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.

Why does unrest spread?

Why does social unrest occur and spread?

This is a little bit of a trick question. It really implies three questions: What are the circumstances that make unrest in a population possible or likely? What circumstances need to occur in order to precipitate expressions of unrest in particular places? And what circumstances are conducive to spreading (or damping out) these local expressions?

First, how might we define the concept of “unrest”? To my ear the concept involves grievance and activism. Grievance involves the situation where individuals and groups feel that they have been badly treated by someone. Activism implies a disposition to act visibly and politically to protest or alleviate this mistreatment. Grievance can exist without activism, and there are instances of activism that stem from emotions other than grievance. But when these emotional and behavioral states come together we can refer to the resulting stew of behavior as “unrest”.

So let’s start with the causes of grievance. Power relations create the emotions of grievance: excessive conscription or taxation, insufficient attention to the interests of an ethnic minority, abusive and disrespectful treatment by the police. When individuals and groups believe they are being treated in ways that unfairly harm their interests or reduce their dignity, they are likely to feel aggrieved.

Grievance is a propositional emotion; it involves a subject, a harm, and a perpetrator. And this means that grievance is not simply a reaponse to suffering. Take a population that is experiencing dearth in the early stages of famine. Individuals and sub-groups may differ in their experience of grievance; they may hold different social actors responsible for their suffering (landlords, lenders, city people, the military, or the state, for example). And these differences have implications for how and when these groups may be aroused to protest and action.

What about “activism”? What kind of psycho-political state is this? It is a propensity to make the transition from political emotion to action — to go from resentment of the state’s behavior to the choice of joining a street demonstration; to go from anger about conscription to joining an anti-draft organization; to go from frustration about the landlord’s unwillingness to restore the heat to joining with others in a rent strike. “Activism” appears to be a complex characteristic of individuals and groups. For one thing, it seems to have a substantial component of culture and tradition baked into it. Cultures seem to differ in their responses to mistreatment; some communities seem to have resources for activist mobilization that others lack. Second, there appears to be a substantial degree of social learning through imitation involved in becoming “activist.” So it is likely that there is a degree of positive feedback involved in the spread of activist psychology.

So back to the original question: what causes the spread of unrest? There needs to be an issue that creates a grievance in a significant number of people. Something needs to happen to make this issue salient relative to other concerns. There needs to be a critical mass of people who share the grievance and possess the components of the social emotions of activism. And there needs to be a “spark” that allows activists to mobilize others.

Consider a hypothetical example — a company with dozens of factories in different parts of the country that is imposing a unilateral change in its contributions to worker retirement accounts. Suppose each factory has several thousand workers; and suppose that there is a range of responses to the retirement changes in the various factories along these lines:

  • Quiescence and grudging acceptance
  • Widespread grousing but no organized action
  • Wildcat strikes

What factors might account for these different responses to essentially the same event?

Several possible explanations might be considered:

  • The presence/absence of effective rank-and-file leaders
  • The presence/absence of effective local managers’ countermeasures (persuasion, cooptation, threats)
  • Strong/weak traditions of activism in different locations
  • Alternative narratives about what the changes mean (“inevitable in this business climate”, “better this than a lot of layoffs”, “higher management is taking this opportunity to stiff us”, ….)
  • High/low impact of the management changes on the interests of workers in each location
  • Strong/weak channels of communication among workers in different factories

It is, of course, a matter for empirical investigation to determine whether some or all of these factors played a causal role. But we can give good theoretical reasons for thinking that these are socially possible mechanisms that may underlie the observed differences in behavior.

We might speculate, then, that unrest is most likely to occur and spread when there is an abuse that affects a large number of people; there is a generally shared understanding of the nature of the abuse; there are effective local activists capable of arousing the indignation of the rank-and-file; there are accessible communication vehicles permitting the spreading of messages of dissent; the population has a tradition of activism; and the state’s managers are ineffectual in damping down the occurrences of protest. These conditions appear most favorable for the dissemination of unrest.

Cooperatives within markets

In a recent post on ChangingSociety I considered the question whether households in a rural community might be able to achieve energy self-sufficiency based on the cultivation of crops such as cattails and community production of ethanol. One question raised there is whether it is possible to estimate the land and labor that would be required for household self-sufficiency, and the other is whether we might describe an economically feasible distillery cooperative system that would permit a hundred families to distill their product. Based on assumptions that are drawn from a number of sources out of a very complicated domain of knowledge about the economics of ethanol, I put together several scenarios to see what the lifestyle consequences would be for “fuel farmers”. A scenario based on moderate assumptions yielded these results: in order to produce a household stock of fuel of 2,400 gallons of ethanol, a household would need to cultivate 10 acres of cattails and would need to expend 4 hours per day year round on cultivation, harvesting, and distillery coop duties.

