Comparative life satisfaction

We tend to think of the past century as being a time of great progress when it comes to the quality of life — for ordinary people as well as the privileged. Advances in science, technology, and medicine have made life more secure, predictable, productive, educated, and healthy. But in what specific ways is ordinary life happier or more satisfying for ordinary people in 2000 compared to their counterparts in 1900 or 1800 — or 200, for that matter?

There are a couple of things that are pretty obvious. Nutrition is one place to start: the mass population of France, Canada, or the United States is not subject to periodic hunger, malnutrition, or famine. This is painfully not true for many poor parts of the world — Sudan, Ethiopia, and Bangladesh, for example. But for the countries of the affluent world, the OECD countries, hunger has been largely conquered for most citizens.

Second, major advances in health preservation and the treatment of illness have taken place. We know how to prevent cholera, and we know how to treat staph infections with antibiotics. Terrible diseases such as polio have been eradicated, and we have effective treatments for some kinds of previously incurable cancers. So the basic health status of people in the affluent 21st-century world is substantially better than that of previous centuries — with obvious consequences for our ability to find satisfaction in life activities.

These advances in food security and public health provision have resulted in a major enhancement to quality of life — life expectancy in France, Germany, or Costa Rica has increased sharply. And many of the factors underlying much of this improvement is not high-tech, but rather takes the form of things like improvement of urban sanitation and relatively low-cost treatment (antibiotics for children’s ear infections, for example).

So living longer and more healthily is certainly an advantage in our quality of life relative to conditions one or two centuries ago.

Improvements in labor productivity in agriculture and manufacturing have resulted in another kind of enhancement of modern quality of life. It is no longer necessary for a large percentage of humanity to perform endless and exhausting labor in order to feed the rest of us. And because of new technologies and high labor productivity, almost everyone has access to goods that extend the enjoyment of life and our creative talents. Personal computing and communications, access to the world’s knowledge and culture through the Internet, and ability to travel widely all represent opportunities that even the most privileged could not match one or two centuries ago.

But the question of life satisfaction doesn’t reduce to an inventory of the gadgets we can use. Beyond the minimum required for sustaining a healthy human body, the question of satisfaction comes down to the issue of what we do with the tools and resources available to us and the quality of our human relationships. How do we organize our lives in such a way as to succeed in achieving goals that really matter?

Amartya Sen’s economic theory of “capabilities and realizations” supports a pretty good answer to these questions about life satisfaction (Development as Freedom). Each person has a bundle of talents and capabilities. These talents can be marshalled into a meaningful life plan. And the satisfying life is one where the person has singled out some important values and goals and has used his/her talents to achieve these goals. (This general idea underlies J. S. Mill’s theory of happiness as well in Utilitarianism.)

By this standard, it’s not so clear that life in the twenty-first century is inherently more satisfying than that in the eighteenth or the second centuries. When basic needs were satisfied — nutrition, shelter, health — the opportunities for realizing one’s talents in meaningful effort were no less extensive than they are today. This is true for the creative classes — obviously. The creative product of Mill’s or Hugo’s generation was no less substantial or satisfying than our own. But perhaps it is true across the board. The farmer-gardener who shapes his/her land over the course of a lifetime has created something of great personal value and satisfaction. The mason or smith may have taken more pride and satisfaction in his life’s work than does the programmer or airline flight attendant. The parent who succeeded in nurturing a family in 1800 County Cork may have found the satisfactions as great or greater than parents in Boston or Seattle today.

So we might say that the only unmistakeable improvement in quality of life in the past century is in the basics — secure nutrition, decent education, and improved health during the course of a human life. And the challenge of the present is to make something meaningful and sustaining of the resources we are given.

Bad behavior

How do we explain the occurrence of anti-social behavior that we witness in everyday life? For that matter, how do we explain the more common occurrence of good behavior?

There are numerous extreme examples of anti-social behavior. But more prosaic examples are more interesting.

