What is anchor individualism?

Brian Epstein has attempted to shake up some of our fundamental assumptions about the social world in the past several years by challenging the idea of “ontological individualism” — the idea that social things consist of facts about individuals in action, thought, and interaction, and nothing else. Here is how he puts the idea in “Ontological Individualism Reconsidered”: “Ontological individualism is the thesis that facts about individuals exhaustively determine social facts” (link). He believes this ontological concept is false; he disputes the idea that the social world supervenes upon facts about individuals; and he argues that there are some social facts or circumstances that cannot be parsed in terms of facts about combinations of individuals. His arguments are pulled together in a very coherent way in The Ant Trap: Rebuilding the Foundations of the Social Sciences, but he has made the case in earlier articles as well (link).

Epstein’s primary reason for doubting ontological individualism is a notion he shares with John Searle: that social action often involves a setting of law, convention, interpretation, presupposition, implicature, or rule that cannot be “reduced” to facts interior to the individuals involved in an activity. Searle’s concept of a “status fact” is an example (link): the fact that John is an Imam is not a purely individual-level fact about John. Instead, it presupposes a structure of religious institutions, rules, procedures, and beliefs, in light of which John’s history of interactions with other individuals and settings qualifies him as “Imam”.

There is another kind of individualism that Epstein considers as a more adequate version — what he refers to as “anchor individualism.” The diagram below represents his graphical explanation of the relationship between anchor individualism and ontological individualism. What does he mean by this idea?

Here is one of his efforts to explain the point:

What I will call “anchor individualism” is a claim about how frame principles can be anchored. Ontological individualism, in contrast, is best understood as a claim about how social facts can be grounded. (101)

Frames, evidently, are institutional contexts, or contexts of meaning, in the terms of which individual actions are situated. They constitute the difference between a bare set of behaviors and a full-blooded social action. Alfred lifts his right hand to his cap; this is a bodily motion. Alfred salutes his superior officer; this is an institutionally defined action that depends upon a frame of military authority and obligation, in the context of which the behavior constitutes a certain kind of social action. (This sounds rather similar, incidentally, to Ryle and Geertz on the “wink” and the distinction between thin and thick description; Geertz, “Thick Description” in The Interpretation Of Cultures.) A frame principle is a stipulation of how an action, performance, or symbolic artifact is constituted, what makes it the socially meaningful thing that it is — a hundred dollar bill, a first-degree murder, or an Orthodox rabbi. Plainly a frame principle looks a lot like a rule or a constitutive declaration: “any person who received the degree of Bachelors of Science in Accounting, completed 150 credit hours of study, and passed the CPA exam is counted as a “certified public accountant”.)

But a mere stipulation of status is not sufficient. If one person individually decides that a university president shall be henceforward be understood to have the authority to perform marriage ceremonies, this private declaration does not change the status definition of “university president.” Rather, the stipulation must itself have some sort of social validity. It must be “anchored”. We can say specifically what would be required to anchor the status definition of university president considered here; it would require a valid act of legislation that creates this power, and there would need to be widespread recognition of the political legitimacy and bindingness of the new legislation.

Epstein observes that Searle believes that anchoring of a frame principle always comes down to “collective acceptance” (103). But Epstein notes that other theorists have a broader conception of anchoring: attitudes, conforming behaviors, conventions, shared values about political legitimacy, acts of legislatures, and so on. What anchor individualism asserts is that each of these forms of anchoring can be related to the attitudes, beliefs, and performances of individuals and groups of individuals.

So on Epstein’s view, there are two complementary versions of individualism. Ontological individualism is a thesis about what is required for grounding a social fact. Ontological individualism maintains that social facts are grounded in the behaviors and thoughts of individuals. But Epstein thinks there is still something else to represent in our picture of social ontology. We need to be able to specify what circumstances anchor the frame principles themselves. That is the circumstances that make an action or performance the kind of action that it is. To call a performance a “marriage” brings with it a long set of presuppositions about history, status, and validity. These presuppositions constitute a certain kind of frame principle. But we can then ask the question, what makes the frame principle binding in the circumstances? This is where anchoring comes in; anchoring is the set of facts that create or document the “bindingness” of the frame principles in question.

In my reading what makes this a distinctive view from traditional thinking about the relationship between individuals and social facts is the effort it represents to formalize the logical standing of circumstances that are intuitively crucial in social interactions: the significance, rule-abiding-ness, legitimacy, and conventionality of a given individual-level behavior. And these circumstances are necessarily distributed across a large group of people, involving the kinds of socially reflexive ideas that Searle thinks are constitutive of the social world: presuppositions, implicatures, rules, rituals, conventions, meanings, and practices. There is no private language, and there is no private practice. (There are things we do purely individually and privately; but then these do not constitute “practices” in the socially meaningful sense.) So the kinds of things that an anchor analysis calls out are social things.

But it also seems fair to observe that the facts that anchor a practice, convention, or rule are indeed facts that depend upon states of mind and action of individual actors. So anchor individualism remains a coherent kind of individualism. These anchoring facts have microfoundations in the thoughts, behavior, habits, and practices of socially situated individuals.

Social obligations and markets

The vice presidential pick for the Republican ticket is an extreme voice on the question of whether individuals have obligations to others in society that justify taxing them to maintain their basic human needs. Paul Ryan is a fan of Ayn Rand’s philosophy, which is an extreme version of individualism against social obligations. According to the Randians, the state should be limited to the very most minimal tasks, and the idea that individuals have obligations to other people in society is anathema.

This Randian philosophy has at least two major components: individuals exclusively deserve what they earn through the market; and virtually everything should be allocated through private markets rather than through collective decisions about taxes and benefits. If you are poor, according to a Randian, you have only yourself to blame, and you have no moral claim on the rest of society. And if you are an investment banker with a $30 million bonus staring you in the face — good for you! It’s yours, enjoy!

This philosophy of the relationship between the individual and the rest of society may make sense to Paul Ryan and the Tea Party. But it doesn’t make sense to much of the rest of the world. A society is a system of cooperation and mutual interdependence, and one person’s wellbeing inevitably depends on the activities of countless other individuals in society. (This was the point of President Obama’s line that “You didn’t build this business alone.”) Moreover, most of the cultures of the seven billion of us on planet earth recognize duties of compassion and mutual support. The fundamental humanity of the fellow citizen is reason enough to be concerned about his or her liberty, nutritional status, health, and personal safety.

It is logical to most of the world’s population that a key role of the state, as the political embodiment of the whole of the society, is to establish a decent safety net for all its citizens and to take steps direct and indirect to ensure that its population has access to the basic necessities of life. It is precisely this moral idea that is under determined attack by the Tea Party movement and the ascendancy of politicians like Paul Ryan.

