Contingency and explanation

 
 

Social change and historical events are highly contingent processes, in a specific sense: they are the result of multiple causal influences that “could have been otherwise” and that have conjoined at a particular point in time in bringing about an event of interest. Contrast this situation with what we are looking for when we seek an explanation of a change or event. When we explain an event, we show how and why it was not random or accidental; we identify a set of circumstances that made it necessary or likely in the given circumstances. Contingency and explanation therefore seem to be in tension with each other: a wholly contingent world is perhaps one in which explanation of particular occurrences is impossible.

The appearance of contradiction lessens when we realize that “contingent” is not the same as “random” or “uncaused”. (See an earlier post for an effort to disentangle a number of related causal concepts; link.) When a uranium atom decays at a particular moment, this is a truly random event. There is no underlying cause that brought about the decay of the nucleus at this particular moment. When a race riot occurs in in Detroit on July 23, 1967, this was a contingent occurrence — it did not have to happen; but it was not random, spontaneous, or uncaused. Rather, there were multiple causal factors and processes, along with a number of accidental and spontaneous events, leading to a pathway of social actions that resulted in largescale confrontation, arson, violence. Here is how the Kerner Commission described the occurrence of major race riots in the United States (link):

Disorder did not erupt as a result of a single “triggering” or “precipitating” incident. Instead, it was generated out of an increasingly disturbed social atmosphere, in which typically a series of tension-heightening incidents over a period of weeks or months became linked in the minds of many in the Negro community with a reservoir of underlying grievances. At some point in the mounting tension, a further incident–in itself often routine or trivial–became the breaking point and the tension spilled over into violence.

We can understand this account as depending on a distinction between proximate and distal causes; distal causes (a pattern of police brutality, say) set the stage for racial tension, which makes an outbreak of violence more likely; and a precipitating (proximate) event triggers the outburst. The point in this paragraph is that the triggering cause is not the sole cause, or even the most important cause. But all these factors are causally relevant to the outcome. We say that the riot was contingent because there are many ways in which the tensions created by the background conditions could have been defused — a progressive mayor could have enacted a police reform along with a jobs program, a charismatic leader like Dr. King could have emerged in Detroit who helped to channel tension into electoral politics rather than an outbreak of violence, the Federal government could have been more successful in its civil rights reforms and its War on Poverty. Or the raid on the blind pig could have happened in a driving rainstorm, with the result that no crowd gathered. So the outcome was not preordained. It was contingent, but it was caused.

So it is not the case that a contingent world is one in which nothing can be explained. A chaotic and random world has that property; but contingency is not chaos. Rather, for many historical and social events we can identify a set of background or standing conditions that elevated the probability of the event, we can sometimes identify independent causal processes underway at the same time that interact to further elevate the probability of the event; and we can identify one or more unrelated and random events that served as a trigger to the occurrence of the event of interest.

This is one reason why the strategy of seeking out causal mechanisms in the social world is an appealing approach to social explanation. Appeal to causal mechanisms allows us to make sense of both important features of the social world: that processes and events are contingent, and that many processes and events are amenable to causal explanation.

When researchers set their goals on identifying general causes for groups of social phenomena, they often have in mind the idea that there are similarities in the background standing causal conditions that serve to increase the likelihood of a certain kind of event — revolution, riot, economic crisis, or period of rapid innovation. And indeed, there are credible hypotheses about such conditions; this is the underlying rationale for the application of Mill’s methods to causal reasoning in the social sciences. It is indeed perfectly credible that there are pervasive social conditions that make certain kinds of social events more likely — a good university system and rapid technological innovation, a defeat in war and political turmoil, the pervasiveness of Protestantism and the hockey stick of market activity.

This insight is closely related to the distinction that Bhaskar and critical realists draw between closed and open systems. In an open system we cannot predict future states of the system because we cannot achieve causal closure; there is always the possibility of another kind of causal influence or mechanism that can offset the workings of the known mechanisms.

The page from the Washington Times above draws attention to an event that was itself highly contingent and yet explicable (the bungled but eventually successful effort to assassinate Archduke Ferdinand); leading to an important historical event (the outbreak of World War I) which was also both contingent and explicable.

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Path dependency in formation of academic disciplines

The topic of the historicity of academic disciplines has come up numerous times in this forum. It is a conviction of mine that disciplines demonstrate a great deal of path dependency over time in their evolution. We can think of a discipline as being constituted at a time by some or all of these elements:

  • a definition of important questions for research
  • a definition of appropriate methods of research and analysis
  • a model of explanation in the field
  • some key examples of what theories and hypotheses ought to look like
  • institutions for supporting, organizing, and directing research efforts
  • institutions for validating and disseminating research findings
  • institutions for training young researchers in the key elements of the discipline

This sounds a lot like Kuhn’s idea of a paradigm, Lakatos’s idea of a research community, or the definitions of scientific enterprise offered by historians and sociologists of science and researchers in the tradition of STS studies (link). An academic discipline is an assemblage of ideas, networks of individuals, institutions, and locations (libraries, laboratories, research institutes).

If this is a reasonable approximation to the social reality of an academic discipline, what does it suggest about contingency and path-dependency in the development of the discipline? For one thing, it suggests multiple sources of contingency both internal to the intellectual enterprise and external to it. Internally, a discipline like philosophy or a sub-discipline like the philosophy of mind is driven in part by a somewhat logical process of attack on existing problems — what Kuhn referred to as “normal science”, and partly by large, compelling breakthroughs by individuals or small groups (for example, the Vienna Circle). Externally, it is straightforward to identify political and institutional influences that shape the research agenda at various times in various disciplines — the preference for positivism in sociology that was advanced by considerations of the Cold War, for example. And within the institutional setting of the disciplines there are contingencies as well — for example, a strong editor of a leading journal or research laboratory can set the agenda for theory and methodology in a discipline for a generation. (Andrew Abbott describes this kind of influence in Department and Discipline: Chicago Sociology at One Hundred.)

Almost every element in this list is itself visibly dependent on historical circumstances in multiple ways. Take the issue of defining the important questions for research. There are political and governmental influences on the definition of research problems — witness the influence of the Cold War on the development of the social sciences, the role that is played by governmental funding agencies like the NSF or NIH, and the occasional intrusion of political pressure into scientific fields like environmental science and sociology.

