effects. (kl 697)

And here is James Steuart about the advantages of a market society for the quality of government:

The statesman looks about with amazement; he who was wont to consider himself as the first man in the society in every respect, perceives himself eclipsed by the lustre of private wealth, which avoids his grasp when he attempts to seize it. This makes his government more complex and more difficult to be carried on; he must now avail himself of art and address as well as of power and authority. (kl 793)

The advantages that this shift in the theory of the actor made possible, according to Hirschman, were predictability and constancy (kl 520). Theorists like Machiavelli, Hobbes, Hume, and Smith argued that a science of man was possible if we postulate that action derives from an assessment of self-interest. And that science is — political economy. And the social ideal that corresponds to it is what Hegel and Marx referred to as “civil society”, where individuals pursued their own interests in their own ways. It is a liberal market society where the maximum amount of social coordination occurs through market mechanisms.

On this genealogy, interest started out as one of the three primary passions — love of power, lust, and avarice. The passions were thought to produce bad behavior; so a recurring question was how to harness the passions in more socially constructive ways. And many thinkers came to the conclusion that only the passions themselves could serve to regulate the passions — not pure reason. In particular, it was maintained that a strong regard for one’s own interests could lead to self-regulation. But the most interesting part of the evolution of meanings is that interests came to be normatively favored, and they came to be understood to be distinct from the passions.

We might call this the intellectual history of economic liberalism as a political ideology. And it is an ideology that Hirschman finds ultimately flawed. So did Tocqueville:

A nation that demands from its government nothing but the maintenance of order is already a slave in the bottom of its heart; it is the slave of its well-being, and the man who is to chain it can arrive on the scene. (kl 1141)

More generally, the anti-capitalist critiques associated with Marx, Durkheim, and the anarchists were powerful: the pure pursuit of gain has resulted in a society in which poverty, coercion, and anomie have become the lot of the majority of society.

This is very interesting work in the history of ideas and ideology. And Hirschman engages in the work for a very serious reason: to try to discern some of the sources of the systemic flaws in modern market-based society. In this regard it is interesting to compare Hirschman’s analysis of the development of the theory of the actor based on self-interest with C. B. Macpherson’s analysis of the development of the theory of “possessive individualism”. Here is a discussion of Macpherson’s theory (link).

(Here is Thomas Carlyle as anti-capitalist critic from the conservative side, on the topic of market society. He is contrasting the social order of aristocracy with the market order created by capitalism:

It was [Aristocrats’] happiness that, in struggling for their own objects, they had to govern the Lower Classes, even in this sense of governing. For, in one word, Cash Payment had not then grown to be the universal sole nexus of man to man; it was something other than money that the high then expected from the low, and could not live without getting from the low. Not as buyer and seller alone, of land or what else it might be, but in many senses still as soldier and captain, as clansman and head, as loyal subject and guiding king, was the low related to the high. With the supreme triump of Cash, a changed time has entered; there must a changed Aristocracy enter. We invite the British reader to meditate earnestly on these things. (Chartism, 58)

Carlyle is anti-liberal in more senses than one; he is reactionary and hierarchical, and he is a fierce critic of the ideal of a cash-driven market society.)

Elster on Tocqueville

Jon Elster is one of the people whose thinking about society and the social sciences has made a consistently important contribution to the philosophy of social science. So Elster’s treatment of Tocqueville as a social scientist in Alexis de Tocqueville, the First Social Scientist will be of interest to anyone who wants to know how we have come to analyze societies in the terms we have.

Elster demonstrates a deep familiarity with Tocqueville’s writings, though he focuses in this book on L’Ancien regime and Democracy in America. So Elster’s Tocqueville is textually well supported. At the same time, Tocqueville is not really a theoretical writer. Instead, it is necessary to infer his theoretical ideas from the comments he makes about historical events and actors. So Elster is forced to engage in a fair amount of rational reconstruction of the theories that underlay a variety of Tocqueville’s observations about the politics of France and America.

There are several elements of Elster’s interpretation of Tocqueville that seem particularly significant. One is Elster’s view that Tocqueville operated on the basis of a conception of social explanation that depended on social mechanisms rather than general laws. Elster believes that the most important feature of Tocqueville’s claim to being a sociologist is his consistent search for causes. The other key to Elster’s analysis of Tocqueville is his focus on features of the actor — reason, interests, and passions, or what Tocqueville refers to as “habits of the heart”.