Michael Sandel’s current book, What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets, is an eloquent statement of some very basic moral convictions that many people share about the subject. His basic idea is that it is morally obnoxious to think of all goods as being best distributed through a market mechanism — through a price, a seller, and a buyer. In an interview on NPR this week he made the point very eloquently: we are moving from a market economy to a market society; moving from looking at the market mechanism as an important social tool, to looking at it as the supreme social value. He argues that this movement in values and thought has the result of crowding out more substantive moral values. In the book he illustrates this point with a striking example:

Or consider baby selling. Some years ago Judge Richard Posner, a leading figure in the “law and economics” movement, proposed the use of markets to allocate babies put up for adoption. He acknowledged that more desirable babies would command higher prices than less desirable ones. But he argued that the free market would do a better job of allocating babies than the current system of adoption, which allows adoption agencies to charge certain fees but not to auction babies or charge a market price. (kindle loc 1375)

He comes back to this example with his own analysis of what’s wrong with the idea.

Or consider children. It would be possible to create a market in babies up for adoption. But should we? Those who object offer two reasons: One is that putting children up for sale would price less affluent parents out of the market, or leave them with the cheapest, least desirable children (the fairness argument). The other is that putting a price tag on children would corrupt the norm of unconditional parental love; the inevitable price differences would reinforce the notion that the value of a child depends on his or her race, sex, intellectual promise, physical abilities or disabilities, and other traits (the corruption argument). (kl 1620)

Sandel’s sociological insight is this: markets subvert many values by commercializing social relationships.

Many economists now recognize that markets change the character of the goods and social practices they govern. In recent years, one of the first to emphasize the corrosive effect of markets on nonmarket norms was Fred Hirsch, a British economist who served as senior adviser to the International Monetary Fund. In a book published in 1976 — the same year that Gary Becker’s influential An Economic approach to Human Behavior appeared and three years before Margaret Thatcher was elected prime minister — Hirsch challenged the assumption that the value of a good is the same whether provided through the market or in some other way. (kl 1760)

So Sandel calls upon us, as Karl Polanyi did almost seventy years ago in The Great Transformation: The Political and Economic Origins of Our Time, to re-tune our moral antenna, and to recognize that there are moral and social values that are far deeper and far more important than price and market.  As a society we possess a host of moral affinities and obligations that the market philosophy of Ayn Rand doesn’t touch.

Rousseau the democrat

Rousseau’s political philosophy probably represents the richest and most adequate view of the moral foundations of the state of any of the great figures in the history of political thought. But it is also complex and opaque. Rousseau is usually cast as falling within the social contract tradition, according to which the legitimacy of the state depends on the hypothetical consent of the governed. This puts him in discussion with Hobbes and Locke. But he had substantive and radical ideas about freedom and equality that separate him sharply from these British theorists. His ideas about freedom and equality made him a prime candidate for the title, “philosopher of the French Revolution”. He offered a sometimes mysterious theory of the “general will” as the central focus of politics; but philosophers have offered wildly different interpretations of the meaning of this concept. And, unlike Locke, Hobbes, or Mill, Rousseau had an elaborate theory of psychology — the motivations that lead social actors to behave as they do and the processes of social construction through which they come to have these characteristics. This theory appears to fit into his social philosophy, but it isn’t perfectly clear how.

It is for these reasons that Josh Cohen’s recently published Rousseau: A Free Community of Equals is such an important contribution. The book is an exceptional achievement. Cohen offers a coherent, developed interpretation of Rousseau’s theory; he provides clear statements of the central ideas and shows how they tie together; and he makes use of virtually all of Rousseau’s enormous corpus to tease out Rousseau’s intricate line of thought. Cohen demonstrates that Rousseau’s theory is not simply a series of aphorisms, but is rather a detailed and subtle logical argument, with premises and inferences that can be rigorously reconstructed. It is a full philosophy of politics. Most basically, Cohen shows how philosophical principles, institutional assumptions, and psychological theories are intended to tie together into a coherent view of a democratic society.

This is an enormously difficult task to have accomplished. Just take the Social Contract as your starting point and you are inclined to emphasize chiefly the relations between institutions and freedom. Just take Emile or the Confessions as the point of origin and the emphasis will be on the individual’s development. And if you begin with the more applied parts of Rousseau’s work — the constitution for Poland, for example — and you are likely enough to get lost in a forest of institutional details. In other words — three Rousseau’s. Cohen has paid close attention to all these components of Rousseau’s thought, and he has succeeded in showing how they all contribute to a single, coherent line of thought.

The key idea in Cohen’s construction is the notion of a “free community of equals.” (This is also the subtitle of the book.) Each part of the phrase demands analysis — equality, freedom, and community, and unpacking them provides a basis for a nuanced and powerful political philosophy. The phrase also invokes the central problem of political philosophy, the contradiction between security and freedom: how is it possible to find personal security within a state (and therefore being subject to coercive laws), while fully maintaining one’s freedom and autonomy? Here is how Cohen puts the solution he attributes to Rousseau:

The essential point about content is that Rousseau’s solution requires that individuals commit to regarding themselves as belonging to a political community whose members are committed to regarding one other as equals: acknowledging one another as political equals, with equal status in establishing the laws; recognizing one another as equally subject to the laws; and agreeing to regulate their association by reference to reasons of the common good, which gives equal weight to the good of each citizen. (Kindle loc 221)

This formulation captures every element of the solution: equality, the common good, and a consequent situation of full autonomy. The citizen is autonomous (self-legislating) because he/she has willed the creation of exactly this system of law. The common good referred to here is the “general will”; and Cohen makes a good case for understanding that this concept is one that comes down to the individual perceiving and willing outcomes that serve the whole of the citizenry.

Citizens also have their own particular interests; so the situation described here, where all citizens give priority to the common good over their particular interests is one that requires a fairly specific bundle of institutions and motivations. And Cohen demonstrates that Rousseau methodically explores these institutional and behavioral requirements.

Cohen analyzes the idea of a community as being regulated by the general will into a conjunction of four conditions:

  • GW1 Particular Interest Condition [citizens have separate, particular interests]
  • GW2 Common Good Condition [citizens publicly share a common understanding of the common good]
  • GW3 Priority Condition [each citizen gives priority to reasons having to do with the common good over those concerning particular interests]
  • GW4 Reasonable Confidence Condition [citizens can be confident that their institutions conform to their shared conception of the common good]

It is evident that these are strong conditions. So it is incumbent on Rousseau (and Cohen) to demonstrate that they are singly possible and jointly consistent. If these points cannot be established, then the idea of a general will is useless. If the conditions are possible and consistent, then there is a further question to investigate: what empirical conditions (institutions, processes of individual moral development) are needed to establish and sustain them?

Another fascinating line of thought in the book is Cohen’s attempt to reconstruct Rousseau’s argument for the “natural goodness” of the human being. It is a complex argument and one I found highly convincing as an interpretation of Rousseau. And the issue is simply crucial; if this argument cannot be made out, then the free community of equals is an impossibility.