Within the community of individuals currently pursuing the discipline or proto-discipline there is a range of levels of talent and innovation, on the one hand, and prestige and influence, on the other. (The two categories don’t necessarily correlate perfectly.) One charismatic individual or local group (Wittgenstein, say) may exert influence over the direction of a sub-field through charisma and the power of his or her ideas. Another may exert influence over the strategic placement he or she occupies in the institutions of influence — major graduate schools or prominent journals, for example. And in each case, the discipline moves to a new phase with new questions and ideas.

Bourdieu’s theoretical construct of the field (link) is very relevant to these forms of influence on the development of a given academic discipline. By locating various individuals within the network of institutions, scholars, and funding sources it is possible to attempt to piece together the ways in which their own research agendas unfolded (responding to incentives created by their field) and the influence they exerted on other scholars. Neil Gross’s sociological biography of Richard Rorty illustrates this kind of analysis (link), as does much of George Steinmetz’s research on the development of sociology as a discipline in France, Germany, and the US.

What all of this seems to support is the idea that the academic disciplines are in fact highly contingent in their development, and that there is no reason to expect convergence around a single “best” version of the discipline. The history of disciplines should better be understood in analogy to the brachiation and differentiation associated with the evolution of species and sub-species over time — lots of contingency, with a consequent specialization of the intermediate results to the demands of a particular point in time. This implies that a discipline like sociology or political science could have developed very differently, with substantially different ideas about research questions and methods. And this seems to be true for similar reasons in the humanities as well as the natural sciences and mathematics. Finally, this suggests that there is no end-point — no “universal sociology,” no “final philosophy,” no “complete mathematics.” Instead, every discipline in its search for knowledge and new ideas is charting new intellectual space.

Social contingency?

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Image: Mason-Pfizer monkey virus (link)

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Image: organization chart of General Motors

What does it mean to say that the social world is contingent? Several things. First, it means that social changes and patterns are not strongly law governed. Outcomes are the result of intersecting chains of causal mechanisms and stochastic happenings, so there is no sense in which outcomes are predetermined or confidently predictable. Social outcomes are the result of conjunctural causation, with indeterminate conjunctions of causal processes and conditions proceeding from independent background circumstances. And accidents and random events make a difference in the outcomes as well. This is true at a full range of scales, from large happenings like the outbreak of war to the growth of a corporation to the emergence of a new set of values about gay marriage. So historical processes and sequences are contingent, and we need to pay close attention to the path dependency of social happenings.

Another key kind of contingency has to do with the composition of social entities. In the natural world there are some formations that are necessary. H2O and protein molecules have a specific topology and arrangement that follows strictly from the physical properties of the constituents, and these properties, we would like to assert, are fixed by nature. So it is a necessary fact that H2O molecules all have the same topology — this topology follows from physical laws. But likewise, large proteins have only a small number of stable geometries as well, given the physical characteristics of the atoms that compose them.

The situation is different for social compounds. They are composed of individuals. But their properties are not fixed by the laws of psychology or any other consistent realm. Rather, there is substantial path dependency in the formation of a particular social formation, and the properties of actual social formations are contingent relative to the properties of the individuals who constitute it.

To say that social phenomena are contingent is not to imply that they are random or unpatterned. In fact, a large part of the task of the social sciences is to identify and explain important social patterns — for example, regularities of urbanization and habitation. G. William Skinner found that the cities, towns, and hamlets of Sichuan conformed to a pattern of nested hexagons (link); he offered the mechanisms associated with central place theory as the basis for an explanation of this fact. The combined workings of transportation cost and cost-sensitive individual decision-makers imply the hexagonal geometry that Skinner discovers. But there is vast contingency embedded within this account — reasons why certain locations may be avoided or reasons why a given center may come to have higher-level commercial or military functions than would have been expected, for example. So the regularities that we observe can be explained by the workings of several social mechanisms that favor habitation choices; while extraneous factors can disrupt or distort the pattern that would be normally expected.

So there are conditions and influences that often create identifiable patterns of social activity. This is the chief reason why the study of social mechanisms is so fruitful in the social sciences: there is an open-ended plurality of causal mechanisms at work in the social space. These can be investigated and understood. And we can then use our ability to identify the workings of social mechanisms to provide explanations of both singular occurrences and intriguing social patterns. But at the same time, we are forced to recognize that particular social processes — economic development, urbanization, political crisis, ethnic conflict, or changes in values systems in a population, for example — are driven by multiple sub-processes that are themselves contingent, and that interact in contingent ways.

The evolution of species as described by classical Darwinian theory is a good example of the some of aspects of contingency that I believe are characteristic of social developments as well. The large pressures within a given ecological environment are those that affect reproduction and longevity. Variations occur within the genetic information constituting organisms at a certain time, and natural selection favors the proliferation of some of those variations into the population as a whole. But the longterm evolution of the X group of organisms is not pre-determined; X’s may invest in better vision, better mobility, greater lethality as predators, greater ability to conceal from predators, or dozens of other possible lines of evolutionary change. So all we can predict is that the assortment of groups of organisms will evolve towards higher levels of reproductive fitness or will disappear; and we can explain, in hindsight, the emergence of some of the physiological characteristics of X’s in terms of the reproductive advantage that this feature confers on the organism. So there is nothing in the antecedent habitat that preordains that giraffes will have long necks.

There is an important analogy here with social change. We can identify some of the features that influence the development of organizations and political institutions in a variety of historical settings: the need for states to extract revenues and to exert coercive power, for example. But we cannot predict with confidence what form those adaptations will take. So the theatre state of Bali looks very different from the feudal monarchy in France, even though both states succeed in the central functions of states.

 

Skocpol on the 1979 revolution in Iran

 

An earlier post reviewed Theda Skocpol’s effort in States and Social Revolutions: A Comparative Analysis of France, Russia and China to provide a comparative, structural account of the occurrence of social revolutions. There I suggested that the account is too deterministic and too abstract. It gives the impression, perhaps undeserved, that there are only a small number of pathways through which social revolutions can take place, and only a small number of causal factors that serve to bring them about. The impression emerges that Skocpol has offered a set of templates into which we should expect other social revolutions to fit.

