Actor-centered history

It is easy enough to ask the question, “How can we best explain the fall of the Roman Empire, the rise of German fascism, or the Industrial Revolution in England?” And we often want to paraphrase questions like these along causal lines: “What were some of the causes of the fall of Rome, what were the causes of the rise of fascism, what were the causes of the Industrial Revolution?”

But are these really good questions? Is this really the right way of thinking about historical explanation? What if we think that there is an overwhelming amount of contingency and path dependency in history? What if we think that the language of “cause” doesn’t work particularly well in the context of history? For that matter, what if we take most seriously the idea that history is the result of the actions and thoughts of vast numbers of actors, so it is a flow of action and knowledge rather than a sequence of causes and effects? Do these alternative thoughts about history force us to ask different questions about large historical changes?

We might consider this alternative way of thinking of history: think about “social conditions and processes” rather than discrete causes; couch historical explanations in terms of how individual actors (low and high) acted in the context of these conditions; and interpret the large outcomes as no more than the aggregation of these countless actors and their actions. Think about history as a stream or river, whose flow is influenced by the topography of the land through which it moves and the obstacles and barriers it encounters in its course.

This picture probably needs broadening in at least one important respect: our account of the “flow” of human action eventuating in historical change needs to take into account the institutional and structural environment in which these actions take place. Part of the “topography” of a period of historical change is the ensemble of institutions that exist more or less stably in the period: property relations, political institutions, family structures, educational practices. So historical explanations need to be sophisticated in their treatment of institutions and structures.

In Marx’s famous contribution to the philosophy of history, he writes that “men make their own history; but not in circumstances of their own choosing.” And circumstances can be both inhibiting and enabling; they constitute the environment within which individuals plan and act. It is an important circumstance that a given time possesses a fund of scientific and technical knowledge, a set of social relationships of power, and a level of material productivity. It is also an important circumstance that knowledge is limited; that coercion exists; and that resources for action are limited. Within these opportunities and limitations, individuals, from leaders to ordinary people, make out their lives and ambitions through action.

On this line of thought, history is a flow of human action, constrained and propelled by a shifting set of environmental conditions (material, social, epistemic). There are conditions and events that can be described in causal terms: enabling conditions, instigating conditions, cause and effect, … But here my point is to ask the reader to consider whether this language of cause and effect does not perhaps impose a discreteness of historical events that does not actually reflect the flow of history very well. History is continuous and analog; causal structures are discontinuous and digital.

Consider how Karl Dietrich Bracher approaches the problem of explaining the rise of National Socialism in The German dictatorship: The origins, structure, and effects of national socialism (1970).

Inherent in all these [prior] studies is the question of how a dictatorial regime of such dimensions could come to power so quickly and with so little or no resistance in a country with Germany’s traditions and cultural heritage…. Yet the question does remain why Germany, which after a century-long battle for democratic government had constructed, in the Weimar Republic, a seemingly perfect constitutional structure, capitulated unresistingly and within so short a period before so primitive a dictatorship as Hitler’s. (3-4)

Bracher’s own account is fundamentally couched in terms of the currency and transmission of sets of ideas and philosophies: nationalism, etatism, anti-Semitism, anti-liberalism. He gives an account of how various elements of these ideas were favored through European and German history from the early 19th century, through the revolutions of 1848, through Germany’s defeat in World War I, into the strife of the Weimar period.

It was against this background [of ideological conflict in the Weimar period] that National Socialism took shape as a new type of integrating force. Being a specifically German manifestation of European antidemocratism, it was completely attuned to the German situation and even less of an export article than Italian Fascism. This is yet another example of the limits of the conception of a universal fascism. The nationalist foundation makes for profound differences from country to country. Nor is there any monocausal explanation, whether it be based on economic, political, or ideological premises. National Socialism, like Hitler, was the product of World War I, but it was given its shape and force by those basic problems of modern German history which marked the painful road of the democratic movement. Among these were the fragility of the democratic tradition and the powerful remnants of authoritarian governmental and social institutions before and after 1848. (46)

And here is a more psychological dimension of Bracher’s explanation:

Among the special factors of the early days of National Socialism was the tremendously important part played by the spectacular rise and near-religious veneration of a Fuhrer. The organizational structure and activities of this new type of movement were based completely on the leader principle. In terms of social psychology, he represented the disenfranchised little man eager to compensate for his feelings of inferiority through militancy and political radicalism. (47)


In the final analysis, Hitler came to power as a result of a series of avoidable errors. He was neither elected freely by a majority of the German people nor were there compelling reasons for the capitulation of the Republic. However, in the end, the democratic forces were in the minority vis-a-vis the totalitarian, ditatorial parties of the National Socialists and the Communists. And in this situation a large portion of Germany’s top echelons went over to Hitler after 1933. (49)

So far Bracher has focused on the problem of origins: how did National Socialism come to prevail in Germany? But he also spends time on showing how this dictatorship ruled, and this is a simpler story. Having gained the levers of power — police, military, bureaucracy — the Nazi state was able to implement the ideology and values that brought it to power.

So Bracher’s narrative is ultimately one that has mostly to do with beliefs, knowledge systems, ideologies, and actors pursuing their purposes. It isn’t a causal narrative, but rather an interpretive analysis of mass psychology within specific historical conditions. There are large elements of the history of ideas (the ways in which antidemocratic ideologies developed in Germany and other European countries after 1848, for example) as well as elements of meaningful and purposive human action (deciding to follow, deciding to lead, deciding to mobilize).

What all of this suggests to me is an alternative way of thinking about history that has a different structure from the idea of history as a stream of causes and effects. This approach might be called “actor-centered history“: we explain an epoch when we have a story about what people thought and believed; what they wanted; and what social and environmental conditions framed their choices. It is a view of history that sounds more like composing a biography of a complex individual than it does telling the story of a bridge collapse. And it is a view that gives close attention to states of knowledge, ideology, and agency, as well as institutions, organizations, and structures.

Response to Little by Dave Elder-Vass

[Dave Elder-Vass accepted my invitation to write a response to my discussion of his recent book, The Reality of Social Construction (link). Elder-Vass is senior lecturer in sociology at Loughborough University and author as well of The Causal Power of Social Structures: Emergence, Structure and Agency, discussed here.  Thanks, Dave!]

