How professionals think

photo: Morris Engel, Dock Workers 1947 (link)

The topic of how actors arrive at their choices and behavior has come up a number of times here. The rational choice model has been considered (link), and other, more pragmatist approaches to agency have been considered as well (link). Finally, a number of posts have considered the idea of character as a key determinant of action (link).

A team of distinguished experimental economists have recently provided a different perspective from any of these on the subject of agency and action. Alain Cohn, Ernst Fehr, and Michel André Maréchal recently published a provocative piece in Nature that appears to show that a certain segment of white-collar professionals (bankers) make very different decisions about their actions depending on the “frame” within which they deliberate (link). If they are thinking within the everyday frame of personal life and leisure, their actions are as honest as anyone else’s. But if they are prompted to think within the frame of their professional environment, their actions become substantially less honest. That professional environment is the large international bank.

Here is the abstract to their paper in Nature:

Trust in others’ honesty is a key component of the long-term performance of firms, industries, and even whole countries. However, in recent years, numerous scandals involving fraud have undermined confidence in the financial industry. Contemporary commentators have attributed these scandals to the financial sector’s business culture, but no scientific evidence supports this claim. Here we show that employees of a large, international bank behave, on average, honestly in a control condition. However, when their professional identity as bank employees is rendered salient, a significant proportion of them become dishonest. This effect is specific to bank employees because control experiments with employees from other industries and with students show that they do not become more dishonest when their professional identity or bank-related items are rendered salient. Our results thus suggest that the prevailing business culture in the banking industry weakens and undermines the honesty norm, implying that measures to re-establish an honest culture are very important.

Their research is an exercise within experimental economics. The methodology and findings are described in a brief article in Science Daily (link):

The scientists recruited approximately 200 bank employees, 128 from a large international bank and 80 from other banks. Each person was then randomly assigned to one of two experimental conditions. In the experimental group, the participants were reminded of their occupational role and the associated behavioral norms with appropriate questions. In contrast, the subjects in the control group were reminded of their non-occupational role in their leisure time and the associated norms. Subsequently, all participants completed a task that would allow them to increase their income by up to two hundred US dollars if they behaved dishonestly. The result was that bank employees in the experimental group, where their occupational role in the banking sector was made salient, behaved significantly more dishonestly. 

A very similar study was then conducted with employees from various other industries. In this case as well, either the employees’ occupational roles or those associated with leisure time were activated. Unlike the bankers, however, the employees in these other industries were not more dishonest when reminded of their occupational role. “Our results suggest that the social norms in the banking sector tend to be more lenient towards dishonest behavior and thus contribute to the reputational loss in the industry,” says Michel Maréchal, Professor for Experimental Economic Research at the University of Zurich.

The test activity is a self-reported series of coin flips. Participants are asked to flip a coin a number of times and are informed that if they report more successes than average for the group, they will receive a cash reward. Here are graphs that capture the central findings of the study:

The left panel represents the distribution of successful coin tosses reported by the control group, while the right panel reports the average number of successes reported by bank employees in bank-salient conditions. The right panel is visibly skewed to the right in comparison to the control group, which indicates that individuals in the professional-identity group misrepresented their success rate more frequently than the control group. They were less honest within the terms of the experiment.

This is a striking set of findings for a number of reasons. First, it strongly suggests that there are strong markers and incentives within the social environment of the bank that lead its employees to behave in dishonest ways. There is something about working in and around a financial institution that appears to provoke dishonesty. This sounds like a “culture of workplace” kind of effect. It suggests perhaps that bankers are acculturated over an extended period of experience to possess traits of character and behavior that lead them to behave dishonestly.

But second, the data seem to refute the “culture and character” interpretation. The same set of experiments supports the finding that when these same individuals approach the coin-tossing task with a mental framework oriented towards everyday personal life, their choices revert to the generally honest behavior of the broader population. In other words, these findings do not support the idea that banking either recruits or creates dishonest people. Rather, the findings seem to imply that banking encourages dishonest behavior within the specific framework of banking business and only while the workplace signals are salient.

This research has gained broad exposure in the past several weeks because of its possible relevance to the past thirty years of bank fraud and financial crisis that we have experienced. But really it seems more interesting for the theoretical insight it provides into the difficult topic of agency: how do people think about the practical issues that confront them? How do they decide what to do?

These findings suggest that we should explore further the notion that actors possess distinct mental frames that they can take up or put aside readily, and that lead to very different kinds of behavior when confronting the same kinds of problems. Further, we should consider the possibility that these frames are highly portable and contingent: the actor can be led to choose one frame or the other, with important behavioral consequences. This finding seems to point in the same direction as ideas advanced by Kahneman and Tversky in much of their work together, including Judgment under Uncertainty: Heuristics and Biases.

(I chose the photo of dock workers above to raise the idea that workplaces may have many different configurations of behavior that they create through signals and incentives. This may serve once again to suggest that Cohn, Fehr and Marechal’s work may lead some researchers to examine other workplaces as well. Are policemen incentivized towards aggressiveness? Are dock workers incentivized towards solidarity? Are doctors incentivized towards interpersonal insensitivity?)

Culture change within an organization

1960-OfficeIt is often said that culture change within an organization or workplace is difficult — perhaps the most difficult part of trying to reform an organization. What do we mean by this? And why is this so difficult?

The daily workings of an organization depend on the activities and behavior of the people who make it up (and those with whom it interacts). People have habits, expectations, ways of perceiving social situations, and behavioral dispositions in a range of stylized circumstances. Their habitual modes of behavior may conform better or worse to the official rules and expectations of behavior in the performance of their roles. If there is a practice of stretching the lunch hour, for example, absenteeism at 2:00 may be a significant drag on efficient work processes. As Crozier and Friedberg note in Actors and Systems: The Politics of Collective Action, individuals within organizations are not robots programmed by the rules of the organization; they are willful and strategic actors who interact with each other and with the rules of the organization in complex and sometimes non-conformist ways (link). Or in other words, the culture of the workforce — the habits, practices, and ways of thinking of the participants — can significantly interfere with the intended workings of the organization.

Moreover, these habits and expectations are often mutually reinforcing. The fact that A, B, and C have certain ways of conducting their work often reinforces the similar behaviors of D. For example, the Baltimore police detectives in The Wire have fairly specific habits and expectations when it comes to encounters with the corner boys in the drug trade — a lot of use of force, a harsh tone of voice, a ready display of disrespect. These habits of behavior are infectious; new recruits model the behavior of their elders, and soon they are just as violent and disrespectful as the previous generation. So a police commander who wants to reform the style of policing in his district is faced with a difficult problem: changing policing means changing behavior of individual police on the street, but the tools available to the commander to bring about these changes are very limited. So the habits persist in spite of orders, regulations, briefings, and seminars.