Among the social mechanisms that Elster focuses on are those that surround preference formation. This question is plainly key to having a theory of political psychology: why do people make the choices that they do? He singles out three distinct psychological mechanisms that Tocqueville alludes to: the spillover effect, the compensation effect, and the satiation effect (kl 292). Preference formation is a topic that has consistently interested Elster, and he spends much time on the question in his early writings, including the formal question of time preferences.

What is “enlightened self-interest”? Elster finds that Tocqueville contrasts “egoism” with “enlightened self-interest” as well as with altruism. Egoism means an exclusive attention to one’s own interests in the moment. So it is opposed both to altruism (concern for the interests of others) and foresight (concern for one’s future interests) (kl 1113). (This bears out Amartya Sen’s comment in “Rational Fools” that the purely economic man is indeed close to being a social moron; link.)

Elster is particularly interested in Tocqueville’s treatment of the passions. He specifically discusses Envy, Fear, Hatred , Enthusiasm, Contempt, and Shame as emotions (passions) that often drive behavior in opposition to both interests and reason. This brings his discussion into intersection with that of Albert Hirschman in The Passions and the Interests. (The Kindle edition includes a very interesting introduction by Amartya Sen; link.) Hirschman’s book looks at the ways that early political economists and philosophers such as Smith and Hume thought about the relationships among reason, passion, and interest, with a view toward the generally moderating effects of interests on behavior in many historical settings. Elster finds a very similar line of thought in Tocqueville.

Elster addresses the topic of the micro-macro relationship in the conclusion. He finds that Tocqueville is interested in both directions of influence — from micro to macro and from macro to micro. He provides a diagram that looks a lot like an inverted version of Coleman’s boat:

Elster doesn’t put his views in these terms, but much of what he has to say about Tocqueville can be put in the category of piecing together Tocqueville’s theory of the actor: why people behave as they do. His discussions of preferences, individualism, norms, and passions all fall in the domain of a theory of the actor.

Elster’s treatment of Tocqueville is of interest in part because of its direct relevance to the explication of Tocqueville’s thought. But I find it more interesting for what it shows about Elster’s own thinking about sociological investigation. It is plain that Elster favors an actor-centered sociology. In some writings he explicitly describes his view as methodological individualism. Here the approach is somewhat more tolerant of schemes of explanation that are not directly reductionist. But it is focused on the varieties and sources of human action, and the ways that these features of action compound into unexpected social outcomes.

(Here is an earlier post where I discussed Tocqueville’s status as a founding sociologist; link.)

Actor-centered history

It is easy enough to ask the question, “How can we best explain the fall of the Roman Empire, the rise of German fascism, or the Industrial Revolution in England?” And we often want to paraphrase questions like these along causal lines: “What were some of the causes of the fall of Rome, what were the causes of the rise of fascism, what were the causes of the Industrial Revolution?”

But are these really good questions? Is this really the right way of thinking about historical explanation? What if we think that there is an overwhelming amount of contingency and path dependency in history? What if we think that the language of “cause” doesn’t work particularly well in the context of history? For that matter, what if we take most seriously the idea that history is the result of the actions and thoughts of vast numbers of actors, so it is a flow of action and knowledge rather than a sequence of causes and effects? Do these alternative thoughts about history force us to ask different questions about large historical changes?

We might consider this alternative way of thinking of history: think about “social conditions and processes” rather than discrete causes; couch historical explanations in terms of how individual actors (low and high) acted in the context of these conditions; and interpret the large outcomes as no more than the aggregation of these countless actors and their actions. Think about history as a stream or river, whose flow is influenced by the topography of the land through which it moves and the obstacles and barriers it encounters in its course.

This picture probably needs broadening in at least one important respect: our account of the “flow” of human action eventuating in historical change needs to take into account the institutional and structural environment in which these actions take place. Part of the “topography” of a period of historical change is the ensemble of institutions that exist more or less stably in the period: property relations, political institutions, family structures, educational practices. So historical explanations need to be sophisticated in their treatment of institutions and structures.

