Is “soccer” an extended social thing?

Some social entities are compact and well bounded — FEMA as a federal emergency bureau, the IBM Corporation, the Southern Poverty Law Center. In each case we can identify the people, institutions, and powers that constitute the entity. But what about social configurations that don’t have this degree of coherence? Can we nonetheless regard these sprawling and heterogeneous social configurations as “things” in the social world?

Take as an example the sprawling worldwide phenomenon of competitive soccer. Soccer is an amalgam of many kinds of social things. It a sport governed by a set of internationally recognized rules. It is a set of firms (teams) which employ persons (players) to compete with each other. It is an extended network of youth leagues that engage in organized competition. It is a complex and shifting set of images and representations in media, film, and popular culture. It is a much larger population of children and youth who play pick-up games with each other, cheer for their favorite professional teams, and wear sports gear representing various athletes and teams.

So what aspects of these social realities hang together enough to constitute a social system or structure?
There seem to be a number of different kinds of social reality mentioned here.
(1) There are formal institutions: FIMA, the official rules of the sport, the businesses that employ and manage the players. These institutions embody a number of sets of rules of behavior within the sport and surrounding the sport.

(2) Second, there is a distributed body of knowledge through a very diverse and multinational population. Various people have expert knowledge of the rules and tactics of the sport. A wider group of people have a fund of knowledge of these rules and tactics, and also a fund of knowledge about the teams and players. There are sports marketers, entrepreneurs, schedulers, trainers, and agents who support the business activities of the sport, and they too have bodies of specialized knowledge.

(3) There are countless specialized individuals throughout the world who play distinctive roles and who orient their behavior to the reality of soccer as it confronts them: players, owners, coaches, physicians, officials, agents, promoters, investors, and so on.

(4) There are institutions and practices through which participants learn their roles and refine their skills.

These various bodies of social activity also have a number of systemic relations with each other. Children learn about soccer through television, school competition, and interactions with each other. Owners influence the evolution of the rules of the game. Apparel makers promote the stars. The workings of the mass media and the schooling institutions have important effects on the knowledge system of young players and fans.

The institutions governing the professional play of the game interact with the commerce of the game: broadcasters, networks, sports agents. These interactions take the form of dynamic networks of individuals with interests and resources through which they pursue their interests. These are social-causal relations that proceed through the strategic efforts of individuals with varying levels of power and influence. 

So what about the original question — is soccer a social thing? I’m inclined to argue that it isn’t, and that it is more reasonable to think of it as a congeries of interrelated social phenomena. The internal components are too heterogeneous and too densely interconnected to non-soccer stuff to make the whole an entity. And the soccer world is too lacking of clear boundaries from other social activities to comfortably count as a thing.

This analysis seems to work for a wide range of other social nouns as well: the theatre world, cybercrime, higher education, human trafficking, and so on, more or less indefinitely. We know what we are talking about when we use these nouns. But they refer to widely heterogeneous sets of social activity, practice, and institution. It is hard to think of analogous terms in the natural sciences, but perhaps some concepts from biology come closest. Concepts like habitat, ecology, and predator-prey system seem to encompass some of the same features of complexity and open-endedness that characterize “soccer”. It is not a perfect analogy, however, and the social umbrella terms ontology seem substantially more open-ended. 

This discussion perhaps illustrates some of the difficulties that arise in articulating a detailed account of a social ontology. An ontology is intended to tell us what exists in a particular realm. But in the case of the social world it appears that there appear to be gray areas — nouns that we use comfortably, but that don’t clearly succeed in referring to a distinctive thing or set of things. 

Definitions in social theory

When social theorists undertake to define something, what are they doing from a conceptual point of view? I’m thinking of “big” social concepts, like capitalism, feudalism, fascism, democracy, or nationalism. How are the concepts the social theorists put forward thought to relate to the social world and its history?

Here are a few conceptual attitudes that might be taken. First is an instance of ostensive definition. Pointing to the political and social experiences of Germany and Italy between 1930 and 1945, the theorist might say: “This is what I mean by fascism. These social formations, and any other historical examples that resemble them in important ways, are what I mean by ‘fascism’.” On this stance, nothing we discover about the cases becomes part of the definition of fascism. But these discoveries may become part of a social theory of violent social movements and political formations, and they will contribute to a causal understanding of these cases.

A second possibility is what we might call an operationalizing strategy, restricting ourselves to a thin and preliminary definition of the phenomenon of interest. The theorist looks at the case or cases that are the primary examples. He/she notes a few prominent characteristics — use of violence against political enemies, an ideology based on resentment, and a vitriolic nationalism aimed against domestic minorities, perhaps, and might then say: “Operationally, I will classify societies [social movements, states, ideologies] as fascist based on these three criteria.” And when it turns out that there are a very wide range of otherwise different examples that fall under these criteria, the theorist says: “I don’t assert that all fascist societies, states, ideologies, or movements are fundamentally similar. If they share these 3 characteristics, they are fascist in my analysis.”

A third approach might be an ordinary language approach: What are the connotations and presuppositions that “we” ordinarily have in mind when we use the word “fascist” in application to political behavior and structure? What do we mean by the language of “fascism”? A variant: how has the concept been used historically by earlier writers?

A fourth approach begins with a somewhat more reflective approach. The theorist notices that there were a number of rather similar but independent movements in the 1930s in Europe and Asia. He/she puts it forward that “Something similar was going on here.” These parallel cases are instances of something — call it fascism. My task is to ferret out what the real features of fascism are, as partially illustrated by these cases.” This approach is essentialist. It assumes there is a hidden social realitythat is pure fascism; that these cases imperfectly express that reality; and that the task of definition is to identify those underlying essential features. “This is what fascism really is; and once we’ve spelled out this theory of essential fascism, we will also understand the cases and their differences better.”

A fifth possible perspective: These examples in Europe in the 1930s have many suggestive similarities. Take it as given that there is no “essence of fascism”. But surely there were some similar forces, events, structures, and processes that combined conjuncturally to bring about the intertwining similarities witnessed in Germany, Romania, Italy, Spain, and (with different outcomes) Britain and France. The theorist expresses herself this way: “I will formulate an articulated representation — model — of my best thinking about the causal and social features that seem most important in these processes. That model is my “definition” of fascism. It is an “ideal type.” But it doesn’t pretend to capture the underlying essence. It instead serves as a guide for empirical and historical research. It is a substantive set of hypotheses about how these complex examples worked. It is intended to guide careful historical comparisons and, eventually, corrections and revisions of my current thinking about how fascisms worked.”

A sixth perspective might downplay the importance of framing a specific concept of fascism altogether. This is the “no definition” approach. The historian-sociologist might say: “Violent, anti-democratic, and surprising things happened in Europe between the wars. I want to put together some best-thinking from the social sciences to identify and understand the processes and structures that were underway in those years that combined to create these violent and anti-democratic political developments. Call it the period of fascisms if you like; my goal is to understand lower-level political and social processes and structures that created this conjuncture.” These processes may have to do with resource mobilization and social movements; theories of class politics; theories of reactions to crisis; theories of communication; theories of political opportunism; theories of economic structure, trade, colonial policies, etc. And comparison across the positive and negative cases will help to refine our understanding of how those processes worked and what their limits and conditions were.