Within a Fordist understanding of organizations, these conflicts between habits of behavior and the official expectations of the organization can be resolved through supervision: non-conformist behavior can be identified and penalized. Violent detectives can be punished or dismissed; line workers who break the rules can be fined; call center workers can be disciplined when they deviate from their scripts. But there are at least two problems with this approach. One is the cost of close supervision. It isn’t realistic to imagine having enough supervisors to detect a high percentage of bad behavior by workers. And the second is the nature of much of the work within modern organizations, which depend on creating a space of autonomy and independence for the worker.  An architect, surgeon, or professor doesn’t do his or her best work within a regime of time clocks, keystroke loggers, and penalties.

So the problem of culture change within a modern organization comes down to something like this. Organizations involving the productive activities of well educated specialists need to rely on a high level of self-motivation and self-direction on the part of its workers. Therefore modern organizations need to encourage high level contributions to the organization’s goals through means other than close supervision and a code of penalties and rewards. This means finding ways of aligning the personal values of the worker with the goals and processes of the organization. The organization needs to create an environment of development and work in which the individual worker wants to achieve the key goals of the organization — rather than disregarding those goals to pursue his/her own agenda in the workplace. In turn this means persuading the worker of some basic realities about the organization: that it is fair towards all workers, that the goals of the organization are worth achieving, and that the managers of the organization are talented and capable.

All is well if these assumptions about the organization are widely shared by workers and managers. If, on the other hand, there is a high level of cynicism and disaffection among workers or a high level of self-serving among managers, it is likely that the performance of both workers and managers will deviate from the organization’s expectations of how they will behave. A culture of shirking, self serving, and “easy riding” will undermine the effectiveness of the organization. The problem of culture change is the problem of changing those assumptions and habits on the part of workers and managers.

There seem to be a few fairly obvious ways of trying to improve the culture of a given organization. One is to insist on a high degree of transparency in the organization so that workers and managers can come to have confidence in the basic fairness of the workplace. A second is to find ways of communicating the value of the work being done by the organization in a way that is clear and motivating for workers and managers. A third is to be effective at expressing the respect and appreciation that the organization has for the workers. And a final means is to recruit well when filling open positions, mindful of the intangible characteristics of behavior that the organization needs to proliferate. Will this candidate adapt willingly to expectations about cooperation and respect within the workplace? Will that candidate be able to embrace the values and purposes of the organization? Does that candidate have prior experience that permits us to judge that he/she will contribute strongly and willingly to the tasks of the organization?

Making PCR: A Story of Biotechnology is Paul Rabinow’s ethnography of Cerbus, the laboratory where the genetic research tool PCR was invented. The study provides a good example of how studies of professional workplaces can shed light on the outcomes of innovation and effectiveness that we want to achieve.

Social hierarchy and popular culture

There is some interesting work being done on the sociology of taste these days.  I’m thinking specifically of a literature that has developed around the idea of “omnivorousness” and social status.  Richard Peterson initiated much of this discussion in 1992 with an article in Poetics entitled “Understanding Audience Segmentation: From Elite and Mass to Omnivore and Univore” (link).

Between World Wars I and II it was widely accepted in intellectual circles that the emerging mass media were  spawning an equivalent mass audience, an audience that was unthinking, herd-like, and inherently passive yet easily swayed by skilled political and commercial demagogues. (243)

But, Peterson claims, empirical research in communications does not bear this out; instead, the audience has differentiated into multiple audiences.  The simple model of a “highbrow discerning elite with well-refined tastes and … an ignorant and stimulus-seeking mass” (244) has been discredited. In other words, the simple theory of status that postulates that elites can be identified by a set of uniform refined cultural tastes does not hold up.

The hallmark of those at the top of the hierarchy according to the received elite-to-mass theory is patronizing the fine arts, displaying good manners, wearing the correct cut of clothes, using proper speech, maintaining membership in the ‘better’ churches, philanthropic organizations and social clubs, and especially for the women of the class, cultivating all of the attendant social graces. (245)

But, according to Peterson, this assumption can be tested, and it turns out to be incorrect. Peterson and other collaborators (Albert Simkus in particular) used social data sets to examine the distribution of preferred music styles across occupational groups arranged from high status to low status.  Their status hierarchy of occupational groups ranges from “higher cultural” — architects, lawyers, clergymen, and academics, to farm laborers.  And the musical genres include a list of 10 types of music, ranging from classical to country. Here is one of the central findings:

The data presented in table 4 do not show this clear pattern of aesthetic exclusivity. Indeed, the occupational groups at the top are more likely to be high on liking these non-elite forms while the occupational groups at the bottom are likely to be low on their rate of liking them. Only one category of music, country and western, fits the predicted pattern, while three groups, mood music, big band, and barber shop music, show just the opposite of the predicted ranking. (249)


Based on these findings, Peterson recommends junking the “elite culture-mass culture” distinction in favor of an “omnivore-univore” distinction.  There is indeed a significant difference in the cultural tastes of high-status and low-status people; but it doesn’t correspond to the elite-mass distinction previously postulated.

Peterson and Kern’s “Changing Highbrow Taste: From Snob to Omnivore” (ASR 1996, link) carries this line of thinking forward.  Here is how Peterson and Kern begin their article:

Not only are high-status Americans more likely than others to consume fine arts, but, according to Peterson and Simkus (1992), they are are also more likely to be involved in a wide range of low-status activities.  This finding … flies in the face of years of historical research showing that high-status persons shun cultural expressions that are not seen as elevated…. In making sense of this contradiction, Peterson and Simkus (1992) suggest that a historical shift from highbrow snob to omnivore is taking place. (900)

“Snob” is defined as a person who does not like a single form of lowbrow or middlebrow activity, and “omnivore” is open to at least one such activity.  Here are the lowbrow activities they track: country music, bluegrass, gospel, rock, and blues (901), and the defining highbrow arts activities they select are classical music and opera.  Their empirical finding is that highbrows have increased their “omnivorousness” by about half a genre in a ten-year period of time from 1982 to 1992, from 1.74 lowbrow genres to 2.23 lowbrow genres (902).