In Marx’s famous contribution to the philosophy of history, he writes that “men make their own history; but not in circumstances of their own choosing.” And circumstances can be both inhibiting and enabling; they constitute the environment within which individuals plan and act. It is an important circumstance that a given time possesses a fund of scientific and technical knowledge, a set of social relationships of power, and a level of material productivity. It is also an important circumstance that knowledge is limited; that coercion exists; and that resources for action are limited. Within these opportunities and limitations, individuals, from leaders to ordinary people, make out their lives and ambitions through action.

On this line of thought, history is a flow of human action, constrained and propelled by a shifting set of environmental conditions (material, social, epistemic). There are conditions and events that can be described in causal terms: enabling conditions, instigating conditions, cause and effect, … But here my point is to ask the reader to consider whether this language of cause and effect does not perhaps impose a discreteness of historical events that does not actually reflect the flow of history very well. History is continuous and analog; causal structures are discontinuous and digital.

Consider how Karl Dietrich Bracher approaches the problem of explaining the rise of National Socialism in The German dictatorship: The origins, structure, and effects of national socialism (1970).

Inherent in all these [prior] studies is the question of how a dictatorial regime of such dimensions could come to power so quickly and with so little or no resistance in a country with Germany’s traditions and cultural heritage…. Yet the question does remain why Germany, which after a century-long battle for democratic government had constructed, in the Weimar Republic, a seemingly perfect constitutional structure, capitulated unresistingly and within so short a period before so primitive a dictatorship as Hitler’s. (3-4)

Bracher’s own account is fundamentally couched in terms of the currency and transmission of sets of ideas and philosophies: nationalism, etatism, anti-Semitism, anti-liberalism. He gives an account of how various elements of these ideas were favored through European and German history from the early 19th century, through the revolutions of 1848, through Germany’s defeat in World War I, into the strife of the Weimar period.

It was against this background [of ideological conflict in the Weimar period] that National Socialism took shape as a new type of integrating force. Being a specifically German manifestation of European antidemocratism, it was completely attuned to the German situation and even less of an export article than Italian Fascism. This is yet another example of the limits of the conception of a universal fascism. The nationalist foundation makes for profound differences from country to country. Nor is there any monocausal explanation, whether it be based on economic, political, or ideological premises. National Socialism, like Hitler, was the product of World War I, but it was given its shape and force by those basic problems of modern German history which marked the painful road of the democratic movement. Among these were the fragility of the democratic tradition and the powerful remnants of authoritarian governmental and social institutions before and after 1848. (46)

And here is a more psychological dimension of Bracher’s explanation:

Among the special factors of the early days of National Socialism was the tremendously important part played by the spectacular rise and near-religious veneration of a Fuhrer. The organizational structure and activities of this new type of movement were based completely on the leader principle. In terms of social psychology, he represented the disenfranchised little man eager to compensate for his feelings of inferiority through militancy and political radicalism. (47)


In the final analysis, Hitler came to power as a result of a series of avoidable errors. He was neither elected freely by a majority of the German people nor were there compelling reasons for the capitulation of the Republic. However, in the end, the democratic forces were in the minority vis-a-vis the totalitarian, ditatorial parties of the National Socialists and the Communists. And in this situation a large portion of Germany’s top echelons went over to Hitler after 1933. (49)

So far Bracher has focused on the problem of origins: how did National Socialism come to prevail in Germany? But he also spends time on showing how this dictatorship ruled, and this is a simpler story. Having gained the levers of power — police, military, bureaucracy — the Nazi state was able to implement the ideology and values that brought it to power.

So Bracher’s narrative is ultimately one that has mostly to do with beliefs, knowledge systems, ideologies, and actors pursuing their purposes. It isn’t a causal narrative, but rather an interpretive analysis of mass psychology within specific historical conditions. There are large elements of the history of ideas (the ways in which antidemocratic ideologies developed in Germany and other European countries after 1848, for example) as well as elements of meaningful and purposive human action (deciding to follow, deciding to lead, deciding to mobilize).

What all of this suggests to me is an alternative way of thinking about history that has a different structure from the idea of history as a stream of causes and effects. This approach might be called “actor-centered history“: we explain an epoch when we have a story about what people thought and believed; what they wanted; and what social and environmental conditions framed their choices. It is a view of history that sounds more like composing a biography of a complex individual than it does telling the story of a bridge collapse. And it is a view that gives close attention to states of knowledge, ideology, and agency, as well as institutions, organizations, and structures.