One of the benefits of re-reading a book that is now 35 years old, however, is that history presents new cases that are appropriately considered by the theory. One such case is the Iranian Revolution, which unfolded in 1979. And, as Skocpol indicates forthrightly, the Iranian Revolution does not fit the model that she puts forward in States and Social Revolutions very closely. Skocpol considered the complexities and challenges which the Iranian Revolution posed to her theory in an article which appeared in 1981, before the dust had fully settled in Tehran. The article is included in her collection, Social Revolutions in the Modern World. Here is the challenge that the Iranian Revolution created for Skocpol’s causal theory of social revolutions:

A few of us have also been inspired to probe the Iranian sociopolitical realities behind these events. For me, such probing was irresistible – above all because the Iranian revolution struck me in some ways is quite anomalous. This revolution surely qualifies as a sort of “social revolution.” Yet its unfolding – especially in the events leading to the Shah’s overthrow – challenged expectations about revolutionary causation that I developed through comparative-historical research on the French, Russian, and Chinese Revolutions. (240)

Skocpol finds that the large features of the Iranian Revolution did indeed fit the terms of her definition of a social revolution, but that the causal background and components of this historical event did not fit her expectations.

The initial stages of the Iranian revolution obviously challenged my previously worked-out notions about the causes of social revolutions. Three apparent difficulties come immediately to mind. First, the Iranian Revolution does seem as if it might have been simply a product of excessively rapid modernization…. Second, in a striking departure from the regularities of revolutionary history, the Shah’s army and police – modern coercive organizations over 300,000 men strong – were rendered ineffective in the revolutionary process between 1977 and early 1979 without the occurrence of a military defeat in foreign war and without pressures from abroad…. Third, if ever there has been a revolution deliberately “made” by a mass–based social movement aiming to overthrow the old order, the Iranian revolution against the Shah surely is it. (241-242)

So the Iranian Revolution does not fit the mold. Does this imply that the interpretation of social revolution offered in States and Social Revolutions is refuted? Or does it imply instead that there are more narrow limits on the strength of the generalizations offered in that book than appear on first reading? In fact, it seems that the latter is the case:

Fortunately, in States and Social Revolutions I explicitly denied the possibility of fruitfulness of a general causal theory of revolutions that would apply across all times and places…. The Iranian Revolution can be interpreted in terms analytically consistent with the explanatory principles I used in States and Social Revolutions – this is what I shall briefly try to show. However, this remarkable revolution also forces me to deepen my understanding of the possible role of idea systems and cultural understandings in the shaping of political action – in ways that I show indicate recurrently at appropriate points in this article. (243)

One important difference between the revolutions studied by Skocpol’s earlier work and the Iranian revolution is the urban base of the latter revolution. “Opposition to the Shah was centered in urban communal enclaves where autonomous and solitary collective resistance was possible” (245). “In the mass movements against the Shah during 1977 and 1978, the traditional urban communities of Iran were to play an indispensable role in mobilizing in sustaining the core of popular resistance” (246). This is a difference in the social composition of the social revolution; peasant unrest and uprisings were crucial in the cases of France, Russia, and China; but not in the case of Iran.

Another key difference in the circumstances of the Iranian Revolution was the role played by Shi’a Islam. This is what Skocpol was referring to when she indicated the important role of idea systems and cultural understandings.  “In sum, Shi’a Islam was both organizationally and culturally crucial to the making of the Iranian revolution against the Shah” (249). So ideas and values played a role in mobilizing and sustaining revolutionary actions by the population that does not have a valid counterpart in China, France, or Russia. This is a more serious divergence from the reasoning of SSR, because it introduces an entirely new causal factor — “idea systems”. In SSR the motivations that are ascribed to activists and followers are interest-based; whereas her treatment of Shi’a Islam and the Iranian Revolution forces a broadening of the theory of the actor to incorporate the workings of non-material values and commitments.

How does Skocpol think that ideas and culture function in the context of social unrest? “In and of themselves, the culture and networks of communication do not dictate mass revolutionary action. But if a historical conjuncture arises in which a vulnerable state faces oppositionally inclined social groups possessing solidarity, autonomy, and independent economic resources, then the sorts of moral symbols and forms of social communication offered by Shi’a Islam in Iran can sustain the self-conscious making of a revolution” (250). So the value system of Shi’a Islam, and the passions and commitments that it engendered, played a key causal role in the success of the revolutionary actors in Tehran, in the view that Skocpol offers in the current article.

So the social actors can be different and the causal factors involved can be different. What about the outcomes of the processes of social revolution? Can we at least keep the idea that a social revolution, once underway, has a certain logic of development that leads to certain kinds of outcomes? Here again, Skocpol is clear in saying that we cannot.

On the contrary, Skocpol brings the fact of contingency into her account here in a way that is not apparent in the earlier book. In her treatment of the Iranian Revolution she is brought to acknowledge and recognize the deep contingency that exists within a social revolution.

Of course, events in Iran may outrun that Shi’a revolutionary leadership. The clerics may lose their political unity and the army or a secular political party may step in. Or regional revolts and foreign subversion may lead to the dismemberment of the country. (254)

Or in other words: there is no necessary sequence of events in this social revolution, or any other.So what remains? How does comparative study of social revolutions contribute to explanation? Rather than hoping for a causal diagram that identifies factors, forces, and outcomes, it seems unavoidable that we need to look for more limited findings. And this pushes us in the direction of the disaggregated approach that McAdam, Tarrow, and Tilly take in their own subsequent treatments of social contention in Dynamics of Contention.

According to that approach, there are some common causal processes — we would now call them “mechanisms of contention” — that give some insight into the critical events that transpire within a given historical sequence. But these common mechanisms do not have primacy over the myriad other factors in play — the behavior of the military, the emergence of a secular political party, the sudden appearance of a charismatic movie actor turned political leader, the eruption of international conflict (like the war that Iran was forced to wage with Iraq), and countless other possible causal branches. And this means something very deep for the project of comparative theorizing about social revolution, or any other large-scale social change: we should regard these processes as importantly sui generis rather than general, and we should look for the sub-processes and mechanisms rather than high-level macro-causal relationships.

Path dependency and contingency

Historical outcomes are rarely determined by some set of antecedent conditions. Instead, the outcome that occurs is the result of an extended series of events and conditions, each stage of which is subject to substantial contingency and conjunctures. This is most visible in the occurrence of large, dramatic events like stock market crashes, peasant uprisings, and wars. But it is also true in more mundane occurrences — scandals, resignations, and insolvencies, for example.

The idea of path dependency is chiefly relevant in application to particular events and happenings. But there are large social structures that display path dependency as well. These examples amount to structuring conditions that persist for a long time and further condition other historical developments. Their emergence is contingent, and other directions were feasible in the early stage. But once the structure is in place it creates its own conditions for persistence. Because the Interstate highway program privileged automobile transport over rail in the 1950s, it is now difficult to create a financially viable passenger rail system in the United States.