Several of these approaches are essentialist: they presuppose that fascism is a discrete phenomenon that can be specified in a carefully drawn set of necessary and sufficient conditions. Several other approaches are nominalistic, in that they do not presuppose that the term really refers to a coherent underlying social reality. Our understanding of reality is limited to concrete ideas about processes, structure, and forms of agency that we can study and analyze; the “big” concepts only pull together related sets of those processes and structures into loose configurations. And one, the ordinary language strategy, is purely semantic. It simply tries to explicate the concept of fascism as it is used by competent users of the term. What do they mean to convey?

Several things seem clear to me. First, we can’t capture a complex social reality like fascism or democracy through a definition. The definition serves only to focus our attention on a particular range of social phenomena. But to actually know anything about those phenomena we have to investigate them historically and empirically. Second, historical concepts like fascism do not single out parts of the social world in the way that natural kind terms single out discrete parts of the natural world. Fascism is not a natural kind that is fundamentally the same through its many instances. Third, theoretically and historically developed models of fascism are genuinely useful. Call these detailed historical constructs; or perhaps, call them ideal types. But these constructs are empirically based: they are fallible; they reflect the researcher’s hunches or stereotypes about how this sort of stuff works; and we must recognize from the start that we will encounter instances that don’t fit the theoretical construct. This kind of historically detailed and articulated construct of fascism is useful precisely because it leads us to examine non-standard cases carefully. The non-standard case can point up exactly the ways in which the construct is a heuristic organizing device, rather than a way of organizing every thing we know about fascism.

So here is the introductory paragraph I’d like to see in a comparative historical study of European fascisms:

The inter-war period saw a number of social movements, conflicts, and power regimes that emphasized nationalism, violence, and interpersonal resentment. Some of these countries went on to form authoritarian states; others did not. My goal in this study is to search out the causes, conditions, and structures that appear to have played an important role in the rise of these movements in some countries; the factors that helped these movements to seize power in several countries; and the factors that prevented the seizure of power in yet other countries. There is variation across all the cases, in ways that may be more or less important. The societies where these movements seized power are often characterized as “fascist”, but not much turns on the name. My purpose here is simply to identify the large currents that seem to have been influential in this turbulent time. In this way I agree with McAdam, Tarrow, and Tilly in their studies of contentious politics: it is not the high-level concepts like war and revolution that shed light, but rather the specific meso-level causal and ideological processes where we can really learn something important about how societies come to embody and change with these kinds of politics.

Mechanisms of contention reconsidered

Social contention theorists Doug McAdam, Sidney Tarrow, and Charles Tilly created a great deal of interest in the “mechanisms” approach to social explanation with the publication of their Dynamics of Contention in 2001.  The book advocated for several important new angles of approach to the problem of analyzing and explaining social contention: to disaggregate the object of analysis from macro-events like “civil war,” “revolution,” “rebellion,” or “ethnic violence” into the component social processes that recur in various instances of social contention; and to analyze these components as “causal mechanisms.”  Here is how they define contentious politics:

By contentious politics we mean: episodic, public, collective interaction among makers of claims and their objects when (a) at least one government is a claimant, an object of claims, or a party to the claims and (b) the claims would, if realized, affect the interests of at least one of the claimants.  Roughly translated, the definition refers to collective political struggle. (5)

Here is the way they characterize the distinctive nature of the analysis offered in their new work:

This book identifies similarities and differences, pathways and trajectories across a wide range of contentious politics — not only revolutions, but also strike waves, wars, social movements, ethnic mobilizations, democratization, and nationalism. (9)

And here is how they want to make systematic, explanatory sense of the heterogeneous examples of social contention that the world presents: to identify and investigate some common social mechanisms that work in roughly similar ways across numerous different instances of social contention.

Social processes, in our view, consist of sequences and combinations of causal mechanisms.  To explain contentious politics is to identify its recurrent causal mechanisms, the ways they combine, in what sequences they recur, and why different combinations and sequences, starting from different initial conditions, produce varying effects on the large scale….  Instead of seeking to identify necessary and sufficient conditions for mobilization, action, or certain trajectories, we search out recurrent causal mechanisms and regularities in their concatenation. (13)

They offer these definitions of the key analytical terms:

Mechanisms are a delimited class of events that alter relations among specified sets of elements in identical or closely similar ways over a variety of situations.

Processes are regular sequences of such mechanisms that produce similar (generally more complex and contingent) transformations of those elements.

Episodes are continuous streams of contention including collective claims making that bears on other parties’ interests. (24)

They distinguish among environmental mechanisms (“externally generated influences on conditions affecting social life”), cognitive mechanisms (“operate through alterations individual and collective perception”), and relational mechanisms (“alter connections among people, groups, and interpersonal networks”) (25-26).  And they offer a few examples of mechanisms: mobilization mechanisms, political identity formation mechanisms, and aggregation mechanisms.

The approach can be summarized in these terms:

Seen as wholes, the French Revolution, the American civil rights movement, and Italian contention look quite different from each other. … Yet when we take apart the three histories, we find a number of common mechanisms that moved the conflicts along and transformed them: creation of new actors and identities through the very process of contention; brokerage by activists who connected previously insulated local clumps of aggrieved people; competition among contenders that led to factional divisions and re-alignments, and much more.  These mechanisms concatenated into more complex processes such as radicalization and polarization of conflict; formation of new balances of power; and re-alignments of the polity along new lines. (32-33)

This is roughly the conception of social ontology and explanation that was put forward in 2001, and it was a powerful challenge to a more positivistic methodology that insisted on looking for general laws of contention and uniform regularities governing things like revolutions and civil wars.

By 2007, however, Tarrow and Tilly found it necessary to reformulate their views to some degree; and this re-thinking resulted in Contentious Politics.  So what changed between the theory offered in 2001 and that restated in 2007?  The answer is, surprisingly little at the level of concept and method.

Tilly and Tarrow refer to three main lines of criticism of Dynamics of Contention to which they felt a need to respond:

Although that book stirred up a lively scholarly discussion, even specialists who were sympathetic to our approach made three justified complaints about it.  First, it pointed to mechanisms and processes by the dozen without defining and documenting them carefully, much less showing exactly how they worked.  Second, it remained unclear about the methods and evidence students and scholars could use to check out its explanations.  Third, instead of making a straightforward presentation of its teachings, it reveled in complications, asides, and illustrations. (xi)

What did not change between the two formulations was the conceptual foundation.  The key concepts of contentious politics, mechanisms, processes, and episodes are essentially the same in the 2007 book as in 2001.

Contentious politics involves interactions in which actors make claims bearing on someone else’s interests, leading to coordinated efforts on behalf of shared interests or programs, in which governments are involved as targets, initiators of claims, or third parties.  Contentious politics thus brings together three familiar features of social life: contention, collective action, and politics. (4)

Further, they analyze contention in the same basic terms in 2007 as in 2001:

For explanation, we need additional concepts.  This chapter supplies four of them: the events and episodes of streams of contention and the mechanisms and processes that constitute them.