They ask the natural question, what are some of the causes of this marked change during these years?  And they put forward five factors; “in concluding we speculatively suggest five linked factors that may contribute to the shifting grounds of status-group politics” (905). They cite structural changes in society (broader education and exposure to the media, for example); value changes (declining levels of racial exclusion and stereotype); art-world changes (decline of elitist theories of art, rising appreciation of non-elite art forms); generational politics (the rock’n’roll generation); and status-group politics (gentrification of “lower-class” artistic forms). 

This research is interesting in several ways.  First, it is a statistically sophisticated attempt to observe the distribution of cultural tastes across a population and across time. The statistical analyses in the two studies allow Peterson and his collaborators to sort through issues about within-cohort and across-cohort taste changes. So this permits a more nuanced observation of a shifting social reality. And second, it arrives at what appears to be a statistically sound finding — that highbrows were broadening their cultural tastes during the decade observed.  Highbrows became less snobbish.

So this literature provides some tools for observing and measuring the prevalence and shifts of things that seem highly subjective — musical tastes, in this instance.  And it suggests some ways of formulating and evaluating hypotheses about the factors that explain the observed distributions and changes.

This literature pays explicit homage to Bourdieu’s theorizing about taste in his Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste, originally published in 1979 in French.  But the thrust of Bourdieu’s work seems to be quite different from Peterson’s. Bourdieu does indeed seem to believe that there are some very specific cultural markers that identify the elite class in society. He finds that one social group, the petite bourgeoisie, is indeed “omnivorous” in at least one sense: “Uncertain of their classifications, divided between the tastes they incline to and the tastes they aspire to, the petit bourgeois are condemned to disparate choices … ; and this is seen as much in their preferences in music or painting as in their everyday choices” (326).  But this statement seems to reproduce the elite-mass paradigm that Peterson rejects, in that it seems to position the tastes of the petit bourgeoisie intermediate between elite and mass tastes. 

Here is a fascinating and complex graph Bourdieu provides mapping cultural items against occupational groups (higher-ed teachers, engineers, secondary teachers, industrial employers, etc.).

Bourdieu’s “field”

image: Emile Zola, 1902


How can sociology treat “culture” as an object of study and as an influence on other sociological processes? This is, of course, two separate questions. First, internally, is it possible to treat philosophy or literature as an embedded sociological process (a point raised by Jean-Louis Fabiani in his treatment of French philosophy (link))?  Can we use the apparatus to pull apart the sociology of the fashion industry?

And second, externally, can we give a rigorous and meaningful interpretation of “bringing culture back in” — conceptualizing the ways that thought, experience, and the institutions and mental realities of culture impact other large social processes — e.g. the rise of fascism (link)?

The problem here is to find ways of getting inside “culture” and decomposing it as a set of social, material, and semiotic practices. We need an account of some of the culture mechanisms through which voices develop, acquire validation, and are retransmitted. And we need concrete accounts of how this culture activity influences other socially important processes. Culture cannot be thought of as a monolith if we are to explain its development and trace out its historical influences; rather, we need something like an account of the microfoundations of culture.

One of the fertile voices on this question is that of Pierre Bourdieu.  His core contribution is the idea of cultural life and production being situated in a “field.” So what does Bourdieu mean by a field? Is this concept genuinely useful when we aim at providing a sociology of a literary tradition or a body of ideas like “cultural despair”?

One place where Bourdieu provides extensive analysis and application of this construct is in a collection published in 1993, The Field of Cultural Production, and especially in the title chapter, originally published in 1983. Here Bourdieu is primarily interested in literature and art, but it seems that the approach can be applied fruitfully to a wide range of cultural phenomena, including American conservativism and early twentieth century German colonialism.  (George Steinmetz makes extensive use of this concept of the field in his analysis of the causes of specific features of German colonial regimes; The Devil’s Handwriting: Precoloniality and the German Colonial State in Qingdao, Samoa, and Southwest Africa.)

The heart of Bourdieu’s approach is “relationality” — the idea that cultural production and its products are situated and constituted in terms of a number of processes and social realities. Cultural products and producers are located within “a space of positions and position-takings” (30) that constitute a set of objective relations.

The space of literary or artistic position-takings, i.e. the structured set of the manifestations of the social agents involved in’ the field — literary or artistic works, of course, but also political acts or pronouncements, manifestos or polemics, etc. — is inseparable from the space of literary or artistic positions defined by possession of a determinate quantity of specific capital (recognition) and, at the same time, by occupation of a determinate position in the structure of the distribution of this specific capital. The literary or artistic field is a field of forces, but it is also a field of struggles tending to transform or conserve this field of forces. (30)

This description highlights another characteristic feature of Bourdieu’s approach to social life — an intimate intermixture of objective and subjective factors, or of structure and agency.  (This intermixture is also fundamental to Bourdieu’s theory of practice in Outline of a Theory of Practice.)  Bourdieu typically wants to help us understand a sociological whole as a set of “doings” within “structures and powers.”  The field of the French novel in the 1890s established a set of objective circumstances to which the novelist was forced to adapt; but it also created opportunities for strategy and struggle for aspiring novelists.  This is captured in the final sentence of the passage: a “field of forces” but also a “field of struggles”.  And in fact, Emile Zola, pictured above, did much to redefine aspects of that field, both in ideas and in material institutions.

Fundamental to Bourdieu’s view is that we can’t understand the work of art or literature (or philosophy or science, by implication) purely in reference to itself.  Rather, it is necessary to situate the work in terms of other points of reference in meaning and practice. So he writes that we can’t understand the history of philosophy as a grand summit conference among the great philosophers (32); instead, it is necessary to situate Descartes within his specific intellectual and practical context, and likewise Leibniz. And the meaning of the work changes as its points of reference shift. “It follows from this, for example, that a position-taking changes, even when the position remains identical, whenever there is change in the universe of options that are simultaneously offered for producers and consumers to choose from.  The meaning of a work (artistic, literary, philosophical, etc.) changes automatically with each change in the field within which it is situated for the spectator or reader” (30).