Social construction and the reliability of knowledge
by Dave Elder-Vass

Daniel, thank you for a very constructive and accurate post, as always! Rather than picking on some detail to disagree with, I’d like to add something, if I may. In addition to the larger argument you’ve covered in your post, my recent book The Reality of Social Construction seeks to apply this argument to various contentious questions of social theory, and it might be useful to illustrate one of these. Perhaps the example that fits best with your interests is the discussion of the social ontology of knowledge.

One of the big issues in late C20 social theory was generated by poststructuralism’s tendency “to challenge conventional assumptions about knowledge by exposing the dependence of knowledge claims on unacknowledged social influences” (207). But these challenges were knowledge claims themselves, and it was never clear “how they might attain some kind of reflexive equilibrium in which they contribute productively to our understanding of knowledge without undermining their own epistemic status” (207). 

I try to resolve this by developing an ontology of knowledge that explores how it might simultaneously be socially constructed and also potentially reliable (though never absolutely indubitably certain) because it is also influenced by the phenomena that it is about. 

The relevant chapter argues that knowledge is a kind of authorised belief: beliefs are accepted as being knowledge when they have been formed in accordance with knowledge forming practices that are socially approved (normatively endorsed) for the kind of knowledge concerned. We are prepared, for example, to accept knowledge claims about empirical facts when they are plausibly justified on the basis of observation reports. I know that a black car just went by my window because I saw it, and others would be perfectly willing to accept this claim (unless they had reason to doubt that I really did see it) because observation is considered a suitable knowledge forming practice for claims of this sort: this is an epistemological norm, supported by an epistemological norm circle. 

I began with a non-scientific example, as I wish to swim against the tide that sees scientific knowledge as the paradigm case of all knowledge; the assumption that it is may obscure important features of knowledge understood more generally. But scientific knowledge is also an important case, and a complex one, as there are several distinct but interrelated sets of knowledge forming practices implicated in it. A student may claim to know that biological species evolve because she has read this in a suitable textbook, and most of us would be willing to accept this claim because reading from reputable scientific books is considered a suitable knowledge forming practice for claims of this sort. (There is also, in this case, a competing epistemological norm circle that supports the claim that species do not evolve on the grounds that this is an issue where reading from religious books is the appropriate knowledge forming practice). Practising scientists, on the other hand, who are generally engaged with less stable claims than those to be found in the textbooks, take a somewhat different approach. They tend to accept those claims that are endorsed by those individual scientists who are considered authorities in the area concerned. This, too, is a socially authorised knowledge forming practice. At a third level, we have those knowledge forming practices employed by the ‘authorities’ themselves; clearly these vary enormously depending on the object of study, but we may generalise and say that the critical element is that knowledge claims are ultimately to be judged by consistency with the observed empirical facts, although there are reasons, familiar from the work of Kuhn, Quine and others, why this may not be the case in the short term. 

Knowledge is therefore dependent on the normative endorsement of specific practices as being appropriate for producing beliefs that may be labelled with the honorific ‘knowledge’. It is thus socially constructed and certainly dependent on social influences. But does that make it unreliable? That depends on how effective the practices concerned are in producing reliable knowledge claims. When the practices are such that their conclusions are strongly influenced by the causal impact of the objects that the resulting belief is about, I suggest they are more likely to produce accurate knowledge. 

But knowledge forming practices are not only shaped by such considerations. Most significantly, perhaps, those with social power tend to enforce standards of belief that favour their own legitimacy. Knowledge forming practices in strongly patriarchal societies, for example, may tend to endorse knowledge claims that support the balance of gender power even though they fly in the face of other types of evidence, as numerous feminist writers on science have demonstrated. We are still too close to that kind of society to be complacent about the accuracy of all of our scientific knowledge claims, but at the same time the massive technological development of modern society indicates that in many respects our scientific knowledge-forming practices have been unprecedentedly accurate about the world they seek to explain. 

The issue here is not that social influence undermines the reliability of knowledge: all knowledge by its very nature depends on social influence, in the sense that claims only come to be accepted as knowledge if they have been obtained in socially approved ways. But some kinds of knowledge forming practices (and thus some kinds of social influence) may produce more accurate knowledge than others. In strongly differentiated modern societies, there is perhaps space for more accurate knowledge forming practices to develop in some domains, such as the natural sciences and everyday empirical knowledge, even when those in others remain more contestable. 

This leaves us with a perspective on knowledge that recognises it is always at risk of being wrong, but also accepts that some knowledge claims may be well founded. This is not a perspective that undermines itself, but it is certainly one that demands humility over the possibility of error. 

Links between literature and the social sciences

Some novelists take as part of their task the description and evocation of certain social realities. James Baldwin captured one slice of African-American life in the 1950s and 60s. Tim O’Brien captured aspects of infantry life in Vietnam in The Things They Carried. And Tolstoy caught much about social attitudes and relations in elite Russia at a certain time and place. We could interpret these sorts of novels “realistically” and ask a range of questions about them: how accurate are they? Do they leave out important aspects of the picture? And what was the epistemic location of the author, such that he/she could claim to observe and portray accurately?

If we take this function of literature seriously, then it is natural to ask how this creative act relates to various areas of the social sciences. Does the knowledge offered by Baldwin complement the work of sociologists and historians of race in America? And, for that matter, can the realistically-minded novelist find valuable synergy in the research of historians and sociologists?

These questions are taken especially seriously by critics who are developing the framework of “critical realism”, including especially Satya Mohanty. Particularly valuable is Identity Politics Reconsidered (Future of Minority Studies), edited by Linda Alcoff, Satya Mohanty and Michael Hames-Garcia. The topic is a core concern for the Future of Minority Studies project (link).

So, what about it? Can a work of fiction have realistic, referential content? Is a novel sometimes an empirical statement? Can a fictional character truthfully represent aspect of what it is like to be black in America, South Asian in Manchester, or gay in a suburban Illinois high school? For that matter, can a novel be faulted for “getting it wrong” — for example, for representing an American Muslim as being completely oblivious to issues of racism?  Or is “right” and “wrong” out of place when it comes to evaluating the relationship between a novel and the world?