Examples of historical developments that display significant path dependency include the choice of major technologies (internal combustion engines versus electric vehicles, alternating current rather than direct current as the long-distance power transmission standard, the QWERTY keyboard versus other more efficient arrangements), major infrastructures (rail rather than canal in the late nineteenth century, personal automobile rather than passenger rail in the mid-twentieth century), and the division of tasks and specialization across adjacent professions (social workers, psychiatrists). In each of these cases there is a contingent first step that could have led in another direction, and then an accumulated resistance to reverting to the other choice (substantial social investment already committed to the first option, substantial development of the knowledge systems required for the first option but not the second, substantial social power invested in individuals and organizations that have a vested interest in maintaining the first option, etc.). (Tom Hughes refers to these factors as “technological momentum” in Networks of Power: Electrification in Western Society, 1880-1930.) It isn’t impossible to retrace steps and adopt the alternative solution — but it is very difficult and uncommon.

James Mahoney has done useful work in explicating this concept in “Path dependence in historical sociology” (link). Here is how he describes his own position:

In this article, I argue that path dependence characterizes specifically those historical sequences in which contingent events set into motion institutional patterns or event chains that have deterministic properties. The identification of path dependence therefore involves both tracing a given outcome back to a particular set of historical events, and showing how these events are themselves contingent occurrences that cannot be explained on the basis of prior historical conditions. (507-508)

Mahoney identifies two basic mechanisms that are associated with path dependency:

First, some path-dependent investigators analyze self-reinforcing sequences characterized by the formation and long-term reproduction of a given institutional pattern. (508)
A second basic type of path-dependent analysis involves the study of reactive sequences. Reactive sequences are chains of temporally ordered and causally connected event. (509)

Here are the three features Mahoney finds to be critical.

I suggest that all path-dependent analyses minimally have three defining features. First, path-dependent analysis involves the study of causal processes that are highly sensitive to events that take place in the early stages of an overall historical sequence. (510)
Second, in a path-dependent sequence, early historical events are contingent occurrences that cannot be explained on the basis of prior events or “initial conditions.” (511)
Third, once contingent historical events take place, path-dependent sequences are marked by relatively deterministic causal patterns or what can be thought of as “inertia” – i.e., once processes are set into motion and begin tracking a particular outcome, these processes tend to stay in motion and continue to track this outcome. (511)

Mahoney’s work here represents a great example of careful, detailed analysis that crosses the categories of methodology, theory, and philosophy. This is how we make progress in the social sciences — by taking theories and concepts seriously and providing careful, logical analysis of the ways these concepts express important features of the historical process.

The idea of path dependency invokes the intersection of two important intuitions which are in tension with each other. The first is the sense of contingency that study of important historical transitions instills. The second is the idea that explanation involves generalizing across cases. If a case is wholly particular, then it is hard to find anything explanatory in studying it. Careful analysis of the concept of path dependency has the potential of offering a higher-level resolution of these intuitions about the historical process.

Strategies of economic adaptation

Charles Sabel and Jonathan Zeitlin made a powerful case for there being alternative institutional forms through which modern economic development could have taken place in their 1985 article, “Historical Alternatives to Mass Production: Politics, Markets and Technology in Nineteenth-Century Industrialization” (link). In an important volume in 1997, World of Possibilities: Flexibility and Mass Production in Western Industrialization, they take the argument two steps further: first, that institutional variations were not merely hypothetical, but in fact had an extended history in a variety of industries well into the twentieth century; and second, that the current situation of pervading uncertainty about our most basic economic institutions was characteristic of the earlier periods as well.  The volume represents the work of an intensive seminar in economic history sponsored by the Maison des Sciences de l’Homme.  Contributors include a broad swath of researchers in economic history across Europe (not Asia!).  Chapters take up the processes of mechanization, specialization, and mass manufacture in a variety of industries in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries — silk, cutlery, watch-making, metal-working, and ship-building.  (Here is part of the very good introduction to the volume provided by Sabel and Zeitlin; link.)

Sabel and Zeitlin take the view that the history of business and technology can in fact shed quite a bit of light on the economic situation we face today — from brand new sectors (Google, Facebook, Amazon) to the abrupt decline of old industries (the US auto industry) to speculation about the next big area of business growth (biotech, alternative energy).  They highlight a couple of features of the business and economic climate in the late 1990s that seem equally applicable today — an acute sense of economic fragility and institutional plasticity.  They argue that these features were also the hallmarks of earlier periods of economic change as well.  So they argue that we can learn a great deal for today’s challenges by considering the situation of industries like glass-making or watch-making in 1880 or 1920.

The sense of fragility goes to the once commonsensical idea that progress would lead to the gradual consolidation of particular forms of economic organization, and hence to an ever more certain sense of how best to deploy technology, allocate labor and capital, and link supply of particular products to demand. Today … it is commonsensical to believe that the way many of these things are done depends on constantly shifting background conditions whose almost insensible mutation can produce abrupt redefinitions of the appropriate way to organize economic activity.

The second experience is one of the recombinability and interpenetration of different forms of economic organization: the rigid and the flexible, the putatively archaic and the certifiably modern, the hierarchical and the market-conforming, the trusting and the mistrustful.

The central theme of this book is that the experience of fragility and mutability which seemed so novel and disorienting today has been, in fact, the definitive experience of the economic actors in many sectors, countries, and epochs in the history of industrial capitalism.

But this double perception of mutability and fragility … has not led them to exalt catch-as-catch-can muddling through as the organizing principle of reflection and action. What we find instead is an extraordinarily judicious, well-informed and continuing debate within firms, and between them and public authorities, as to the appropriate responses to an economy whose future is uncertain, but whose boundary conditions at lease in the middle term are taken to be clear.

Our purpose here is to show that most firms in nineteenth- and early twentieth-century Europe and the United States, neither mired in tradition nor blinded by the prospect of a radiant future, carefully weighed the choices between mass production and what we would now call flexible specialization. (2-3)

One of Sabel and Zeitlin’s most basic arguments is the idea that firms are strategic and adaptive as they deal with a current set of business challenges. Rather than an inevitable logic of new technologies and their organizational needs, we see a highly adaptive and selective process in which firms pick and choose among alternatives, often mixing the choices to hedge against failure.  They consider carefully a range of possible changes on the horizon, a set of possible strategic adaptations that might be selected; and they frequently hedge their bets by investing in both the old and the new technology. “Economic agents, we found again and again in the course of the seminar’s work, do not maximize so much as they strategize” (5).