And their definitions of mechanisms and processes are unchanged:

By mechanisms, we mean a delimited class of events that alter relations among specified sets of elements in identical or closely similar ways over a variety of situations.  Mechanisms compound into processes.  By processes, we mean regular combinations and sequences of mechanisms that produce similar (generally more complex and contingent) transformations of those elements. (29)

One goal of the 2007 book is to simplify the discussion of mechanisms.  The authors highlight three mechanisms as being particularly central to episodes of contention:

  • Brokerage: production of a new connection between previously unconnected sites
  • Diffusion: spread of a form of contention, an issue, or a way of framing it from one site to another
  • Coordinated action: two or more actors’ engagement in mutual signaling and parallel making of claims on the same object (31)

Other mechanisms that are discussed include social appropriation, boundary activation, certification, and identity shift (34).  And their key examples of processes are mobilization and de-mobilization — each of which consists of a series of component mechanisms.

One difference between the two versions of the theory is more substantive.  In 2007 Tarrow and Tilly give greater priority to the performative nature of contentious politics: contentious performances and repertoires have greater prominence in the story offered in 2007 than in the analysis of episodes provided in 2001.  This is not a new element, since Tilly himself made extensive use of the ideas of performance and repertoire in his earlier analyses of French contentious politics; but the theme is given more prominence in 2007 than it was in 2001.

Overall, it seems reasonable to say that Contentious Politics expresses the same conceptual framework for researching and understanding contention as that found in Dynamics of Contention.  There is no fundamental break between the two works.  What has changed is more a matter of pedagogy and presentation.  The authors have sought to provide a more coherent and orderly presentation of the conceptual framework that they are presenting; and they have sought to provide an orderly and systematic analysis of the cases, in order to identify the mechanisms that recur across episodes.

Where additional work is still needed is at the level of conceptualization of causal mechanisms.  There is now a large body of discussion and debate about how to think about social causal mechanisms, and many observers are persuaded that the move to mechanisms is a very good way of getting a better grip on social explanation and analysis.  But how to define a social mechanism is still obscure.  The definition that MTT offer does not really seem satisfactory — “a delimited class of events that alter relations among specified sets of elements in identical or closely similar ways over a variety of situations.”  A mechanism is not an event (or a class of events); rather, it is a nexus between a cause and an effect; it is the pathway through which the cause brings about the effect.  It is a materially embodied set of causal powers and their effects.  But the specific formulation provided by MTT doesn’t succeed in capturing any of these root ideas.

Various philosophers have attempted to specify more clearly the notion of a causal mechanism (Jon Elster, Explaining Social Behavior: More Nuts and Bolts for the Social Sciences; Hedstrom and Swedberg, Social Mechanisms: An Analytical Approach to Social Theory, my own Varieties Of Social Explanation: An Introduction To The Philosophy Of Social Science). We can give good examples of what we mean by a causal mechanism.  But to date, it seems that we have not yet been able to come up with a fully satisfactory definition of a causal mechanism.  (Here is a short conference paper by Tilly in 2007 that takes a different approach by linking the concept to Robert Merton’s work; link.)

So the disaggregative approach that MTT advocate is a crucially important breakthrough in the study of complex social phenomena, and it seems convincing that it is “mechanisms” that disaggregation should lay bare.  Moreover, the idea of mechanisms aggregating to processes and constituting episodes is an intuitively compelling notion of how complex social phenomena are constituted.  These are genuinely important new ways of conceptualizing the complex social reality of contention and the task of providing descriptions and explanations of complex social episodes.  Contentious Politics is a very good presentation of these fundamental ideas.  What we don’t yet have, however, is a fully convincing and fertile conception of the root idea, the notion of a causal mechanism.

(See other postings under the thread of causal mechanism for other discussions of the topic.)

Mental models for the social world

What is involved in being prepared to understand what is going on around you?

In a sense this is Kant’s fundamental question in the Critique of Pure Reason: what intellectual resources (concepts, categories, frameworks) does a cognitive agent need in order to make sense of the contents of consciousness, the fleeting experiences and sensations that life brings us? And his answer is pretty well known: we need concepts of fixed objects in space and time, subject to causal laws.  The stream of experiences we have is organized around a set of persistent objects located in time and space with specific causal properties. Space, time, cause, and object are the fundamental categories of cognition when it comes to understanding the natural world. This line of thought leads to an esoteric philosophical idea, the notion of transcendental metaphysics. (P. F. Strawson’s work on Kant is particularly helpful; The Bounds of Sense: An Essay on Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason.)

But we can ask essentially the same kind of question about the ordinary person’s ability to make sense of the social world around him or her. Each person is exposed to a dense stream of experiences of the social world, at various levels. We have ordinary interactions — with friends, bus drivers, postal carriers, students — and we want to interpret the behavior that we observe. We read news reports and tweets about happenings in the wider world — riots in Athens, suicide attacks in Pakistan, business statements about future sales, … — and we want to know what these moments mean, how they hang together, and what might have caused them.  In short, we need to have a set of mental resources that permit us to organize these experiences into a representation of a coherent social reality.

So is it possible to provide a transcendental metaphysics for ordinary social experience? Can we begin to list the kinds of concepts we need to have in order to cognize the social world?

We might say that a very basic building block of social cognition is a set of scripts or schemas into which we are prepared to fit our observations and experiences. Suppose we observe two people approach each other on the street, exchange words, bow heads slightly, and part. This interaction between two strangers might be categorized as “courtesy” during a chance meeting. But it might be construed in other ways as well: ironic insults, sexual innuendo, or condescension from superior to inferior. Each of these is an alternative interpretive frame, a way of conceptualizing and “seeing” a complex series of behaviors.  So the scripts or frames that we bring to the observations impose a form of organization on the observations.

Or take the current rioting in Greece: we might construct these masses of collective behavior as rationally directed economic protest, righteous resistance, or opportunistic anarchism. Each alternative has different implications, and each corresponds to a somewhat different set of background assumptions about how social interactions unfold. Each corresponds to a different social metaphysic.  Different observers bring a different set of assumptions about how the social world works to their observations. And these frameworks lead to different constructions of the events.

Or consider the question of the social “things” around which we organize our social perceptions: nations, financial markets, cities, parties, and ideologies, for example. How much arbitrariness is there in the ontological schemes into which we organize the world? Could we have done just as well at making sense of our experience with a substantially different ontology? Is there a most basic ontology that underlies each of these and is a scheme that cannot be dispensed with?

We might try a “fundamental” ontology along these lines: we must identify individuals as purposive, intentional agents; we must recognize relations among individuals — giving us social networks, knowledge transmission, and groups; and we must recognize social processes with causal powers, constituted by individuals within specific social relations. And we must recognize the situation of consciousness — beliefs, desires, values, and ideologies. And, we might hypothesize, we can build up all other more specific social entities out of aggregations of these simple things.

This is one possible way of formalizing a social ontology.  But there are others.  For example, we might give priority to relations rather than individuals; or we might give priority to processes rather than structures.  So it is hard to justify the notion that there is a single uniquely best way of conceptualizing the realm of the social.

An interesting collateral question has to do with the possibility of systemic error: is it possible that our metaphysical presuppositions about the social world sometimes lead us to construe our social observations in ways that systematically misrepresent reality? For example, would a “metaphysics of suspicion” (the idea that people generally conceal their true motives) lead us to a worldview along the lines of Jerry Fletcher, the central character in Conspiracy Theory?

Several things seem likely. First, there is no single and unique set of ontological “simples” for the social world. Rather, there are likely to be multiple starting points, all of which can result in a satisfactory account of the social world. So there is no transcendental metaphysics for the social world — including the candidate sketched above.