What I’d like to focus on in this posting is the feasibility and characteristics of cooperatives as a way for small- and medium-sized communities to handle some of the key material activities they need to accomplish. In a modern society we are so accustomed to market mechanisms and individual decision-making that it is somewhat difficult to imagine how coops might work in modern circumstances. So, for the example under consideration here, the market scenario is straightforward: farmers grow cattails to serve as a raw material for a privately owned distillery; the price of the cattails is eventually determined as a function of the quantity and value of the final products of distillation (ethanol and feed); and cattail farming is simply another crop within the private farmer’s portfolio. And if the business case for a privately developed distillery is favorable — that is, the raw materials will be available in sufficient quantity and low price and the value of the product will be sufficient to provide a profit — then entrepreneurs will emerge to fill this economic niche. Everyone’s interests are satisfied: farmers earn more income, private owners earn a profit, and society is presented with a growing volume of renewable fuels.

But consider the downside of this market-based story from the fuel farmers’ point of view. They have no control over the price that their cattail crop will bring; they are subject to the vagaries of commodity prices and the semi-monopoly position held by the local distillery; and they are likely to believe that the “middle man” is taking too much of their crop and labor in the form of profits. And, after all, the farmers’ interest is in achieving a sustainable energy supply — not simply a level of income consistent with the budget necessities of everyday life. They’re growing the cattails because they are a source of energy that can be produced and consumed separately from the market. So passing through the market twice — selling the raw materials and purchasing ethanol — seems like an unnecessary and risky detour; why not simply turn the crop into ethanol directly without passing through the marketplace?

So the fuel farmer has an interest in directly capturing the energy content of the crop, not simply growing another kind of cash crop. This could be done by establishing a farm still and processing the crop directly; but there are significant economies of scale in distillation, so this is not an ideal solution. An inefficient distillation process simply means that the farmer must farm a larger area and expend more labor in order to arrive at the net quantity of fuel required. A better solution would result from sharing the distillation process among an extended group of households and maintaining a small to medium-sized distillery for the use of the community. So we might imagine leaders coming forward who propose the establishment of a cooperative distillery. Coop members would share costs, labor time, and ethanol based on the volume of feedstock that they provide to the process. If all households were farming roughly the same amount of land at the same level of intensity, then all households would contribute cash and labor equally and would “earn” the same quantity of ethanol from the process.

So now let’s do a little bit of scenario building. Suppose there is a turnkey distillery operation that can be purchased for $2 million, with a well-documented set of technical efficiency characteristics. (That way prospective coop members know what they’re getting into.) The distillery processes 60,000 pounds of biomass a day and produces about 2,000 gallons of ethanol. The distillation process requires 30 hours of labor per day. And this scale of production is about right for the needs of a cooperative involving 100 households. Members are required to accept joint financial responsibility for debt and operations of the coop, and they are required to provide their full share of coop labor at the distillery based on a schedule of work times. And, given the technical characteristics of farming and distilling, they can be confident that their fuel farming labor will result in a quantity of biomass that will entitle them to 2,400 gallons of ethanol annually. On a plausible set of assumptions, this means that each household will have coop dues of $2,200 and a monthly labor obligation of 6 hours.

So far, so good; this sounds like a good deal for each of the households. Each household satisfies its annual energy needs with an investment of $2,200 in cash and about 1,000 hours of labor expended on cultivation, harvesting, transporting, and distilling; whereas the cost of purchasing this volume of ethanol would be about $10,000. So what obstacles might arise in implementing this cooperative solution to the problem of energy self-sufficiency?

There are several predictable challenges that this scenario is likely to raise, including especially in the areas of governance, technical management, work management, accounting, trust, taxation, and sustainability over time.