This fact of relationality and embeddedness raises serious issues of interpretation for later readers:

One of the major difficulties of the social history of philosophy, art or literature is that it has to reconstruct these spaces of original possibles which, because they were part of the self-evident givens of the situation, remained unremarked and are therefore unlikely to be mentioned in contemporary accounts, chronicles or memoirs. (31)

Here is how Bourdieu describes the intellectual field within which philosophy proceeds in a time and place:

In fact, what circulates between contemporary philosophers, or those of different epochs, are not only canonical texts, but a whole philosophical doxa carried along by intellectual rumour — labels of schools, truncated quotations, functioning as slogans in celebration or polemics — by academic routine and perhaps above all by school manuals (an unmentionable reference), which perhaps do more than anything else to constitute the ‘common sense’ of an intellectual generation. (32)

This background information is not merely semiotic; it is institutional and material as well.  It includes “information about institutions — e.g. academies, journals, magazines, galleries, publishers, etc. — and about persons, their relationships, liaisons and quarrels, information about the ideas and problems which are ‘in the air’ and circulate orally in gossip and rumour” (32).  So the literary product is created by the author; but also by the field of knowledge and institutions into which it is offered.

Another duality that Bourdieu rejects is that of internal versus external readings of a work of literature or art.  We can approach the work of art from both perspectives — the qualities of the work, and the social embeddedness that its production and reception reveal.

In defining the literary and artistic field as, inseparably, a field of positions and a field of position-takings we also escape from the usual dilemma of internal (‘tautegorical’) reading of the work (taken in isolation or within the system of works to which it belongs) and external (or ‘allegorical’) analysis, i.e. analysis of the social conditions of production of the producers and consumers which is based on the — generally tacit — hypothesis of the spontaneous correspondence or deliberate matching of production to demand or commissions. (34)

A key aspect of Bourdieu’s conception of a field of cultural production is the material facts of power and capital.  Capital here refers to the variety of resources, tangible and intangible, through which a writer or artist can further his/her artistic aspirations and achieve “success” in the field (“book sales, number of theatrical performances, etc. or honours, appointments, etc.” (38)).  And power in the cultural field is “heteronomous” — it is both internal to the institutions of the culture field and external, through the influence of the surrounding field of power within which the culture field is located.  Here is an intriguing diagram that Bourdieu introduces to represent the complex location of art activity within the broader field of social power and the market.


These comments give us a better idea of what a “field” encompasses.  It is a zone of social activity in which there are “creators” who are intent on creating a certain kind of cultural product.  The product is defined, in part, by the expectations and values of the audience — not simply the creator.  The audience is multiple, from specialist connoisseurs to the mass public.  And the product is supported and filtered by a range of overlapping social institutions — galleries, academies, journals, reviews, newspapers, universities, patrons, sources of funding, and the market for works of “culture.”  It is also important to observe that we could have begun this inventory of components at any point; the creator does not define the field any more than the critic, the audience, or the marketplace.

I see some similarities between Bourdieu’s conception of a field and the broad ideas of paradigm and research tradition in the history and sociology of science. Both ideas encompass a range of different kinds of things — laboratories, journals, audiences, critics, and writers and scientists. Here Lakatos and Kuhn are relevant, but so are Bruno Latour and Wiebe Bijker. In each case there is some notion of rules of assessment — explicit or tacit. And in each case we are given breadth enough to consider the social “determinants” of the cultural product at one end — economy, institutions of training and criticism — and some notion of the relative autonomy of the text or object at the other (truth and warrant, beauty and impact).

The point mentioned above about the validity and compatibility of both internal and external analysis of a work of art is equally important in the sociology of science: to identify some of the social conditions surrounding the process of scientific research does not mean that we cannot arrive at judgments of truth and warrant for the products of scientific research. (This point has come up previously in a discussion of Robert Merton’s sociology of science (link).)

This is a very incomplete analysis of Bourdieu’s concept of the field; but it should give an idea of the leverage that Bourdieu provides in framing a scheme of analysis for culture and ideas as concrete sociological factors and objects of study.  Certainly Bourdieu’s writings on these subjects — especially in The Field of Cultural Production — repay close reading by sociologists interested in broadening their frameworks for thinking about culture.  (Jeremy Lane’s Pierre Bourdieu: A Critical Introduction is a good introduction to Bourdieu’s sociology, though it doesn’t give much attention to this particular topic.)


Knowing the population

At any given time there are huge areas of the unknown when it comes to the question, what do various members of our society care about? We have opinion research tools, of course. But we don’t really have good answers to any of these questions:

  • How do West Bloomfield teenagers think about their futures?
  • Why do Kenyan truck drivers refrain from the most basic AIDS-prevention techniques?
  • Are skateboarders disaffected from mainstream society?
  • What does it mean when affluent suburban white kids wear hiphop gear?
  • What do laid-off auto workers think about higher education for themselves?
  • How do Mexican gang killers feel about their victims?

These questions fall in the general area of qualitative knowledge of social actors and groups. We want to know in some detail about the subjectivity of the members of these groups — how they think, what they value, how they perceive the world.  There can be a quantitative side as well — once we have information about some people in a group we can ask about the distribution of these characteristics over the group.

But here is the key question at the moment: where within the disciplines of the social sciences does inquiry into these questions fall?  And the simple answer is, none of them and parts of all of them. Ethnography is relevant; but anthropologists usually seem to have larger theoretical apples to peel. Political scientists are interested in a small subset of these questions — basically, they are interested in measuring political attitudes and preferences.  And some branches of sociology have had an interest in this kind of concrete social description — for example, Erving Goffman; but at present this kind of detailed inquiry into the lived experience of particular individuals and groups doesn’t have much prestige in the field. It is hard to see AJS publishing a descriptive study of attitudes and values of West Bloomfield teenagers.

So two things seem to be true. First, there is an important kind of knowledge that we need to have in order to adequately understand society. And second, there doesn’t seem to be a discipline in the social sciences that takes on this challenge.

So how should we think about the subjective experience and mental frameworks of a given social group?  A group is defined by some set of characteristics — people from a certain region (“midwesterners”), people with a certain occupation (“insurance adjustors”), people with a certain national origin (“Irish-Americans”), people from a particular age cohort (Generation X), or people with a certain religion or value scheme (“Protestants,” “Populists”).  So by construction, members of the group share a few characteristics in common — the “nominal” characteristics of the group.  But we also know that almost every group displays a great range of diversity with respect to other characteristics — lifestyle, political attitudes, moral commitments, …  So how should we think about the problem of coming to better understand the distinctive features of consciousness as well as the range of diversity and similarity among members of the group?  This raises a number of interesting questions.  For example:

  • Are there similarities that members of this group possess over and above the nominal characteristics of the group?  Is there something distinctive about the experience and mentality of Gen X or “The Greatest Generation”?
  • Are some groups more diverse than others with respect to a given set of social characteristics?
  • Is it possible to explain some of the patterns of similarity that are discovered among members of the group?  