Second, it seems that the unavoidable necessity of having a set of causal, semantic, and process schemata does not guarantee correctness. Our schemata may systematically mislead us.  So the schemata themselves amount to a large empirical hypothesis; they may be superseded by other schemata that serve better to organize our experiences.  The schemata are not determined by either apriori or empirical considerations.  And therefore our social cognitions are always a work in progress, and our conceptual frameworks are more like a paradigm than an ineluctable conceptual foundation.

Ideal types, values, and selectivity

I’ve never really understood why the exposition of one of Max Weber’s most important methodological ideas, his theory of ideal types, occurs in the context of an essay that is primarily about the role of values in the social sciences.  This is his essay, “‘Objectivity’ in Social Science and Social Policy” in The Methodology of The Social Sciences.  The central thrust of the essay is to attempt to spell out the ways that objectivity and truth relate to partisanship and values within the course of social science research and teaching.  And Weber draws a sharp distinction between what can be known and demonstrated (empirical facts and causal relationships) and what can be internally tested for consistency but not demonstrated (fundamental value commitments).  Here is how Weber puts the point early in the essay:

What has been the meaning of the value-judgments found in the pages of the Archiv regarding legislative and administrative measures, or practical recommendations for such measures? What are the standards governing these judgments?  What is the validity of the value-judgments which are uttered by the critic, for instance, or on which a writer recommending a policy founds his arguments for that policy?  In what sense, if the criterion of scientific knowledge is to be found in the “objective” validity of its results, has he remained within the sphere of scientific discussion? We will first present our own attitude on this question in order later to deal with the broader one: in what sense are there in general “objectively valid truths” in those disciplines concerned with social and cultural phenomena? (50-51)

The theory of ideal types is an important contribution to the specification of the nature of concepts in the human and historical sciences.  But why is this subject particularly relevant in the context of a discussion of values and social policy?

One reason for the conjoining of ideal types and values is the unavoidable fact of selectivity in the social sciences.  Weber makes the point repeatedly in this essay that there is an infinite depth to social phenomena — even to a single phenomenon or event — and therefore it is necessary to select a finite representation of the object of study if we want to approach a problem scientifically.  But how do we select a specific aspect of a phenomenon for study?  We do so on the basis of a judgment of what aspects are important — and this is a value judgment, either directly or indirectly.  In a very specific sense, our interests (material and intellectual) guide the formation of our social-science research projects.  “The quality of an event as a ‘social-economic’ event is not something which it possesses ‘objectively.’ It is rather conditioned by the orientation of our cognitive interest, as it arises from the specific cultural significance which we attribute to the particular event in a given case” (64).  And a few pages later: “Social economic problems do not exist everywhere that an economic event plays a role as cause or effect — since problems arise only where the significance of those factors is problematical and can be precisely determined only through the application of the methods of social-economics” (66).

Or in other words: what constitutes an economic situation as a “problem” is the fact that it has consequences that intersect with things we care about — or our fundamental scheme of values.  So the subject matter of “social-economics” is doubly dependent on our interests: our cognitive interests in how things work, and our practical interests in how to promote “good” outcomes and avoid “bad” outcomes.

This is where the issue moves into connection with the theory of ideal types.  Weber makes it clear that he regards the formulation of a scientific research topic as being generated by a set of interests — cognitive and practical.  And this is where the idea of an ideal type is relevant.  Because an ideal type is a selective, one-sided representation of an aspect of social life.  Here is the foundational description that Weber offers in conjunction with the idea of a “commodity-market”:

This conceptual pattern brings together certain relationships and events of historical life into a complex, which is conceived as an internally consistent system.  Substantively, this construct is itself like a utopia which has been arrived at by the analytical accentuation of certain elements of reality.  Its relationship to the empirical data consists solely in the fact that where market-conditioned relationships of the type referred to by the abstract construct are discovered or suspected to exist in reality to some extent, we can make the characteristic features of this relationship pragmatically clear and understandable by reference to an ideal-type.  It is not a description of reality but it aims to give unambiguous means of expression to such a description.  It is thus the “idea” of the historically given modern society, based on an exchange economy, which is developed for us by quite the same logical principles as are used in constructing the idea of the medieval “city economy” as a “genetic” concept. … An ideal type is formed by the one-sided accentuation of one or more points of view and by the synthesis of a great many diffuse, discrete, more or less present and occasionally absent concrete individual phenomena, which are arranged according to those one-sidedly emphasized viewpoints into a unified analytical construct. In its conceptual purity, this mental construct cannot be found empirically anywhere in reality. (90)

This specification of the concept of an ideal type links back to Weber’s discussion of the value of specialization in the social sciences: “the justification of the one-sided analysis of cultural reality from specific ‘points of view’ — in our case with respect to its economic conditioning — emerges purely as a technical expedient from the fact that training in the observation of the effects of qualitatively similar categories of causes and the repeated utilization of the same scheme of concepts and hypotheses offers all the advantages of the division of labor” (71).  In other words, the specialization of research methods and training that is implied by the establishment of disciplines in the social sciences is justified pragmatically rather than epistemically — it is the practical advantage in research productivity rather than the nature of the social world that justifies the establishment of disciplines.

There is no absolutely “objective” scientific analysis of culture — or put perhaps more narrowly but certainly not essentially differently for our purposes — of “social phenomena” independent of special and “one-sided” viewpoints according to which — expressly or tacitly, consciously or unconsciously — they are selected, analyzed and organized for expository purposes. (72)

This locates the role and justification of the “ideal type” very precisely.  An ideal type — of a market economy, of a university, or of a banking institution — creates a selective model of social organization that can then be explored analytically and empirically by specialists.  The ideal type is not intended to be a general representation of a category of phenomena; but rather as a heuristic model that permits exploration and extension of some of the characteristics of the concrete social institutions and behaviors that it partially represents.

Throughout this discussion is woven the methodological debate between advocates of nomothetic and idiographic interpretations of the social sciences (link).  Weber indicates his own understanding of the crucial importance of the individuality and particularity of historical phenomena — without abandoning the viability of discovering limited generalizations and regularities.

Laws are important and valuable in the exact natural sciences, in the measure that those sciences are universally valid.  For the knowledge of historical phenomena in their concreteness, the most general laws, because they are most devoid of content are also the least valuable.  The more comprehensive the validity — or scope — of a term, the more it leads us away from the richness of reality since in order to include the common elements of the largest possible number of phenomena, it must necessarily be as abstract as possible and hence devoid of content.  In the cultural sciences, the knowledge of the universal or general is never valuable in itself. (80)

Here again, the historically detailed ideal type is a better basis for historical and social analysis.

Here is one additional qualification that Weber offers that is very important to his understanding of social-scientific knowledge:

We have designated as “cultural sciences” those disciplines which analyze the phenomena of life in terms of their cultural significance.  The significance of a configuration of cultural phenomena and the basis of this significance cannot however be derived and rendered intelligible by a system of analytical laws, however perfect it may be, since the significance of cultural events presupposes a value-orientation towards these events.  The concept of culture is a value-concept. (76)

This makes a final important connection between the two themes of the essay, objectivity and values.  Values come into the social science at the stage of defining and examining social-economic-cultural problems; they come into the choice of subject matter by establishing the framework in terms of which a phenomenon is a “problem”; and they must be invoked in our interpretations of the phenomena when we attribute cultural meanings to the participants.  The construct of the ideal type provides conceptual resources for each of these zones of intersection between social-science inquiry and the schemes of values that we humans endorse.