  • Governance. The cooperative needs to make decisions about management, maintenance, and improvement of the facility. How should this be done? Are all decisions to be taken on the basis of a vote by the membership? Should there be an executive committee with some powers of decision-making? Is there an executive manager? How will conflicts among coop members be managed and resolved?
  • Technical management. The distillery is technically complex. Maintenance requires skilled technicians or millwrights. Can the coop count on these kinds of expertise among its membership? Will it need to hire outside experts and engineers to maintain the facility? Who will take responsibility for maintaining safety processes and standards within the facility?
  • Work management. Who will supervise the work of coop members while they are performing their tasks during coop labor? Is there a likelihood of “easy riding” — coop members who bring their blackberries to work and keep checking their email rather than cleaning the boiler? What kinds of discipline processes are feasible within a coop — for example, fines imposed on “no-show” workers? Will the coop need to reward internal experts with a somewhat larger share of the product?
  • Accounting. There is a very substantial amount of accounting of inputs and outputs that needs to be accomplished. As coop members pull up with a load of biofuel the quantity and quality needs to be measured and recorded. Clear formulas governing the pay-out of ethanol need to be codified. There is a time lag between depositing the feedstock and withdrawing the ethanol; rules need to be established that govern the household’s entitlement to a given quantity of ethanol on a regular basis (weekly, monthly, quarterly?).
  • Trust. Members need to have a substantial level of trust in each other and in the non-professional managers of the process. Theft of assets is always a possibility by managers. Fraud on the part of coop members is also possible — for example, mixing non-feedstock materials into a load of feedstock and taking credit for 6,000 pounds rather than 5,500 pounds of stock. More careful inspection procedures have a cost — more labor time from the membership. Members need to be confident that other members will continue to pay their dues — otherwise the debt obligations of the coop fall on a smaller and smaller circle of dues-payers.
  • Taxation. The cooperative is likely to face expanding demand for improvements of the facility, the technology, or the use of labor. This means raising the obligations imposed on coop members, in the form of coop dues, a percentage of their ethanol share, or an increase in labor time required by coop members. How will these increases in assessment be decided?
  • Sustainability over time. The economics of the cooperative distillery depend on a certain size of membership — say 100 households. Like any human organization, there will be exits from the cooperative — retirements, relocation, discouragement. Will the cooperative be able to continually recruit new members in sufficient numbers to keep the process in the black? Is there the risk of the “dying seminar” that Thomas Schelling writes about — decline leading to rising costs for the remaining members, leading to further decline in membership (Micromotives and Macrobehavior)?

So — there are significant challenges of governance, management, and trust that stand in the way of a successful cooperative. This doesn’t mean that cooperatives are impossible to create or sustain, or that they don’t have significant economic advantages for their members. But perhaps it does explain why this is not a common solution so far in modern social settings as a way of securing coordination and shared economic benefits among a mid-sized group of persons or households. At the same time, it seems very worthwhile to expend effort on trying to resolve these issues in ways that make cooperative arrangements more feasible and sustainable than they currently are in modern society.


What is the role of trust in ordinary social workings? I would say that a fairly high level of trust is simply mandatory in any social group, from a family to a workplace to a full society. Lacking trust, each agent is forced into a kind of Hobbesian calculation about the behavior of those around him or her, watching for covert strategies in which the other is trying to take advantage of oneself. The cost of self-protection is impossibly high in a zero-trust society. Gated communities don’t help. We would need to have gated and solitary lives. Even our brothers and sisters, spouses, and offspring would have to be watched suspiciously. We would live like Howard Hughes at the end of his life.

To begin, what is trust? It is a condition of reliance on the statements, assurances, and basic good behavior of others. The status of commitments over time is essential to trust. We need to consider whether we can trust a neighbor who has promised to return a lawn mower — will he keep his promise? Can we trust the car park attendant not to take the iPod from the glove compartment? Can we trust the phone company to not add hidden fees to our bill in a corporate decision that they won’t be noticed by most consumers?

It is sort of a commonplace in moral philosophy that you can’t trust a pure egoist or an act utilitarian. The reason is simple: trust means reliance on the correct behavior of other agents even when there is an opportunity for gain in incorrect behavior and the probability of detection and sanctions is low. The egoist will reason on the basis of the advantage he/she anticipates and will discount the low likelihood of sanction. But likewise, the act utilitarian will add up all the utilities created by “correct action” and “incorrect action”, and will be bound to choose the action with the greater utility. The fact of an existing promise or other obligation will not change the calculation. So the act utilitarian cannot be trusted to honor his promises and obligations, no matter what.

Standards of “correct behavior” are difficult to articulate precisely, but here’s a start: telling the truth, keeping promises and assurances when they come into play, acting according to generally shared rules of professional and social ethics, and respecting the rights of others. We sometimes describe people and organizations whose behavior conforms to these sorts of characteristics as possessing “integrity”.

In general, agents whose behavior is governed solely by calculation of consequences cannot be trusted, since occasions requiring trust are precisely those in which we need to rely on others to do the right thing in spite of consequences that would favor doing the wrong thing. (For example, taking the iPod in circumstances where there are dozens of attendants and the theft cannot be attributed to one person; keeping the lawnmower if the owner is in a state of rapid-onset dementia; adding the phony charges in a business environment where it can be predicted with confidence that only 5% of customers will notice and the penalties are trivial.)

So there are two basic models of action that people can choose: consequentialist and “constrained by obligations” (deontological). The first approach is opportunistic and myopic; the other reflects integrity and the validity of long-term obligations.

But here we have a problem. The most ordinary social transactions become almost impossible in a no-trust environment. If I can’t trust my bank to hold my savings honestly, or my employer to keep its commitments about my retirement accounts, or the passenger on the seat next to me on a long airplane flight to not go through my briefcase if I drift off to sleep — then I am forced into a condition of exhausting, sleepless vigilance. And, of course, we do generally trust in these circumstances.