During the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, for example, the silk merchants and weavers of Lyons carefully monitored but did not imitate the policies of design routinization, subdivision of labor and price competition pursued by their Spitalfields counterparts, preferring alternative strategies based on rapid style change, increasingly flexible machinery and the skillful exploitation of fashionable markets for high-value products. … Much as they admired the efficiency of American methods, detailed accounts of the American system in trade journals and technical society proceedings typically emphasized that this efficiency depended on standardization of the product which was wholly incompatible with the current or expected organizations of their respective markets. (12)

In other words, specialized firms did not “resist change;” rather, they carefully assessed the full implications of one form of organization and one use of technology against another, and selected those innovations that represented the best match to their own business realities. 
An interesting case study of an alternative way of organizing production is provided in the chapter by Peer Hull Kristensen and Charles Sabel, “The small-holder economy in Denmark.”  It was an example of cooperative-based agriculture and small-scale production that provided a durable alternative to private capitalism farming and manufacture:

Denmark was the exception.  There in the decades before World War I peasant small holders built a technologically innovative cooperative movement that outcompeted estate-owners and urban financiers in virtually every segment of the dairy, egg and pork products industries.  In so doing they created demand for particular kinds of capital goods that contributed to the modernization of the small-shop sector of industry as well. (345)

Alongside the agrarian republic there was another estate of small holders, the artisans and craftsmen.  Their property was the knowledge of tools, materials, and techniques which made them independent of any one market or employer. By the outbreak of the First World War, they too had built institutions — particularly a network of technical schools — which allowed them to defend their place in Danish society by constantly renewing it. (365)

The history these activities in Denmark demonstrate that it was possible for voluntary producers’ cooperatives to manage the provision of specialized services, marketing services, and economies of scale to farmers and artisans that we sometimes believe can only be provided by the market.  This system did not last forever — though it proved economically durable for half a century, and it demonstrated much of the flexibility and organizational innovativeness that Sabel and Zeitlin emphasize in their introduction.

But some fifty years later, in the late 1950s, the cooperative core of this small-holder economy was coming visibly undone.  First cooperative dairies, then the cooperative slaughterhouses began to combine into larger and larger units abandoning in the process many of their original constitutional features and becoming in fact and law corporations. The corporations in turn fought with one another and the remaining cooperative for control of their respective markets. (374)

I find the contributions to this volume interesting in exactly the way predicted by Sabel and Zeitlin in the introduction: for the models they illustrate of deft navigation of uncertain economic environments by firms, cooperatives, and individuals.  The economic and business environment in the region where I live is unforgiving for a wide range of industries; for example, job shops and tool and die shops have largely disappeared in the Detroit metropolitan area.  However, there are a number of mid-sized adaptable businesses that have continued to thrive, through exactly the kinds of intelligent, forward-scanning adaptation to new opportunities described by contributors to this volume.  These businesses are in the engineering and advanced services sector, and they are innovative in two ways: they are constantly looking for new opportunities to apply existing and new technologies to new applications; and they are looking for customers in developing countries, including especially the Middle East from Lebanon to Saudi Arabia.  Energy, solar power, building control systems, urban parking systems, and aviation maintenance can be found within the portfolio; and the leaders of these companies are systematically and strategically developing the relations abroad that are necessary to secure the next wave of contracts.

It is interesting to consider whether there is a difference between economic history and business history. One might say that the former has to do with the large features of economic organization, social regulation, and logistics that constitute an economic system, whereas business history has to do with the tactical maneuvering and small-scale adaptations that individual firms undertake within the general framework of the existing economic structure.  But I think Sabel and Zeitlin’s answer would be a fairly decisive one: there is no fundamental distinction between the two levels of analysis.  They frame the distinction in terms of the ideas of “epochs” and “crises”; this language distinguishes between long periods of institutional stability, and short periods of dislocation and change — something like the theory of punctuated equilibrium.  But Sabel and Zeitlin doubt the validity of this distinction.  “The solution, we think, is to relax the distinction between periods of stability and periods of transition in the same way and for the same reasons that we relaxed the distinction between maximizing actor and constraining context” (29).  Or, in other words, when we look closely, almost every period of economic activity is also a period that mixes elements of stability with deep and unpredictable change.

Gabriel Tarde’s rediscovery

Gabriel Tarde was an important rival to Emile Durkheim on the scene of French sociology in the 1880s and 1890s.  Durkheim essentially won the field, however, and Tarde’s reputation diminished for a century. Durkheim’s social holism and a search for social laws prevailed, and the sociology of individuals and the methodology of contingency that Tarde had constructed had little influence on the next several generations of sociologists in France.  In the 1990s, however, several important strands of thought were receptive to a rediscovery of Tarde’s thinking; Gilles Deleuze and Bruno Latour each found elements in Tarde’s thinking that provided intellectual antecedent and support for ideas of their own.  In the past fifteen years or so there has been a significant revival of interest in Tarde.

An important volume edited by Matei Candea represents the most extensive reconsideration of Tarde’s views of sociology to date.  Contributors to The Social after Gabriel Tarde: Debates and Assessments provide highly provocative and stimulating discussions of various aspects of Tarde’s philosophy of sociology, and the book represents an important contribution to new thinking about the social sciences.  The introductory essay by Candea is very useful and is available for free as a sample of the Kindle edition.  Bruno Latour’s contribution to the volume is available on Latour’s website (link), as are two short pieces on Latour’s thoughts about Tarde (link, link).

Several aspects of Tarde’s philosophy of sociology stand out.  First is his rejection of Durkheim’s holism.  He was consistently critical of the idea of finished social wholes; instead, he recommended a focus on the components of social interactions and practices.  This might be understood as a focus on the individual and his/her psychological properties (methodological individualism); but it also might be seen as a more radical disassembly of the social into sub- and supra-individual constructions.  This is where Latour finds inspiration; he suggests that Tarde is an intellectual precursor to Actor Network Theory (ANT), which does not give ontological priority to either individuals or social wholes.

Another important feature of Tarde’s philosophy of the social is his emphasis on heterogeneity and contingency within the social.  He revels in the fact of variation among and within social processes, and he emphasizes the deep degree of contingency that characterizes social outcomes.  Here is one example in Social Laws: “Science is the co-ordination of phenomena regarded from the side of their repetitions.  But this does not mean that differentiation is not an essential mode of procedure for the scientific mind” (8).