"Theory" in sociology

What is a sociological theory? And how does it relate to the challenge of providing explanations of social facts?

In the natural sciences the answer to this question is fairly clear. A theory is a hypothesis about one or more entities or processes and a specification of their operations and interactions. A theory is articulated in terms that permit rigorous and unambiguous derivation of implications for the behavior of a body of phenomena — perhaps through specification of a set of equations or through a set of statements with deductive consequences. A theory may specify deterministic properties of a set of entities — thus permitting point predictions about future states of the relevant system; or it may specify probabilistic relations among entities, giving rise to statements about the distribution of possible future states of the system. And a theory is provided with a set of “bridge” statements that permit the theorist to connect the consequences of the theory with predictions about observable states of affairs.

So in the natural sciences, theories are expected to have precise specification, deductive consequences, and specific bridge relationships to observable phenomena.

Is there anything like this construct in the social sciences?

The question of the role of theory in social thinking is a complex one, and the concept of theory seems to be an ambiguous one (as Gabriel Abend points out in an article mentioned below). At one end of the spectrum (is it really a spectrum?) is the idea that a theory is a hypothesis about a causal mechanism. It may refer to unobservable processes (and is therefore itself “unobservable”), but it is solidly grounded in the empirical world. It postulates a regular relationship between or among a set of observable social factors; for example, “middle class ideology makes young people more vulnerable to mobilization in XYZ movements.”

At a much more abstract level, we might consider whether a theory is a broad family of ideas, assumptions, concepts, and hypotheses about how the world works. So Marxism or feminism might represent a theory of the forces that are most important in explaining certain kinds of phenomena. We might refer to this broad collection of ideas as a “theory”.  Or we might instead regard this type of intellectual formation as something more than a theory — a paradigm or mental framework — or something less than a theory — a conceptual scheme.

Consider this taxonomy of the field of social knowledge-creation:

  • concepts — a vocabulary for organizing and representing the social world
  • theory — one or more hypotheses about causal mechanisms and processes
  • mental framework / paradigm — a set of presuppositions, ontological assumptions, guiding ideas, in terms of which one approaches a range of phenomena
  • epistemology — a set of ideas about what constitutes valid knowledge of a domain

And we might say that there is a generally rising order among these constructs. We need concepts to formulate hypotheses and theories; we need theories to give form to our mental frameworks; and we need epistemologies to justify or criticize theories and paradigms.  In another sense, there is a descending order from epistemology to framework to concepts and theories: the framework and epistemology guide the researcher in designing a conceptual system and a set of theoretical hypotheses.

Where do constructs like feminism, critical race theory, or Marxism fall within this scheme?  We might say that each of these bodies of thought involves commitments in each of these areas: specialized concepts, specific causal hypotheses, an organizing framework of analysis, and an epistemology that puts forward some specific ideas about the status of knowledge and representation.
The theory of “resource mobilization” and social movements is somewhat less comprehensive (McAdam and Snow, Readings on Social Movements: Origins, Dynamics, and Outcomes; McAdam, McCarthy, and Zald, Comparative Perspectives on Social Movements: Political Opportunities, Mobilizing Structures, and Cultural Framings ; link, link, link).  It functions as a linked body of hypotheses about how social movements arise.  So RMT is a good example of the limited conception of theory.  Zald, McCarthy, Tilly, McAdam, and others purport to identify the controlling causal variables that explain the success or failure of mobilization around grievance. Their theories reflect a mental framework — one that emphasizes purposive rationality (rational choice theory) and material factors (resources).  And they offer specific hypotheses about mobilization, organization, and social networks.

Gabriel Abend’s article “The Meaning of Theory” (link) in Sociological Theory (2008) is a valuable contribution on this subject. Abend offers explications for seven varieties of theories and shows how these variants represent a wide range of things we might have in mind by saying that “theory is important.”  Here are his formulations:
  1. Theory1. If you use the word ‘theory’ in the sense of theory1, what you mean by it is a general proposition, or logically-connected system of general propositions, which establishes a relationship between two or more variables.
  2. Theory2. A theory2 is an explanation of a particular social phenomenon.
  3. Theory3. Like theory1 and theory2, the main goal of a theory3 is to say something about empirical phenomena in the social world. However, the main questions that theory3 sets out to answer are not of the type ‘what x causes y?’ Rather, given a certain phenomenon P (or a certain fact, relation, process, trend), it asks: ‘what does it mean that P?,’ ‘is it significant that P?,’ ‘is it really the case that P?,’ ‘what is P all about?,’ or ‘how can we make sense of or shed light on P?’
  4. Theory4. The word ‘theory’ and some of its derivatives are sometimes used to refer to the study of and the students of the writings of authors such as Marx, Weber, Durkheim, Simmel, Parsons, Habermas, or Bourdieu.
  5. Theory5. A theory5 is a Weltanschauung, that is, an overall perspective from which one sees and interprets the world. Unlike theories1, theories2, and theories3, theories5 are not about the social world itself, but about how to look at, grasp, and represent it.
  6. Theory6. Lexicographers trace the etymology of the word ‘theory’ to the late Latin noun ‘theoria,’ and the Greek noun ‘the¯oria’ and verb ‘the¯orein’ (usually translated as “to look at,” “to observe,” “to see,” or “to contemplate”). The connotations of these words include detachment, spectatorship, contemplation, and vision. This etymology notwithstanding, some people use the word ‘theory’ to refer to accounts that have a fundamental normative component.
  7. Theory7. Many sociologists have written about issues such as the ‘micro-macro problem,’ the ‘problem of structure and agency,’ or ‘the problem of social order.’ This type of work is usually thought to fall within the domain of sociological theory. One may also use the word ‘theory’ to refer to discussions about the ways in which ‘reality’ is ‘socially constructed’; the scientific status of sociology (value freedom, the idea of a social law, the relations between explanation and prediction, explanation and understanding, reasons and causes, and the like); or the ‘relativity’ of morality. In these examples the word ‘theory’ assumes a distinct meaning, which I distinguish as theory7. (177-181)
Abend comes to a very good conclusion about the ways we should think about theory — and refrain from legislating the forms that theory can take.  He argues for a principle of “ontological and epistemological pluralism”:

I believe that a satisfactory solution to SP [semantic predicament] should make as few ontological and epistemological demands as possible. The set of conditions under which the word ‘theory’ can be correctly used should not have too much built-in ontological and epistemological baggage. I call this the ‘principle of ontological and epistemological pluralism.’ The reason why I advocate this principle is, very roughly put, the following. Suppose sociologists made a certain picture of the world or idea about what can be known a prerequisite for something being a sociological theory at all. Consider some examples. We may demand that theories be underlain by the assumption that “the social world consists of fixed entities with variables attributes” (Abbott 1988:169). We may require that causality be taken to be the cement of the universe, the most important relation that can hold between two entities. Or, we could build into the definition of ‘theory’ the idea that social processes are regulated by laws of nature. Alternatively, we may demand the belief that the distinction between text and reality is misleading, or even the belief that there are no such things as ‘reality’ and ‘objectivity.’ Or else, we may demand the assumption that nothing exists but what can be actually observed or otherwise grasped by our senses, thereby denying existence to such ‘mysterious’ things as causality and similar ‘underlying theoretical mechanisms’ (Steinmetz 2005). In any of these scenarios, only to the extent that you shared the required ontology or epistemology, could you be said to have a theory of the social world. You could have other things about the social world—opinions, views, beliefs, ideas—but not a theory. By definition, that particular ontology or epistemology would be obligatory for one to be allowed to enter a theoretical discussion, make a theoretical contribution, or theorize at all. (195)