Here is one possible answer: fiction is always fiction, and normally does not have empirical validity. If we want to make empirical statements about social relations, class attitudes, or typical social values of specific groups, we need to do so based on valid methods of social research: surveys, focus groups, interviews, and observations of behavior. And we need to analyze the data we collect according to valid methods of aggregation and inference. That is what is required in order to arrive at knowledge about the social world.

Another very different response goes along these lines. Novelists are sometimes skilled social observers, and some of these are also skilled “painters” or evokers of what they have seen. A great novelist can pull together his/her many insights and observations into a powerful description of a fictional world or experience that captures an important sociological truth about the society depicted.  So these novelists do in fact gain knowledge of social life through observation, and they represent that knowledge through the fiction they produce. Both parts of this epistemic process are subject to criticism; but both are valid knowledge practices.

According to the second view, readers have the possibility of gaining real knowledge about the social world through the novel.  Seen in this way, a novelist is somewhat akin to an ethnographer, trying to make sense of a complex system of behaviors and meanings and expressing his/her findings in a way that is truthful to the social reality observed.

It seems that one would have to be a pretty narrow-minded epistemologist to hold that there is only one kind of knowledge, and that literature necessarily falls outside its bounds.  This might have been credible when the program of logical empiricism still seemed possible — that there are observations that can be unambiguously arrived at, and that theories are evaluated through a specific logic of confirmation marshaling a domain of observations in support of hypothetical statements.  But this epistemology doesn’t work well even in the sciences.  And within the framework of an anti-foundationalist epistemology, it seems reasonable enough to believe that literature has the potential of revealing important aspects of the social world.
This brings us back to the question of linkage between literature and the social sciences.  If we think that Platoon or The Things They Carried express some important truth about the nature of the experience of that war for American soldiers, this suggests the possibility of framing other sorts of social-science investigations to probe the extent and variation of these characteristics on the ground.  In other words, there is a simple kind of synergy that can exist between novelists, sociologists, and historians, when it comes to framing interpretations and explanations of a complex social reality, and designing further empirical studies to evaluate and qualify these findings.

Social theory and the empirical social world

How can general, high-level social theory help us to better understand particular historically situated social realities? Is it helpful or insightful to “bring Weber’s theory of religion to bear on Islam in Java” or to “apply Marx’s theory of capitalism to the U.S. factory system in the 1950s”? Is there any real knowledge to be gained by applying theory to a set of empirical circumstances?

In the natural sciences this intellectual method is certainly a valid and insightful one. We gain knowledge when we apply the theory of fluid dynamics to the situation of air flowing across a wing, or when we apply the principles of evolutionary theory to the problem of understanding butterfly coloration. But do we have the same possibility in the case of the social world?

My general inclination is to think that “applying” general social theories to specific social circumstances is not a valid way of creating new knowledge or understanding. This is because I believe that social ensembles reflect an enormous degree of plasticity and contingency; so general theories only “fit” them in the most impressionistic and non-explanatory way. We may have a pure structural theory of feudalism; but it is only the beginning of a genuinely knowledge-producing analysis of fourteenth-century French politics and economy or the Japanese samurai polity. At best the theory highlights certain issues as being salient — the conditions of bonded labor, the nature of military dependency between lord and vassal. But the theory of feudalism does not permit us to “derive” particular features or institutions of French or Japanese society. “Feudalism” is an ideal type, a heuristic beginning for social analysis, rather than a general deductive and comprehensive theory of all feudal societies.  And we certainly shouldn’t expect that a general social theory will provide the template for understanding all of the empirical characteristics of a given instance of that theorized object.

Why is there this strong distinction between physical theory and social theory? Fundamentally, because natural phenomena really are governed by laws of nature, and natural systems are often simple enough that we can aggregate the effects of the relevant component processes into a composite description of the whole. (There are, of course, complex physical systems with non-linear composite processes that cannot be deductively represented.)  So theories can be applied to complicated natural systems with real intellectual gain.  The theory helps us to predict and explain the behavior of the natural system.

The social world lacks both properties. Component social mechanisms and processes are only loosely similar to each other in different instances; for example, “fealty” works somewhat differently in France, England, and Japan. And there is a very extensive degree of contingency in the ways that processes, mechanisms, agents, and current circumstances interact to produce social outcomes. So there is a great degree of path dependency and variation in social outcomes, even in cases where there are significant similarities in the starting points. So feudalism, capitalism, financial institutions, religions, ethnic conflicts, and revolutions can only be loosely theorized.

That is my starting point. But some social theorists take a radically different approach. A good example of a bad intellectual practice here is the work of Hindess and Hirst in Pre-Capitalist Modes Of Production, in which they attempt to deduce the characteristics of the concrete historical given from its place within the system of concepts involved in the theory of the mode of production.

Is this a legitimate and knowledge-enhancing effort? I don’t think that it is. We really don’t gain any real insight into this manor, or the Burgundian manor, or European feudalism, by mechanically subsuming it under a powerful and general theory — whether Marx’s, Weber’s or Pareto’s.

It should be said here that it isn’t the categories or hypotheses themselves that are at fault. In fact, I think Marx’s analysis and categories are genuinely helpful as we attempt to arrive at a sociology of the factory, and Durkheim’s concept of anomie is helpful when we consider various features of modern communities. It is the effort at derivation and subsumption that I find misguided. The reality is larger and more varied than the theory, with greater contingency and surprise.

It is worthwhile looking closely at gifted social scientists who proceed differently. One of these is Michael Burawoy, a prolific and influential sociologist of the American labor process. His book, Manufacturing Consent: Changes in the Labor Process Under Monopoly Capitalism, is a detailed study of the American factory through the lens of his micro-study of a single small machine shop in the 1940s and 1970s, the Allied/Geer factory. Burawoy proceeds very self-consciously and deliberately within the framework of Marx’s theory of the capitalist labor process. He lays out the fundamental assumptions of Marx’s theory of the labor process — wage labor, surplus labor, capitalist power relations within the factory — and he then uses these categories to analyze, investigate, and explain the Allied/Geer phenomena. But he simultaneously examines the actual institutions, practices, and behaviors of this machine shop in great participant-observer detail. He is led to pose specific questions by the Marxist theory of the labor process that he brings with him — most importantly, what accounts for the “consent” that he observes in the Allied workers? — but he doesn’t bring a prefabricated answer to the question.  His interest in control of surplus labor and coercion and consent within the workforce is stimulated by his antecedent Marxist theory; but he is fully prepared to find novelty and surprise as he investigates these issues.  His sociological imagination is not a blank slate — he brings a schematic understanding of some of the main parameters that he expects to arise in the context of the capitalist labor process.  But his research assumptions are open to new discovery and surprising inconsistencies between antecedent theory and observed behavior.