Suppose we are interested in K-12 school teachers: what makes them choose this work, what are some of the social backgrounds from which they emerge, how do they feel about their work, are they idealistic or jaded in their work?  How might we approach a subject like this from the point of view of social science research?

One possibility is to approach the task through survey research.  We might design a survey intended to measure attitudes, background, degree of commitment, etc.  The results of the survey can be presented as a set of descriptive statistics for each question, with standard deviations.  We might have a theory of how the questions cluster, and we might classify individuals into sub-groups sharing a cluster of properties.  Further, we might try to identify differences that exist among sub-populations (by race, age, or occupational group, let us say).  And we would probably want to see whether there are interesting correlations among some of the recorded variables.
Another possibility is to approach the task through interviews and qualitative research.  Here the investigator will work with a smaller number of cases; but he/she will get to know individuals well, and will come to see the nuance and detail of the multiple experiences that school teachers have of their work.  Here we might imagine several different kinds of findings:

“There is no typical school teacher; rather, each has a different profile.” This researcher may not be able to summarize or analyze his/her findings, but rather needs to provide a descriptive narrative of a series of cases.  This is perhaps the kind of knowledge that Studs Terkel produces (link).  

Or: “A small set of common themes emerge from a number of the cases, so we can begin to classify teachers into a small set of similar groups.”

It is also possible to code and aggregate the results of this sort of qualitative research.  This may permit us to discover that there are some broad groupings among the population surveyed.  We might find that there are fairly visible groupings among school teachers, with similar attitudes and commitments among individuals of group A that distinguish them sharply from individuals of group B.  (For example: “Inner city teachers differ significantly from suburban teachers;” “teachers in their 50s differ significantly from teachers in their 30s;” “white and black teacher differ significantly from each other.”)  The researcher may then try to arrive at hypotheses about why the A’s are so different from the B’s: educational background, experience within a certain industry, gender or race characteristics, cohort-specific experiences, differences in the work-place environment.  This represents a slide from qualitative inquiry to quantitative analysis; ethnographic and individual-level investigation is aggregated into analytical categories.  Here the sociologically interesting question is that of social causation: what are the social influences that differently affected the two populations?
The key point here is that individuals have a rather specific socially constituted subjectivity — a set of mental frameworks, concepts, modes of thinking, emotions, values, and aversions — that distinguishes them from others.  This subjective framework provides a basis for their actions, choices, and preferences.  We also speculate, often, that there are important similarities in these frameworks within groups in dimensions that distinguish this group from that group.  It appears to be a fundamentally important task for the social sciences, to have means of investigating these empirical realities.  These questions are important, most fundamentally, because they give an indication of why people behave as they do.  And yet the existing disciplines have little interest in pursuing these types of questions.

Essentializing race?

PBS is running a program this month called “Faces of America” (link), hosted by distinguished African-American Studies professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr.  The program focuses on a handful of celebrity guests, a genetic profile for each, and then a variety of “surprising” discoveries about the genealogies of various of the guests.

What I found surprising and jarring in viewing Episode 3 is the degree of essentialism about race the script seems to presuppose.  Gates’s script seems to suggest that one’s racial or ethnic identity is a function of one’s genotype and one’s ancestral (though unknown) history.  At one point Professor Gates has a discussion with Kristi Yamaguchi, the Japanese figure skater.  Pointing out that her genetic profile indicates descent from a particular genetic group that originated in far northern Asia some hundred thousand years ago, he makes a joke to the effect that perhaps her skating talent is a reflection of her ancestry in an extremely cold climate.  It’s a joke, of course; but it is a telling one.  It conveys the idea that genes make the person; that one’s biological ancestry constitutes one’s race or ancestry and one’s current characteristics.

What is surprising about this biological essentialism is the fact that most scholars who think deeply about race have decisively concluded that race is not a biological category but a cultural one.  A person’s race is socially constructed, deriving from the cultural communities in which he/she was formed and not primarily from his/her genotype or biological ancestry.  Population geneticists find that there is as much genetic variation within a “racial” group as across racial groups; which seems to imply directly that the race of each group is not determined by the genetic profile of the group.  Instead, racial or ethnic identity is created by the cultural environment in which one forms his/her most basic psychological dispositions.

The American Anthropological Association has had good reason to think deeply and critically about the concept of “race.”  In 1998 the AAA released a careful statement on race.  Here are a few specific claims included in the statement:

In the United States both scholars and the general public have been conditioned to viewing human races as natural and separate divisions within the human species based on visible physical differences. With the vast expansion of scientific knowledge in this century, however, it has become clear that human populations are not unambiguous, clearly demarcated, biologically distinct groups. Evidence from the analysis of genetics (e.g., DNA) indicates that most physical variation, about 94%, lies within so-called racial groups. Conventional geographic “racial” groupings differ from one another only in about 6% of their genes. This means that there is greater variation within “racial” groups than between them. In neighboring populations there is much overlapping of genes and their phenotypic (physical) expressions. Throughout history whenever different groups have come into contact, they have interbred. The continued sharing of genetic materials has maintained all of humankind as a single species. 

At the end of the 20th century, we now understand that human cultural behavior is learned, conditioned into infants beginning at birth, and always subject to modification. No human is born with a built-in culture or language. Our temperaments, dispositions, and personalities, regardless of genetic propensities, are developed within sets of meanings and values that we call “culture.” Studies of infant and early childhood learning and behavior attest to the reality of our cultures in forming who we are.

It is a basic tenet of anthropological knowledge that all normal human beings have the capacity to learn any cultural behavior. The American experience with immigrants from hundreds of different language and cultural backgrounds who have acquired some version of American culture traits and behavior is the clearest evidence of this fact. Moreover, people of all physical variations have learned different cultural behaviors and continue to do so as modern transportation moves millions of immigrants around the world. 

So fundamentally, my reaction to the “Faces of America” script is that it seriously misrepresents the social reality of race and ethnicity, implying that identity follows from biology.  Now, of course Henry Louis Gates, Jr. is perfectly well aware of this view of the status of the category of race; he is in fact one of the country’s leading thinkers on this subject.  So it is surprising that he would have permitted the simplistic version of the facts of race, ethnicity, and ancestry that the series conveys.

The most convincing voice I heard in the program was a statement by Ojibwe novelist Louise Erdrich who declined to undergo the genetic screening for the program.  Her explanation of her thinking, roughly, was that her Ojibwe identity was constituted by her experience of family and community, not by ancestry; and she preferred not to confuse that identity by conflating it with facts about her distant ancestors.