But it is an interesting problem for research to consider whether different societies and groups elicit and sustain different levels of trust in ordinary life, and what the institutional factors are that affect this outcome. Is there a higher level of trust in Bloomington, Illinois than Chicago or Houston? Is trust a feature of the learning environment through which people gain their social psychologies? Are there institutional features that encourage or discourage dispositions towards trust? And what are the compensating mechanisms through which social interactions proceed in a low-trust environment? Is that where “trust but verify” comes in?

Components of one’s "social identity"

A social identity is a complex thing. It involves the ways in which one characterizes oneself, the affinities one has with other people, the ways one has learned to behave in stereotyped social settings, the things one values in oneself and in the world, and the norms that one recognizes or accepts governing everyday behavior. And it profoundly affects the ways we behave and respond to the world.

So a social identity invokes a number of different areas of psychological competence: knowledge, motivation, perception, memory, personality, and emotion, to name a few. And yet one’s social identity seems to stand a bit apart from any of these psychological concepts singly. Cognitive psychology focuses on some aspects of this mix; social psychology and personality psychology focuses on other aspects; but there is no area of psychology that attempts to capture all of “social identity” as a psychological real process or structure.

Moreover, a social identity is embodied in an individual; and yet it is produced by the experiences we have in relations to other individuals and groups. A social identity can be said to be a feature of a group or a community as much as it is a feature of particular individuals within a given community. And this fact is causally important: we can’t explain the individual’s identity without reference to the sustained and fairly consistent features of the group with respect to its social identity. So a social identity has an aspect of “social-ness” that cautions us against a narrowly psychological interpretation of the concept.

We might single out a number of aspects of a social identity as a psychologically real construct, embodied in a particular person through a particular body of experience and a specific location within a community:

  • an epistemic frame in terms of which I understand the social world
  • an element of my psycho-cognitive-emotional apparatus
  • a model of how to behave in certain common social settings
  • a self-ascription defining the features of action and comportment that are most defining of “me” in the world
  • a self-valorization of the things that are most worthwhile to me
  • an account of who I’m related to and similar to; who my affinity groups are
  • a map expressing my location within a particular extended community

In addition, it is important to recognize the feature of “intersectionality” that characterizes social identities: the ways in which one’s identity involves a crossing of different grounds of identity and affinity. (University of Michigan social psychologist Elizabeth Cole has published a useful recent article called “Coalitions as a Model for Intersectionality: From Practice to Theory” in Sex Roles; here is a link. I also found the Wikipedia article on intersectionality to be valuable.)

Identities aren’t “pure” expressions of one particular feature of one’s location in the social world; instead, features of sexual identity, geographical identity, class identity, racial and ethnic identity, professional identity, and cohort identity all play a role in constituting one’s overall identity. This means that it is important to give concrete attention to the multiple forms of social influence and immersion through which a given individual comes to embody a complex social identity; we need to look to the microfoundations of identity formation. (See more on this approach here.)

And this point about intersectionality also raises the likelihood of internal conflict. One’s identity as an Asian American may be in some conflict with features of identity derived from one’s location within the hip-hop generation or one’s professional status as a junior member of an accounting firm. And the modes of behavior implicated by one strand may be at odds with those created by the other strands.

Innovative efforts to provide fresh approaches to the study of social identities are emerging in several fields. Paula Moya and Michael Hames-Garcia’s Reclaiming Identity: Realist Theory and the Predicament of Postmodernism is an introduction to a genuinely innovative approach to the study of identities that attempts to bring literary criticism, race and gender studies, and social theory into one extended discussion.

"Moral economy" as a historical social concept

The concept of a “moral economy” has proved useful in attempting to describe and explain the contentious behavior of peasants in response to onerous social relations. Essentially, it is the idea that peasant communities share a set of normative attitudes concerning the social relations and social behaviors that surround the local economy: the availability of food, the prices of subsistence commodities, the proper administration of taxation, and the operation of charity, for example. This is sometimes referred to a “subsistence ethic”: the idea that local social arrangements should be structured in such a way as to respect the subsistence needs of the rural poor. The associated theory of political behavior holds something like this: peasant communities are aroused to protest and rebellion when the terms of the local subsistence ethic are breached by local elites, state authorities, or market forces.

Here I want to highlight this concept by asking a few foundational questions. Fundamentally, what kind of concept is it? How does it function in social interpretation, description, or explanation? And how does it function as a component of empirical investigation?