Epochs and the social actor

It was suggested in an earlier post that important aspects of an individual’s mental furniture are influenced by the concrete historical and social circumstances in which he or she is raised (link). Let’s try to get a little more specific about this idea. How does historical context influence the behavior of the individuals who come to adulthood during its scope?

There are several kinds of practical cognitive features that seem to be historically conditioned. By “practical cognition” I mean the processes through which actors conceptualize their social environments, make sense of the activities going on around them, process their own desires and goals, and set out with a plan or strategy of action.

I can think of at least four largely independent features of social and practical cognition that seem to be importantly dependent on the social and historical context in which the individual develops from childhood to adulthood: social frameworks of interpretation; social norms; practices and habits; and enduring features of character. Let’s look at each of these in turn.

Framework of assumptions about the social world. We generally apprehend the social interactions that take place around us through stylized interpretive frameworks or models that we apply to the encounters we observe.  This seems to be particularly true when it comes to interpreting social interactions that involve power, gender, race, or ethnic identities. An observed social interaction between several actors does not bear its meaning on its sleeve; it is necessary for observers to tell themselves some kind of story about what the actions and interactions mean. And often enough those stories are couched in terms of a variety of stereotypes based on a small number of cues in the interaction.

Social norms of behavior. When individuals consider their routine choices in ordinary life, they are influenced by a range of norms and values that guide and constrain their actions.

Practices and habits. A key insight from pragmatist theory of action is the observation that much action is not deliberative and reasoned, but is rather the result of the application of one or more pertinent practices and habits. When a professor is challenged about a grade on a paper, he or she often slips into a routine set of answers. When a prosecutor approaches a defense witness he or she has a stock set of tactics and techniques for undermining the credibility of the witness. And when a politician faces a heckler, he or she likewise turns to familiar responses that have been fine-tuned in other similar circumstances.

Enduring features of character and personality.  One person is decisive, while another vacillates. One person has courage, while another is blocked by fear. One person has a strong sense of loyalty, while another is willing to jettison relationships when interests shift. In each case, the features of behavior and action that are described here seem to derive from enduring features of the individual’s mental world, not simply opportunistic adjustments to circumstances. Decisiveness, loyalty, and courage are virtues of character that some people possess in great measure and others do not.

Two things seem evident as we work our way through this list.

First, it is logical to infer that differences across these dimensions of practical cognition results in differences in behavior. The individual who perceives the social world in terms of gender or racial inferiority will behave differently from the person whose basic framework highlights human equality. People who have internalized the norm, “treat people fairly,” will act differently in an industrial strike than those who have not internalized this norm. The person who has internalized a set of practices that involve quick tit-for-tat response to perceived affront will behave differently from one whose practices and habits involve forbearance. And a person whose character includes a strong dose of decisiveness is likely to behave differently in a crisis from one who has difficulty deciding about what tie to wear in the morning.

Second, each of these features of social cognitive seem to be strongly shaped by the social experiences and social epistemology of the period. The assumptions we make about other people — the social frameworks we use for making sense of the world — are clearly learned through social experiences in our early years. A person immersed in an anti-Semitic or homophobic culture is likely enough to have fairly specific stereotypes in mind (frameworks) when trying to understand developments in the world he or she encounters. This is true for the social norms that we have internalized as well. The habits of interaction and response that we currently possess are surely the learned consequences of the interactions we have had with other people in the past, in a range of circumstances. And the habits of courage, truthfulness, and loyalty that we have embodied in our system of action and thought are likewise the learned consequences of important experiences in our early years.

These points highlight the importance of the individual’s experiences in childhood and adolescence in a variety of contexts: family, school, neighborhood, juvenile detention center, literature, television, or church or mosque. But history comes into this story at this point: there are some events that are sufficiently dramatic and pervasive that we can make a case for holding that they have a seismic influence on the processes of socialization through which the actor takes shape. Sometimes history presents its generation with a single decisive blast — Hiroshima or September 11. And sometimes the historical factor is prolonged and extended — the deprivations of the Great Leap Forward for rural Chinese people, the terror created in Cambodia by the Khmer Rouge. And in each type of case, it seems credible that the mentality of the people of an epoch are influenced by these historical events and circumstances in very fundamental ways — ways that give them distinctive modes of action and reaction.