Much of Cohen’s work here is that of philosophical reconstruction: what were Rousseau’s positions and reasons? This is descriptive work, and doesn’t require that Cohen evaluate the theory. (In fact, we can ask the question whether this is simply a hypothetical reconstruction of a Rousseau-like theory, or whether we are to understand that Rousseau actually had these logical connections and explications clearly in mind.) But beyond the explicative work, it is plain that there is much in Rousseau’s conceptions of equality, freedom, participation, and democracy that Cohen admires deeply and regards as fruitful for contemporary discussions of democracy. There are also a few important threads that he is distinctly not pleased by: in particular, the exclusion of women, of course, and Rousseau’s sometimes incipient communitarianism. The latter makes for the possibility of an ethnically or nationalistically grounded community, rather than a community of simple moral equals. And Rousseau sometimes seems to suggest that only a highly uniform community is likely to satisfy the conditions above — a discouraging finding for those of us interested in a creating a democratic, multicultural world.

There is a particularly important meta-level point that emerges from Cohen’s book and that seems to be fully embedded in Rousseau’s thought process: the importance of addressing the question of social justice in full detail from three interrelated perspectives. We need a convincing set of moral principles that help to define what the most important features of a just society are. We need an analysis of some of the institutional requirements that these principles present; an idea of the kinds of institutions that could satisfy the principles. And we need an analysis of human psychology — both the fixed parts and the malleable parts — that would either support or undermine these institutions and principles. In other words, social philosophy requires a concrete study of institutions and psychology if we are to succeed in arriving at convincing and practical models of a good society. And Rousseau seems to have understood this imperative in greater detail than other contributors to the traditions of political philosophy.

Here is a schematic representation of major parts of Cohen’s analysis of Rousseau:

Civic engagement and formative institutions

A disposition towards civic engagement and community service seems to be a very fundamental component of social psychology that differs significantly across cohorts and populations.  But the frequency of this motivation across the population is also surely a key component of the health of social order.  One would hypothesize that this is an aspect of individual motivation and identity that determines the level at which a community will succeed in accomplishing its most critical tasks such as poverty alleviation, remedies for poor schools, or addressing homelessness.  If a city has a significant level of high-poverty schools, with associated low levels of student academic success in the early grades, surely it is helpful when a significant number of adults and young people experience a desire to help address the problem through mentoring and tutoring programs.

But the question of how this component of social psychology works is a complex one.  What are the influences in daily life through which children and young people acquire this sensibility?  What are the value systems and institutional arrangements that encourage or discourage a disposition towards civic engagement?  What kinds of experiences increase (or reduce) an individual’s motivation to be involved in community service?  (Here is an earlier posting on this question.)

Doug McAdam and Cynthia Brandt have addressed part of this question through a study of young people who have been involved with Teach for America (NYT story).  Their article, “Assessing the Effects of Voluntary Youth Service: The Case of Teach for America,” appeared in Social Forces this month.  Here is how the authors describe their project:

We use survey data from all accepted applicants to Teach for America (TFA) between 1993-98 to assess the longer-term effect of youth service on participants’ current civic attitudes and behaviors.

Their survey includes individuals who were accepted into Teach for America in the relevant years.  They break the population into three groups: graduates, drop-outs, and non-matriculants.  Their central findings are these:

  • “The graduates seem to have emerged from their TFA experience with an enhanced attitudinal commitment to service and civic life.” 
  • “Bottom line: relative to their age peers, our subjects participate at very high levels in all the forms of civic/political participation we examine.”
  • “The graduates lag significantly behind one or both of the other groups in their current levels of participation in “civic activity,” “institutional politics” and “social movements.””
  • “On all seven dimensions of civic life—service, civic activity, institutional politics, social movements, voting, charitable giving and pro-social employment—the graduates lag significantly behind one or both comparison groups.”

These are surprising findings.  The TFA population as a whole shows a higher level of civic engagement than the general population.  But within the TFA population, the graduates lag.  This seems to cast doubt on one of the central claims for community service: that the experience leads young people to develop characteristics that make them more engaged in the future.

McAdam and Brandt offer a few hypotheses about how we might explain these findings: burnout, delay in transition to career, a feeling of “having done my part,” a sense of disillusionment with service; and the possibility that non-matriculants may have had other experiences that are even more conducive to lifetime civic engagement.

Here is their summary conclusion:

What, in the end, are we prepared to say about the significantly lower levels of current service on the part of matriculants relative to non-matriculants?  Temporary exhaustion on the part of recent graduates (and drop-outs) appears to be a part of the story.  But so too are negative reactions to TFA and, for many, the isolating nature of the teaching experience.  Whatever the mix of these (and unmeasured) explanatory factors, the stark fact remains: far from increasing subsequent civic involvement, the TFA experience appears, for some, to depress current service participation.

But here is another striking conclusion based on their data: the gap evidenced in the civic engagement of the graduates is entirely explained by the 15% of graduates whose experience with TFA left them dissatisfied.  The 85% who were satisfied with the program demonstrate the same levels of civic engagement as the drop-outs and non-matriculants.  “It is the 15 percent of the graduates who have a retrospectively negative view of their TFA experience who account for the service/civic “gap” between graduates and the other two subject groups.”  This suggests that a program for community service needs to work hard to assure that the expectations of its volunteers are met.

McAdam and Brandt go out of their way to indicate that their research should not be understood as a foundation of criticism of TFA or of programs of civic engagement more broadly.  Rather, their goal is to find ways of assessing causal claims that are made on behalf of programs of youth engagement and community service.  In order to influence attitudes and behavior, we need to have evidence-based analysis of how a variety of relevant institutions actually work.  This kind of survey research is one such instrument of assessment.

The largest national service program in the US today is AmeriCorps (including CityYear).  Here is a link to an ongoing study of AmeriCorps members and their levels of civic engagement following their period of service.  McAdam and Brandt summarize the most recent findings of the AmeriCorps study:

The 2008 results are representative of the findings from the study as a whole.  While AmeriCorps members differ from those in the comparison group on some attitudinal items, behavioral effects are few and far between.  The two groups—AmeriCorps and comparison—were compared on fourteen measures of civic participation, including voting, charitable giving, and volunteer service.  They differed on only four, with one of the differences favoring members of the comparison groups.  In short, the modal behavioral effect appears negligible.

The survey research that McAdam-Brandt have done is one interesting and important way of trying to gauge the impact of a certain kind of institution on a feature of social psychology.  It is intriguing to wonder whether other tools might also shed light on the transformative and developmental processes that occur within the experience of intensive community service.  For example, how does the experience of working together in a racially and socially mixed group affect the social understandings and motivations of the young people who are involved?  How does the experience of spending a summer in a public health clinic in Chiapas influence the college students who participate?  Are there qualitative methodologies available that would shed more light on these concrete mechanisms of identity formation?  Would a study based on interviews and focus groups provide some insight into the processes of change that young people undergo in an AmeriCorps placement, a CityYear team, or an intense two months in a poor community in Mexico?