And in fact, the parts of Burawoy’s book that I find most convincing are the many places where he allows his sociological imagination and his eye for empirical detail to break through the mechanism of the theory. His case study is an interesting and insightful one. And it is strengthened by the fact that Burawoy does not attempt to simply subsume or recast the findings within the theoretical structure of Marx’s economics.

(Burawoy addresses some of these issues directly in an important article, “Two Methods in Search of Science” (link). He advocates for treating Marxist ideas as a research program for the social sciences in the sense articulated by Imre Lakatos. )

So my advice goes along these lines: allow Marxism, or Weber or Durkheim or Tilly, to function as a suggestive program of research for empirical investigation. Let it be a source of hypotheses, hunches, and avenues of inquiry. But be prepared as well for the discovery of surprising outcomes, and don’t look at the theory as a prescription for the unfolding of the social reality. Most importantly, don’t look to theory as a deductive basis for explaining and predicting social phenomena. (Here is an article on the role of Marxism as a method of research rather than a comprehensive theory; link.)

"Theory" in sociology

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

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

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

Is there anything like this construct in the social sciences?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

High modernism and expert knowledge

James Scott is one of the really exceptional social scientists of his generation.  His contributions to peasant studies have been transformative — his ideas of the “moral economy of the peasant” and “weapons of the weak” are now part of the tool set that we all use in trying to make sense of agrarian societies (The Moral Economy of the Peasant: Rebellion and Subsistence in Southeast Asia, Weapons of the Weak: Everyday Forms of Peasant ResistanceDomination and the Arts of Resistance: Hidden Transcripts).  And his historical and ethnographic accounts of peasant life and struggle have given us a strong basis for understanding these movements that were so important during the anti-colonial struggles of the mid-twentieth century.  (I’ve treated several of these contributions in earlier posts here, here, here, and here.)

What is particularly striking about Scott’s work is the range of his sociological imagination.  He is a genuinely creative thinker when it comes to making sense of some of some very complex human phenomena — peasant mobilization, agricultural modernization, and large-scale efforts to transform the world.  Each of his books introduces something new (for example, his treatment of Gramsci and hegemony in Weapons of the Weak, or his use of “hidden transcripts” in Domination and the Arts of Resistance).  He is a master at coming up with a concept, theory, or metaphor that can help to explain complex forms of social behavior, from the points of view of the actors.  And he does a great job of overcoming the dichotomy between “material circumstances” and “culture”; the peasant communities and movements that he treats are both materially situated and culturally specific.

A more recent book that makes a number of important new contributions is Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed (1998).  Here Scott shifts focus in two ways.  His analysis here differs from his earlier books in that it is both more macro — he examines the ways that states think; and more micro — he also examines the nature of individually situated expert local knowledge.  Both parts of the analysis are interesting and novel.

The book explores what Scott calls “high modernism” — essentially, the effort to use science and theory to order and regularize the social world, and to use theories of the future to remake the present.  Scott defines high modernism in these terms:

It is best conceived as a strong, one might even say muscle-bound, version of the beliefs in scientific and technical progress that were associated with industrialization in Western Europe and in North America from roughly 1830 until World War I. At its core was a supreme self-confidence about continued linear progress, the development of scientific and technical knowledge, the expansion of production, the rational design of social order, the growing satisfaction of human needs, and, not least, an increasing control over nature. (89)

Initially he puts the point in terms of the modern state’s agenda of “sedentarianization” — reducing the mobility and anonymity of nomadic peoples and organizing them into “legible” formations.

The more I examined these efforts at sedentarization, the more I came to see them as a state’s attempt to make a society legible, to arrange the population in ways that simplified the classic state functions of taxation, conscription, and prevention of rebellion. (2)

Much of early modern European statecraft seemed similarly devoted to rationalizing and standardizing what was a social hieroglyph into a legible and administratively more convenient format.  The social simplifications thus introduced not only permitted a more finely tuned system of taxation and conscription but also greatly enhanced state capacity. (Introduction)

The core thesis of the book is the damage that states have done when they have attempted to implement antecedent theories of social change:

I believe that many of the most tragic episodes of state development in the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries originate in a particularly pernicious combination of three elements.  The first is the aspiration to the administrative ordering of nature and society, an aspiration that we have already seen at work in scientific forestry, but one raised to a far more comprehensive and ambitious level….  The second element is the unrestrained use of the power of the modern state as an instrument for achieving these designs.  The third element is a weakened or prostrate civil society that lacks the capacity to resist these plans. (88-89)

High modernism was evident in agriculture; but it was also visible in urban planning.

Le Corbusier had no patience for the physical environment that centuries of urban living had created. He heaped scorn on the tangle, darkness, and disorder, the crowded and pestilential conditions, of Paris and other European cities at the turn of the century … He was visually offended by disarray and confusion. (106)

The French-inspired urban design of colonial-era Saigon is pictured above.

Scott’s view is that the central development disasters of the twentieth century derived from this toxic combination of epistemic arrogance and authoritarian power, including especially an excessive confidence in the ability of principles of “scientific management” to order and organize human activity.  He provides case studies of the creation of Brasilia as a completely planned city; Soviet collectivization of agriculture in 1929-30; villagization in Tanzania; and the effort to regularize and systematize modern agriculture (266).  And we could add China’s Great Leap Forward famine to the list.  In each case, the high-modernist ideology led to a catastrophic failure of social development.

In sum, the legibility of a society provides the capacity for largescale social engineering, high-modernist ideology provides the desire, the authoritarian state provides the determination to act on that desire, and an incapacitated civil society provides the leveled social terrain on which to build. (5)

A constant contrast in the book is between the objectifying knowledge of modernist science — social and natural — and the particular knowledge systems of practitioners and locals about the nature of their local environment — what he calls “metis”.  “Throughout this book I make the case for the indispensable role of practical knowledge, informal processes, and improvisation in the face of unpredictability” (6).  A particularly clear instance of these two perspectives comes in through Scott’s discussion of scientific forestry and the local knowledge of forest ecology possessed by villagers.  Beekeeping, traditional farming, and the cultivation of the mango tree (333) are other good examples.  Two forests are pictured below; the first is an old-growth forest, and the second is the result of scientific forestry. And Scott documents the ecological destruction that resulted when these principles of scientific forestry were exported from Germany to Southeast Asia.