The point I am making here is not that the genetic techniques to which the program refers are scientifically invalid; I would be willing to assume that there is good science behind the inferences from one person’s genotype to conclusions about distant ancestry (including the gimmick of discovering that several of the guests have an ancestor in common).  But my point is that this doesn’t tell us anything at all of much interest about race or ethnicity; these are cultural constructs rather than biological facts.

Personally the conclusion I would rather come to goes along these lines: our genotypes matter very little to our current experience and social location.  The origins of our most distant ancestors is of some scientific interest but not much social significance.  If we take pride in being “Asian-American,” “Irish,” or “African-American,” it is because we have had specific social, family, and community experiences that lead us to identify with those groups and to give special importance in their struggles and achievements through history.  The child who was a foundling in New York in 1900 and was raised in an Irish-Catholic family is no less Irish and no less Catholic if it turns out her father was an Italian anarchist and her mother was a Swedish Protestant.  It is the particular communities into which we have socialized that constitute our identities, and I think that extends to racial and ethnic identities.  Of course, some readers may think that this perspective also leads to somewhat paradoxical conclusions — for example, the foundling who is “Irish” without a bit of Celtic ancestry, or that one could be Native American without any tribal ancestry.

Understanding Southeast Asia

Themes and issues from Southeast Asia crop up fairly frequently in UnderstandingSociety. Red shirt demonstrations in Thailand, ethnic conflict in Malaysia, corruption and repression in Burma — I think these are some of the more interesting social developments underway in the world today. And the resources needed for non-experts (like myself) to get a preliminary but factual understanding of these developments are now readily available on the web — blogs, international newspapers, twitter, and google provide a truly unprecedented ability for any of us to gain insight into distant social processes. (A recent widget on the iPhone and iPod Touch is a case in point: the World Newspapers application gives the user easy access to almost 4,000 newspapers in 100 countries.)

One blog that I’ve come to appreciate quite a bit on subjects having to do with Southeast Asia is the New Mandala, based at Australian National University. Andrew Walker is one of its founders and frequent contributors, and he and several other New Mandala contributors have recently published what promises to be a very interesting book. The book is titled Tai Lands and Thailand: Community and the State in Southeast Asia, and its focus can best be described in the contributors’ own words. Here are the opening paragraphs of a chapter on the orientation the contributors have taken on studying “Thai” identity:

This book provides a new approach to the study of community in the Tai world of mainland Southeast Asia.

Much of the current ethnographic work in the Tai world is constrained by a conceptual framework that associates community with tradition, locality and subsistence economy. This traditional community is commonly portrayed as being undermined by the modern forces of state incorporation, market penetration, globalisation and population mobility.

In this volume, we take a very different view. We challenge the widely held view that community is a traditional social form that is undermined by modernity. Using case studies from Thailand, Laos, Burma and China, we explore the active creation of ‘modern community’ in contexts of economic and political transformation. Our aim is to liberate community from its stereotypical association with traditional village solidarity and to demonstrate that communal sentiments of belonging retain their salience in the modern world of occupational mobility, globalised consumerism and national development.

Our focus is on the Tai world, made up of the various peoples who speak Tai languages. The largest groups are the Thai of Thailand, the Lao of Laos, the Shan of Burma and the Dai of southern China. Of course, each of these categories is problematic; they are all the modern products of historical circumstance rather than being natural or self-evident ethnic groups. There are certainly linguistic and cultural similarities that justify the shared label ‘Tai’ but this must be treated as a preliminary delineation of a field of interest without rushing to assumptions about a common identity or a sense of shared history. Indeed, our primary goal is to critically examine contemporary notions of belonging in this Tai world.

This is a highly engaging and innovative approach to the intellectual challenge of understanding the culture, history, and current trajectory of a large part of the peoples of Southeast Asia. The contributors capture some of the best current thinking about the fluidity and plasticity of cultural identities and the complicated ways in which cultures and modern social forces interact. Particularly pressing for historians and area specialists is the challenge of taking adequate account of language, culture, local community, extended networks, and varied political and economic interests when we try to make sense of a large population dispersed over a macro-region.

Take “red shirts” and “yellow shirts”. These are two constituencies in contemporary Thailand. In the past two years there have been massive popular movements corresponding to each of them, leading to major demonstrations and challenges to the government. They are often characterized in terms of differences in social class and economic sector: rural, poor, disempowered, versus urban, affluent, and privileged. This characterization is one that political scientists and economists would be comfortable with; it locates the two groups in terms of their interests and their location within the relations of wealth and power that exist in contemporary Thailand. But it’s at least worth posing the question: does this “interest”-based definition of contemporary politics in Thailand leave out something crucial, in the general zone of culture and identity? And are there possible cultural differences between the groups that are potentially relevant to political behavior and mobilization? Is there an ethnography of the red shirt movement and its followers yet?

Or take the issue of refugees, displaced persons, and migrant workers. There are flows of people across the borders of Burma and Thailand; Burma and Bangladesh; Thailand and Malaysia; and even from Burma to Cambodia. (For that matter, there is a significant population of Thai “guest workers” in Tel Aviv and other parts of the Middle East and Gulf.) How do differences in culture and identity play into the situation of these displaced people when they find themselves in the foreign country?

So research along the lines of Tai Lands and Thailand is highly valuable. It is likely to give us some new conceptual tropes in terms of which to understand these large social realities — modern community, provisional identities, and a multi-threaded understanding of the social worlds of Southeast Asia. And I think it demonstrates another important truth as well: there is always room for fresh thinking when it comes to trying to make sense of the social world.

(See an earlier posting introducing a spatial representation of the UnderstandingSociety twitter feed on Southeast Asia. Here is a direct link to the google map for this effort.)

Cultural authenticity and the market

Images: cover illustration from Anthony Appiah, In My Father’s House; Chinese neolithic pot c. 1500 BC

People often return from their travels with objects they’ve purchased to represent the culture and traditions of the place they’ve visited — Alsatian pottery from Betschdorf, masks from Kenya, or Navajo pots from Arizona. And sometimes they purchase such artifacts at home in Cleveland or Sacramento to gain a little resonance from a distant culture — Tibetan temple bells, Chinese funeral figures, Mayan woven goods. And there is generally a desire that these goods should be “authentic” — that is, they should have been produced by artisans situated in a continuous tradition with the culture the artifact represents. Imagine the traveler’s disappointment to find that his beautiful artisanal Alsatian vase was mass-produced in a factory in Guangdong.