Conceptual schemes and social ontology

What does grammar tell us about the nature of our representations of the world? Do the linguistic categories that we use fundamentally shape the way we organize our understanding of the world? Do different cultures or different linguistic communities possess different “conceptual schemes”? Are different conceptual schemes incommensurable or can we translate from one to the other?  These questions come up in the context of any discussion of social ontology — what does the social realm consist of?  In an earlier post we noticed that “thing” and “object” are ontological categories that perhaps don’t work as well in the social realm. Perhaps more fluid categories such as process, relation, or activity work better.

First, what is a conceptual scheme?  It is an interrelated set of high-level, abstract concepts that allow us to break the empirically or historically given into a discrete set of cognitive boxes.  We might think of it as our highest-level concept vocabulary, within which more specific descriptors are arranged.  Our conceptual scheme gives us the mental resources needed to represent, describe, and explain the empirical reality we encounter.  Color, shape, mass, position, and force might be examples of components of a conceptual scheme for the realm of ordinary empirical experience.  Structure, group, ideology, and network might be components for the realm of ordinary sociological experience.  A conceptual scheme is thought in some way to be comprehensive: all the phenomena in a certain domain ought to find a place within the conceptual scheme.

Peter Strawson offered a very focused analysis of the everyday metaphysics involved in the ways we analyze and represent the world around us.  He proposes in Individuals (1959) that we can do “descriptive metaphysics” by examining the conceptual schemes we actually use.   And he argues that there are core conceptual categories that are universal.  (Paul Snowdon provides a useful discussion in his article in Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy).

Here is Strawson’s preliminary description of a conceptual scheme:

We think of the world as containing particular things some of which are independent of ourselves; we think of the world’s history as made up of particular episodes in which we ourselves may or may not have a part; and we think of these particular things and events as included in the topics of our common discourse, as things about which we can talk to each other.  These are remarks about the way we think of the world, our conceptual scheme.  A more recognizably philosophical, though no clearer, way of expressing them would be to say that our ontology comprises objective particulars….  Part of my aim is to exhibit some general and structural features of the conceptual scheme in terms of which we think about particular things. (Individuals, 15)

How might we begin to provide a “descriptive metaphysics” for social knowledge along the lines of what Strawson describes?  It is clear, to begin, that sociological analysis generally involves a rich and intertwined set of concepts and ontological assumptions about social phenomena.  Consider the range of approaches we might take in analyzing a complex historical phenomenon such as fascism: as a social movement, as a political psychology, as an expression of psychopathology, as an ensemble of ideological currents, as a set of political institutions, as a collection of social constituents, and so on, indefinitely.

More fundamentally, what conceptual choices do we need to make when we consider the swirling, fluid complexity of politics, culture, and struggle in Europe in the 1930s?  We might place ideological and cultural change at the center; we might focus on the artistic and literary creations of the period; we might emphasize power or social class; we might give primary emphasis to economic change; or we might be drawn particularly to differences in behavior and regime across countries and regions of Europe.  Each represents a different way of conceptualizing the historical reality of the 1930s in Europe.

So how can we make some progress towards analyzing social grammar or social conceptual frameworks?  We can ask this sort of question at two levels — ordinary social cognition and language, and organized empirical social science.  At the ordinary-language level, we can ask questions like these: how do ordinary speakers represent the social world in which they live?  What is the nature of the American-English social vocabulary, the descriptive and referential terms that American people use to make statements, draw distinctions, and offer generalizations about the social world they inhabit?  At the level of theory, we can consider a given area of research and ask about the semantics and logical relationships associated with the terms that theorists use to describe and explain the phenomena of interest.

For ordinary language, we might find a list of common terms such as these:

  • Washington [the Federal government, the bureaucracy, the political system of the Congress, the major Federal agencies]
  • Lansing [state government and its bureaucracy]
  • justice / injustice [of taxation, affirmative action, executive salaries]
  • corruption [misuse of powers of office in private or public sectors]
  • major economic institutions [banks, banking system, corporations]
  • major economic facts and circumstances [unemployment, poverty, recession]
  • religious institutions
  • religious / ethnic identities
  • facts about race, racial differences, racial inequalities
  • interpretations of socially oriented behavior by others [altruism, egoism, pride, shame, rudeness]
  • judgments about unfavorable social change [“kids have no values anymore”]

Ordinary people use these concepts and other to organize and criticize their social world; and they are often articulate about what they mean by the various concepts.  But ordinary social cognition is perhaps less able to sketch out the relations that exist among the various social phenomena; this, perhaps, is one of the key tasks of social theory.  (Here is an earlier post on ordinary social cognition.)

Second, we might consider the vocabulary and conceptual resources of a given sociologist or sociological tradition.  For example, here are the main concepts Michael Mann uses in his description and analysis of European fascism in Fascists:

  • fascism [to be defined as “the pursuit of a transcendent and cleansing nation-statism through paramilitarism”]
  • socialism
  • fascist followers and activists
  • power organizations
  • social movement
  • nation-state
  • nationalism
  • ideology
  • social constituency [groups characterized by status, class, occupation]
  • individuals
  • modernity
  • paramilitarism
  • authoritarian regime
  • democratic regime
  • capitalism [as an industrial social whole]
  • social power [ideological, economic, military, political]
  • individualism, racism, ethnic purity ideology [as components of ideology]
  • major events and crises — World War I, the Great Depression
  • religious institutions and ideologies

These specific concepts could be related to a fairly short list of higher-level social concepts or what we might call social categories: individuals and their characteristics; social groups; structures; ideologies; events; influence terms [power, prestige, status].  But almost all the concepts on the list drawn from Mann’s work involve a conceptual assemblage from the higher-level categories.  Capitalism is a set of structures, a set of social movements, and a set of ideologies.  Racism depends upon both structure and ideology.  Modernity is an ideological-cultural formation, a technological-scientific stage, and a socio-economic formation.  So the relation between the higher-level category system and mid-level sociological concepts is not one of subsumption but rather one of assembly, combination, or construction.

It is sometimes thought that our conceptual systems are simultaneously contingent and deeply influential in determining how we analyze the world around us.  Different conceptual systems lead to different and incommensurable representations of the world.  Donald Davidson wrote a pivotal essay on some of these questions (“On the very idea of a conceptual scheme” (1974; link)).  Here is how Davidson summarizes the conceptual-relativist view:

Conceptual schemes, we are told, are ways of organizing experience; they are systems of categories that give form to the data of sensation; they are points of view from which individuals, cultures, or periods survey the passing scene. There may be no translating from one scheme to another, in which case the beliefs, desires, hopes and bits of knowledge that characterize one person have no true counterparts for the subscriber to another scheme. Reality itself is relative to a scheme: what counts as real in one system may not in another. (5)

But ultimately Davidson argues that conceptual relativism and incommensurability are unintelligible.  They are claims that cannot be stated coherently.  And more positively, Davidson argues that we can understand each other’s concepts and words by making use of a principle of charity: we interpret the other’s speech, vocabulary, and syntax in such a way as to maximize the truth of statements he/she utters.