Scott’s perspective here is not anti-scientific or anti-modern.  Instead, it is fundamentally anti-authoritarian: the high-modernist impulse coupled with the power of the modern state has led to massive human disasters.  And confidence in comprehensive, abstract theories — whether of forests, bees, or cities — has been an important element of these destructive endeavors.  So the conclusion is a moderate one: pay attention to local knowledge, be suspicious of totalizing experiments in transforming society or nature, and trust the people who are affected by policies to contribute to their design.

Scott’s arguments in Seeing Like a State provide some resonance with two other insightful writers discussed in earlier postings: Michael Polanyi (on the importance of tacit knowledge) and Karl Popper (on the hazards associated with comprehensive social engineering).

(Scott’s most recent book is The Art of Not Being Governed: An Anarchist History of Upland Southeast Asia.  Here is a very interesting working paper by Grant Evans reviewing Scott’s contributions; From moral economy to remembered village: The sociology of James C. Scott (Working paper / Centre of Southeast Asian Studies, Monash University).)

The disciplines of economics

Economics is sometimes presented as the most “scientific” of the social science disciplines.  It is mathematical, it involves sophisticated models, it makes use of enormous data sets, and it is invoked in the formulation of social and economic policies in much the way that the science of mechanics is invoked in the building of bridges.  So one might imagine that the foundations, objectivity, and empirical credibility of modern economics are now beyond question.

Each of these assumptions is debatable, however.  Daniel Hausman, a sympathetic critic and the leading authority in the philosophy of economics, casts doubt on the claims for precision and comprehensiveness of economic theory in The Inexact and Separate Science of Economics.  Essays in my volume, On the Reliability of Economic Models: Essays in the Philosophy of Economics, cast doubt on the validity and reliability of some of the computational models that are used in current economics, including especially the computable general equilibrium models (CGE).  And economists like Bruce Pietrykowski have pointed out that there are multiple traditions bundled into the history of contemporary economics, some of which have been overlooked to the detriment of the science of economics (The Political Economy of Consumer Behaviour: Contesting Consumption).  (See an earlier post on Pietrykowski’s work).

We need to have a better history and sociology of the formation of the disciplines of economics in order to have a better understanding of the scope and limits of current theory.  There is, of course, a major literature on the history of economic thought, including such beacons as Joseph Schumpeter’s History of Economic Analysis, Mark Blaug’s Economic Theory in Retrospect, and I. I. Rubin’s History of Economic Thought.  (Rubin saw the muzzle-end of economic history, by being executed by Stalin in 1937 for crimes against the state.)  But traditional approaches to the history of economic thought almost always look for synthesis and logical progression; so the account that we often get represents the development of economics as a fairly linear evolution from the physiocrats to the classical political economists to the marginalist revolution to Keynes and general equilibrium theory.  The differences, contingencies, and choices that occurred along the way tend to disappear.

What the sociology of science can add to the history of science is a detailed, empirical examination of the institutions, processes, networks, and knowledge systems of a discipline.  Sociologists like Robert Merton (link) and Andrew Abbott (Chaos of Disciplines) attempt to provide a micro-level account of the development and workings of a scientific discipline, using the empirical and theoretical tools of sociology.  And this approach sheds a great deal of light on the way the particular field of science works, as well as providing greater granularity to the status of scientific claims within various disciplines.  (It should be said that the current generation of historians of science also sometimes take this kind of micro-level view — for example, Peter Galison’s treatment of Einstein and Poincaré in Einstein’s Clocks, Poincare’s Maps: Empires of Time.  But to date this hasn’t been true of historians of the social sciences.)

Marion Fourcade’s profoundly innovative book, Economists and Societies: Discipline and Profession in the United States, Britain, and France, 1890s to 1990s, takes a sociologist’s toolkit to work on the disciplines of economics.  Here is a good statement of her fundamental thesis:

Economics arose everywhere.  But everywhere it was distinctive.  If we look back just a few decades, we see that the institutionalization of economics expertise in science, policy, or business took different routes across nations.  Scientific and practical knowledge about the economy was conceptualized and institutionalized in different ways in different places, and for identifiable reasons. (3)

What is some of the evidence for thinking that “economics” is different in different national settings?  Here is a good example of an empirical approach a sociologist can take to this question.  Fourcade cites opinion surveys that have been conducted of “professional economists” in seven European and North American countries, on topics relevant to economic theory and policy.  For most of these questions there are significant differences between U.S., French, U.K., and Canada economists — documenting the idea that there are meaningful differences in the theoretical presuppositions of economists in those national cultures.  Here are a couple of questions from table 0-2 (p. 6):

Tariffs and quotas reduce welfare

Agree          U.S. 95%  France 70%   U.K. 84%

Disagree      U.S.   3%  France 27%   U.K. 15%

Reducing the influence of regulatory authorities (e.g., in air traffic) would improve the efficiency of the economy

Agree          U.S. 75%  France 37%   Canada 56%

Disagree      U.S. 21%  France 56%   Canada 43%

On these two questions (only a subset of eight in the table), economists in the U.S. and France demonstrate very significant differences of judgment on very basic economic policy issues, with U.K. and Canada falling between them.  The regulatory question is particularly revealing.  So survey research — a very basic tool of sociological research — turns out to have useful and surprising results when directed at the profession of economics.

Another tool that Fourcade uses to good advantage is something that Merton emphasized as well: examination of scientific biographies and interviews with current practitioners.  How did specific influential individuals develop into professional economists?  And what can the sociologist learn about the profession from these detailed intellectual itineraries?

Fourcade is careful and reflective in formulating the methodology she pursues in the book.  She makes use of the comparative framework employed by comparative historical sociologists in other fields as well; she singles out the U.S., U.K., and France as specific national cases within which she attempts to reconstruct the specific values, attitudes, and institutions that defined “economics” as a profession.  (This is methodologically similar to Frank Dobbin’s study of “policy cultures” in these same three countries; Forging Industrial Policy: The United States, Britain, and France in the Railway Age.)  She calls her approach “critical organized comparison” (13).