Take the experience of coming to maturity in the Jim Crow South, as either a white man or a black woman. The Jim Crow South embodied a very specific set of ideas and norms about race and gender that were enforced, often with violence, when they were violated. Jim Crow society offered men and women, black and white, a bundle of modes of behavior for how to act in stylized circumstances. These are practices and habits. And surely some very distinctive features of personality and character emerged from the Jim Crow South as well, in both black and white southerners, and both women and men in the region.

So it seems reasonable to suggest that historical settings do have the power to affect the nature of social agency within their scope. Epochs create and shape actors within them.

Organizations and strategic action fields

image: Hierarchical modularity of nested bow-ties in metabolic networks, Jing Zhao, Hong Yu, Jian-Hua Luo, Zhi-Wei Cao  and Yi-Xue Li (link)

Neil Fligstein and Doug McAdam provide a full exposition of their theory of strategic action fields in A Theory of Fields. As observed in an earlier post, this theory presents an innovative way of thinking about the composition of the social.

The basic idea is that the fundamental structure of social life is “agents behaving strategically within a field of resources and other agents.” Here is a preliminary description of strategic action fields.

A strategic action field is a constructed mesolevel social order in which actors (who can be individual or collective) are attuned to and interact with one another on the basis of shared (which is not to say consensual) understandings about the purposes of the field, relationships to others in the field (including who has power and why), and the rules governing legitimate action in the field. A stable field is one in which the main actors are able to reproduce themselves and the field over a fairly long period of time. (1)

Fligstein and McAdam do not give fundamental ontological status to structures or organizations, and they do not presuppose a dichotomy between agents and structures. Instead, organizations and institutions are ensembles of agents-in-fields, at a range of levels. Here is what they have to say about firms, which can be extended to organizations more generally:

Firms are nested strategic action fields in which there are hierarchical dependent relationships between the component fields. Each plant and office is a strategic action field in its own right. Typically firms are organized into larger divisions in which management controls resource allocation and hiring. (59)

This theory possesses microfoundations; this is the thrust of the second chapter in the book. Their account is largely organized around the idea of social skill at the level of the actor. What I want to explore here, though, is the “macro-sociology” of the theory. In particular, how do our concepts of meso-level social structures like institutions and organizations get parsed when we use the language of strategic action fields? And substantively, how can we account for the relative level of stability that organizations and institutions possess, if they are simply composites of strategically motivated actors? This description suggests a high degree of fluidity, as strategies and coalitions shift. But instead, we observe a high level of stability in organizations much of the time, persisting over multiple generations of actors.

The answer seems to derive from the idea that F&M introduce of “internal governance units.”

In addition to incumbents and challengers, many strategic action fields have internal governance units that are charged with overseeing compliance with field rules and, in general, facilitating the overall smooth functioning and reproduction of the system. (13)

Organizations are configured around incumbents who are assigned roles and powers that give them both an interest and an ability to maintain the workings of the organization. So stability is not a primitive quality of an organization; instead, it is a consequence of the specific interlocking assignments of interests and powers within the various networks of agents that make up the organization. Stability is a dynamic feature of the organization, reproduced by the actions of incumbents. And change in the organization occurs when there is significant alteration in those interests and powers.

Field stability is generally achieved in one of two ways: the imposition of hierarchical power by a single dominant group or the creation of some kind of political coalition based on the cooperation of a number of groups. (14)

On this approach, then, stability is a consequence of the configuration of a given system of strategic fields, rather than an axiomatic property of the organization.

There is a great deal of consonance between this theory and the ideas about organizations and actors put forward by Crozier and Friedberg some forty years ago in Actors and Systems: The Politics of Collective Action; here is an earlier post on their work. Crozier and Friedberg too looked at organizations as arenas of strategic and opportunistic action by agents. They too emphasized the role of cooperation and alliances within organizations. And they too looked at organizations as solutions to problems of collective action. There is no indication that Fligstein and McAdam were directly influenced by Crozier, and indeed the research communities including both are fairly distinct. So this looks like a case of independent discovery of a new idea rather than sequential development of this idea. It looks more like the case of Wallace and Darwin in the discovery of natural selection, than Darwin and Huxley in the development of that idea.

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