  • A passenger on a jet airliner becomes enraged at being denied additional alcohol; screams at and punches flight attendants; attempts to open the hatch at 20,000 feet.
  • A couple continue to talk loudly on their cellphones — during a blacktie dinner, interfering with the keynote speaker’s presentation. When asked to be quiet, they say indignantly, “this is important.”
  • A business traveler marches to the front of the security line and squeezes in front, saying, “I’m in a rush.”
  • A parent enters a crowded elevator with a three-year-old child and stands by as the child presses all 15 buttons.

Most people are “polite”. Most people treat others with consideration and respect. Most recognize the limits imposed on their behavior by the needs, wants and rights of others. But some do not — they behave badly.

I’m mostly interested here in the minor forms of bad behavior — disturbing or endangering others, confronting others with aggressively rude behavior, taking more than a reasonable amount of “space” in public settings. Behaving boorishly is what I’m talking about — noisy, intrusive, rude, and self-centered actions that impose on others or that greatly privilege one’s own immediate wants. This is the kind of behavior that once was attributed to American tourists, though today it seems to be the monopoly of no particular nationality. (I’ve just been on vacation, so I’ve been exposed to a lot of it.)

So now to hypotheses. Perhaps people behave badly because —

  • They don’t see how their behavior affects other people.
  • They haven’t internalized the norms defining appropriate behavior in public.
  • They reason that the norms don’t apply to them in these circumstances.
  • They overvalue their own importance in a social setting. “My needs are more important than yours.”
  • They think “I deserve this — I’ve worked for it and these other people can take it or leave it.”

What these hypotheses amount to is either a failure to recognize the nature of one’s behavior in the circumstances, a failure to have adequately internalized the relevant social norms of behavior, an inability to recognize the legitimate and normal wants of others, or combinations of all these.

This subject is relevant to “understandingsociety” because it fundamentally has to do with social behavior, norms, and the cognitive-practical frameworks through which people generate their actions. In order to understand this behavior we need to know how people understand their own presence within a social setting. We need to know how they construct an ongoing representation along these lines “What’s going on here? What’s my role in this social encounter? What’s expected of me? How much entitlement do I have to shape the encounter, versus the others present?” And we need to know how important conformance to local norms is to them. The oilman talking too loudly in the dining room at the Paris Ritz-Carlton may not know that local standards call for more decorous conversation, he may be thinking he’s in his own private club back in Houston — or he may just not care about the standards and the peace and quiet of the other guests.

Seen properly, then, this is an occasion for verstehen — interpretation of the puzzling actions of others in terms of an extended hypothesis about the states of mind and motive from which the action emanated and “makes sense”. And there is a lot of social cognition — or failures of cognition — that goes into bad behavior.

Cognizing society

“Society” is a large abstract whole — more abstract, really, than “nature”. We as social beings perceive very little of this whole directly, though we do perceive fairly directly many local social facts, social interactions, and social relations. We are often astute readers of the social situations around us — what our students may be expressing with their ironic looks during a lecture, what the car mechanic may be thinking about the clueless car owner with bad brakes, or what is likely to happen when it is announced that 15 percent of employees will be laid off in our company. So we have lots of social knowledge. But our knowledge and experience of “society” are highly partial and local. Many aspects of the social world are invisible to me as a specific, situated person — because they are remote from me spatially (I don’t know how farmers behave with each other in the Oklahoma Panhandle), because they are outside my realm culturally or socially (I don’t know how homeless people cope with illness), and possibly because they do not fit easily into the categories of understanding that I bring to my perceptions. (If I have not been exposed to abusive behavior by police in impoverished neighborhoods, I may not perceive the threatening body language of a group of police officers as they move through a crowded neighborhood.)

This is for me a large part of the fascination of the topics raised in this blog, UnderstandingSociety. Most postings here are concerned with how we perceive social affairs; how we organize these perceptions into representations of larger social constructs; and how we attempt to make sense of what we perceive and organize — that is, how we understand the social world that we inhabit. And these are problems for observers at every level — social science experts, social policy designers, and ordinary people.