Suppose a researcher carried out a focus-group study on a group of CityYear corps members from September to April, and suppose the research provided evidence suggesting that Corps members had acquired specific competences of inter-community understanding.  Suppose interviews and focus group videos show that white corps members had demonstrated a growing ability to understand the situations and worldviews of their black or brown fellow corps members, and vice versa.  This would be evidence for judging that the CityYear environment leads to social-psychological development in the area of inter-cultural and inter-racial competence.  The young people who have undergone these experiences have become more attuned to racism, racial disadvantage, and the nuances of difference that exist in the perceptions of white, black, and brown young people.  They have increased their skill and confidence in interacting with a wider range of people.  And, presumably, they will live their adult lives with greater commitment to inter-group dialogue and struggle to reduce the inequalities associated with race in our country.  How might this set of facts relate to the framing of a longitudinal survey of CityYear alumni?

Essentially we would reason along these lines.  If the changes and developmental mechanisms that were documented in the qualitative study are real and durable, then there should also be differences in the attitudes and behaviors of CityYear alumni five, ten, and fifteen years later.  So a survey of alumni, along with an appropriately defined control group, should demonstrate significant differences in attitude and behavior.  And if there are no such differences, then we would be pushed towards concluding either that the developmental changes identified in the qualitative study were spurious, or they were indurable.  So there is a close logical relationship between the hypotheses suggested  by the qualitative study (about processes and effects of social development) and the longitudinal study (about the attitudes and behaviors of a population at later moments in time).

This is important work if we are interested in helping young people acquire the attitudes, values, and practices that will make them good citizens and caring members of communities.  And ultimately, it is a question that can be usefully investigated using a variety of tools of social and behavioral research.

What is a diasporic community?

There are many diaspora populations in the world: the African diaspora, with populations in the Caribbean, North and South America, and Europe; the Chinese diaspora, from Indonesia and Malaysia to Cuba and the United States and Canada; the Jewish diaspora, from eastern Europe and Spain across all of Europe, to South Africa and North America with historical enclaves in India and China; and so on for numerous national and cultural groups. In some instances these groups maintain a strong sense of collective identity in spite of the physical and social distances that separate various sub-populations, and in some instances the strands of identity have attenuated significantly.

The fact of diaspora is a deeply interesting one, in that it provides a kind of “natural experiment” on the subject of the persistence and plasticity of culture. It is possible to observe the variations and modifications of culture as they occur over time and geography in diasporic populations.

The question I’d like to raise here is whether a diasporic population, an archipelago of separated groups of common national or cultural origin, can be said to constitute a community. Or does a population require a greater intimacy, a deeper social reality of face-to-face contact, in order to constitute a community? And is it possible that the unavoidable distancing and separation created by diaspora inevitably leads to the fragmentation of community?

I’m led to this question by a current reading of Tai Lands and Thailand: Community and the State in Southeast Asia, a major new contribution to southeast Asian studies edited by Andrew Walker. The authors and contributors are working with an innovative concept of “modern community”, deliberately challenging the idea of traditional communities organized around stable peasant villages. And they consider a specific version of this question: do the groups scattered across nations in Southeast Asia that are bound together by a Tai language and a set of overlapping practices and values, constitute a modern community? The book warrants a careful reading, and I will return to it more specifically in a later post. But here let’s look at the broader question: can a physically separated set of populations constitute a genuine community?

It won’t do to attempt to reduce this question to pure semantics — “it depends on what we mean by community”. Instead, we need to understand the question in a way that makes substantive sense of the ways in which human groups are constituted over time and space. But to make it a substantive and theoretically interesting question we have to specify a few characteristics that we think communities must possess. And this requires some conceptual work that goes beyond ordinary language analysis and stretches into the realm of theory construction. So consider these features of social groups that might be considered crucial for community: a degree of shared collective identity; a degree of shared values, histories, and meanings; an orientation by members towards others as belonging to a valued social group; a degree of communication and interaction among members of the group; and a preparedness to engage in some degree of collective action in support of the group’s interests. We can think of examples of social groups that possess some of these characteristics but not others, and in some cases we’re inclined to deny that these groups are “communities.” So what about diasporic populations?

It is clear that a separated population may certainly possess some of the qualities that paradigm cases of communities exhibit. Separated populations may maintain traditions, beliefs, and practices that extend backward in time to their origin. They may possess memories and myths that serve as a foundation for identifying them as a specific group. They may retain a strong sense of cultural identity with the group, both in the home location and throughout the world.

Moreover, in the context of modern forms of communication and the internet, it is possible for separated populations to maintain significant interaction with members of other sub-populations throughout the world. Indian sub-populations in Michigan, Germany, and Argentina can have significant real-time contact with each other through web pages, Facebook, or Twitter, and these mechanisms can create real interpersonal relationships across space. This is a significant difference in the situation of diaspora in the twenty-first century relative to the nineteenth century: we might hypothesize that there is the possibility of greater cultural unity across a diasporic group today than was the case a century ago.

It is also possible that a diasporic population will display “creolization” — the incorporation of new cultural elements into the mix of its practices, values, and meanings. This is suggested in the photo above; one imagines that Caribo-Chinese culture is a mix that would seem foreign in Canton. And this raises the possibility of a significant degree of cultural “drift” — with the result that isolated sub-populations no longer speak the same cultural language. This would seem to cut against the idea of community.

Finally, we can ask whether the motivational ideas mentioned above can persist in a diasporic community. Will members of the Chinese communities in Cuba or Canada retain a high degree of solidarity with their counterparts in China? Will they be willing to support the struggles that are presented to various of the Chinese groups across the world — repression of Buddhism in China during certain periods, racism against Chinese workers in other countries, ethnic violence against Chinese businessmen in yet other settings? Accepting the point that there are substantial elements of Chinese culture and history that persist in the various Chinese communities around the world — is this a sufficient basis to generate the willingness to mobilize that core communities possess? To what extent do diasporic populations support the kinds of integrative mechanisms that are needed in order to sustain solidarity across a dispersed group? And what can we say about those mechanisms of solidarity in the circumstances of diaspora?

These questions require careful theoretical and ethnographic work. But I’m inclined to agree with the perspective that Andrew Walker, Nicholas Farrelly, and other contributers to Tai Lands and Thailand put forward: the intertwining mechanisms of popular culture, personal mobility, communications technology, and a reservoir of values and histories that many modern identity groups retain, give a positive basis for thinking that diasporic community is possible in the globalizing world of the twenty-first century.

Engaged youth

A while ago I posted on the subject of “disaffected youth“. I don’t have a basis for estimating the percentage of the youth population that falls in this category, but surely it’s a fairly small number in most places. Here I want to focus on the other end of the spectrum — the relatively small but meaningful percentage of young people who have a significant level of “civic engagement” in their blood.

You can identify some of these young people in almost every city and suburb in America. They are the high school and college students who feel passionately about community service, civic engagement, and “giving back”. They are involved in activities like alternative spring break, Habitat for Humanity, and the United Way. They are involved in community service in a major way — through mosques, temples, and churches, through social justice organizations such as Amnesty International, Big Brother/Big Sister, and Oxfam, and through organized community service programs at universities and high schools. And they are to be found in a big way in nationally organized programs for community service like AmeriCorps, Teach for America, and CityYear.