The concept of moral economy was extensively developed by E. P. Thompson in The Making of the English Working Class (1961) and an important essay, “The Moral Economy of the English Crowd in the Eighteenth Century,” originally published in Past and Present in 1971 and included in Customs in Common: Studies in Traditional Popular Culture. The concept derives from Thompson’s treatment of bread riots in eighteenth century Britain. In MEWC Thompson writes:

In 18th-century Britain riotous actions assumed two different forms: that of more or less spontaneous popular direct action; and that of the deliberate use of the crowd as an instrument of pressure, by persons “above” or apart from he crowd. The first form has not received the attention which it merits. It rested upon more articulate popular sanctions and was validated by more sophisticated traditions than the word “riot” suggests. The most common example is the bread or food riot, repeated cases of which can be found in almost every town and county until the 1840s. This was rarely a mere uproar which culminated in the breaking open of barns or the looting of shops. It was legitimised by the assumptions of an older moral economy, which taught the immorality of any unfair method of forcing up the price of provisions by profiteering upon the necessities of the people. (MTWEC, 62-63)

After describing a number of bread riots in some detail, Thompson writes, “Actions on such a scale … indicate an extraordinarily deep-rooted pattern of behaviour and belief …. These popular actions were legitimised by the old paternalist moral economy” (66). And he closes this interesting discussion with these words: “In considering only this one form of ‘mob’ action we have come upon unsuspected complexities, for behind every such form of popular direct action some legitimising notion of right is to be found” (68). And Thompson often describes these values as “traditional” or “paternalist” — working in opposition to the values and ideas of an unfettered market; he contrasts “moral economy” with the modern “political economy” associated with liberalism and the ideology of the free market.

In “The Moral Economy of the Crowd” Thompson puts his theory this way:

It is possible to detect in almost ever eighteenth-century crowd action some legitimising notion. By the notion of legitimation I mean that the men and women in the crowd were informed by the belief that they were defending traditional rights or customs; and, in general, that they were supported by the wider consensus of the community. On occasion this popular consensus was endorsed by some measure of licence afforded by the authorities. More commonly, the consensus was so strong that it overrode motives of fear or deference. (“Moral Economy,” CIC 188)

It is plain from these passages that Thompson believes that the “moral economy” is a real historical factor, consisting of the complex set of attitudes and norms of justice that are in play within this historically presented social group. As he puts the point late in the essay, “We have been examining a pattern of social protest which derives from a consensus as to the moral economy of the commonweal in times of dearth” (247).

So the logic of Thompson’s ideas here seems fairly clear: there were instances of public disorder (“riots”) surrounding the availability and price of food, and there is a hypothesized “notion of right” or justice that influenced and motivated participants. This conception of justice is a socially embodied historical factor, and it partially explains the behavior of the rural people who mobilized themselves to participate in the disturbances. He recapitulates his goal in the essay, “Moral Economy Reviewed” (also included in Customs in Common) in these terms: “My object of analysis was the mentalité, or, as I would prefer, the political culture, the expectations, traditions, and indeed, superstitions of the working population most frequently involved in actions in the market” (260). These shared values and norms play a key role in Thompson’s reading of the political behavior of the individuals in these groups. So these hypotheses about the moral economy of the crowd serve both to help interpret the actions of a set of actors involved in food riots, and to explain the timing and nature of food riots. We might say, then, that the concept of “moral economy” contributes both to a hermeneutics of peasant behavior and a causal theory of peasant contention.

Now move forward two centuries. Another key use of the concept of moral economy occurs in treatments of modern peasant rebellions in Asia. Most influential is James Scott’s important book, The Moral Economy of the Peasant: Rebellion and Subsistence in Southeast Asia. Scholars of the Chinese Revolution borrowed from Scott in offering a range of interpretations of peasant behavior in the context of CCP mobilization; for example, James Polachek (“The Moral Economy of the Kiangsi Soviet” (1928-34). Journal of Asian Studies 1983 XLII (4):805-830). And most recently, Kevin O’Brien has made use of the idea of a moral economy in his treatment of “righteous protest” in contemporary China (Rightful Resistance in Rural China). So scholars interested in the politics of Asian rural societies have found the moral economy concept to be a useful one. Scott puts his central perspective in these terms:

We can learn a great deal from rebels who were defeated nearly a half-century ago. If we understand the indignation and rage which prompted them to risk everything, we can grasp what I have chosen to call their moral economy: their notion of economic justice and their working definition of exploitation–their view of which claims on their product were tolerable and which intolerable. Insofar as their moral economy is representative of peasants elsewhere, and I believe I can show that it is, we may move toward a fuller appreciation of the normative roots of peasant politics. If we understand, further, how the central economic and political transformations of the colonial era served to systematically violate the peasantry’s vision of social equity, we may realize how a class “of low classness” came to provide, far more often than the proletariat, the shock troops of rebellion and revolution. (MEP, 3-4)

Scott’s book represents his effort to understand the dynamic material circumstances of peasant life in colonial Southeast Asia (Vietnam and Burma); to postulate some central normative assumptions of the “subsistence ethic” that he believes characterizes these peasant societies; and then to explain the variations in political behavior of peasants in these societies based on the moments of inconsistency between material conditions and aspects of the subsistence ethic. And he postulates that the political choices for action these peasant rebels make are powerfully influenced by the content of the subsistence ethic. Essentially, we are invited to conceive of the “agency” of the peasant as being a complicated affair, including prudential reasoning, moral assessment based on shared standards of justice, and perhaps other factors as well. So, most fundamentally, Scott’s theory offers an account of the social psychology and agency of peasants.