The contributors to the Candea volume illustrate this deep contingency in a different way; they ask the question of how the science of sociology might have developed differently if Tarde’s views had taken deeper root.  Here is how Candea puts this point in the opening words of the volume:

Some theorists have intersected with history in such an odd way that they seem to require an introduction in the form of a thought experiment: What if Durkheimian sociology had had, from the very beginning, a thoughtful and vocal opponent; one who queries the ‘thingness’ of the social and the holistic, bounded nature of societies and human groups; one who accused Durkheim of disregarding the contingency of history in the search for scientific ‘structure’; one who proposed a radical reversal of the organic analogy, claiming that organisms are societies and not the other way around; one who foregrounded imitations, oppositions and inventions where Durkheim saw conformism to a rule as the key component of the social; one who had already found a way to dissolve the linked contrasts between individual and society, micro and macro, agency and structure, freedom and constraint — Durkheim’s main (and for many, troublesome) legacy to twentieth-century social science?

And, of course, that critic is none other than Tarde.

Here are a few of Tarde’s ideas as expressed in his 1897 volume, Social Laws: An Outline of Sociology (translated into English in 1899).

Thus science consists in viewing any fact whatsoever under three aspects, corresponding, respectively, to the repetitions, oppositions, and adaptations which it contains, and which are obscured by a mass of variations, dissymmetries, and disharmonies. The relation of cause to effect, in fact, is not the only element which properly constitutes scientific knowledge. (9)

Here is a schematic philosophy of science — an account of what sociology consists of.  Tarde emphasizes the discovery of both regularities and variations:

These reflections were needed in order to show what sociology must be, if it is to deserve the name of science, and along what paths sociologists must guide its course, if they wish to see it assume, unchallenged, its proper rank. Like every other science, it will attain this only when it has gained, and is conscious of possessing, its own domain of repetitions, its own domain of oppositions, and its own domain of adaptations, each characteristic of itself and belonging wholly to itself. Sociology can only make progress when it succeeds in substituting true repetitions, oppositions, and harmonies for false ones, as all the other sciences have done before it. And in place of repetitions, oppositions, and adaptations that are true but vague, it must find others that become ever more exact as it advances. (10)

And on a central tenet of methodological individualism–the idea of the strict determination of the whole as a consequence of the characteristics of indistinguishable individual components:

I believe that none of the above-mentioned differences, including even the mere variety of arrangement and random distribution of matter throughout space, can be explained on the theory of exactly similar atomic elements—an hypothesis so dear to chemists, who are in this respect the real metaphysicians; I do not see that Spencer’s so-called law of the instability of the homogeneous explains anything. And hence, I believe that the only means of explaining this exuberant growth of individual differences upon the surface of phenomena is by assuming that they spring from a motley array of elements, each possessing its own individual characteristics. (15)

And rather than seeking out high-level generalizations and regularities about the social world, Tarde advocates for more specific and granular studies:

Fortunately, screened and sheltered from view by these ambitious generalizations, certain less venturesome workers strove, with greater success, to formulate other more substantial laws concerning the details. Among these should be mentioned the linguists, the mythologists, and above all the economists. These specialists in sociological fields discovered various interesting relations among successive and simultaneous facts, which recurred constantly within the limits of the narrow domain they were examining. (18)

Tarde explicitly rejects John Stuart Mill’s particular version of methodological individualism:

In some quarters the feeling has existed that we must look to psychology for any general explanation of the laws and pseudo-laws of economics, language, mythology, etc. No man held to this view with greater force and clearness than John Stuart Mill. At the end of his Logic he represents sociology as a species of applied psychology. Unfortunately he did not analyze the concept carefully enough; and the psychology to which he looked for the key to social phenomena was merely individual psychology—the branch which studies the interrelations of impressions and imagery in a single mind, believing that everything within this domain can be explained according to the laws of association of these elements. Thus conceived, sociology became a sort of enlarged and externalized English associationism, and was in a fair way to lose its originality. (19)

And here is an explicit rejection of a particular kind of Durkheimian social fact — the idea of a national character:

Sooner or later, one must open his eyes to the evidence, and recognize that the genius of a people or race, instead of being a factor superior to and dominating the characters of the individuals (who have been considered its offshoots and ephemeral manifestations) is simply a convenient label, or impersonal synthesis, of these individual characteristics; the latter alone are real, effective, and ever in activity; they are in a state of continual fermentation in the bosom of every society, thanks to the examples borrowed and exchanged with neighboring societies to their great mutual profit. (27)

Here is how Bruno Latour summarizes his appreciation of Tarde in “Gabriel Tarde and the End of the Social” (link):

And yet, I want to argue in this chapter, through a close reading of his recently republished most daring book, Monadologie et sociologie (M&S), that Tarde introduced into social theory the two main arguments which ANT has tried, somewhat vainly, to champion:

a) the nature and society divide is irrelevant for understanding the world of human interactions ;

b) the micro/macro distinction stifle any attempt at understanding how society is being generated.

In other words, I want to make a little thought experiment and imagine what the field of social sciences would have become in the last century, had Tarde’s insights been turned into a science instead of Durkheim’s. Or may be it is that Tarde, a truly daring but also, I have to admit, totally undisciplined mind, needed a rather different century so as to be finally understood. 

Latour ends his contribution to the Candea volume with an intriguing section called “Digital traceability … Tarde’s vindication?”.  The key idea here is that the twenty-first century permits social scientists to go decisively and transparently beyond the primitive aggregative statistics that underlay Durkheim’s approach to the “social whole.”  Tarde, and Latour, look at Durkheim’s social whole as no more than a crude statistical aggregation of data; and, according to Latour, Tarde had envisioned a time when the statistics and quantitative data deriving from social behavior would be transparent and visible.  This, Latour suggests, is becoming true.  Today we can look at social data at a full range of levels of aggregation, moving back and forth from the micro to the macro with ease.  Here is Tarde’s version of the vision:

If Statistics continues to progress as it has done for several years, if the information which it gives us continues to gain in accuracy, in dispatch, in bulk, and in regularity, a time may come when upon the accomplishment of every social event a figure will at once issue forth automatically, so to speak, to take its place on the statistical registers that will be continuously communicated to the public and spread abroad pictorially by the daily press.

And here is Latour’s comment:

It is indeed striking that at this very moment, the fast expanding fields of “data visualization”, “computational social science” or “biological networks” are tracing before our eyes, just the sort of data Tarde would have acclaimed. … Digital navigation through point-to-point datascapes might, a century later, vindicate Tarde’s insights.