Here I’d like to dwell a bit on this idea of authenticity. The idea seems to have two somewhat distinct components: expression and artisanship. The first involves the idea that the artifact is to be valued because it somehow expresses and reveals some of the meaning, symbols, and practices of the other culture. This relates the idea of authenticity to one of Clifford Geertz’s most famous statements about culture: that a culture is a web of significance (The Interpretation Of Cultures). The “authentic” cultural object is valued because it reveals some of those meanings and relationships; it fits into this web of signification.

The second dimension here involves the idea that the artifact is the material product of social practices embedded within or deriving from that culture. Here the idea is that the actual human, practical history of the object makes all the difference between authentic and inauthentic — the way it was made, the human communities and practices within which the artisan performed his or her work in creating the object. We might imagine a fishing net created by a team of anthropologists who have painstakingly reproduced the techniques of knot-tying, braiding, and decorating that were characteristic of a certain human community at a certain point in time. The product may be highly “accurate” from the first point of view, in that it accurately depicts the results and signification of the product within its historical setting. But it is nonetheless not “authentic” because it is an a posteriori simulation of the culture’s fishing net — not a direct product of the culture.

Take a few examples at the extremes. At one extreme are the African dolls one might buy in the Disney store in conjunction with the latest cartoon adventure about Africa. No one would imagine that these dolls are authentic in their correspondence to any real African culture or artisanal tradition, past or present. (Though perhaps they are authentic expressions of Disney culture!) At the other extreme, consider the objects on display from Benin at the Chicago Art Institute recently, representing local society and Portuguese colonialism (Benin–Kings and Rituals; Court Arts of Nigeria; link). No one would doubt the authenticity of these beautiful and engaging artifacts — even though they embody a deep and complex collision and mingling of western and African modalities. Or consider the sculpture that Kwame Anthony Appiah used as the cover illustration of his important book, In My Father’s House: Africa in the Philosophy of Culture. It looks highly traditional and “African” — until we look closely and discover the old bicycle parts incorporated into the design. Is this sculpture an authentic expression of African culture? Or is it “contaminated” by the intrusion of western technologies and products? Appiah’s view is a nuanced one: it is an authentic expression of something, but not of a hypostasized essential “African cultural identity.”

And the story only gets more complicated. What could be more authentic to the native American cultures of North America than Inuit carvings and Navajo blankets? Surely each emerged from the material cultures and aesthetic sensibilities of Inuit and Navajo people. But there are two complications here. First, there certainly are workshops in China and elsewhere industriously turning out soapstone bears and woolen Navajo rugs. And their products may be very persuasive imitations indeed. But they aren’t “authentic” — they are simply well executed fakes. They lack the second characteristic mentioned above; they don’t have the right lineage of production.

But here is the deeper problem. The genres themselves are deeply intertwined with external market forces and consumer tastes. The Navajo blankets of the 1850s existed; but they were utilitarian, drab productions, intended for use rather than display. It was the tastes of eastern consumers, conveyed through brokers, traders, and trading posts, that shifted the design and coloration of the rug to its current “traditional” form. (Here is a rough and ready summary of the history of Navajo rugs.)

And the tradition of Inuit carving is even more market-driven.

While Canada’s Inuit do have a rich visual history that dates back more than a millennium, Inuit carvings, prints and jewelry are actually the product of a relatively recent transformation in the Arctic, beginning with the emergence of an “outside” market during the whaling years, which gave rise to the birth of the contemporary Inuit art movement starting in 1949. (link)

So the practice of animal carving in soft stone perhaps did not even exist in Inuit culture prior to the arrival of traders. So we might say that blankets and soapstone polar bears are inauthentic in the first sense above: they don’t correspond to deep and abiding features of the other culture, but are rather informed by the tastes and preferences of the consumer market. (This fits the history of Chinese export porcelain as well; I’m sure there are endless additional examples that could be provided.) Are either of these artifact traditions “authentic”? Do they express Navajo or Inuit culture and tradition? Or does the fact that an indigenous artisanal tradition has been self-consciously directed towards creating products that “fit” with the tastes of a distant public undermine the authenticity of the work?

The issue is more difficult than it might appear, because there is one interpretation of “authentic” that will not stand up, cultural essentialism. This interpretation depends on the idea of a cultural essence underlying a given people at a certain time — a pure form of Hopi, Navajo, Alsatian, Tokugawan, or Armenian culture in terms of which we might define the authenticity of cultural products. Here the misguided idea would be that a product is authentic if it corresponds accurately to the cultural essence to which it refers — a strict interpretation of the first characteristic mentioned above. This won’t do, however, because cultures are not fixed, uniform realities, but rather ongoing, dynamic processes of creation and change. So the story told by the Benin exhibition above is very illustrative; the cultural content and depictions of the two communities — Benin and Portugal — interpenetrate each other in the next moment in time, and neither is unchanged as a result. So we cannot understand authenticity as “correspondence to a cultural essence”; there are no such essences.
There is, however, a weaker form of correspondence that remains a valid characteristic of “authenticity” — the idea that an artifact is itself a meaningful object, and its meaning needs to be fitted into the meanings and practices of the broader culture from which it emanated. The Chinese neolithic pot depicted above is dated from about 1500 BC. The distinctive crosshatching pattern can be found on many of the pots of this period, and it is striking. Why does the culture incorporate this decorative feature into many of its small pots? It is hypothesized that clay pots replaced an older container technology of tightly woven baskets; and the artisan was offering a representation of quality and continuity by decorating the pot to resemble a woven basket. This may or may not be a valid explanation; but plainly the decorations of the pot are meaningful, and — if historically authentic — the pot can provide content for an interpretation of various elements of the contemporary culture and its artisanal practices. (See the Minneapolis Institute of Arts page on Chinese neolithic ceramics.)
Perhaps the reason that market influences on artisanal traditions are unsettling and “inauthentic” goes back to a tension between the first and the second criterion mentioned above (expression and artisanship). A market-shaped artisanal tradition satisfies the second criterion; it results in products that are created by an artisanal tradition linked to the other culture (blankets, carvings, export porcelain). But there is the nagging fear that the influence of external consumer demand has deformed the artifact with respect to the first criterion — fit with the culture’s own values and meanings. The influence of consumer tastes may have driven the product and the tradition far away from more genuine expressions of local culture. Here, we might say, authenticity requires that the product be created according to the values and meanings of the indigenous culture — not the profit-seeking adaptive behavior of skilled artisans aiming to create the “traditional” product that will sell best with the tourists.
If forced to answer my own question here, I think I would focus on the second criterion — the concrete historical relationship between the product, the artisan, and the tradition. And I would then look at it as an open question for hermeneutic investigation to attempt to determine the complex and fluid ways in which the product corresponds to, expresses, contradicts, or invades the meanings of its background culture.