There are several distinctive features of Scott’s programme. One is his critique of narrow agent-centered theories of political motivation, including particularly rational choice theory. (Samuel Popkin’s The Rational Peasant: The Political Economy of Rural Society in Vietnam is the prime example.) Against the idea that peasants are economically rational agents who decide about political participation based on a narrowly defined cost-benefit analysis, Scott argues for a more complex political psychology incorporating socially shared norms and values. But a second important feature is Scott’s goal of providing a somewhat general basis for explanation of peasant behavior. He wants to argue that the subsistence ethic is a widely shared set of moral values in traditional rural societies — with the consequence that it provides a basis for explanation that goes beyond the particulars of Vietnam or Burma. And he has a putative explanation of this commonality as well — the common existential circumstances of traditional family-based agriculture.

One could pull several of these features apart in Scott’s treatment. For example, we could accept the political psychology — “People are motivated by a locally embodied sense of justice” — but could reject the generalizability of the subsistence ethic — “Burmese peasants had the XYZ set of local values, while Vietnamese peasants possessed the UVW set of local values.”

This programme suggests several problems for theory and for empirical research. Are there social-science research methods that would permit us to “observe” or empirically discern the particular contents of a normative worldview in a range of different societies, in order to assess whether the subsistence ethic that Scott describes is widespread? Are peasants in Burma and Vietnam as similar as Scott’s theory postulates? How would we validate the implicit theory of political motivation that Scott advances (calculation within the context of normative judgment)? Are there other important motivational factors that are perhaps as salient to political behavior as the factors invoked by the subsistence ethic? Where does Scott’s “thicker” description of peasant consciousness sit with respect to fully ethnographic investigation?

So to answer my original question — what kind of concept is the “moral economy”? — we can say several things. It is a proto-theory of the theory of justice that certain groups possess (18th-century English farmers and townspeople, 20th-century Vietnamese peasants). It implicitly postulates a theory of political motivation and political agency. It asserts a degree of generality across peasant societies. It is offered as a basis for both interpreting and explaining events — answering the question “What is going on here?” and “Why did this event take place?” In these respects the concept is both an empirical construct and a framework for thinking about agency; so it can be considered both in terms of its specific empirical adequacy and, more broadly, the degree of insight it offers for thinking about collective action.

The reality of society

We sometimes speak of “global society”, we refer to “French society”; and we also think of face-to-face organizations and neighborhoods as small societies or social groups. There is an important conceptual point in the background in these common ways of speaking: what are the features of interaction or relationship that must obtain in order for a group of people to constitute a “society” or a “social group”?

There are a couple of points that are fairly obvious. These ensembles of individuals are not social groups:

  • all the people in the state whose last name begins with “J”
  • all the people in the world who enjoy spicy food
  • all the people in the world
  • the set of people who live within 100 miles of their state or provincial capital city

We would probably say that these aren’t social groups or societies for several reasons:

  • these ensembles bring together very heterogeneous and disassociated individuals
  • these individuals don’t interact significantly and persistently with each other
  • the individuals in each case lack a common identity
  • the individuals in these groups do not share a single set of values or mores
  • the populations described here do not possess a dense set of social networks that link almost all members of the group together
  • there is not a set of social structures that serve to coordinate and orient the behavior of all or most of the members of these ensembles

The fundamental point is that it would seem that the members of a society, as opposed to a random assembly of individuals, must have some strands of connection with each other.

So we might try this out: a society is a set of individuals —

  • who share a broad identity with each other, in at least the minimal sense that they regard themselves as members of the same society.
  • who share some set of values and ideas — perhaps non-uniform but overlapping
  • who are related to each other through economic, political, or social interactions and networks of connections
  • who are subject to a common set of social institutions.

But these criteria are debatable. Does the first criterion above threaten to rule out Canada and Spain, because there are Quebecois and Basque separatist groups within these countries? Are the people who choose to live in the isolated compound of the Yearning for Zion ranch a part of United States society, given their extreme efforts to avoid any relationships with the larger society? Is a Facebook group of “friends” a society, given that the members are generally geographically and socially dispersed?

