How important is cooperation in a market society?

First, what is cooperation? Suppose a number of individuals occupy a common social and geographical space. They have a variety of individual interests and things they value, and they have outcomes they’d like to bring about. Some of those outcomes are purely private goods, and some can be brought about through private activities by each individual.  These are the circumstances where private market-based activity can bring about socially optimal outcomes.

But some outcomes may look more like public or common goods — for example, greater safety in the neighborhood or more sustainable uses of resources.  These are outcomes that no single individual can bring about, and — once established — no one can be excluded from the enjoyment of these goods.  (Public choice theorists sometimes look at other kinds of non-private goods such as “club goods”; see Dennis Mueller, Perspectives on Public Choice: A Handbook.)

Further, some outcomes may in fact be private goods, but may be such that they require coordinated efforts by multiple individuals to achieve them efficiently. An example of this is traditional farming: it may be that the yield on one individual’s plot is greater if a group of neighbors provide concentrated labor on weeding this plot today and the neighbor’s plot tomorrow than if each of us do all the weeding on our individual plots. The technical conditions surrounding traditional agriculture impose a cycle of labor demand that makes cooperation an efficient strategy.

This is where cooperation comes in. If a number of the members of a group agree to contribute our efforts to a common project we may find that the total results are greater — for both common goods and private goods — than if we had each pursued these goods through individual efforts. Cooperation can lead to improvement in the overall production of a good for a given level of sacrifice of time and effort.  This description uses the word “agree”; but Robert Axelrod (The Evolution of Cooperation) and David Lewis (Convention: A Philosophical Study) observe that many examples of cooperation depend on “convention” and tacit agreement rather than an explicit understanding among participants.

So cooperation can lead to better outcomes for a group and each individual in the group than would be achievable through entirely private efforts.

Cooperation should be distinguished from altruistic behavior; cooperation makes sense for rationally self-interested individuals if appropriate conditions are satisfied.  A cooperative arrangement can make everyone better off.  So we don’t have to assume that individuals act altruistically in order to account for cooperation.

So why is cooperation not ubiquitous? It is in fact pretty widespread. But there are a couple of important obstacles to cooperation in ordinary social life: the rational incentive that exists to become a freerider or easy rider when the good in question is a public good; and the risk that cooperators run that the endeavor will fail because of non-contribution from other potential contributors. There is also often a timing problem: it is common for the contribution and the benefit to be separated in time, so contributors are even more concerned that they will be denied the benefits of cooperation. If Mr Wong is asked to weed today in consideration of assistance from Mr Li in harvesting the crop four months from now, he may be doubtful about the future benefit.

The basic logic of this situation has stimulated a mountain of great social science research and theory. Garrett Hardin’s “tragedy of the commons” (Managing the Commons) and Mancur Olsen’s The Logic of Collective Action: Public Goods and the Theory of Groups set the negative case for thinking that cooperation is all but impossible to sustain.  Elinor Ostrom’s Nobel-prize winning work on common property resource regimes documents the ways in which communities have solved these cooperation dilemmas (Governing the Commons: The Evolution of Institutions for Collective Action). Douglas North essentially argues that only private property and binding contracts can do the job (The Rise of the Western World: A New Economic History). And Robert Axelrod has made the case for the rational basis of cooperation in The Evolution of Cooperation: Revised Edition. He argues that there are specific conditions that enhance or undermine cooperation and reciprocity; essentially, participants need to be able to reidentify each other over time and they need to have a high likelihood of continuing to interact with each other over an extended time. (His analysis is based on a series of experiments involving repeated prisoners’ dilemmas.)

A market can “simulate” cooperation through enforceable contracts; so, for example, a peasant farming community could create a legally binding system of labor exchange among households.  And organizations can create quasi-binding agreements for cooperation through “memoranda of understanding” and “inter-governmental agreements” — written agreements that may not be enforceable through legal remedies but nonetheless create a strong incentive for each party to fulfill the obligations of cooperation.  However, quite a bit of the opportunities for cooperation seem to fall outside the sphere of these formal and semi-formal mechanisms for binding agreements.