I’ve met quite a few of these engaged young people over the past ten years, and they are truly inspiring. They are idealistic in a thoroughly practical way. They see the impact they can have through service, and they understand the importance of designing and implementing service programs in the most practical way possible. They care about the individual people they help — children, elderly, impaired, impoverished — in very specific human terms. They understand the value of working together in collaboration and teamwork to accomplish great things, and they understand deeply the values and rewards of racial and religious diversity. Finally, they have very little of the crass materialism of “youth America” as it was portrayed on Beverly Hills, 90210 or other examples of this genre. So this group of young people gives a truly optimistic perspective on our society for the future.

I don’t take these points to lead to a generalization about American youth as a group. In fact, what is striking is exactly how atypical these young people seem to be relative to the population as a whole — and how similar and compatible they are with each other. But it remains the case — whether 5% or 25%, there is a meaningful minority of today’s generation of young people who give a remarkable level of commitment to social engagement.

My question here concerns the social psychology of this group. This is a question about the circumstances of social development that are in place today: where do these young people and their values come from? How has this wonderful mix of optimism, service, and respect for racial differences come about? And how can it be furthered?

One thing is immediately clear: it seems to be unrelated to affluence, race, or neighborhood. A cross-section of the CityYear corps is instructive: young people with very similar social values are showing up from middle-class suburbs, impoverished inner cities, and towns that are neither urban nor suburban. And it is easy to find white kids, rich and poor, brown kids, African-American kids, and Asian-American kids — all coming together into a corps of 60-150 young people in a given city. None of these groups seems either more or less concerned about social justice, none seems more readily open to learning from peers from other races, and none seems socially and culturally more ready for a serious commitment to engagement and service. In other words, class, race, and income don’t seem to be critical in defining today’s youth social engagement.

A couple of factors are probably highly relevant to the degree of engagement and civic values that is displayed by young people involved in AmeriCorps and CityYear.

First, there have to be strands of American culture that are creating a “pulse” of concern about social justice and individual involvement in community among young people. This set of dispositions can’t be a totally random result. Whether it’s a generation of young people acculturated by Sesame Street and Mr. Rogers, or by the broadening circle of awareness of the injustice of racism and poverty, or a “bounce” from the social activism of the sixties generation — there must be some cultural currents that are making many of today’s young people more ready for social involvement and more concerned about social justice. Somehow our society, our families, our schools, and our media are producing a certain fraction of the youth cohort that possess these values and commitments. (Though crucially, we can ask whether that fraction is greater than years past or is pretty much constant.)

Second, recruitment certainly plays an important role in explaining this observation about the similarity of corps members from very diverse backgrounds. AmeriCorps and CityYear members are by no means a random sample of the general population. Instead, they are young people who have actively sought out the opportunity for service presented by these organizations, and they have responded favorably to the very explicit expressions of value commitments they represent.

Another factor that seems to be operative in generating the value orientation of AmeriCorps and CityYear members is the nature of the training and bonding that occurs within the experience. Young people may come to CityYear with positive attitudes about race relations — but their understanding, commitment, and concrete skills in working in multiracial teams certainly deepens enormously through their year of service. Likewise, what may have been a somewhat thin “will to serve” at the time of recruitment seems typically to deepen into a robust, life-changing involvement in community organizations. The experience of the organization, its leaders, peers, and the service itself leads to a profound deepening of personal engagement.

It’s worth dwelling on the causes of youth engagement, because it seems very likely that many of the social problems we will face in the future will only be solved if we can come together as communities of concern, giving our time and our energy to address the serious challenges that are just over the horizon. And these young, engaged people are demonstrating how it can be done.

Primitive accumulation

Marx’s treatment of the “so-called ‘primitive accumulation'” is one of the most historically detailed sections in Capital: A Critique of Political Economy (Volume 1). And it is one of the most interesting parts of Capital to read as a separate piece. (Here is an electronic text of the section.) It is Marx’s account of the historical processes of change in rural life of the fifteenth through eighteenth century in Britain and Ireland, through which peasants were forced off their land and the commons were enclosed. Marx believes that this separation of the peasantry from the land was a necessary condition for the development of capitalism, in that it created the conditions in which there was a pliable and abundant proletariat. This “free” proletariat was needed for the creation of the factory system and the development of manufacturing cities. So the process of primitive accumulation created the changes in social relations, property relations, and the accumulation of wealth that permitted the creation of the capital-labor relation and factory-based capitalism.

Marx sometimes puts this point in a fairly teleological way, looking at primitive accumulation as a necessary step on the road to British capitalism. (For example, he refers to this process as “the revolution that laid the foundation of the capitalist mode of production.”) But it is possible, and preferable, to read Marx’s analysis here less teleologically, as simply a detailed account of some of the crucial but contingent changes that took place in rural social relations during these centuries, without importing the idea that these changes were functionally related to the later development of capitalism. And read non-teleologically, the section holds up fairly well in relation to modern historical scholarship.

Marx describes the basic social relations of British rural life in the fifteenth century in these terms, as a freeholding peasantry with access to substantial common lands, pasture, and forest:

The immense majority of the population consisted then, and to a still larger extent, in the 15th century, of free peasant proprietors, whatever was the feudal title under which their right of property was hidden. In the larger seignorial domains, the old bailiff, himself a serf, was displaced by the free farmer. The wage-labourers of agriculture consisted partly of peasants, who utilised their leisure time by working on the large estates, partly of an independent special class of wage-labourers, relatively and absolutely few in numbers. The latter also were practically at the same time peasant farmers, since, besides their wages, they had allotted to them arable land to the extent of 4 or more acres, together with their cottages. Besides they, with the rest of the peasants, enjoyed the usufruct of the common land, which gave pasture to their cattle, furnished them with timber, fire-wood, turf, &c.

And he identifies the crucial turn towards expropriation of the free peasant proprietor:

In insolent conflict with king and parliament, the great feudal lords created an incomparably larger proletariat by the forcible driving of the peasantry from the land, to which the latter had the same feudal right as the lord himself, and by the usurpation of the common lands. The rapid rise of the Flemish wool manufactures, and the corresponding rise in the price of wool in England, gave the direct impulse to these evictions. The old nobility had been devoured by the great feudal wars. The new nobility was the child of its time, for which money was the power of all powers. Transformation of arable land into sheep-walks was, therefore, its cry.

(It is interesting to recall that Oliver Goldsmith describes the eighteenth-century version of this process in Ireland in his poem, The Deserted Village (1770):

Sweet smiling village, loveliest of the lawn,
Thy sports are fled, and all thy charms withdrawn;
Amidst thy bowers the tyrant’s hand is seen,
And Desolation saddens all thy green:
One only master grasps the whole domain,
And half a tillage stints thy smiling plain.
No more thy glassy brook reflects the day,
But, choked with sedges, works its weedy way;
Along thy glades, a solitary guest,
The hollow-sounding bittern guards its nest;
Amidst thy desert walks the lapwing flies,
And tires their echoes with unvaried cries:
Sunk are thy bowers in shapeless ruin all,
And the long grass o’ertops the mouldering wall
And, trembling, shrinking from the spoiler’s hand,
Far, far away thy children leave the land.