This approach defines the bulk of the book; Fourcade provides chapters on the economic cultures of professional economics in the U.S., U.K., and France, in which she examines in detail the academic institutions, policy environments, and epistemic assumptions that went into the creation of economics as a discipline of knowledge and expertise in each country.  She argues that each national setting represents a “constellation of practices” that distinguishes it from the others; so that the profession of economics is defined differently in the three settings.  Here are the components of the French constellation as she sorts it out: limited private jurisdiction, segmentation of economics training, legitimacy of technocratic generalist discourse, state jurisdiction dominant, and late and piecemeal institutionalization (16).

A key insight in the book is Fourcade’s insistence that economic knowledge, economic policies, economic expertise, and the profession of economics are jointly specified within a specific national culture.  They are socially constructed in ways that she makes perfectly understandable.  These social products are interrelated, and they are differently understood in the separate cultures studied.  “In short, we want to examine the historical conditions that helped crystallize the very idea of what economics is, and attend closely to changing local classifications and representations of this idea over time” (13).

She also pays close attention to the institutions through which economists are trained and validated — another key sociological insight:

The structure of the academic system and the place of economics education and research within it are particularly relevant to understanding the nature of economic knowledge production in each country.  As an academically organized form of knowledge, and a training ground for a vast array of business and administrative professions, economics is shaped by broader research and higher education ecologies. (22-23)

Here is a nice statement of how she sees her work hanging together:

This book has been particularly concerned with one specific type of affinity, that which ties knowledge to its social setting.  Instead of focusing–in Foucault’s manner– on what makes particular sorts of knowledge possible at a given historical moement, I have thus tried to analyze interactions between forms of political organization and forms of knowledge making within specific social contexts. (239)

Economists and Societies is a very appealing piece of sociology, and it is a highly insightful contribution to a very fundamental question: what is the status of economic knowledge?

(Related work on the significant differences that can be discerned across national traditions of a social science discipline is being done for the discipline of sociology as well; see this post on national differences in the discipline of sociology, highlighting work by Gabriel Abend.)

Styles of epistemology in world sociology

One of the basic organizing premises of the sociology of science is that there are meaningful differences in the conduct of a given area of science across separate communities, all the way down.  There is no pure language and method of science into which diverse research traditions ought to be translated.  Rather, there are complex webs of assumptions about ontology, evidence, observation, theory, method, and reasoning; and there are highly significant differences in the institutions through which scientific activities are undertaken and young scientists are trained.  Sociologists and philosophers such as Thomas Kuhn, David Bloor, Paul Feyerabend, Bruno Latour, and Wiebe Bijker have attempted to lay out the reasons for thinking these forms of difference are likely to be ubiquitous, and several of them have done detailed work in specific areas of scientific knowledge to demonstrate some of these differences.  (Here is a post on Kuhn’s approach to the history of science.)

In this vein is a genuinely fascinating and important article by Gabriel Abend with the evocative title, “Styles of Sociological Thought: Sociologies, Epistemologies, and the Mexican and U.S. Quests for Truth” (Sociological Theory 24:1, 2006).  Abend attempts to take the measure of a particularly profound form of difference that might be postulated within the domain of world sociology: the idea that different national traditions of sociology may embody different epistemological frameworks that make their results genuinely incommensurable.  Abend offers an empirical analysis of the possibility that the academic disciplines of Mexican and U.S. sociology embody significantly different assumptions when it comes to articulating the role and relationships between “evidence” and “theory.”  Here is how he summarizes his findings:

[The] main argument is that the discourses of Mexican and U.S. sociologies are consistently underlain by significantly different epistemological assumptions. In fact, these two Denkgemeinschaften are notably dissimilar in at least four clusters of variables … : their thematic, theoretical, and methodological preferences; their historical development and intellectual influences; the society, culture, and institutions in which they are embedded; and the language they normally use.(2)

The core of Abend’s analysis is an empirical study involving content analysis of four leading sociology journals in Mexico and the U.S. and sixty articles, randomly chosen through a constrained process.  He analyzes the articles with respect to the practices that each represents when it comes to the use of empirical evidence and sociological theory.  And he finds that the differences between the Mexican articles and the U.S. articles are highly striking.  Consider this tabulation of results on the question of the role of evidence and theory taken by the two sets of articles:

His central findings include these:

  • U.S. and Mexican sociologists have very different understandings of “theory” and the ways in which theories relate to data.  U.S. sociologists conform to Merton’s idea of “theories of the middle range” in which a theory relates fairly directly to empirical observations through its deductive consequences.  Mexican sociologists tend to use theories and theoretical concepts as ways of interpreting or thematizing large social phenomena.
  • U.S. sociologists see the burden of their work to fall in the category of testing or confirming sociological hypotheses.  Mexican sociologists see the burden of their work in detailing and analyzing complex social phenomena at a fairly factual level.  “93 percent of M-ART are principally driven by the comprehension of an empirical problem” (10).
  • U.S. sociologists are strongly wedded to the hypothetico-deductive model of confirmation and explanation.  This model plays very little role in the arguments presented in the sample of articles from Mexican sociologists.
  • U.S. and Mexican sociologists have very different assumptions about “scientific objectivity”.  U.S. authors aspire to impersonal neutrality, whereas Mexican authors embrace the fact that their analysis proceeds from a particular perspective.
  • U.S. authors attempt to exclude value judgments; Mexican author incorporate value judgments into their empirical analysis.  “Among U.S. sociologists, the standard reference is Weber’s purportedly sharp distinctions between value and fact, Wertfreiheit (value freedom or ethical neutrality) and Wertbezogenheit (value relevance or value relatedness), and context of discovery and context of justification” (22).   Concepts such as “oppression,” “exploitation,” and “domination” are used as descriptive terms in many of the Mexican research articles.