Informal cooperation needs some kind of institutional or normative setting that encourages compliance with the cooperative arrangement.  So there has been an energetic debate in the past twenty years over the feasibility of non-coercive solutions to cooperation problems; this is an area where the new institutionalism has played a key role.  And in the real world, we do in fact find numerous sustainable examples of informal cooperation.  Individuals work in community gardens; foundations join together in supporting urban renewal projects; villagers create labor-sharing practices.  But it is an interesting question to consider: are there institutional reforms that we could invent that would allow us as a society to capture more of the benefits of cooperation than we currently realize?

Hobbes an institutionalist?

Here is a surprising idea: of all the modern political philosophers, Thomas Hobbes comes closest to sharing the logic and worldview of modern social science. In Leviathan (1651) he sets out the problem of understanding the social world in terms that resemble a modern institutionalist and rational-choice approach to social explanation. It is a constructive approach, proceeding from reasoning about the constituents of society, to aggregative conclusions about the wholes that are constituted by these individuals. He puts forward a theory of agency — how individuals reason and what their most basic motives are. Individuals are rational and self-concerned; they are strategic, in that they anticipate the likely behaviors of other agents; and they are risk-averse, in that they take steps to avoid attack by other agents. And he puts forward a description of two institutional settings within which social action takes place: the state of nature, where no “overawing” political institutions exist; and the sovereign state, where a single sovereign power imposes a set of laws regulating individuals’ actions.

In the first institutional setting, he argues that individual competition in the context of the absence of sovereignty leads to perpetual violent competition. In the second institutional setting, he argues that individual self-striving within the context of a system of law leads to the accumulation of property and peaceful coexistence.

Here are some of Hobbes’s premises about individual agents from chapter XIII of Leviathan:

From this equality of ability ariseth equality of hope in the attaining of our ends. And therefore if any two men desire the same thing, which nevertheless they cannot both enjoy, they become enemies; and in the way to their end (which is principally their own conservation, and sometimes their delectation only) endeavour to destroy or subdue one another. And from hence it comes to pass that where an invader hath no more to fear than another man’s single power, if one plant, sow, build, or possess a convenient seat, others may probably be expected to come prepared with forces united to dispossess and deprive him, not only of the fruit of his labour, but also of his life or liberty. And the invader again is in the like danger of another.

So that in the nature of man, we find three principal causes of quarrel. First, competition; secondly, diffidence; thirdly, glory. The first maketh men invade for gain; the second, for safety; and the third, for reputation. The first use violence, to make themselves masters of other men’s persons, wives, children, and cattle; the second, to defend them; the third, for trifles, as a word, a smile, a different opinion, and any other sign of undervalue, either direct in their persons or by reflection in their kindred, their friends, their nation, their profession, or their name.

The passions that incline men to peace are: fear of death; desire of such things as are necessary to commodious living; and a hope by their industry to obtain them. And reason suggesteth convenient articles of peace upon which men may be drawn to agreement. These articles are they which otherwise are called the laws of nature, whereof I shall speak more particularly in the two following chapters.

And these motives and forms of behavior by individuals lead to a predictable outcome for the collectivity in the state of nature: a war of all against all.

Whatsoever therefore is consequent to a time of war, where every man is enemy to every man, the same consequent to the time wherein men live without other security than what their own strength and their own invention shall furnish them withal. In such condition there is no place for industry, because the fruit thereof is uncertain: and consequently no culture of the earth; no navigation, nor use of the commodities that may be imported by sea; no commodious building; no instruments of moving and removing such things as require much force; no knowledge of the face of the earth; no account of time; no arts; no letters; no society; and which is worst of all, continual fear, and danger of violent death; and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.

This is an institutionalist argument. It models the behavior that is expected of a certain kind of agent within a certain kind of institutional setting; and it projects the consequences of these “microfoundations” for the aggregate society. In other words, Hobbes is offering a micro- to macro-argument based on analysis of modes of agency and assumptions about a particular institutional context.