This is only the briefest of samplings from Tarde’s work, from one short book.  But it is perhaps enough to give substance to the idea that Tarde is as much of an innovative founder of scientific sociology as Weber, Marx, or Durkheim; and he is a thinker from whom a new generation of sociologists can gain new ideas.

Labor mobilization

Workers are a group who ought to be readily prone to mobilization. They are brought together into proximity with each other in large numbers in factories, rail stations, ports, and other workplaces. The circumstances of production usually give them causes around which to gather — health and safety issues in the workplace, bullying or disrespectful treatment by supervisors, petty or demeaning work rules. And the business incentives created for owners and managers assure an environment in which workers are likely to have economic grievances, ranging from low pay to withheld wages to pension fund corruption and default. So the conditions for mobilization of workers in protest and advocacy seem propitious almost everywhere. And yet passive acceptance seems about as common as spontaneous or organized protest and resistance. So what other factors come into play? What explains historical patterns of worker passivity and protest? And going a bit further, what factors influence the form that protest takes when it occurs?

Marx’s answers to these questions are well known. The development of industrial capitalism brought about the objective conditions for a militant working class identity. Capitalism increasingly erased differences among artisans and other producers. It conducted a process of commodification of labor that increasingly place all producers in the condition of wage labor. And the imperatives of profits pushed the industrial system towards worse working conditions, lower wages, and a degraded social position. The emergence of a unified class identity and a readiness for protest was inevitable. “Workers of the world, unite. You have nothing to lose but your chains.”

Marx’s story here isn’t a fantasy. There are real institutional processes embedded in this story that correspond pretty well to the historical experience of labor and capital in many countries and times. But neither is it an iron law of social development. Each country’s experience of development is somewhat different — sometimes in major ways. And crucially, the result Marx expected — a steadily rising tide of radical worker mobilization — has certainly not occurred. So, once again, what are the more specific and local factors that influence the occurrence and form of worker mobilization?

One of Charles Tilly’s central ideas about the occurrence of protest is its historical character. Protest movements have histories that form their present. Tilly emphasizes the central role that traditions and repertoires of protest play in virtually every instance. Protest is not simply the automatic response to exploitation and bad conditions. Rather, protest is an act of collective agency. And this means that outrage and protest must be conceptualized and placed into a practical context. So traditions of protest and grievance play a key role in determining the occurrence and form of mobilization. Parades, strikes, boycotts, road blockages, and petitions all represent forms of the “art of resistance” that have developed differently in different traditions of popular politics. (See The Contentious French for more on this.)

E. P. Thompson’s focus on the particulars of the group identity that has formed represents another crucial factor that helps explain differences across historical settings. Classes make themselves — and they make themselves in different ways. William Sewell’s treatment of the guild consciousness of nineteenth century workers in Marseilles illustrates the point (Work and Revolution in France: The Language of Labor from the Old Regime to 1848). Historians and sociologists can observe these processes of identity in formation through a variety of ways — both historically and in the present. And these differences in consciousness formation have consequences for mobilization and action. For example, C. K. Lee argues that China’s workers today, in both “rustbelt” and “sunbelt” settings, have absorbed a set of attitudes towards the moral importance of their legal protections within existing Chinese law, that profoundly influences the form that protests take Against the Law: Labor Protests in China’s Rustbelt and Sunbelt.

Resource mobilization theory highlights another crucial factor that helps explain differences in mobilization across similar material settings. For a group to successfully constitute itself as an effective collectivity, it needs to have access to a range of resources. Communication requires resources; organization requires fulltime activists; propaganda requires access to printing assets; and so forth. So we can get a better picture of the status of labor mobilization in a particular setting, by examining the resources and opportunities for collective action that exist for potential activists.

Organization is a factor that also makes a large difference in the occurrence and form of mobilization. The presence of the IWW plays a key role in Howard Kimeldorf’s account of Philadelphia dock workers (Battling for American Labor: Wobblies, Craft Workers, and the Making of the Union Movement). The CCP is key in Lucien Bianco’s trarment of peasant mobilization in China (Peasants Without the Party: Grass-Root Movements in Twentieth-Century China). Organizations permit a movement to acquire the coordination of effort required by successful mobilization. And it permits “escalation” — extension of mobilization to a broader territory or a broader set of alliances.

It is also important to recognize the role that agency and strategic interaction play in the unfolding of mobilization. Struggle involved multiple parties responding to each other’s actions. And the outcome may be entirely unforeseen; state actions can both ameliorate the causes of worker grievance (through more vigilant regulation, for example) and deepen worker grievance (through a legal system that systematically disregards worker claims) — and may even do so at the same time.

A final factor that needs mention is the state. Actions and policies by the state can have a large effect on mobilization at several levels. Through regulation it can reduce grievances — pension fund abuse, health and safety issues, intimidation in the workplace. And by providing a substantial social security system — unemployment benefits, access to healthcare, decent treatment of the elderly — it can blunt some of the aggressively harmful tendencies of the unbridled private system that would otherwise lead to explosive protest. Finally, the state can use its coercive and legal power to channel protest in one direction rather than another.

So where does this take us with respect to the original question — what explains patterns of worker mobilization? We’ve noticed some general circumstances that are conducive to worker activism and mobilization. But this account also highlights a wide suite of independent factors that influence mobilization, both up and down. This treatment reinforces the view that social change is highly contingent. And it shows the irreplaceable role to be played by good, specific works of historical sociology. No comprehensive theory suffices for any particular case. Instead, we need to discover the particular ways in which general processes and more contingent factors come together to forge a particular historical juncture. (An influential recent book that tries to work out where workers’ movements might be going in the twenty-first century is Beverly Silver’s Forces of Labor: Workers’ Movements and Globalization Since 1870.)

Turning points

Are there turning points in history? How would we know if we’re in the midst of one? Does the current financial crisis represent a turning point in the development of the US economy? Did the election of Ronald Reagan represent a turning point in American politics and government?

Often what is announced as a turning point eventually seems like a change without a difference — an example of rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic, of changing drivers but not direction. Nguyen van Thieu takes office in Vietnam in 1967 and a new era is announced; but then the same old policies persist and Vietnam slides ever further towards Communist victory.