Here is a striking tabulation of epistemic differences between the two samples:

Abend believes that these basic epistemological differences between U.S. and Mexican sociology imply a fundamental incommensurability of results:

To consider the epistemological thesis, let us pose the following thought experiment. Suppose a Mexican sociologist claims p and a U.S. sociologist claims not-p.  Carnap’s or Popper’s epistemology would have the empirical world arbitrate between these two theoretical claims. But, as we have seen, sociologists in Mexico and the United States hold different stances regarding what a theory should be, what an explanation should look like, what rules of inference and standards of proof should be stipulated, what role evidence should play, and so on. The empirical world could only adjudicate the dispute if an agreement on these epistemological presuppositions could be reached (and there are good reasons to expect that in such a situation neither side would be willing to give up its epistemology). Furthermore, it seems to me that my thought experiment to some degree misses the point. For it imagines a situation in which a Mexican sociologist claims p and a U.S. sociologist claims not-p, failing to realize that that would only be possible if the problem were articulated in similar terms. However, we have seen that Mexican and U.S. sociologies also differ in how problems are articulated—rather than p and not-p, one should probably speak of p and q.  I believe that Mexican and U.S. sociologies are perceptually and semantically incommensurable as well. (27)

Though Abend’s analysis is comparative, I find his analysis of the epistemological assumptions underlying the U.S. cases to be highly insightful all by itself.  In just a few pages he captures what seem to me to be the core epistemological assumptions of the conduct of sociological research in the U.S.  These include:

  • the assumption of “general regular reality” (the assumption that social phenomena are “really” governed by underlying regularities)
  • deductivism 
  • epistemic objectivity
  • a preference for quantification and abstract vocabulary
  • separation of fact and value; value neutrality

Abend is deliberately agnostic about the epistemic value of the two approaches; he is explicit in saying that he is interested in discovering the differences, not assessing the relative truthfulness of the two approaches.  But we cannot really escape the most basic question: where does truth fall in this analysis?  What is the status of truth claims in the two traditions?  Are there rational grounds for preferring one body of statements over the other, or for favoring one of these epistemologies over its alternative north or south?

This is important and original work.  Abend’s research on this topic is an effort well worth emulating; it adds a great deal of depth and nuance to the effort to provide a philosophy of sociology.  I hope there will be further analysis along these lines by Abend and others.

(There is a lot of social observation and theory in the image above — and no pretense of academic objectivity.  Class opposition, global property systems, and a general impression of deep social conflict pervade the image.)

Pragmatic inquiry

Intellectuals are sometimes accused of being out of touch with the real world. But there is a strong thread of intellectual life that proceeds on the basis of a commitment to linking thought to action, theory to practical outcomes. Karl Marx and John Dewey had at least this in common: they both urged intellectuals to commit themselves to joining the intellectual realm with the solution of humanity’s challenges. This isn’t a universal view; pure physicists and mathematicians, many philosophers, and many theorists of the arts would adamantly defend the pure search for truth and creativity, no matter what connection these may have to the improvement of humanity. But at least some thinkers and researchers see the purpose of their work as bringing the leverage of science and the mind into engagement with practical human problems. We might refer to this as a “pragmatic” perspective on inquiry.

What is involved in pursuing a life of inquiry within a pragmatic perspective? Most basically, it is the idea that inquiry can make a practical difference in the world. According to a pragmatic perspective, science is not a free-standing system for its own sake; rather, science serves humanity. There should be consequences that flow from research and inquiry that somehow or other lead to resolution of problems that we care about. This suggests a loose priority for “problem-directed research” over “curiosity-driven research.” And a pragmatic orientation implies that the researcher should design his/her research activities in an intelligent portfolio around a significant set of pressing human problems.

A second implication of “pragmatism” in research comes down to expectations about methodology and epistemology. A pragmatic conception of research defines the epistemic values of research results “practically.” A theory or set of measurements should be “good enough” for the needs of the problem, rather than aspiring to an abstract notion of perfect precision. The standards of precision and veridicality are set by the needs of the problem to be solved, rather than existing as free-standing requirements of ever-greater precision. (Sometimes, of course, greater precision is of great practical importance.)

But there is a little bit of a paradox underlying these comments. We don’t generally know what kind of theoretical advance will be needed or constructive in application to a particular problem. Solving problems requires valid understandings of the mechanisms that give rise to these problems; but discovery of underlying mechanisms may proceed best from apparently unrelated theoretical research. So this seems to imply that the research community as a whole will be most pragmatically successful, if there is some division of labor within the community between “curiosity-driven researchers” and “problem-solver researchers.” (This seems to correspond roughly to the distinction between pure research and applied research.)

There is of course an important current of American philosophy that is labeled “American pragmatism.” (See Christopher Hookway’s excellent essay in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, and Israel Scheffler, Four Pragmatists: A Critical Introduction to Pierce, James, Mead and Dewey.) How do the central ideas and exponents of this school — Peirce, James, Dewey, perhaps eventually Goodman, Quine, and Rorty — relate to the discussion to this point? William James puts the point of pragmatism in terms of a theory of semantics (link): we can explore the meaning of concepts in terms of the practical difference one interpretation or the other makes in the realm of ordinary experience. John Dewey emphasizes the practical connections that exist between knowing and living (Experience and Nature). Neither of these ideas exactly captures the sense of “pragmatic” that is at work here, though; the idea that there is a human point to inquiry, and that the investigator needs to pay attention to both ends of the “theory/world” dichotomy.

It is also interesting to realize that there is a parallel theme in Marx’s thought. Marx’s insistence on the unity of theory and practice falls in this general area, as does his eleventh thesis on Feuerbach: “The philosophers have sought only to understand the world; the point, however, is to change it” (link). Marx didn’t diminish the importance or value of theoretical research; but he insisted on the importance of keeping in mind the relationship between theory and practice, between knowledge and social improvement.

The Chicago school of sociology provides a good illustration of a pragmatic approach to social research. (See Martin Bulmer, The Chicago School of Sociology.) The Chicago sociologists regularly went back and forth between assessment of the current material and social problems that the city of Chicago was experiencing, and formulation of theories and analytical constructs that might assist in better understanding and addressing these problems. (It is interesting that John Dewey was an important early influence on the formation of the Chicago school.)