Compare this logic with a description of the logic of social explanation offered by contemporary rational-choice social theorist James Coleman in Foundations of Social Theory:

A second mode of explanation of the behavior of social systems entails examining processes internal to the system, involving its component parts, or units at a level below that of the system. The prototypical case is that in which the component parts are individuals who are members of the social system. In other cases the component parts may be institutions within the system or subgroups that are part of the system. In all cases the analysis can be seen as moving to a lower level than that of the system, explaining the behavior of the system by recourse to the behavior of its parts. This mode of explanation is not uniquely quantitative or uniquely qualitative, but may be either. (2)

So the logic of Hobbes’s argument is fairly clear; and it is deeply similar to that of institutionalist rational-choice theorists. Thomas Schelling’s title, Micromotives and Macrobehavior, captures the idea in three words: derive descriptions of macro-level social arrangements and behavior from premises concerning individual-level motivation and action.

It is not a profound criticism of Hobbes’s philosophical analysis to quarrel with Hobbes’s specific assumptions about what is possible within the state of nature. And in fact, a number of contemporary political scientists argue that it is possible for men and women to create non-political institutions within the context of what Hobbes calls the state of nature. Coordination and cooperation are indeed possible within a “state of nature”; it is possible to achieve coordination within anarchy. From a sociological point of view, this is really a friendly amendment; it simply adds a further premise about the feasibility of certain kinds of cooperation. So the “cooperation within anarchy” criticism of Hobbes is advanced as a substantive argument about the feasibility of durable social institutions that do not depend upon a central coercive authority. And it depends upon several specific assumptions about the circumstances and mechanisms through which local groups of people can establish self-enforcing forms of cooperation that overcome free-riders and predatorial behavior. It is likely enough that Hobbes would not have been persuaded by this argument; but ultimately it is an empirical question.

Several arguments against Hobbes’s conclusions about the state of nature are especially valuable from this point of view. First, I find Michael Taylor’s arguments in Community, Anarchy and Liberty particularly convincing — essentially, that peasant communities have traditionally found ways of creating and sustaining cooperative institutions and relationships that persist without the force of law to stabilize them. “Contracts” backed by legal systems are not the only way of establishing coordination and cooperation among independent agents. Robert Netting provides relevant examples in Smallholders, Householders: Farm Families and the Ecology of Intensive, Sustainable Agriculture, around traditional forms of labor-sharing and seasonal cooperation. And Elinor Ostrom and her collaborators make similar arguments in their historical and sociological studies of “common property resource regimes” — essentially, stable patterns of cooperation maintained by local voluntary enforcement rather than central legislation (Governing the Commons: The Evolution of Institutions for Collective Action). Ostrom documents dozens of important historical cases where traditional communities have managed fisheries, forests, water resources, and other common properties without having a central state to support these patterns of cooperation and coordination.

But these are empirical and theoretical refinements to a fundamentally coherent model of social explanation that is full-fledged in Hobbes’s work in the mid-seventeenth century: explain aggregate (macro) social outcomes as the result of mechanisms and actions at the level of individual actors.

Cooperatives within markets

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

New forms of collective behavior?

Personal electronic communication and the Internet — have these new technologies changed the game for collective action? Here I am thinking of email and instant messaging, but also cell phones and other personal communications devices, as well as the powerful capacity for dissemination of ideas over the web — has this dense new network of communication and coordination fundamentally changed the ability of groups to pursue their political or social goals?

There is no doubt that these technologies are relevant to collective action. Communication, coordination, and assurance are crucial features of successful collective action — and these are precisely the qualities that current technologies offer. Moreover, the ability for a party or movement to disseminate its programs, ideas, and promises to potential followers is crucial for its ability to gather support; and this is what the Web offers better than any prior form of communications technology.

A couple of data points are relevant.

  • The City of New York has recently subpoenaed the software and records of TXTmob from an MIT graduate student (story). TXTmob is a software tool created more or less on the fly before the party conventions in 2004 to permit demonstrators to use text messages to assemble and disperse quickly and effectively.
  •’s music video of Barak Obama’s “Yes We Can” speeches has been viewed by eight million people since posting on YouTube — generating funds, votes, and passion for the candidate.
  • Cell phone photos and videos have made their way out of Tibet and Burma documenting the crackdowns that have occurred in those places — allowing passionate groups of people outside the area to bring their protests to bear.