Creativity, convention, and tradition

images: Picasso, Portrait of Gertrude Stein (1906); Courbet, Burial at Ornans (1849)

Conventions define how to do things correctly — trim the hedges, choose an outfit for an evening at the opera or the racetrack, how much to tip the server. They also define or constrain productions in the arts — writing a short story or a sonnet, performing a Brahms quintet, participating in an Andean flute group. We might define a convention as a stylized but unwritten rule of performance. A tradition is an extended set of conventions for a given area of performance. We can refer to traditions of classical German chamber composition, Japanese landscape painting, or hiphop street performance. A conventional act or performance, then, is one that directly and consistently expresses the relevant conventions.

So — at any given time, a particular set of conventions drive the creation of works of culture and guide the interpretation of the product. These conventions are somehow embedded in the community of creators, viewers, and critics. And innovation, breaking or stretching the rules, creates the possibility of novelty and creativity within the process. It is important to notice, though, that conventions generally don’t govern every aspect of a performance. The convention of the sonnet mandates a form and meter and gives some constraint on subject. But it would certainly be possible to write a sonnet in deviant meter in praise of a farm tractor; the audience would be able to make sense of the production. So the artist always has a degree of freedom within the tradition.

I find several specific ideas to be useful in analyzing cultural conventions and their products — in particular, “idiom”, “voice”, and “novelty”. Within a given medium, there is an existing stock of shorthand ways of expressing an artistic or symbolic idea. We may refer to these modes of expression as “idioms” of the genre. When the stranger in the 1950s western is wearing a black hat, the audience understands he is the villain. When the soundtrack swells in an ominous minor key the audience knows there is trouble coming. These idioms aren’t natural signifiers; rather, they are conventions of the B movie. So the idioms of a genre are a particularly direct form of convention within the semiotics of the genre.

“Voice” is a counterpart of originality. It is the intangible “signature” that the individual artist brings to his or her work — what Eisenstein brings to many of his films, distinctive from Bergman and Kurosawa. Voice represents a kind of consistency over time, but it is not defined by homage to tradition; instead, it is an expression of the specific sensibility of the individual artist, the specific way in which this artist forges together his/her material and vision within the resources of the genre and its conventions. Eisenstein’s films aren’t formulaic, even though one can recognize a common sensibility running through them.

What about novelty and creativity? Novelty is the break outside of convention that the artist brings to the production in order to express a particular idea or perspective in a new and forceful way — for example, the transition from sepia to color in The Wizard of Oz. The original and genuinely creative artist or writer finds ways of bringing novelty and his/her own originality into the production, giving the audience new and unexpected insights and ideas. The element of innovation needs to point the audience towards its signification without relying wholly on the existing traditions of reading. (Picasso’s portrait above of Gertrude Stein displeased some friends of the writer because “it doesn’t resemble Gertrude Stein.” Picasso is said to have replied, “It will.”)

But here is an apparent conundrum of creativity and convention. Any performance or artistic work that is wholly determined by the relevant conventions is, for that reason, wholly uncreative. It is like a conversation in a Dashiell Hammett novel: no surprises, each gambit programmed by the conventions of the crime novel. Or it is like a string quartet composed by an earnest follower of Beethoven, with no phrase breaking the flow, no note out of place. And for the careful listener, each is ultimately boring; there is no novelty in the work. And there is no opening for the original and creative voice of the creator. Originality and new perspective have no place.

But now the other half of the conundrum: novelty without regard to the frame of tradition is incomprehensible and meaningless. The classical composer of 1800 who somehow heard the world atonally, arhythmically, and to the accompaniment of falling trash cans and who then wrote a symphony in thirty movements on this basis — this composer is innovating, all right. But he/she is not creating works that any existing audience could hear as “music”. There is no bridge of meaning or hermeneutic practice to facilitate interpretation.

It is relevant here that we are led to refer to the audience. Because cultural products require the conveying of meaning; and communication of meaning requires some reference to conventions shared with the audience — whether in music, painting, literature, or hiphop. Meaning of any cultural performance is inherently public, and this means there have to be publicly shared standards of interpretation. The audience can only interpret the performance by relating it to some set of conventions or other. These may be conventions of representation, structure, or mythology; but the audience needs some clues in order to be able to “read” the work.

There are, of course, periods in art history where it appears that innovation is all and continuous convention is nothing. For example, Courbet and the realist painters were evidently shocking to the viewing public for their dismissal of the classical values of the Salon — in the Burial at Ornans above, for example. But really, there was a great deal of continuity within the context of which the realist manifesto was shocking to the public. (T. J. Clark does a great job of “reading” the painting for its continuities with previous traditions of painting and the sources of its originality; Image of the People: Gustave Courbet and the 1848 Revolution, pp. 80-83.)

So what does all of this imply about “creative breakthroughs” in the genres of the arts? It seems to imply that major and culturally significant breakthroughs occur when talented people fully absorb the semantic (and historically specific) conventions that define the genre at the current time; he/she finds ways of squeezing every bit of new meaning out of these conventions in the production of the cultural product; he/she plays with the limits of the convention, testing them for the possibility of forging new meanings; and sometimes, he/she breaks a convention altogether and substitutes a new meaning maker in its place (presenting Julius Caesar in the garb of fascist Italy of the 1930s, for example).

These topics are relevant to understanding society, because this dialectic of convention, innovation, and meaning-making is virtually pervasive in everyday life. Jokes, business meetings, and street demonstrations all have some elements of this dance of meaning, convention, and originality. So it is important to gain greater understanding of the intersection of convention and innovation.

(There are numerous unanswered questions raised by this topic. How is a tradition of painting or composition related to a scientific or technological tradition? How is a literary or artistic tradition related to a “style” of technology or a scientific research programme? How can we take measure of “radical innovators” in the arts such as Jackson Pollock and abstract expressionism, or John Cage and American experimentalism in composition? And how do beauty or aesthetic value come into this equation? What are the qualities of a work of art that lead us to say, “That is beautiful!” or “that is hideous!”? What are the threads of convention, form, meaning, and originality that contribute to great aesthetic value?)

"Moral economy" as a historical social concept

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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