So there is a coherent position to take concerning the relationship between intellectual inquiry and practical outcomes. We might say that one of the responsibilities of intellectuals is to assure that their work ultimately has value, and an important manifestation of value is “contribution to the solution of practical human problems.” However, it is also true that there are other ways in which intellectual work can have value; so the pragmatic approach cannot be considered to be an exclusive one. Moreover, the point made above, that pure imaginative and theoretical investigation can often have great practical value assures that there is a continuing point to pure research as well. Proof of the Gödel incompleteness theorem didn’t have direct practical consequences for computing, so far as I know; and yet it is unmistakeably a valuable result of human reasoning, and one that sheds strikingly new light on the nature of mathematical truth.

China’s agricultural history

Consider the discipline of the agricultural history of China. The following represent a sampling of research problems concerning the social and economic history of rural China in recent research:

  • What were the patterns of population growth, growth of cultivated land, and growth of net output, in traditional China? (Perkins 1973)
  • What was the distribution of land tenure arrangements in north China? (Arrigo 1986)
  • What was the structure of rural marketing hierarchies? (Skinner 1964, 1965)
  • What was the urbanization rate in 1893? (Skinner 1977)

These are all factual questions about features of economy and social institutions. The findings on these topics are, of course, fallible and revisable.

A core study in Chinese economic history is Dwight Perkins’ Agricultural development in China, 1368-1968 (1973). This study plays the role in China studies that Deane and Cole (British Economic Growth 1688-1959) plays in English studies. Perkins attempts to provide estimates of population growth, cultivated land, and grain output for a period from the late fourteenth century through the mid-twentieth century. Perkins’ central thesis is that China’s population increased five- or six-fold between the late fourteenth and early nineteenth centuries, and that the agricultural system was able to keep pace with this increase in equal measure by expanding cultivated acreage and by raising the yield per acre (1973:13).

So what kinds of historical and empirical data provide a basis for these sorts of estimates?

For the pre-twentieth century period, Perkins’ findings are largely based on primary research: Ming-Ch’ing tax records on population and cultivated acreage, local gazetteers, agricultural handbooks published over past centuries, memorials by local officials to the Emperor, and so forth. He also refers to a large volume of Chinese and Japanese research on the agrarian history of China. The local gazettes provide a great deal of information about the timing and location of markets; commodity prices; land tenure arrangements; and the activities of local elites.

For the twentieth century there are a different set of sources available: rural studies by American or European investigators (Buck, Tawney, and Gamble); data collected by the China Maritime Customs bureau; provincial gazetteers compiled by the Ministry of Industries; and a series of village studies of North China undertaken by the Japanese South Manchurian Railway Company. The earliest twentieth-century studies of the Chinese rural economy in English include Tawney (1932), Buck (1930, 1937), and Gamble (1963). Tawney and Buck provide statistical data describing the state of the Chinese rural economy in the early twentieth century. An important source in current economic research on the early twentieth century is the Mantetsu surveys. These were Japanese field studies conducted by the Japanese South Manchurian Railway Company during 1935-42, and provide extensive detail concerning the structure and organization of the rural economy in selected parts of North China.

In addition to these source materials, there are a number of core studies that have appeared since 1950 that function in much the way that was seen in English economic history. They represent a synthesis of primary data available at the time of publication which later researchers are authorized to draw upon in support of other claims. In addition to Perkins, these include Gamble (1968), Myers (1970), Rawski (1972), Skinner (1964, 1965), and Huang (1984). There is also an extensive literature in Japanese on Chinese economic history.

Current economic history of China depends on previously underutilized sources–local archives, government records, Japanese studies, and the like. Thus Huang (1984) makes extensive use of the Mantetsu surveys, Board of Punishment reports (1984:47), and county archives (the Baxian archives; 1984:51). William Rowe’s study of the economic and social history of the city of Hankow is even more closely dependent on primary sources: county gazettes, records of English companies (e.g., Jardine’s), and local and provincial government records. This feature may reflect the differences between stages of development of the two disciplines; in the China case there are still extensive primary sources that have not been investigated, and there are correspondingly large and important questions about Ming and Ch’ing economic history which have not been addressed, let alone resolved, in the existing literature.

Perkins pays careful attention to the problem of validating the key estimates of economic activity upon which his analysis depends, and he refers to some of the ways in which he attempts to check the validity of these sources:

I have, in fact, frequently judged the validity of data for the decades and centuries prior to the 1950’s on whether these earlier figures were consistent with those for 1957 and with historical developments in the intervening periods. (Perkins 1969:10)

Perkins gives a consistency test for his estimates of population and acreage:

If the pre-modern estimates of provincial population and acreage had been arrived at by arbitrary methods, one would expect yield data derived from such figures to rise in certain periods and fall in others with no apparent pattern. . . . But most of the estimates in Table II.3 for 1850 bear a close relation to the 1957 figures. (1969:20)

Perkins’ research predates the current debate about “involution” in the field of Chinese economic history; but his estimates (and those of Bozhong Li) set the parameters for much of that debate. (See “The Involution Debate” for more on this recent controversy.)


Arrigo, Linda Gail. 1986. Landownership Concentration in China: The Buck Survey Revisited. Modern China 12 (3):259-360.
Buck, John Lossing. 1930. Chinese farm economy. Chicago, Ill.,: The University of Chicago press.
———. 1937. Land Utilization in China. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Fogel, Joshua. 1987. Liberals and Collaborators: The Research Department of the South Manchurian Railway Company. Association for Asian Studies.
Gamble, Sidney D. 1968. Ting Hsien; a north China rural community. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press.
Huang, Philip C. C. 1985. The Peasant Economy and Social Change in North China. Stanford: Stanford University Press.
Huang, Philip C. 1990. The peasant family and rural development in the Yangzi Delta, 1350-1988. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press.
Li, Bozhong. 1998. Agricultural Development in Jiangnan, 1620-1850. London: Palgrave Macmillan.
Myers, Ramon H. 1970. The Chinese Peasant Economy. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
Rawski, Evelyn Sakakida. 1972. Agricultural Change and the Peasant Economy of South China. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
Rowe, William T. 1984. Hankow: Commerce and Society in a Chinese City 1796-1889 Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press.
Skinner, G. William. 1964-65. Marketing and Social Structure in Rural China. Journal of Asian Studies 24 (1-3).
Skinner, G. William. 1977. Regional Urbanization in Nineteenth-Century China. In The City in Late Imperial China, edited by G. W. Skinner.
Tawney, R. H. 1966 [1932]. Land and Labor in China. Boston: Beacon.

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