So what is genuinely new in this list? Covert cameras and travelers have existed for a long time. Cell phones were available in Gdansk and Teheran during street protests there in the 1970s. And newspapers, magazines, and television and radio have disseminated ideas widely. So, again, is there any reason to think that current communications technologies have changed anything fundamental — either the nature of popular mobilization or the balance of power between the powerful and the numerous?

Two factors are important enough to significantly change the nature of struggles between the powerful and the popular. First is the capacity for coordination among a large group that is created by cell phones and IM devices. A “flash mob” can form and dissolve in minutes. This can make their actions and demonstrations more effective and more difficult to repress. And there is a secondary benefit for the organization — rapid multi-sided communication can help to maintain solidarity and commitment within the group.

Second, the low cost and broad distribution of web-based communication gives a new advantage to the numerous but poor. Swift Boaters required hundreds of thousands of dollars to disseminate their attack ads against candidate Kerry — whereas a six-minute video can reach millions of people on YouTube for free. This tips the balance of power away from the deep pockets towards the creative activist group.

So it seems reasonable to judge that these communications technologies are indeed a significant new element in the field of play of collective action. Groups can self-organize more effectively; they can coordinate their actions; and they can share and reinforce the urgency of their commitments through the use of cell phones, text messages, web pages, and dissemination points such as YouTube.

All this has implications for popular politics within a law-governed democracy. It is less clear that these technologies offer as much leverage for the powerless within an authoritarian state. Combine a powerful authoritarian state’s ability to monitor communications with a perfect readiness to repress activists and dissidents and to control the technology — and you get a situation in which these tools of communication are much less useful for an opposition.

Chaos and coordination in social life

Much social behavior is chaotic, in that it simply emerges from the independent choices of numerous agents during a period of time. It is analogous to Brownian motion — particles in a liquid moving in random motions as a result of innumerable bumps and pushes at the molecular level.

However, there are also many patterns that become visible in social behavior — examples of what I would like to call “coordinated social action”: stock market panic selling, holiday travel, rumors, style, riots, pickpockets in train stations. And we can identify many causes of coordination of individual behavior into larger patterns: commands, regulations, institutions, customs, conventions, collective plans, shared beliefs about social behavior, common sources of information, and common changes in the environment of choice, for example.

What I mean by “coordination” here is the opposite of chaos — something analogous to the coherence of photons associated with the laser effect. In a laser a set of photons are stimulated to fire coherently with each other, resulting in a beam of light that possesses focus and parallel propagation that is different in kind from the scattered diffusion of photons from an incandescent bulb. “Coordinated” social action is a set of actions that possess synchronicity or regularity in their occurrence, resulting in an observable regularity of behavior over time and space. A crucial problem for social inquiry is to provide an explanation of the mechanisms that underlie the instances of coordinated social action that we can identify.

Examples of coordinated social action can easily be offered, and specific mechanisms can be identified that produce these forms of social coordination. An army moves in concert across a landscape (command). People drive on the right in North America (regulation). People send their children to school (institution). People greet each other with a polite “good morning” (custom). Villagers come together to fish as a group in the morning (convention). People discuss a spontaneous demonstration in front of the mayor’s office on Wednesday, and many appear (collective plans). Drivers choose Route 3 rather than Route 1 because they expect a lot of traffic on Route 1 (shared beliefs). People buy a large number of batteries and chocolate, anticipating an approaching hurricane (common environmental change).