We do this sort of off the cuff interpretation all the time, deciding in favor of reinterpretation of words in order to preserve a reasonable theory of belief. As philosophers we are peculiarly tolerant of systematic malapropism, and practised at interpreting the result. The process is that of constructing a viable theory of belief and meaning from sentences held true.  (18)

We get a first approximation to a finished theory by assigning to sentences of a speaker conditions of truth that actually obtain (in our own opinion) just when the speaker holds those sentences true. The guiding policy is to do this as far as possible, subject to considerations of simplicity, hunches about the effects of social conditioning, and of course our common sense, or scientific, knowledge of explicable error. (18)

(Here is a good discussion of Davidson’s view in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.)

What is the situation in the field of social knowledge?  Are there deeply divided conceptual beginnings for the analysis of the social realm?  Or can we be confident in the mutual comprehensibility across practitioners of Marxist sociology, Durkheimian sociology, and ethnomethodology?

We can get some leverage on this question by asking whether we can provide concrete examples of candidates for alternative sets of social conceptual schemes.  For example, are individualism and holism distinct conceptual schemes for social cognition?  The first identifies human individuals as the fundamental “particular”; whereas the second identifies the social whole (structure, morality, ideology, class, way of life) as the fundamental particular.  The first requires that we define or specify higher-level social entities or conditions in terms of a compound of features of individuals; the second takes the social whole as irreducible and specifies individuals in terms of their relations to a set of social factors.

Here is another possible example — perhaps materialism and idealism are distinct conceptual schemes within which to organize social experience.  The materialist scheme identifies a set of circumstances of the human organism (needs), the natural and build environment, and the forms of social activity that transform the environment as fundamental to social analysis.  The idealist scheme takes states of consciousness — ideas, ideologies, moralities, wants, preferences, modes of reasoning — as fundamental to social analysis and undertakes to characterize social facts in these terms.

Or consider a third possible example: structure and process.  A structure is an enduring configuration of social characteristics and positions, reproducing a set of powers and constraints for individuals enmeshed in these social relations.  A process is an ensemble of things in circumstances of change over time.  Structures emphasize permanence and stability; processes emphasize change and impermanence.  So perhaps the “structure” lens leads sociologists to a very different representation of the social world than the “process” lens.

These examples make it credible that there are in fact alternative conceptual beginnings from which we can analyze the social world.  What does not seem to be true, however, is the idea that these beginnings are incommensurable.  Instead, it seems persuasive that ideas and statements that originate in an ontology of social wholes can be effectively restated in an ontology that originates in a world of individuals; likewise, materialist and ideological approaches to the social world seem compatible and mutually constructive rather than contradictory and incommensurable.  The dichotomies considered here are not exclusive or incompatible.  In fact, any adequate explanation of a social process or outcome is likely to need to refer to both sets of categories.  And this implies something very similar to the position Strawson and Davidson arrive at: the idea of inter-translatability and mutual comprehension across these large conceptual divides.

(These questions converge to some extent with several other lines of thought — the Whorf hypothesis (Language, Thought, and Reality: Selected Writings of Benjamin Lee Whorf), Quine’s theories of indeterminacy of translation and ontological relativity (Word and Object, Ontological Relativity), Kant’s view that all knowledge is structured through a set of “categories” including cause, space, time, and objects (Critique of Pure Reason), and Kuhn’s view of the incommensurability of scientific paradigms (The Structure of Scientific Revolutions).  Significantly, Strawson discusses Kant at length in The Bounds of Sense: An Essay on Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason, and Davidson takes up the debate with Quine, Whorf, and Kuhn.)

Defining and specifying social phenomena

Insect (df): a class within the arthropods that have a chitinous exoskeleton, a three-part body (head, thorax, and abdomen), three pairs of jointed legs, compound eyes, and two antennae.

What is involved in offering a definition of a complex social phenomenon such as “fascism”, “rationality”, “contentious politics”, “social capital”, or “civic engagement”? Is there any sense in which a definition can be said to be correct or incorrect, given the facts we find in the world? Are some definitions better than others? Does a definition correspond to the world in some way? Or is a definition no more than a conventional stipulation about how we propose to use a specific word?

There are several fundamental questions that need answering when we consider the meaning of a term such as “fascism” or “contentious politics”. What do we intend the term to refer to?  How is the term used in ordinary language?  What are the paradigm cases? What are the ordinary criteria of application of the term — the necessary and sufficient conditions, the rules of application? What characteristics do we mean to pick out in using the term? What is our proto-theory that guides our use and application of the concept?

From the scientific point of view, the use of a concept is to single out a family of objects or phenomena that can usefully be considered together for further analysis and explanation. “Metals” are a group of materials that have similar physical properties such as conductivity and ductility. And it turns out that these phenomenologically similar materials also have important underlying physical properties in common, that explain the phenomenological properties. So it is possible to provide a physical theory of metals that unifies and explains their observable similarities. The scientist’s interest, then, is in the phenomena and not the concept or its definition.

In order to investigate further we need to do several kinds of work. We need to specify more exactly what it is that we are singling out. What is “civic engagement”?  Does this concept single out a specific range of behaviors and motivations? Would we include a spontaneous gift to a fund for a family who lost their home to a fire “civic engagement”? What about membership in a college fraternity? So we have to say what we mean by the term; we have to indicate which bits of the world are encompassed by the term; and perhaps we need to give some reason to expect that these phenomena are relevantly similar.

Several semantic acts are relevant in trying to do this work. “Ostension” is the most basic: pointing to the clear cases of civic engagement or fascism and saying “By civic engagement I mean things like these and things relevantly similar to them.” If we go this route then we put a large part of the burden of the semantics in the world and in the judgment of the observer: is this next putative example of the stuff really similar to the paradigm examples?

But there is also an intensional part of the work: what do we intend to designate in pointing to this set of paradigm cases? Is it the motivation of the activity, the features of social connections involved in the activity, or the effects of the activity that are motivating the selection of cases? Is fascism a kind of ideology, a type of social movement, or a type of political organization? These questions aren’t answered by the gesture of ostension; rather, the observer needs to specify something about the nature of the phenomena that are intended to be encapsulated by the concept.

Once we have stipulated the extension and criteria of application of the term, we can then take a further step and offer a theory of this stuff. It may be a theory in materials science intended to explain the workings of some common characteristics of this stuff — electrical or thermal conductivity, melting point, hardness. Or it may be a social theory of the origins and institutional tendencies of the stuff (fascism, social movements, civic engagement). Either way, the theory goes beyond semantics and makes substantive empirical statement about the world.

It is not the case that all scientific concepts are constructed through a process of abstraction from observable phenomena.  A theoretical concept is one whose meaning exceeds the observable associations or criteria associated with the concept. It may postulate unobservable mechanisms or structures which are only indirectly connected to observable phenomena, or it may hypothesize distinctions and features that help to explain the gross behavior of the phenomena. The value of a theoretical concept is not measured by its fit with ordinary language usage or its direct applicability to the observable world; instead, a theoretical concept is useful if it helps the theorist to formulate hypotheses about the unobservable mechanisms that underlie a phenomenon and that help to provide some empirical order to the phenomena.

In order to support empirical research, theoretical concepts need somehow to be related to the world of observation and experience.  An important activity is “operationalizing” a theoretical concept. This means specifying a set of observable or experimental characteristics that permit the investigator to apply the concept to the world. But the operational criteria associated with a concept do not exhaust its meaning, and different investigators may provide a different set of operational criteria for the same concept. And a specific scheme of operationalization of a concept like “social capital” or “civic engagement” may itself be debated.

The idea of a “natural kind” arises in the natural sciences. Concepts like metal, acid, insect, and gene are linguistic elements that are thought to refer to a family or group of entities that share fundamental properties in common. Kinds are thought to exist in the world, not simply in conceptual schemes. So having identified the kind, we can then attempt to arrive at a theory of the underlying nature of things like this. (It is an important question to consider whether there are any “social kinds;” in general, I think not.)

These reflections raise many of the intellectual problems associated with defining a field of empirical research in the social sciences.  Research always forces us to single out some specific body of phenomena for study.  This means specifying and conceptualizing the phenomena.  And eventually it means arriving at theories of how these sorts of things work.  But there is a permanent gap between concept and the world that means that certain questions can’t be answered: for example, what is fascism really?  There are no social essences that definitions might be thought to identify.  Instead, we can offer analysis and theory about specific fascist movements and regimes, based on this or that way of specifying the concept of fascism.  But there is nothing in the world that dictates how we define fascism and classify, specify, and theorize historical examples of fascism.  The semantic ideas of family resemblance, ideal type, and cluster concept work best for concepts in the social sciences.

Ontology of the French Revolution

How does the historian need to think as he or she formulates a discursive representation of a complex period of history? What assumptions does the historian make about the structures and entities that make up the social world? And what sorts of conceptual systems are needed in order to permit the historian to do his or her work of analysis, comparison, and explanation? These questions lead us to a philosophical version of the problem: what forms of ontology do historians employ in analyzing history?

Consider a concrete and familiar example of historical conceptualization: historians confronting the realities of the French Revolution from 1789 to 1799. What are the historical entities to which historians need to refer in constructing a history of these events? Consider, to start, Albert Soboul’s construction of the making and carrying out of the French Revolution (A Short History of the French Revolution, 1789-1799 and The French Revolution 1787-1799: From the Storming of the Bastille to Napoleon).

Soboul begins his short history with a chronology of “principal events” – roughly 150 events from February 1787 to November 1789. He refers to happenings at a variety of levels of scale in this chronology, from actions by a small number of individuals to events encompassing hundreds of thousands over a dispersed geography. Here is a partial list:

Assembly of the Notables, Calonne dismissed, abortive reform of Parlements, “Day of the Tiles” in Grenoble, rural and urban unrest increases, riot in the Baubourg St.-Antoine, fall of the Bastille, The Great Fear, Assembly moves to Paris from Versailles, Church lands nationalized, mutiny and repression of garrison at Nancy, Louis XVI’s attempted flight from the country, foundation of the Feuillants Club, massacre of the Champ de Mars, mounting unrest caused by food prices, uprising at Paris overthrows the Monarchy, massacre of prisoners in Paris, execution of Louis XVI, murder of Marat

… and so on through crowd violence, state action, military movements, rise and fall of revolutionary leaders, political factions, ideologies, and bloodshed.

Some of these items are events in a specific time and place enacted by a small group of people (mutiny, storming of the Bastille); others are regionally diffuse collections of such local actions (the Great Fear, for example); and others are actions of officials, leaders, and generals. So clearly Soboul’s historical ontology includes “events”, which perhaps we can define as “actions by individuals and groups, both large and small.” (This definition captures most but not all the items in Soboul’s chronology.)

What about social entities beyond the level of actions by individuals? Here are some of the sorts of higher-level structures to which Soboul refers in his account: the Revolution itself, as a thing that exists in history, has causes, and has a “nature”; but also a larger category within which the French Revolution is one instance – “revolution”. He refers to earlier social orders (the seigneurial system and the privileged orders of feudal society); a new social order (liberal democracy, bourgeois economy); large historical structures such as feudalism and capitalism; and a specific category of revolution (bourgeois revolution). Several of these concepts fall in the general category of a “type of social and economic organization” – what Marx refers to as a “mode of production.” (Here is Soboul’s paraphrase of the idea of feudalism: “a concept of social and economic history, defined by a particular form of property ownership and by a system of production based on landed property, preceding the modern system of capitalist production” ((Soboul 1977) : 3).)

He refers to different forms of the social management of labor (corvée labor, slave labor). He refers to specific periods of governance in French history – for example, the Capetian monarchy; and he refers to a type of governance – the absolutist monarchy. He refers to classes – the bourgeoisie, the landlord class, the peasant class. It is apparent that Soboul’s historical ontology incorporates large stretches of Marx’s social theory of the structures that constitute society: forces and relations of production, property systems, modes of production, superstructures such as the state and the church.

There is also an ontology of social institutions in Soboul’s writing about the Revolution. He refers to subordinate social organizations within existing society – the officer corps, the Church. He refers to economic and demographic processes – population increase, trends of price movements for grain. He refers to features of political consciousness on the part of various social actors – hopes, fears, revolutionary spontaneity (38). And he refers to political groups and clubs – the Girondins (“spokesmen of the commercial bourgeoisie”; 87), Montagnards and Jacobins (bourgeois but appealing to common people; 88), and Sans-Culottes (the organized representatives of the common people; 100).

So Soboul’s historical vocabulary is a rich one, in that he refers to historical things and structures at a variety of levels. We might paraphrase Soboul’s historical ontology in these terms: the French populace of the 1770s consisted of a geographically dispersed collection of persons enmeshed social, economic, and political structures. The circumstances of life and opportunity created for different people by these structures in turn defined them as “classes” with interests and motivations. Peasants, artisans, landowners, lawyers, and government officials had very different views of the social world, and their political behavior was accordingly different as well. The political struggles that constituted the turmoil of the years of revolution derived from contests over power among different groups of people, mobilized by different organizations with different social, economic, and political interests.

In other words, Soboul works with a “proto-theory” of what a society is, how it works, and how individuals are influenced in their ordinary conduct; within the context of this scheme, the task of the historian is to discover some of the specific features of those social relations and features of consciousness, and explain the small and large events that combined to bring about “the Revolution”.

Combining the results of a similar survey of a number of historians — de Tocqueville, Soboul, Schama, Darnton, Cobb, Sewell, Tilly, and others — we can arrive at something like an inventory of ontological concepts of the French Revolution – events, individuals, structures, mentalities, processes, conditions, patterns, and technologies. These categories of historical “things” encompass what begins to look like a comprehensive list of the types of entities to which historians refer when conceptualizing France’s revolution. Or in other words: it is possible for us as readers of these historians to sketch out a large historical ontology, from which different historians borrow in varying proportions in their analysis of the events of the late eighteenth century in France.

"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.

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