Ill fares the land, to hastening ills a prey,
Where wealth accumulates, and men decay.
Princes and lords may flourish, or may fade;
A breath can make them, as a breath has made:
But a bold peasantry, their country’s pride,
When once destroy’d, can never be supplied. )

And Marx emphasizes the coercive nature of this expropriation of the yeoman peasant:

Even in the last decade of the 17th century, the yeomanry, the class of independent peasants, were more numerous than the class of farmers. They had formed the backbone of Cromwell’s strength, and, even according to the confession of Macaulay, stood in favourable contrast to the drunken squires and to their servants, the country clergy, who had to marry their masters’ cast-off mistresses. About 1750, the yeomanry had disappeared, and so had, in the last decade of the 18th century, the last trace of the common land of the agricultural labourer. We leave on one side here the purely economic causes of the agricultural revolution. We deal only with the forcible means employed.

A crucial component of the “primitive accumulation”, in Marx’s interpretation, was the abolition of common property, culminating in the enclosure acts in the seventeenth century:

Communal property — always distinct from the State property just dealt with — was an old Teutonic institution which lived on under cover of feudalism. We have seen how the forcible usurpation of this, generally accompanied by the turning of arable into pasture land, begins at the end of the 15th and extends into the 16th century. But, at that time, the process was carried on by means of individual acts of violence against which legislation, for a hundred and fifty years, fought in vain. The advance made by the 18th century shows itself in this, that the law itself becomes now the instrument of the theft of the people’s land, although the large farmers make use of their little independent methods as well. The parliamentary form of the robbery is that of Acts for enclosures of Commons, in other words, decrees by which the landlords grant themselves the people’s land as private property, decrees of expropriation of the people. Sir F. M. Eden refutes his own crafty special pleading, in which he tries to represent communal property as the private property of the great landlords who have taken the place of the feudal lords, when he, himself, demands a “general Act of Parliament for the enclosure of Commons” (admitting thereby that a parliamentary coup d’état is necessary for its transformation into private property), and moreover calls on the legislature for the indemnification for the expropriated poor.

We even are afforded a glimpse of the economist’s view of the rationality of enclosure. According to John Arbuthnot, enclosure and the creation of private farms is a more productive use of land and labor:

Let us hear for a moment a defender of enclosures and an opponent of Dr. Price. “Not is it a consequence that there must be depopulation, because men are not seen wasting their labour in the open field…. If, by converting the little farmers into a body of men who must work for others, more labour is produced, it is an advantage which the nation” (to which, of course, the “converted” ones do not belong) “should wish for … the produce being greater when their joint labours are employed on one farm, there will be a surplus for manufactures, and by this means manufactures, one of the mines of the nation, will increase, in proportion to the quantity of corn produced.”

And here Marx describes the final stages of the “rationalization” of agriculture, in the expropriation of the Scots:

The last process of wholesale expropriation of the agricultural population from the soil is, finally, the so-called clearing of estates, i.e., the sweeping men off them. All the English methods hitherto considered culminated in “clearing.” As we saw in the picture of modern conditions given in a former chapter, where there are no more independent peasants to get rid of, the “clearing” of cottages begins; so that the agricultural labourers do not find on the soil cultivated by them even the spot necessary for their own housing. But what “clearing of estates” really and properly signifies, we learn only in the promised land of modern romance, the Highlands of Scotland. There the process is distinguished by its systematic character, by the magnitude of the scale on which it is carried out at one blow (in Ireland landlords have gone to the length of sweeping away several villages at once; in Scotland areas as large as German principalities are dealt with), finally by the peculiar form of property, under which the embezzled lands were held.

Eventually we come to the point where industrial capitalism is feasible and there is a “free” proletariat available for labor:

It is not enough that the conditions of labour are concentrated in a mass, in the shape of capital, at the one pole of society, while at the other are grouped masses of men, who have nothing to sell but their labour-power. Neither is it enough that they are compelled to sell it voluntarily. The advance of capitalist production develops a working-class, which by education, tradition, habit, looks upon the conditions of that mode of production as self-evident laws of Nature. The organisation of the capitalist process of production, once fully developed, breaks down all resistance.

And, of course, Engels picks up the story from the perspective of nineteenth-century Manchester and Birmingham, and the conditions of squalor and oppressive factory labor that resulted. (See an earlier posting on Engels’s sociology of the proletarian city.)

The English Marxist historians have devoted a lot of their attention to this period of British social history. (Harvey Kaye gives a very good account of the work of this generation of Marxist historians in The British Marxist Historians.) Maurice Dobb is one of the English socialist historians who has retraced Marx’s steps on this subject in some detail. One of Dobb’s important books, Studies In The Development Of Capitalism (1963), treats this process of the decline of the English peasantry and the rise of the proletariat, making use of the historical scholarship of the first part of the twentieth century. Some of Rodney Hilton’s research on this period can be found in Class Conflict and the Crisis of Feudalism: Essays in Medieval Social History (Rev). Several generations later, Robert Brenner gave a somewhat different interpretation of the history of agrarian change in England from the sixteenth to the eighteenth centuries; his views were developed in the splendid journal Past & Present and were separately published along with a round of critical reactions in The Brenner Debate: Agrarian Class Structure and Economic Development in Pre-industrial Europe.

Social entrepreneurs

Social entrepreneurs are people who want to bring about non-routine projects, collaborations, or organizations where they didn’t previously exist in order to solve a perceived social problem. This is very different from working within an existing organization and using its official resources to bring about a particular result. An example might be a community activist who conceives of a storefront operation providing financial advice to local homeowners facing foreclosure. In order to bring this about, he or she needs to secure financial commitments from some potential partners, recruit expert volunteers from others, and gain cooperation from community neighbors to trust and use the service. And, finally, the project needs to deliver a reasonable percentage of its promised benefits — some number of troubled mortgage holders need to be successful in retaining their homes thanks to the service.

There are examples of highly successful social entrepreneurs everywhere — think of Geoffrey Canada and the creation of the Harlem Children’s Zone (link), Matt and Jessica Flannery and the creation of Kiva, a successful peer-to-peer micro-lending program (link), Father William Cunningham and Eleanor Josaitis and the founding of FocusHope in Detroit (link), or Millard and Linda Fuller, founders of Habitat for Humanity (link). And we don’t have to turn to the high-profile cases to find great examples of skillful social entrepreneurship — every city is home to community leaders and innovators who have created coalitions or organizations that have significantly contributed to solutions for important social problems.

It is interesting to notice that the idea of social entrepreneurship brings in the social in two different ways. Social entrepreneurs are involved in addressing social problems; so the object of the entrepreneurial activity is to enhance some aspect of the public good or to solve a social problem, rather than achieving a private “return on investment”. But second, social entrepreneurship depends on putting together voluntary coalitions among a number of independent social actors in a sustained common effort. A purely private and self-financed effort to provide meals for homeless teenagers would be a laudable effort; but I’m not sure I would call it “social entrepreneurship.” It doesn’t confront the key problem of locating potential partners, engaging them in the project, and sustaining the collaboration over the long term. So a social entrepreneur involves social cooperation at the input side and public goods on the output side.