These are all mechanisms that create a degree of coordination or synchronization of behavior among independent agents. There seem to be several large categories of mechanisms here: hierarchical coordination (command, regulation); common response coordination (each individually responds to the same signal); communications and network coordination (individuals exchange messages to secure coordination); and strategic coordination (each intends to behave in a way that will be desirable given his/her expectation of actions by others). Might we try out the thought that all forms of regularities of social behavior derive from one or another of these forms of coordination? This thought is probably somewhat too strong a claim. For example, there are probably social regularities that derive from our biology and evolutionary histories — limitations of memory, bonds of intra-group loyalty, kin altruism. But the impulse is a sound one: when we are able to observe patterns of social behavior, there must be a cause of those regularities that works its way through influence on the individual actors who constitute the domain of action. And there are only so many mechanisms that might serve.

These sorts of regularities and mechanisms constitute part of the regularity of social life, but perhaps only part. It may be that they don’t capture other kinds of more “structural” regularities — for example, “racial discrimination increases health disparities,” “feudal political systems are slow to respond to external aggression”, “capitalist market systems are more innovaative than planned economies”. But there is an important aspect of social explanation that centers exactly on this question: what are the social mechanisms that bring a degree of coherence and coordination among the actions of a population of independent actors?

Is network analysis inconsistent with agent-centered explanation?

Quite a few researchers who study dynamic social processes are making use of some of the tools of network analysis. And it is sometimes maintained that this approach is inconsistent with an agent-centered approach to social processes. Some of these researchers take the view that “it’s not what is in the heads of various actors, but rather their relationships in networks that provide the causal underpinnings of social change.” And they sometimes maintain that the actor’s psychological states can’t even be identified in isolation from his/her social relationships. So, once again, explanation cannot rest upon facts about individuals alone. And this sort of finding is thought to cast doubt on methodological individualism in particular, and agent-centered explanatory strategies more generally. (Chuck Tilly and co-authors sometimes take a view along these lines; for example, Doug McAdam, Sidney Tarrow and Charles Tilly, Dynamics of Contention.)

There is something right about the intuition that we can’t ground social explanations on assumptions that are too narrowly confined to features of individual psychology. Individuals are socially constucted and socially developed, and our explanations of social processes need
to reflect this fact. This is why I prefer the phrase “methodological localism” to “methodological individualism.” But both ontologies are agent-centered. So the question remains: does the causal salience of social networks demonstrate that agent-centered accounts are inherently incomplete — or even worse, inherently unworkable (because we can’t even specify the individual agent’s powers and motives independently of his/her networks)?

I don’t think so, for several reasons. First, what is a network but a set of socially constructed agents in concrete relations with each other — communication, coordination, power, subordination, and recognition? The facts about the network are exhausted by a description of the social beliefs of the relevant actors and their material relations to each other.

Second, it is certainly true that an agent’s possibilities for exercising power are a function of facts beyond his/her own psychological characteristics. So Albert, the peasant activist in the tiny Breton village, is much more empowered than his psychological twin across the border in Normandy, by the fact that he alone has strong relationships with leaders in both the Catholic Church and the wine-growers’ guild. His social networks permit him to amplify the scope of action and effect he may attempt. What this means is that Albert’s social networks are a causal component in his ability to wield influence. In this sense it is reasonable as well to attribute causal status to the network and to characterize this standing as being independent of Albert as an individual.

But it remains true that all of the causal powers associated with the network depend on the states of agency of the many persons who make it up. We therefore need to be able to provide an agent-centered account of the network’s causal powers, distributed over the many agents who make it up. We must have “microfoundations” for the claim that the network exercises social influence. If the actors who constitute nodes within the network didn’t have the right mental frameworks, motivational dispositions, or bodies of knowledge, then they would not in fact behave in a way that was sustaining of the network’s social-causal properties.

So, it seems inescapable that, when we say that “Albert’s power as a peasant activist depends upon the social fact that he is part of such-and-so networks” — that we have only uncovered another field of research where more agent-centered research is needed. The network’s social-causal properties must themselves disaggregate onto a set of facts about the agents who constitute the network. The current causal properties of the network and the agents who make it up are the complex and iterative result of many inter-related actions and alliances of prior generations of agents.

And this in turn demonstrates that network analysis is by no means inconsistent with an agent-centered approach to social explanation.

(See “Levels of the social” for more on this subject.)

What kind of social knowledge does a football coach have?