Most fundamentally, the criteria for defining an assembly of people as a “society” can’t be too restrictive because a “society” is a looser assembly than some other kinds of social groupings — religious organizations, social movements, or labor unions, for example. In each of these latter instances there is a high degree of coherence, solidarity, and shared identity and values across members of the group. Societies, on the other hand, embody diversity and difference across persons: multiple values, multiple social networks, multiple group identities. So somehow our definition of society needs to fall intermediate between the random assemblages of persons listed first, and the intentional communities mentioned above.

We might say, then, that a society is knit together by only an overlapping but non-comprehensive set of relationships, values, and identities. Individuals share values and identities with some other individuals; this defines one aspect of the “social-connectedness” graph of a society. And individuals interact with other individuals through economic, political, or cultural transactions; this defines another aspect of a social-connectedness graph. Everyone in a society is related through a set of network relationships to many other people in society; but there is no set of network relationships that encompasses everyone. And I suppose that it is possible that, when we have drawn out a massively complex graph of networks and relationships within the population, that there may be some groups that exist in “islands” within the larger social map, with relationships with each other but not with outsiders.

Marc Bloch’s history

One of the historians whom I most admire is Marc Bloch. He was one of France’s most important medieval historians in the first half of the twentieth century, and he died at the hands of the Gestapo while serving in the Resistance in Paris in 1944. (Carole Fink’s biography is an outstanding treatment of his thought and life; Marc Bloch: A Life in History; also important is Marc Bloch, l’historien et la cite.)

Here I am primarily interested in the substantive contributions Bloch brought to the writing of history. Bloch was one of the founders of the Annales school of history, along with Lucien Febvre, and he left a deep impression on subsequent historical imagination later in the twentieth century. In particular, he gave a strong impetus to social and sociological history, and he brought a non-Marxist materialism into the writing of history that represented a very important angle of view. The largest impact of the Annales school — Febvre, Bloch, Ladurie, Braudel, Le Goff — is the set of perspectives it forged for the understanding of social and cultural history — looking at the structures and experiences of ordinary people as one foundation for the formation of history. This required the invention of new historical vocabulary and new sources of data. And Bloch was central in each area.

A couple of Bloch’s books are most significant. Feudal Society is a very important contribution to our understanding of the institutions and social relations of feudalism — the manorial system, vassalage, and kingship. And his writings about French agricultural history are of special interest (French Rural History: An Essay on Its Basic Characteristics). These books document quite a few important aspects of French rural social life — both high and low. But even more importantly, Bloch brought several distinctive ideas into historical writing that continue to serve as illuminating models about how to understand the past. One is a version of materialist historical investigation — Bloch provides great insight into the forces and relations of production in rural medieval France and the material culture of the middle ages. A second is an adept ability to single out and scrutinize some of the forms of political structure and power that defined French feudal society. And a third is a subtle way of characterizing the social whole of medieval society and mentality that owed much to Durkheim. In a curious way, then, Bloch’s work picked up some of the themes that constituted modern social theory in Marx, Weber, and Durkheim.

Bloch’s materialism is most evident in French Rural History. Here Bloch gives a detailed and scholarly treatment of the social and community consequences of the diffusion of the heavy wheeled plough. He provides a careful technical analysis of the advantages and exigencies of the heavy plough, which was most suited to the heavy soil of northern France. And he works out the social prerequisites of this technology — basically, a degree of community organization that could successfully coordinate land use consistent with ownership and the turning radius of the heavy implement and its team of horses. The technical requirements of the plough required certain social arrangements. And the social structure of the northern French village satisfied these conditions — in striking contrast to the looser coordination found in southern French villages. “Only a society of great compactness, composed of men who thought instinctively in terms of the community, could have created such a regime. The land itself was the fruit of collective labour” (French Rural History, 45).

This is materialism; but it is not especially Marxist materialism. It doesn’t give primacy to class relations. And it doesn’t support any kind of teleology in historical development. But the central point was clear. Bloch sought to demonstrate that a major technology — for example, cultivation with the heavy plough — incorporates and implicates a whole complex social and cultural system. And a major part of social history is to discover the sequence of adjustments through which the technology system is incorporated.

The Durkheim part of the story is also an important one. Durkheim was a major influence on French social thought in the teens and twenties, and the vector to Bloch was particularly direct. The journal Annales d’Histoire Economique et Sociale was created by Bloch and Febvre as a vehicle for inviting a more sociological approach to economic history and to encourage interdisciplinary research in this field, and Bloch and Febvre were deeply influenced by the debate that surrounded history and Durkheimian sociology in the period 1890-1910.  R. Colbert Rhodes has written a good essay on Durkheim’s influence on Bloch. Rhodes writes: “Bloch’s essentially sociological approach to historical writing is responsible for some of the most distinctive and useful features of his work. Bloch reflects the Durkheimian social realist metaphysic by reaching behind individuals to the social group considered in its broadest aspect, the collective mentality. Bloch acknowledges in the Historian’s Craft his dominant interest in the study of man integrated into the social group. In the Craft, Bloch borrows a citation from Lucien Febvre to state his own interest as ‘not man, again, never man.’ We are interested in “human societies, organized groups” (47).

The final feature of Bloch’s thought I want to highlight is his vocabulary of structure and power in his treatment of French feudalism. There is a parallel with Weber in this body of thinking. Bloch spent a year studying in Germany and was presumably aware of Weber’s thought, but there is no clear evidence of direct influence. But there are several ways in which some of Bloch’s thought parallels Weber’s. One is in his use of ideas about historical concepts that are similar to Weber’s concept of ideal types. And the other is his careful analysis of the historical realities of relations of power and social structures that embody power.

Bloch’s writings repay a careful reading — both for their importance as first-rate historical scholarship and for the light they shed on the problem of historical knowledge and conceptualization. And it is highly relevant to find that all the strands of classical sociological theory find a counterpart in his thought.

Micro cultures?

Is there such a thing as a “micro”-culture — a culture that is somewhat distinctive of a particular community in a specific time and place, and different from the culture of similar communities in other places?

The sorts of communities I’m thinking of might include sports teams, university faculties, union locals, church congregations, street gangs, or rural villages. Is it possible that Village X is a friendlier place than Village Y? Or that Local W is more militant than Local Z? Or that Gang S is less willing to use violence against younger brothers of rivals than Gang T is? And is it possible that these differences are real, persistent, and self-reinforcing through mechanisms that constitute a basis for dynamic cultural continuity?

Take the Boston Celtics. The players and coaches are all recruited in a national and international labor market; they generally are well acquainted with each other through their high-profile college basketball careers, camps, and leagues; and the NBA spends a lot of money in cultivating a national NBA culture rather than a micro-culture for particular teams. So you might imagine that every team would be simply a generic expression of national basketball culture. And yet it’s possible that the Boston Celtics are a distinctive team, in terms of a number of characteristics. They might have more of a team ethic than, say, the Los Angeles Lakers; they might have some traditions that play out in practices and games; they might have a lore about the Celtics greats of the past — Havliceck, Bird, Dennis Johnson, and they might conceivably have a style of play that persists through changes of coaches and players. So here the question is whether the national culture of NBA basketball is the key, or whether there are important differences in behavior, values, practices, and style that persist for specific teams over time. This speculation raises two sorts of questions: How would we attempt to determine whether there are such differences? And what sorts of social mechanisms would serve to preserve and reproduce such cultural specifics?

The basketball version of this story is pretty speculative on my part — few of us have the close acquaintance with professional sports to have an opinion on the subject of local team cultures. But university faculties — that’s a different story. Here I feel more confident in asserting that there are indeed significant differences of culture across institutions, even institutions that are otherwise very similar. Among select liberal arts colleges, for example, there are wide variations on different campuses about the value of “university citizenship” (service on college committees, for example); the expectations and duties associated with teaching undergraduate students (high commitment versus low commitment to spending time with students; a felt obligation to provide meaningful commentary on student writing assignments); and probably differences around the standards of what is acceptable in gender relations (for example, the acceptability of romantic relationships between faculty and students or senior faculty and junior faculty). A little less tangibly — it seems to me that there are visible differences on different college faculties concerning the depth and extent of social relationships among faculty members. Some faculties are tight-knit, with a lot of socializing independent from official functions; and others are more distant, with few serious friendships among faculty members. Some faculties give an impression of welcoming newcomers; others give a more standoffish or even unfriendly impression. (As a young faculty member on the job market years ago I was very aware of the reputations that different philosophy departments had for the way in which they conducted interviews with prospective assistant professors. One department was legendary for positioning the members of the search committee in a semi-circle surrounding the candidate, so that the candidate couldn’t actually see everyone at once.)

One way of rephrasing the question here is this: is the climate and culture of a place (a university or a basketball team) just the net result of the personalities and idiosyncracies of the group of people who happen to have been recruited into the group; or does the culture of the group have a certain normative persistence, capable of transmission to new arrivals? The example of university faculties seems to support the second interpretation. And in fact it seems possible to identify some of the social mechanisms through which this transmission occurs: for example, imitation, coaching and mentoring, social discipline, and the transmission of narratives of “who we are at University X or College Y”. The behaviors that are valorized through existing group members’ practices and observations serve as a prescriptive model for the behaviors of more junior people. And of course, these processes of transmission are imperfect and malleable. The culture of a place changes over a period of several decades.

So I am tempted to think that small communities do in fact make their own cultures over an extended period of time, and that these cultures — values, practices, modes of inter-personal interaction, experiences of commitment — have some degree of durability. They do in fact succeed in changing the new recruits that come into the community, often enough to allow the mix of values and experiences that characterize the micro-culture to persist across multiple generations.