A turning point might be defined as an event, action, or choice, that profoundly alters the direction of a whole series of subsequent events. The New Deal is perhaps a candidate in the development of the political-social culture of the United States — a new set of policies, laws, and strategies that set the United States on a new direction and that substantially constrained later choices by government. The notion of a turning point conveys the situation of contingency — up until T things might have continued within the existing pattern P, but after T things shifted to P‘. And it conveys the idea of path dependency as well — now that the turning point has occurred and P’ is embodied, it is much more difficult to return to P. So a turning point results from some contingent event that occurs within a system at a particular time and substantially inflects the future dynamics of development of the system. The idea turns on the background assumption that there are mechanisms or forces that sustain the development of the system, and that contingent events can “push” the system onto a different course for a while.

What sorts of things can have turning points? Can an individual have one? What about a family or a marriage? How about a business or a university? And how about a nation or a civilization? We might say that anything that has a recognizable and somewhat stable pattern of development can display a turning point. So each of these orders of human affairs can do so. An individual may be influenced by a traumatic event or a charismatic person and may change his ways; from that point forward he may behave differently — more honestly, more cautiously, more compassionately. The event was a turning point on his development. A “velvet revolution” may be on a course that gives great importance to non-violent tactics. Then something happens — a violent repression by the state, the emergence of a new clique of leaders more open to violence. The velvet revolution undergoes a turning point and becomes more violent in its strategies.

Schematically, the idea of a turning point involves an ontology something like this: system properties in a state of persistence > singular event > new system properties in a state of persistence.

So how could we know that we’re at a turning point? The answer seems to be: we can’t. Only the larger course of history can indicate whether contemporary changes will be large and persistent, or cosmetic and evanescent.

The idea of a “turning point” is perhaps one of the analytical categories that we use to characterize and analyze the sweep of history. It is a narrative device that highlights persistence, contingency, and direction. And, it would appear, we’ve got to wait until the Owl of Minerva spreads its wings before we can say with confidence when they occur.

Composition of the social

Our social ontology needs to reflect the insight that complex social happenings are almost invariably composed of multiple causal processes rather than existing as unitary systems. The phenomena of a great social whole — a city over a fifty-year span, a period of sustained social upheaval or revolution (Iran in the 1970s-1980s), an international trading system — should be conceptualized as the sum of a large number of separate processes with intertwining linkages and often highly dissimilar tempos. We can provide analysis and theory for some of the component processes, and we can attempt to model the results of aggregating these processes. And we can attempt to explain the patterns and exceptions that arise as the consequence of one or more of these processes. Some of the subordinate processes will be significantly amenable to theorizing and projection, and some will not. And the totality of behavior will be more than the “sum” of the relatively limited number of processes that are amenable to theoretical analysis. This means that the behavior of the whole will demonstrate contingency and unpredictability modulo the conditions and predictable workings of the known processes.

Consider the example of the development of a large city over time. The sorts of subordinate processes that I’m thinking of here might include —

  • The habitation dynamics created by the nodes of a transportation system
  • The dynamics of electoral competition governing the offices of mayor and city council
  • The politics of land use policy and zoning permits
  • The dynamics and outcomes of public education on the talent level of the population
  • Economic development policies and tax incentives emanating from state government
  • Dynamics of real estate system with respect to race
  • Employment and poverty characteristics of surrounding region

Each of these processes can be investigated by specialists — public policy experts, sociologists of race and segregation, urban politics experts. Each contributes to features of the evolving urban environment. And it is credible that there are consistent patterns of behavior and development within these various types of processes. This justifies a specialist’s approach to specific types of causes of urban change, and rigorous social science can result.

But it must also be recognized that, there are system interdependencies among these groups of factors. More in-migration of extremely poor families may put more stress on the public schools. Enhancement of quality or accessibility of public schools may increase in-migration (the Kalamazoo promise, for example). Political incentives within the city council system may favor land-use policies that encourage the creation of racial or ethnic enclaves. So it isn’t enough to understand the separate processes individually; we need to make an effort to discover these endogenous relations among them.

But over and above this complication of the causal interdependency of recognized factors, there is another and more pervasive complication as well. For any given complex social whole, it is almost always the case that there are likely to be additional causal processes that have not been separately analyzed or theorized. Some may be highly contingent and singular — for example, the many effects that September 11 had on NYC. Others may be systemic and important, but novel and previously untheorized — for example, the global information networks that Saskia Sassen emphasizes for the twenty-first century global city.

The upshot is that a complex social whole exceeds the particular theories we have created for this kind of phenomenon at any given point in time. The social whole is composed of lower-level processes; but it isn’t exhausted by any specific list of underlying processes. Therefore we shouldn’t imagine that the ideal result of investigation of urban phenomena is a comprehensive theory of the city — the goal is chimerical. Social science is always “incomplete”, in the sense that there are always social processes relevant to social outcomes that have not been theorized.

Is there any type of social phenomenon that is substantially more homogeneous than this description would suggest — with the result that we might be able to arrive a neat, comprehensive theories of this kind of social entity? Consider these potential candidates: inner city elementary schools, labor unions, wars of national liberation, civil service bureaus, or multi-national corporations. One might make the case that these terms capture a group of phenomena that are fairly homogeneous and would support simple, unified theories. But I think that this would be mistaken. Rather, much the same kind of causal complexity that is presented by the city of Chicago or London is also presented by elementary schools and labor unions. There are multiple social, cultural, economic, interpersonal, and historical factors that converge on a particular school in a particular place, or a particular union involving specific individuals and issues; and the characteristics of the school or the union are influenced by this complex convergence of factors. (On the union example, consider Howard Kimeldorf’s fascinating study, Battling for American Labor: Wobblies, Craft Workers, and the Making of the Union Movement. Kimeldorf demonstrates the historical contingency and the plurality of social and business factors that led to the significant differences among dock workers’ unions in the United States.)

What analytical frameworks available for capturing this understanding of the compositional nature of society? I have liked the framework of causal mechanisms, suggesting as it does the idea of there being separable causal processes underlying particular social facts that are diverse and amenable to investigation. The ontology of “assemblages” captures the idea as well, in its ontology of separable sub-processes. (Nick Srnicek provides an excellent introduction to assemblage theory in his master’s thesis.) And the language of microfoundations, methodological localism, and the agent-structure nexus convey much the same idea as well. In each case, we have the idea that the social entity is composed of underlying processes that take us back in the direction of agents acting within the context of social and environmental constraints. And we have a premise of causal openness: the behavior of the whole is not fully determined by a particular set of subordinate mechanisms or assemblages.

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