I am struck by the difference between the football game that I watch, as a not-very-involved fan, and the one that the experienced coach or sportswriter sees. For me the game is a series of fast-moving passes, tackles, runs, interceptions, touchdowns, and athletic movements. But it doesn’t make a lot of sense as a whole — either within a single play or over an extended period of the game. Contrast that with the perceptions of the game by an experienced, expert observer. A football expert sees more than the individual movements; he sees an organized play unfolding; a missed assignment; an opportunistic change-of-plan by the quarterback; and a feature of a game plan that can gradually be inferred. In other words, the expert sees the movements of the players as a complex of strategic behavior, skilled performance, planning, and opportunistic adjustment.

What kind of cognition is this? What is the cognitive difference between the expert and non-expert observer? And how does this relate to social knowledge more generally?

Let’s take the last question first. Observing the football game is a lot like observing many other kinds of complex relational social interactions: a political campaign, a disaster involving hundreds of victims and responders, or a riot. The football game involves coordination among an number of purposive actors; a degree of organizational structure; the design and implementation of plans; processes of communication (successful and unsuccessful); and the ability of actors to respond to each other’s movements on the fly. (To change sports — when Larry Bird stole the inbound pass from Isiah Thomas in the last seconds of a celebrated playoff game against the Pistons, his teammate Dennis Johnson was already streaking to the basket in anticipation of the possibility of a stolen pass; he then made an uncontested layup and won the game.) These are common features of complex social interactions. So the football game is a complex, structured, and layered social event that unfolds over time; and the meaning and causes of particular actions and events are obscure to the casual observer, whereas they are apparent to the expert.

Perceiving the football game as a social event unfolding in time requires more than simply registering the movements of the players on the field. It is necessary to frame these movements within an apperception of the strategies and intentions that lie behind the actions: the attempt to deceive the opponent (fast footwork, the hidden ball trick); the sudden break to the center of the field by the receiver; the quarterback’s effort to buy time until a receiver becomes open. We need to have a basis for saying “what they are doing” that goes beyond a description of the movements and steps taken. And for the expert, a rich framework of understandings of actions, intentions, and strategies is brought to the observation of the particular play. The expert is able to place the actions of the quarterback, the left tackle, and the three receivers into a context of understandable actions and choices; and he is able to discern when something has gone wrong (receiver turned left rather than right, left tackle missed a block, quarterback panicked and threw the ball away …).

I want to suggest that the expert’s perception of the play on the field is a complex but veridical observation of a concrete relational social phenomenon; that it is more akin to perception than to theory formation; and that it reflects a complicated cognitive process through which the expert assembles a lot of knowledge about the game, about the habits and practices of players, about common strategies and tactics — and that all of this gets sized up in a quick apperception of the specific play. Finally, I want to suggest that this apperception is enormously richer than the crude empirical observations that the non-expert makes: “the center seems to have slipped, the pass was complete”.

If this analysis of the situation of the two observers — expert and duffer — is plausible, it has important implications for the knowledge that we have of other, less trivial forms of social interaction. Does the experienced labor organizer have a similar ability to size up a crowded shop floor and see where the stress points are, and who the likely leaders are? Does a field officer in the infantry have the ability to mentally organize the flow of the battle through the fog of war and arrive at a perception of how things are going — and what might work as a tactic for the next day? Does the ethnographer have the ability to put together the social cues that permit him or her to conclude that “there is some angry disagreement among members of the village today”? In each case I suspect that there is a good basis for saying, “yes, this is how observation of complex social situations goes for the expert observer.” And this implies that there is a kind of social knowledge that is analogous to perception even though it involves a very great amount of cognitive construction.

Power: social movements

Social movements usually have to do with change rather than persistence. And they usually emerge from “under-class” groups who lack meaningful access to other official and institutionalized means of power. They are among the “weapons of the weak”, and their effectiveness usually turns on the ability of a sub-population to mobilize in collective action with determination and courage. Examples include the American Civil Rights movement, the use of strikes and boycotts by coal miners in the Ruhr after World War I, and the Solidarity Movement in Poland in the 1970s.