The question here is a simple one: what are some of the factors that permit some people to be successful in efforts at social entrepreneurship and others strikingly not? There are also other groups of people — those who would never consider the idea of creating a new social project in any circumstances and those who look at social causes as a moment for personal gain, for example. But just consider the well-intentioned actors who undertake to put together a successful coalition for the public good — what distinguishes between those who succeed and those who fail?

A couple of related concepts in the social sciences are immediately relevant to this question — in particular, the concept of social capital and the idea of a social network. Putting the point very intuitively — success in a project of social entrepreneurship is more likely if the agent has more social relationships of trust and confidence with other influential players to bring to bear in the effort. And likewise, he/she is more likely to succeed in some rough proportion to the depth and weight of the social networks within which the agent is located. (Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone : The Collapse and Revival of American Community is one place where the idea of social capital is applied to contemporary society.)

Crudely, the individual’s capacity to make things happen is multiplied by the strength of the organizations he/she can call upon in support of the effort. This point segues to the point about social networks: if the agent is in a position to call upon the support and collaboration of other resource holders as a result of personal and professional relationships, then he/she is more likely to succeed in putting into place the elements needed for establishment of the project.

Let’s apply these points to our community activist. Suppose this individual has developed strong relationships with regional foundations, businesses, semi-governmental organizations, and elected officials. And suppose that these relationships have resulted in a deep reservoir of trust in the activist’s perseverance and integrity. Finally, suppose the agent has a well-developed plan for establishing and maintaining the center with high credibility of success. He/she has a good “business plan” for the social project.

It is believable that this actor is much more likely to succeed than his twin with very weak personal and organizational relationships. Our organizer will have a good chance of persuading these potential partners to make the financial commitments and commitments of engagement needed to put the financial counseling center in place. And if the center is successful over several years, it is also likely that the agent’s fund of trust and confidence will deepen — making the next project even more achievable.

This part of the story concerns the social location of the actor — the networks and organizations the agent can turn to in seeking support for the project. What are the features of personality and character that support and deepen these elements of social capital?

Here are several. Trust and credibility are essential. This is true because the success of the enterprise requires the continuing cooperation of voluntary partners. The agent needs to inspire trust in the partners. And inspiring trust isn’t just a fact about current behavior or a persuasive smile — the agent needs to have a track record of behavior that validates that trust as well.

Second, credible competence is crucial as well. The agent needs to be able to make the case that the project can succeed and that he/she has the skills needed to carry it out. This too depends heavily on one’s history — the best evidence of future competence is demonstrated past competence.

This also implies a third characteristic — a need to be able to communicate clearly and credibly. Simply being a good communicator isn’t enough, but failing to communicate well certainly weakens the likelihood of success in bringing together a durable partnership.

And we can’t overlook the characteristics of originality and imagination. Solving difficult social problems requires new ideas and innovative approaches. So the successful social entrepreneur probably needs to have a focused imagination that permits him/her to conceive of new potential solutions — or at least recognize them when other people invent them.

One wonders, finally, if there is a dimension of empathy and emotional intelligence that plays an important differentiating role among different social actors in this kind of activity. How important is it for the social entrepreneur to be able to understand and express the human importance of the issue? And how important are these skills in sustaining coalitions once they have begun? It seems believable that this is very important indeed.

It appears that social entrepreneurship is ready for some serious academic study, along the lines of studies of private entrepreneurship over the past several decades. Here is a report of a preliminary study of Ashoka fellows in social entrepreneurship (link). And the Center for Social Innovation at Stanford Graduate School of Business offers some interesting examples as well (link).

Everyday social interactions

It is apparent that there are patterns in the ordinary social interactions between individuals in various societies. Whether and how to greet an acquaintance or a stranger, how close people stand together, how loudly people speak, what subjects they turn to in idle social conversation, how conflict is handled — all of these topics and more seem to have specific and nuanced answers in various specific social environments. And it seems likely enough that there are persistent differences at this level of social behavior across cities, gender, race, and class.

So is there room for social science in this domain of social behavior? And what sorts of concepts and theories help us in trying to characterize this type of social behavior?

On the first question, there is no doubt that there are researchers and traditions that have addressed exactly these sorts of questions. Erving Goffman’s writings are most directly relevant (for example, Behavior in Public Places: Notes on the Social Organization of Gatherings), and urban anthropologists and sociologists are often interested in micro-descriptions of social behaviors as well — for example, William Foote Whyte’s Street Corner Society: The Social Structure of an Italian Slum or Elliott Liebow’s Tally’s Corner: A Study of Negro Streetcorner Men.

Here is one of Goffman’s descriptions of his goals:

By and large, the psychiatric study of situational improprieties has led to studying the offender rather than the rules and social circles that are offended. Through such studies, however, psychiatrists have inadvertently made us more aware of an important area of social life — that of behavior in public and sempublic places. Although this has not been recognized as a special domain for sociological inquiry, it perhaps should be, for rules of conduct in streets, parks, restaurants, theaters, shops, dance floors, meeting halls, and other gathering places of any community tell us a great deal about its most diffuse forms of social organization.

Sociology does not provide a ready framework that can order these data, let alone show comparisons and continuities with behavior in private gathering places such as offices, factory floors, living rooms, and kitchens. To be sure, one part of “collective behavior” — riots, crowds, panics — has been established as something to study. But the remaining part of the area, the study of ordinary human traffic and the patterning of ordinary social contacts, has been little considered. … It is the object of this report to try to develop such a framework. (Behavior in Public Places, 3-4)

The school of ethnomethodology also attempts to provide this kind of detailed observation and description. This approach is illustrated, for example, by Harold Garfinkel’s descriptions of the procedures embodied in the practices of professional accountants or lawyers in Studies in Ethnomethodology. A major objective of the method is to arrive at an interpretation of the rules that underlie everyday activity and thus constitute part of the normative basis of a given social order. Research from this perspective generally focuses on mundane forms of social activity–e.g. psychiatrists evaluating patients’ files, jurors deliberating on defendants’ culpability, or coroners judging cause of death. The investigator then attempts to reconstruct an underlying set of rules and ad hoc procedures that may be taken to have guided the observed activity. The approach emphasizes the contextuality of social practice–the richness of unspoken shared understandings that guide and orient participants’ actions in a given practice or activity.

So there is quite a bit of work in anthropology and sociology that chooses to provide careful observation and description of concrete social behavior.

But there is a more fundamental question to ask: in what sense is this research scientific? What would a scientific study of the patterns of face-to-face social behavior need to provide? And why would this subject be of genuine interest from a scientific point of view?

One feature that stands out in the work of Goffman, Whyte, Liebow, or Garfinkel is the commitment of these observers to careful, detailed observation and description of social behavior. They are interested in capturing the nuances of ordinary behavior, and their research reports give a great deal of emphasis to the importance of providing detailed descriptions of ordinary social interactions. And in fact, it seems very reasonable to say that this body of descriptions is itself scientifically valuable and intellectually challenging, perhaps in some of the ways that the careful observations and descriptions produced by Darwin or Wallace in the Galapagos or Malaysia are scientifically important. Here the standard of scientific value is empirical: it is very important for the observer to “get it right” — to accurately observe and record the fine differences in behavior that are embedded in the social contexts that are observed. (See an earlier posting on the subject of descriptive social science.)

But we can also discern a second scientific objective at work in these kinds of writings, either directly or indirectly — the goal of arriving at an explanation of the patterns of behavior that are uncovered through this micro-descriptive work. Any body of phenomena that demonstrates consistent patterns over time is potentially of scientific interest, because the observable patterns imply an underlying causal order that ought to be discoverable. And this is the more true if there are stable differences in the patterns across contexts. If there are very specific patterns of behavior in these mundane situations of social encounter, how are we to explain that fact? What sort of structure or fact could count as a cause of these patterns of behavior?

One particularly appealing approach to explanation in these circumstances is to make an inference from behavior to rules that is familiar from Chomsky’s view of generative linguistics — from patterned behavior to the underlying “grammar” or system of rules and mental paradigms that produces it. So we might go a bit beyond Goffman’s own description of his work, and say that his detailed descriptions of social behavior invite him to reconstruct the underlying and psychologically real set of rules that “generate” the behavior. Here we are invited to consider the social actor as possessing a “grammar” of ordinary behavior that guides the production of actions in specified circumstances. And in fact this interpretation of the intellectual project of this work seems pretty consistent with Garfinkel’s approaches.

There is a third angle that one might take on this work — that it is a part of “interpretive” social science; that the descriptive work is an effort to provide an interpretation of the meanings of the actions described. This doesn’t seem quite right in application to the works mentioned here, however. Goffman’s work or Whyte’s descriptions aren’t exactly hermeneutic; instead, they are guided by an effort to discern and capture the smallest nuances of behavior, with an eye to discovering the underlying rules that appear to generate the behavior. The orientation of the work is not so much directed to underlying meanings as it is to underlying rules.

In short, it seems to me that the careful observation and description of the subtle complexities of ordinary social behavior is in fact a valuable contribution to a scientific understanding of the social world — even though it is primarily descriptive. The patterns of behavior that Goffman, White, or Liebow document are a genuine and novel contribution to our knowledge of the concrete social world. And these contributions to descriptive sociology can be fitted into next-generation efforts to provide explanatory contexts that would make sense of the patterns that these researchers document.

Segregation in France

The mix of race, poverty, and urban space has created intractable social issues in many American cities in the past sixty years. Residential segregation creates a terrible fabric of self-reproducing inequalities between the segregated group and the larger society — inequalities of education, health, employment, and culture. As intractable as this social system of segregation appears to be in the cities of the United States, it may be that the situation in France is even worse. Sociologist Didier Lapeyronnie is interviewed in a recent issue of the Nouvel Obs on the key findings of his recent book, Ghetto urbain: Segregation, violence, pauvrete en France aujourd’hui. The interview makes for absorbing reading.

Lapeyronnie is an expert on urban sociology, poverty, and immigration in France and a frequent observer of the rising urban crisis in France. (I’m deliberately evoking here the title of Tom Sugrue’s book, The Origins of the Urban Crisis: Race and Inequality in Postwar Detroit.) Lapeyronnie’s view is grim: the isolation and despair characteristic of French ghetto and banlieue communities are worsening year after year, and the French state’s promises after the disturbances of 2005 have not been fulfilled. Unemployment, limited educational opportunities, and poverty create an environment in which young people have neither the resources nor the opportunities to improve their social position, and they are largely excluded from the larger French society.

Lapeyronnie offers several important observations. These ghettos are largely populated by immigrant communities — first, second, or third-generation immigrants from North Africa and former French colonies. Racism is a crucial element in the development and evolution of these segregated spaces. As he puts it:

The ghetto is the product of two mechanisms: social and racial segregation and poverty, which enclose people in their neighborhoods, leading to the formation of a veritable counter-society with its own norms, its economy (what one calls the black economy), and even its own political system. … Poor and segregated, feeling ostracized by the Republic and plunged into a veritable political vacuum, they have organized a counter-society which protects them even as they are disadvantaged in relation to the exterior world.

Lapeyronnie makes the point that the development of segregated ghettos is more advanced and more harmful in the smaller cities of France. He describes the situation in these smaller cities as creating an almost total barrier between the ghetto and the surrounding city — an environment where the possibility of economic or social interaction has all but disappeared.

Lapeyronnie notes the role that gender plays in the segregation system. Women of the ghetto can move back and forth — if they accept the “dominant norms” of dress and behavior. And this means the head scarf, in particular. In order to pass across the boundary of ghetto and city, women must adopt the dress of non-Muslim French society. But, as Lapeyronnie points out, this creates a deeply ambiguous position for women, because modest dress and head scarf are all but mandatory within the space of the ghetto. “The veil is interpreted as a sexual symbol, affirmation of a sexual solidarity with Muslim men. It often engenders hostility outside the ghetto while providing protection within the ghetto.” “Here one finds one of the central explanations of the formation of the ghetto … which is organized around the articulation of the race of the men and the sex of the women.”

Another interesting sociological observation concerns the nature of the social networks within and without the ghetto. Lapeyronnie distinguishes between “strong network ties” (liens forts) and weak network ties (liens faibles), and he asserts that social relationships in the ghetto fall in the first category: everyone knows everyone. As a network diagram, this would result in a dense network in which every node is connected to every other node. But Lapeyronnie makes the point that weak networks are a source of strength and innovation in the larger society that is lacking in the ghetto; people can “network” to strangers through a series of connections. So opportunities are widely available — finding a job by passing one’s CV through a series of people, for example. “Strong networks protect people, they are like a cocoon … But they are also a handicap and a weight on each person. Not only is the individual deprived of resources, but many people don’t know a single person outside the neighborhood.” Moreover, this strong network characteristic is very effective at enforcing a group morality (along the lines of Durkheim): “There is a morality and set of norms in the strong network: don’t betray, be faithful to one’s friends, stay together.”

Lapeyronnie concludes the interview with these words:

When a population is placed in a situation of poverty and lives within racial segregation, it returns to very traditional definitions of social roles, notably the roles of family, and on a rigid and often bigoted morality. This is what permits building the strong network.

This is a pretty powerful analysis of the social transformations that are created by segregation, racism, isolation, and poverty — and it doesn’t bode well for social peace in France. Lapeyronnie is describing the development of an extensive “counter-society” that may be more and more important in coming years. The social networks and social relationships that Lapeyronnie describes are a potent basis for social mobilization and new social movements, and there don’t seem to be many pathways towards social progress to which such movements might be directed.

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