Much of this description has as much to do with ordinary people making sense of their social world as with social scientists constructing complex theories and explanations of the social world. But this is appropriate, because I don’t think there is a difference in kind between the two kinds of social cognition. Or rather, there is a difference between ordinary perception of society and social science; but it is a difference of degree of rigor about evidence and hypothesis rather than a difference in the nature of the representations and inferences that either ordinary people or scientists arrive at.

(Whereas one might make a case for holding that everyday “physics” is different in principle from mathematical and theoretical physics. Folk social knowledge is closer to official social science than folk knowledge of nature is to physics.)

So what are some of the aspects of social life that people observe directly? Take some of the fundamentals: family relations, race relations, or economic relations. Marie, a maid in a luxury hotel, has a perspective of several of these social categories. She has a very direct perspective on the employment relation — she is poorly paid, her supervisors are rough and disrespectful, and maybe she is subjected to a degree of sexual harassment on the job as well. (The nature of experience at this level of society is one of the interesting things we can learn from Barbara Ehrenreich’s book, Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America). Marie also has an interesting perspective on class relations in our society — the comings and goings of the affluent, some of their values, how they dress, and the ways that they treat people outside their circles. Further, since the imagined Marie is Haitian, she also has a perspective on race, culture, and ethnicity in America. And, if she is a thoughtful observer, she may well have organized these observations into some “theories” or mental frameworks about how capitalism works, how racial discrimination works, how class and status serve to structure interpersonal relations in places like restaurants or hotels, and what America is like. In other words, this maid is an active observer and interpreter of social structures, social behaviors, and social relations.

What is the epistemic status of Marie’s theories? We’ve already noticed two important features: first, her theories are derived from her own experience and observations; and second, they are partial and perspective-bound. The first point provides a basis for thinking that these theories are empirically grounded and worthy of attention. And the second point pretty much assures that they aren’t completely “true”. What looks like racial discrimination or condescension in the behavior of some of the guests may be something more complicated. Race relations in a factory may have a different feel and structure than race relations in a hotel. And it may be that Marie’s theories about what is happening are pretty accurate concerning her local workplace, but her theories about how and why this is happening may be wildly wrong.

In other words, Marie’s representations, based on observation and experience, are an important input into a somewhat more comprehensive sociology of work, race and class. The more comprehensive treatment ought to consider the experiences and cognitions on these subjects of a wide range of people — architects, taxi drivers, engineers, transit workers, and public school teachers, for example. And it ought to consider some of the mechanisms and structures through which these lived experiences are generated and inter-connected — the mechanisms of race, the structures of urban poverty, or the dynamics of discrimination in the professional workplace, for example.

One way of taking these observations in the direction of constructing a more complete effort at “cognizing” society is perhaps not quite right, but it is intriguing. It is the idea that one component of a “sociology of the present” might be an enormous “wiki” of lived experience, in which participants throughout society and at every level offer their perspectives on the nature of the social relations in which they operate and their hypotheses about how these connect to more distant social institutions. (The realist novels of Emile Zola — The Fortune of the Rougons and dozens of other novels in a chronological series about this hypothetical family — sound a bit like this in their nuanced depiction of the experiences of people of all classes in 19th century France.) What this comprehensive wiki of social life would not provide, is an organized set of ideas about social causation and structure — about why and how the patterns that are revealed come about.


Is there such a thing as a “mentalité” of a people, group, or nation? Take these young people at an Iowa potluck supper, or the traders pictured below at the Chicago Board of Trade — is there a midwestern mentalité that they can be said to share? What factors might be comprised by such a concept? What forms of variation must we expect within a group sharing a mentalité? And what are the social mechanisms through which these hypothesized forms of shared experience and thought are conveyed?

First, what does the concept mean? Most basically, a mentalité is thought to be a shared way of looking at the world and reacting to happenings and actions by others, distinctive from other groups and reasonably similar across a specific group.

This characterization folds together a number of things: cognitive frames for understanding the world, values and norms around which one organizes one’s actions, and a repertoire of reactions and responses to scenarios in the world. And all of this comes together in the form of a signature form of consciousness and behavior. A mentalité shapes the individual’s experience of the world, and it provides a specific foundation for one’s choices and actions as events in one’s world unfold. And a mentalité is thought to be shared across a social group, so it is not simply a set of individual and idiosyncratic mental attitudes.

Historians of the Annales school (see an earlier posting) gave special attention to the task of reconstructing the mentalité of people and groups of the past. Durkheim’s ideas about the social world seem to be in the background in the focus offered by Marc Bloch or Jacques Le Goff on this aspect of history’s tapestry — though the Annales approach seems to be more psychological than Durkheim would have preferred. Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie, for example, sought to capture the mentalité of the peasants of Montaillou in his book of that title, offering substantial commentary on their attitudes towards death, sex, and religion. Lawrence Stone writes of Le Roy Ladurie’s “sheer brilliance in the use of a unique document to reconstruct in fascinating detail a previously totally unknown world, the mental, emotional, sexual, and religious life of late thirteenth-century peasants in a remote Pyrennean village” (review in the New York Review of Books by Lawrence Stone of Le territoire de l’historien, The Territory of the Historian, and Carnival in Romans). And the sorts of features of “worldview” that are often invoked in describing a mentalité include superstition and magical beliefs. A fundamental clash of mentalités arises in the conjunction of traditional, magical thinking and modern, scientific thinking in the nineteenth century. (Relevant snippets from The Annales School: Critical Assessments can be found here.)

Several questions are pressing when we consider this concept. First, is the governing idea of underlying variation of worldviews across cultures and times valid in any non-superficial sense? Trivially, of course, we recognize that tastes and morés vary across places and cultures. This was one of Montesquieu’s insights. But is there a more fundamental way in which Scots experience the world differently from Basques or Yoruba? Or are the differences associated with tastes and manners simply an overlay that sits on top of a more fundamental human similarity? This question pushes us towards the debate between advocates of “human nature” against the “historicists,” according to whom the most basic features of human cognition and action are contingent and historically shaped.

Let’s go out on a limb here for the moment and postulate that even fairly deep aspects of cognition and behavior are historically and culturally variable. Deep aspects of “human nature” are plastic and subject to historical construction. This leaves it open that there may be elements of common human experience while postulating a deep-running plasticity as well. And this leaves it open, in turn, that there is a useful place in historical analysis for the idea of a mentalité.

Second, we need to reflect upon the ways in which adherence to a mentalité should be expected to vary across individuals, places, and cohorts. And, of course, we should expect variation, since every human attribute comes in a range across a population — and even more so for learned traits. So if we think that a mentalité comprises a cognitive framework, a value system, and a set of expectations about behavior — we should also expect that there will be a range of ways in which these items are instantiated in different people within the same group.

Third, we need to attempt to trace out some of the mechanisms through which a mentalité is reproduced and maintained across generations and places. We need an account of the microfoundations of mentalité, along the lines of an earlier posting on social practices. We’ve already sketched some of these mechanisms in prior postings. But the fundamental idea is that there is a range of institutions through which children and young people acquire mental skills and content, both formal and informal — schooling, religious education, family practices, and local traditions, for example. So for there to be a persistent mentalité for a population, there must be a reasonably consistent delivery system across the population that transmits this ensemble of items. And sociologists and historians need to be able to uncover some of the specifics of these institutions.

And, fundamentally, how would we confirm the notion that a population possesses a mentalité? How would we support a claim like this: “medieval villagers of the Vosges possessed a mentalité that distinguished them from their modern counterparts and their contemporaries in other regions”? There are several answers we might give: Robert Darnton used some of the tools of ethnography to get at the thoughts of the agents of the great cat massacre in 1740. Or we might imagine a contemporary sociologist using some of the many-country surveys of values (World Values Survey) as a basis for judging that French and Italian people in 1960 possessed significantly different moral frameworks with respect to certain subjects. Or we might rely on our own acquaintance with multicultural friends — perhaps certain Danish people and certain Nigerians — and simply remark internally, “How differently they seem to perceive and react to the world.”

Finally, we might at least consider the idea that the globalization of communication, transportation, and education has substantially reduced the variability of worldviews and cognitive frameworks, so that modern consciousness is much more uniform than medieval consciousness and thought.

What people know

It is interesting to consider what kinds of social knowledge people need in their everyday lives.

This is clearly a question of scale. At the proximate and local level, people need to know how to interact with local social practices and institutions. We need to know how to behave in the doctor’s office, police station, and grocery store. We need to know whether the bus requires exact change. We need some way of understanding the provocative behavior of people we encounter — panhandlers, teenagers, people asking for directions or a match, strangers in a cafe striking up a conversation. (Think about how challenging each of these situations can be in a foreign city — and potentially how consequential.) And, of course, there is a wide range of organizational knowledge that we need in the workplace in order to function well within the organization.

So there are innumerable scripts we need to have in mind in order to navigate everyday life. Some of this knowledge has to do with the protocols of mundane institutions, and some of it involves an ability to interpret the intentions of other people as they seek to interact with us.

Now push back a level and consider another zone of important social knowledge — knowledge of larger institutional practices that we need to take into account as we plan for the more distant future. What choices can I make today that will benefit me tomorrow, or shelter me from risks the day after? For example — How does my retirement account work? What will the interest rate be on this variable rate mortgage in three years? How can my friends in the clubhouse or the statehouse help build my new consulting business? How secure is my job with this employer — should I be looking for work in a more predictable industry? (This might be a question a mechanical engineer asks herself in the auto industry today.)

Now push the zoom-slide another notch and consider the knowledge of the larger social environment that the citizen needs to arrive at political judgments. What is the reality of public schools? How many high school students graduate from high school each year? What is happening in the labor market — how much unemployment, how many new jobs are being created, what sectors and skills are in demand? How much hunger, poverty, and inequality is there in my region or state? What are the facts about the availability of health insurance within the general population? How much corruption and abuse of power is there within our government?

At roughly this level of abstraction are topics having to do with science and technology. How risky is nuclear power? How urgent a problem is global warming? What percentage of greenhouse gases stem from autos and what share from coal-fired electricity?

These last areas of knowledge are the most problematic. As we move up the scale from the face-to-face environment to knowledge of more distant social and environmental factors, it is almost certain that most people’s beliefs become hazier, less accurate, and less comprehensive. Our stereotyped representations of things like poverty, opportunity, schooling, and employment levels are notoriously incomplete and inaccurate. And maybe this is entirely predictable from a cognitive “cost-benefit” point of view. It may be that the personal cost of being ignorant of the extent of global climate change, poverty, or urban health deficits is low. But from a collective point of view, this widespread ignorance is disastrous. It is hard to see how an electoral consensus can emerge in support of policies that are intelligently designed to solve major problems if the great majority of voters lack an understanding of those problems.

And here is a large and important question: to what extent is it realistic to expect that the general public can become knowledgeable, at some level of approximation, about how their society works? Is it inevitable that most citizens will have a clear knowledge of their neighborhoods but a very limited and often erroneous knowledge of the broader society? Or is there some hope that universities, news media, and the internet can do a better job of providing a reasonably accurate representation of some of the most pressing social realities and problems, in such a way that the broad population will come to be better informed about the workings of contemporary society?

(See “Folk Sociology” for more on this theme.)

Prejudice and social framing

People bring highly contingent assumptions, beliefs, and frames to their reading of their social worlds. These framing assumptions are presumably the effect of prior life experiences and learning — this is what we can refer to as the social psychology of social perception.

(It is possible there is some degree of biology here as well; we can’t exclude the possibility that there is a natural-selection basis to a neurophysiology of social perception, as argued by the sociobiologists. The case is not resolved at present. Are there any social impulses that are hard-wired through our evolutionary history?)

Another thing we know about social cognition is that human beings are great storytellers. We can take a small detail and weave it into an orderly narrative. And we are likely to tell stories that play out our expectations, fears, or hopes. We interpret the events and behavior around us in ways that go vastly beyond the slender facts that we observe.

(There is probably a developed area of research on this particular feature of social cognition, analogous to the study of reading or pattern recognition, though I am unaware of such research. But it would go something like this: assemble a set of video clips of people acting and interacting without much explicit context, and ask the subjects to briefly describe what is going on. Insert various social cues and see how that changes the stories subjects construct — for example, change the actor’s clothing or adornments slightly.)

Now let’s see what the point is. I suggest that these features of human social cognition make prejudice and discriminiation a very common feature of social cognition. Take a small dimension of mistrust of strangers; add to this a slight propensity for being uncomfortable with difference; add the usual fact of the information sparsity available in most social interactions; and fold in the degree of fictionalizing and narrative construction that social cognition normally involves — and what are you likely to get? It seems credible that the resulting stories will often enough represent the other in terms that support prejudice, discrimination and fear. And it seems credible that these internalized stories, and the actions and consequences they produce, will reinforce and proliferate the prejudicial stories and behaviors.

This suggests a basis for expecting mechanisms of social cognition that are xenophobic, racist, homophobic, and sexist. It is an unpleasant possibility.

It also suggests that when we advocate for a society based on assumptions of trust, equality, and mutual respect — that we need to be considering as well how to create a learning environment that creates these cognitive habits. We shouldn’t assume that trust and equality are “natural” states of mind, but rather a set of cognitive habits that need to be specifically cultivated.

If this has some credibility, it probably gives some indications of what a non-xenophobic pedagogy ought to look like. It ought to work to provide more background knowledge about human differences — to fill in part of the data gap. It ought to work specifically to defuse the
origins of “stranger anxiety” — to work against the background of fear that structures many human interactions. And it ought to affirmatively make the case for equality among persons — to counteract a tendency for the group superiority stories to emerge.

In other words, a just and equalitarian society needs to be created. It isn’t an accident.

"Folk" sociology

All of us are sociologists, at some level. We have social concepts in terms of which we analyze the social world around us — “boss,” “working class guy,” “politician,” “evangelical”, “millennial generation”. (Stereotypes of groups defined in terms of race and class probably fall in that category.) We operate on the basis of stylized schemata about social causes — what sorts of things influence what other things. And we operate with some stylized social facts. (“Bad economic times make people more suspicious,” “Big cities are more unsafe than towns,” “Elections are decided by big campaign contributions,” “Midwestern people are more socially conservative than Californians.”) Putting all these sorts of assumptions together, we can say that we possess a conceptual framework and causal theory of the social world, which helps us to navigate the social relationships, conflicts, and needs that we have in ordinary life. Action proceeds on the basis of a representation of the world.

What this comes down to is the obvious point that humans are cognitive beings who undertake to conceptualize and explain the world around them; they come up with conceptual schemes and causal hypotheses about how things work, and they construct their plans and actions around these frameworks. We are “cognitive” — we undertake to represent the world around us, based on observation and the creation of organizing concepts. And, of course, many of those concepts and hypotheses are badly grounded; they don’t divide the world in a way that is really illuminating, or they offer stereotypes about how things work that aren’t actually true. (“Don’t bet on red — it’s come up four times in a row, so it’s not likely to come up next time.” That’s a false statement about a series of randomly generated red and black events, and the player who follows this rule will lose to the player who is guided by probability theory.)

This sort of everyday social cognition is similar to what philosophers of psychology call “folk psychology” — the ordinary categories of thought and action that we attribute to each other in order to describe and explain each other’s behavior (intention, belief, pain, anger, …). And philosophers have asked whether there is any relation at all between folk psychology and scientific psychology. (Ian Ravenscroft treats this issue in the philosophy of psychology in his article in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.) Some philosophers have argued that the most fundamental and scientifically satisfactory explanations of individual behavior will be couched in terms that bear no relation at all to the concepts of ordinary mentalistic psychology.

So what is the status of folk sociology? We can ask several questions about this common sense framework of social cognition and expectation. First, where does it come from? What are the social processes of learning through which we arrive at the specifics of the social assumptions and concepts that we employ? Second, to what extent are there important differences across individuals with respect to the features of their social frameworks? (For example, we can explore whether there are cultural and national differences, gender and race differences, or generational differences across different groups and cohorts.) Third, we can examine the degree to which these categories and assumptions are rigid, or whether they are open to modification through additional experience — “learning”.

A different question, though, is also important: What is the relationship between these ordinary sociological frameworks and scientific sociology? Is there a relationship at all? Can scientific sociology learn from common sense? And can common sense improve its grasp of the social world through interaction with scientific sociology? Might we speculate that ordinary common sense does a fairly good job of picking out the salient features of the social world? Or, on the contrary, might we judge that the categories of “folk” sociology are about as misleading as pre-modern, magical concepts of nature? Or perhaps, might we say that rigorous scientific sociology can serve to refine and improve upon our “folk” concepts of the social world — lead us to abandon categories such as race, for example, in our efforts to understand Obama, Michael Jordan, and DuBois?

The example of the natural sciences would lead us to one set of answers on these questions: “folk” knowledge of the natural world was not in fact a good guide to scientific physics, and the concepts of modern physics bear little intelligible relationship to common sense concepts of ordinary experience of tables and chairs. One way of putting this is to say that physics concepts are “theoretical”, whereas common sense concepts are “phenomenological” (based on immediate experience).

Whether that is a valid distinction or not in physics, it probably is not a valid distinction in the social sciences. Social life is more transparent than the physical world; so our best scientific understanding of the social ought to bear some understandable relationship to the categories of ordinary social cognition. Common sense may not be highly specific in theorizing the concept of “power” in social life; but the phenomena of power are in fact fairly visible, and ordinary common sense captures these phenomena reasonably well. It is possible to paraphrase virtually any esoteric sociological thesis about power, in terms that are understandable in ordinary social experience. And likewise for exploitation, alienation, disaffection, racism, prejudice, discrimination, and affinity groups (to list a grab bag of sociological concepts): each of these concepts can be related to ordinary experiences and ordinary, common sense categories of social interaction.

So here is a possible answer to our original question — how do ordinary social concepts relate to those of scientific sociology? We can say that there ought to be a critical but intelligible relationship between the two sets of concepts. Scientific sociology can point out the limitations and blind spots of ordinary ways of representing the social world. But ordinary social observation and conceptualization constitute the real content of sociological hypothesis and theory. So both systems of social knowledge fruitfully interact with each other, and — ideally — lead to a rising level of competence in cognizing and understanding society.

A non-naturalistic approach to social science

The most basic error that is conveyed by the naturalist framework into the premises of sociology—the folk epistemology—that was shared by Durkheim, Mill, and Comte, is the assumption that all phenomena are subject to laws; that the relevant laws are abstract and obscure; and that there is an orderly relationship between gross phenomena and a rising level of natural laws that embrace those observable phenomena. The task of scientific study is to discover this rising pyramid of regularities and laws (motions of planets ENCOMPASSED BY elliptical orbits ENCOMPASSED BY gravitational attraction ENCOMPASSING other phenomena such as tides). This model is then used to frame the sociologist’s expectations of the orderliness of sociological observations and regularities. The social world is assumed to be a system of phenomena governed by hidden regularities and causal laws; the task of social science research is to discover these governing regularities and laws. . However, this conception of the world does not fit the domain of the social at all.

We can provide an alternative social ontology—a better grounding for sociological research. The social sciences could have begun with a greater degree of agnosticism about the orderliness of social phenomena. We could have started with the observations that—

  • Social phenomena are created by human beings (deliberately, intentionally, or unknowingly)
  • Human beings behave as a result of their socially constructed beliefs, values, goals, attitudes, modes of reasoning, emotions, …
  • There is a wide range of variation that is visible among social arrangements and institutions, across cultures, across space, and across time (long duration and short duration)
  • Social institutions, organizations, and structures have a degree of observable stability across cohorts and generations of the human beings who make them up
  • There are social causes, and they are ordinary, observable, and mundane. They are variants of the agent-structure nexus.

These initial ontological observations would have led us to some framing expectations about the social and about the likely results of social science inquiry:

  • contingency of social outcomes
  • Variation of social trajectory
  • Plasticity of social institutions
  • Heterogeneity among instances of a “type” of social thing
  • No “laws of motion” for development or modernization

And we might have set several research objectives for the social sciences:

  • To study in some detail how various institutions work in different social settings (empirical, fact-driven observation and analysis)
  • To study human behavior, motivation, and action – again, with sensibility to variation, without the assumption that there is one ultimate human nature or governing mode of behavior.
  • To be as aware of variation and plasticity as we are attentive to the discovery of social regularities
  • To discover and theorize some of the causal mechanisms that can be observed within social processes
  • To identify weak regularities of behavior and institution through observation
  • To theorize these regularities in terms of agent-structure dynamics; aggregation of features of decision-making; unintended consequences. For example, free rider phenomena (economists) and self-regulating commons (common-property resource institutions)

We then might have arrived at a different conception of what a “finished” social science might involve: not a deductive theory with a few high-level generalizations and laws, but rather an “agent-based simulation” that embodies as many of the characteristics and varieties of behavior as possible into the simulation, and then projects different possible scenarios. The ideal might have been “sim-society” rather than deductive-nomological theory.

How does philosophy help guide the sciences?

Philosophy observes the sciences. But it has also played a role in the formation of the sciences. And this is especially true in the case of the social sciences.

The idea here is an elusive one. It is that the founders of the social sciences – perhaps similar to all intellectual or creative founders – possessed framing assumptions, presuppositions, or intuitions about what their eventual product ought to look like. Various ideas capture some of this: presupposition, paradigm, guiding framework, tacit knowledge, or “style”. A style of technology or architecture is a “mindset” that guides the creator into affirming one set of choices and denying another; ruling out certain solutions to a problem while favoring others. And many of these ideas derived from philosophy — for example, empiricism, rationalism, deductivism, atomism, or reductionism.

The nineteenth- and twentieth-century founders of the social sciences had a set of intellectual interests that led them to ask questions about the way that society works. They were led to engage in careful, disciplined study of social phenomena. But how to proceed? What should the results look like? What modes of explanation should be pursued? What should they expect to find? None of the founders proceeded with a “blank slate”. Instead, they were guided by specific intellectual hunches and presuppositions about what a scientific treatment of a subject ought to involve. The histories of physics, chemistry, and biology were very well known to the founders, and the chief logical characteristics of the science of these domains were also well understood. The “stylized facts” about what a domain of inquiry is and what a scientific study of a domain involves were fairly specific. It turns out that these facts were misleading in deep and broad ways when applied to the social world. And contemporary sociology continues to bear the imprint of these early presuppositions.

We might be tempted to call these assumptions about domain, method, and theory a “paradigm”, but it is better to think of them as constituting a “proto-paradigm”. “Paradigm” describes a more advanced stage of the formation of a field of knowledge. The framing ideas that guided the founders were less specific; they represented high-level, abstract presuppositions about the nature of science and the nature of any subject matter that is amenable to scientific study and explanation. They constitute a framework of advanced commonsense about the subject matter. We might describe this framework as a “folk philosophy of knowledge” that is to some extent unexamined but that guides the pursuit of knowledge, the form that it takes, and the ways in which it is evaluated.

Given these historical circumstances, naturalism as a “proto-paradigm” for the social sciences is unsurprising—even though it is profoundly misleading. The strongest — really, the only — examples of scientific achievement in the nineteenth century were in the fields of chemistry, physics, medicine, and biology. There was a developed “proto-theory” of nature that was the object of scientific study (the characteristics and metaphysics of law-governed natural phenomena). The natural world was conceived of as a system of law-governed events and processes. And the logical characteristics of natural science theory were reasonably well understood as well: induction, discovery of laws and regularities, explanation through assimilation within a set of natural laws, confirmation.

There is a fundamental problem with this set of “naturalistic” presuppositions: social phenomena are constituted by a fundamentally different ontology. “Agents in structures” are the fundamental “molecules” of social life — and this ontology should not be expected to give rise to strong regularities. Instead, we should expect a substantial amount of heterogeneity and plasticity among social entities and processes, and we should expect contingency and path-dependency in the unfolding of social phenomena.

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