The question here is, what are the scope, limits, and mechanisms of social power wielded through social movements? Is it possible for a social movement to cause change in basic structures, policies, and distributions of wealth and power in society? (I am not thinking primarily here of revolutionary movements, but rather more prosaic struggles for improvement of some set of conditions for the under-group.)

The question arises because the terms of the problem essentially raise a social contradiction: a numerous but powerless group, advocating for a change of structure or distribution that harms the interests of the powerful, aligned against the most powerful forces in society. It would seem that this contest is inherently determined by the disproportion of powers held by the social actors. And yet we can provide memorable examples of success. So the question is, how does this work?

The first factor that provides an obvious source of potential power for the under-class group, is the size and functional role of the group in society. Several of the most obvious tactics for a social movement depend on this structural fact — the strike, boycott, and mass demonstration. By mobilizing, the group can interfere with the smooth workings of society, compelling other parties to negotiate. And it can demonstrate its broad, mass-based support.

But the obstacles to these mass-based tactics are severe – classic collective action problems, problems of coordination and communication, and the need for competent organizations and leaders. And the tactics available to the powerful (the state, police, mine owners) are imposing: repression and intimidation, divide and conquer, co-optation, control of media, and a greater ability to wait out the struggle.

Besides mass mobilization, there is the tactic of broadening the movement through alliances. This strategy requires “changing consciousness” in the broader society by the actions of the under-class group. The group (primarily through its organizations and leaders) can strive to broaden the base of its movement through alliances with other like-minded groups and with the general public. And this depends upon successful communication — setting the terms of the struggle in such a way that it aligns with the moral values and material interests of other groups.

Once again, the tactical options and advantages residing with the powerful are substantial. The powerful control the media; they have an advantage in setting the agenda; and they have an extensive ability to co-opt potential allies of the popular movement (side deals, special accommodations, playing off divisions within the mass population). But not all the face cards rest with the powerful.

So here we have several kinds of tactics for the social movement — direct mass mobilization, broadening of alliances, and a deliberate campaign to capture the moral discourse for the public. But let’s push forward and consider what comes next. Suppose there is a social constituency for an important structural change. Suppose this group is fairly strongly mobilized (in terms of the engagement of members), that it has competent organization and leadership, and that its members collectively play a significant role in the economy. Let us further suppose that the group has now engaged in all the tactics above — large peaceful demonstrations in several cities, a few successful boycotts, and a successful communications campaign that has strengthened public support for the movement. Now what, in a constitutional democracy? (The analysis will look different within a dictatorship — for example, the situation of labor unions in pre-war Nazi Germany).

It isn’t implausible to conjecture that this scenario results in legislative action in support of the program. The public visibility and popularity of the struggle seem to lead to the inference that voters care about the issue, and legislators listen. So the social movement has won the day and has secured its objective. It has won the battle. But has it won the war — is the change of policy a genuine and enduring change of structure in favor of the under-class? And here we can speculate again: the long, slow “tectonics” of power and privilege will turn back these gains in the future. The popular coalition cannot sustain its vigilance and mobilization forever; whereas the interests and strategic advantages of the powerful persist like great tectonic plates.

So on this line of thought, we can come to a provisional assessment of the causal powers of social movements in democracies: they have a fighting chance of securing tactical victories, but the prospects for achieving enduring structural change seem more remote. Their ability to change the rules of the game in a sustainable way seems limited in the face of entrenched and enduring interests opposed to such a change.

(Perhaps the Civil Rights movement is the rare exception to this statement. The rules of the game have plainly changed since 1953 with respect to race relations in the US — in spite of the pressing need for further transformation.)

(There is of course a huge literature on social movements. A few interesting sources are Charles Tilly, Social Movements, 1768-2004, Gary Marx and Douglas McAdam, Collective Behavior And Social Movements: Process and Structure, Peter Ackerman, Strategic Nonviolent Conflict: The Dynamics of People Power in the Twentieth Century, and James Scott, Weapons of the Weak: Everyday Forms of Peasant Resistance.)

%d bloggers like this: