Five easy pieces (for the social sciences)

Social scientists are generally interested in “explaining” social outcomes: why did such-and-so take place as it did? Why did the Indochina War occur, and why did it end in the defeat of two modern military powers? Why did the French fail so miserably at Dien Bien Phu? Why was the Tet Offensive so consequential for US military plans in Vietnam? Here are some fundamental questions surrounding the search for social explanations:

  1. What is involved in “explaining” a social event or circumstance?
  2. In what sense is there a kind of “order” in the social world?
  3. Can we reconcile the idea that some social events are “explained” and others are “stochastic”?
  4. Are there general and recurring causes at work in the social world?
  5. Is there any form of “unity” possible in the social sciences?

It is tempting to hold that many social events are more akin to the white noise of wind in the leaves than planets moving around the sun. That is, we might maintain that many social events are stochastic; they are the result of local contingencies and conjunctions, with little or no underlying order or necessity. This is not to say that the stochastic event is uncaused; rather, it is to say that the causes that led to this particular outcome represent a very different mix of conditions and events from the background of other similar events, so there is no common and general explanation of the event. 

Why should we think that social events often have this high degree of underlying stochasticity or contingency? One reason is the general ontological fact that social events are the result of the actions, decisions, interactions, and mental frameworks of specific individual actors, from anonymous consumers to business entrepreneurs to “social media influencers” to political leaders. The actors all have their own motivations and circumstances, so the strategies and actions that they choose are likely enough to be highly particular. And yet those strategies and actions eventually aggregate to social outcomes that we would like to understand: for example, why one midwestern town in the 1930s became a thriving manufacturing center, while another became a sleepy county seat with two traffic lights and a diner. William Cronon’s marvelous account in Nature’s Metropolis: Chicago and the Great West of the rise of Chicago as the major metropolis in the middle of the country illustrates the deep level of contingency associated with this history (link).

Beyond the contingencies created by the fact of varying individual motivations and strategies, there is the fact that social outcomes are generally “conjunctural”: they are the result of multiple causal influences, and would have developed differently if any of those influences had been significantly different. The dramatic growth of intercontinental trade in the 1960s and later decades depended on several independent factors — liberalization of trading regimes in many countries and regions, technology change in shipping (containerization), manufacturing companies that were legally able to “off-shore” production of consumer goods, and the like. Each of these factors has its own history, and substantial change in any one of them would presumably have had great consequences for the volume of trade during those decades.

Instead of imagining that all social outcomes should be amenable to simple, general explanations, we should instead take a pluralistic view of the structural and social circumstances that sometimes propel individual actors to one kind of outcome rather than another. It was not inevitable that Chicago would become “nature’s metropolis” in the midwest; but the fact that it had easy access to the Great Lakes for cheap transportation, and to the farmlands of the midwest for ample sources of grain and meat made Chicago a more likely place for opportunistic actors to establish the makings of a great city than Springfield, Illinois. Likewise, once the routes of the great east-west railways were established (reflecting their own forms of contingency and struggle among actors), Chicago emerged as a more promising location for business and trade than Oshkosh, Wisconsin.

I referred to this kind of explanation as an “institutional logic” explanation in The Scientific Marx (link). And this kind of explanation has much in common with the explanatory framework associated with the “new institutionalism” (link).

So let’s return to the questions posed above:

1. What is involved in “explaining” a social event or circumstance?

We explain a social event when we show how it arose as a result of the actions and interactions of multiple social actors, engaged within a specified social, economic, political, and natural environment, to accomplish their varied and heterogeneous purposes. Sometimes the thrust of the explanation derives from discovering the surprising motives the actors had; sometimes it derives from uncovering the logic of unintended consequences that developed through their interactions; and sometimes it derives from uncovering the features of the institutional and natural environment that shaped the choices the actors made.

2. In what sense is there a kind of “order” in the social world?

There is one underlying foundation (unity) of all social outcomes — the fact of the composition of outcomes from the actions and mental frameworks of multiple social actors. However, given the heterogeneity of actors, the heterogeneity of the institutions and natural environments in which they act, and the pragmatic question of whether it is the institutional background or the actors’ characteristics that are of the greatest explanatory interest, there is no basis for expecting a single unified substance and form for social explanations.

3. Can we reconcile the idea that some social events are “explained” and others are “stochastic”?

One way of making this distinction is to highlight the generality or particularity of the set of conditions that were thought to bring about the event. If O was the result of A,B,C,D,E and each of A-E was contingent and unrelated to the occurrence of the other conditions, then it would be natural to say that O was stochastic. If O was the result of A-E and A,B,C were longstanding conditions while D and E were conditions known to recur periodically, then it would be natural to say that O was explained by the joint occurrence of D and E in the presence of A,B,C. To explain an event is to claim that there is some underlying “necessity” leading to its occurrence, not just a chance conjunction of independent events.

4. Are there general and recurring causes at work in the social world?

There are recurring causes in the social world — institutional and natural circumstances that shape actors’ choices in similar ways in multiple settings. Examples include technological opportunities, economic geography, available methods of warfare, available systems of taxation and governance, and the range of institutional variations that are found in every society. It is the work of historical and social research to discover these kinds of factors, and the discovery of a common causal factor is simultaneously the discovery of a causal mechanism.

5. Is there any form of “unity” possible in the social sciences?

The social sciences cannot be unified around a single theory — microeconomics, rational choice theory, hermeneutics, Marxism. Instead, social scientists need to approach their work with a diverse toolbox of theories and mechanisms on the basis of which to construct hypotheses about the explanation of diverse social phenomena; they should expect heterogeneity rather than underlying unity and homogeneity. Theoretical pluralism is necessary for a correct understanding of the workings of the social world.

(This is a topic I’ve returned to a number of times over the past fifteen years. Here is an argument for why we should not expect to find a unified theory of society (link) from 2008, and here are discussions of “what can be explained in the social world” from 2008 (link) and 2016 (link). In 2014 I discussed the idea of “entropic social processes” (link).)

The heterogeneous social?

image: screenshot from video, “A Bird Ballet”

I’ve argued in several places that we need to think of the social world as being radically heterogeneous (linklinklink). There are multiple processes, things, structures, and temporalities at work, and what we perceive at a moment in time in the social world is a complex composite of these various things. The social world is not a unified system; it is not a manifestation of a unified underlying process; it is not a unity at all.

What does this claim about the social world mean in concrete terms? And what are the implications for the social sciences? Consider a few examples of complex social wholes:

  • the industrial revolution, 1700-1850
  • the rise of Al Qaeda, 1970-2001
  • urbanization in China, 1600-1700
  • Chicago as a functioning city, 2000
  • the University of Illinois, 1971
  • being Muslim in Toronto, 1990 

These examples are themselves heterogeneous. Some are extended historical processes; others are synchronic sets of social facts; others are institutions and social environments at a time; yet others are states of social identities at a time. But the fact about heterogeneity that I want to focus on here is internal: for each social phenomenon, there are heterogeneous components and sub-processes that make it up and that generally have their own dynamics and properties.

First, where is the heterogeneity in these examples?

The industrial revolution is not one thing; it is rather a confluence of developments in technology, markets, habitation, ideology, labor practices, scientific institutions, natural resources, and numerous other social features that change over time. And the outcomes of “industrial revolution” are not uniform over regions, nations, sectors, or industries. Different parts of Britain had different experiences; and these experiences and outcomes are in turn different from those in Sweden or Italy.

Likewise, early-modern urbanization of Chinese cities is a the result of a complex ensemble of processes. We can summarize the outcome by a measure of the percentage of people living in cities greater than 100,000 at a certain moment in time. But the causes, processes, environmental factors, and institutions through which this transformation took place were highly diverse; and the cities that resulted were diverse as well. (G. William Skinner charts out much of this diversity in a number of works; The City in Late Imperial China.)

Or take Chicago in 2000. The social whole is a composite of population, institutions, political processes, demographic transitions, transportation networks, employment systems, and policing practices — and many other factors I haven’t mentioned. And if we were to ask a question along these lines — why did Chicago come to function in 2000 in the fashion that it did? — we would have to consider all of these processes and their composite effects, and their interactions with each other. There is no single answer to the question, “what is Chicago and how does it work?”.

Being Muslim at a time and place is likewise deeply heterogeneous. Individuals, families, sub-groups, and institutions differ — from Iowa to Ontario, and within communities and across mosques. Individuals differ in ways that are both personal and institutional. So there is no single identity that is “Muslim in Toronto”; rather, there is an ensemble of people, groups, and social organizations which in the composite represent “the many identities of Muslims in Toronto.”

In fact, it seems to me that heterogeneity comes into each of these examples in a variety of ways. There are:

  • multiple causes at work
  • multiple expressions of ethnic / cultural identity
  • multiple purposes and understandings on the parts of participants
  • multiple sub-institutions with different profiles and dynamics
  • multiple outcomes or macro-characteristics that are denoted by the term

So the constitution and dynamics of social phenomena reflect diverse kinds of things and processes.

So where does “science” come into this picture? Is it possible to have a scientific understanding of a heterogeneous phenomenon?

Here is one possible strategy. We might hope that the sub-components of heterogeneous entities might have separable dynamics of development; so even though the city simpliciter does not have an inherent dynamic of development or functioning, its subsystems do. In this case we might say that a scientific analysis of the whole involves a separate scientific theory of the components and a synthetic effort to show how they interact.

But this approach is perhaps too generous to the power of analysis; it seems to presuppose that we can disassemble a complex and heterogeneous whole into a discrete set of reasonably homogeneous components, each of which can be treated scientifically and separately. The thesis above, though, was fairly comprehensive: “all social phenomena are heterogeneous”. So that seems to imply that the results of analysis lead us to a set of components that are themselves heterogeneous — a heterogeneity regress! And this paradoxical conclusion actually seems to be true in a very practical sense: when we disaggregate “Chicago” into “political institutions,” “policing institutions,” “economic institutions / market system”, and the like — we again encounter social units that have internal variation and heterogeneity.

Could we at least argue that analysis reduces complexity to a certain extent, and that the components are more amenable to scientific and causal theorizing than the whole? This more modest claim does seem to be defensible. Take the processes underlying “industrial revolution”. It is possible to offer a reasonably rigorous study of the development of scientific knowledge and the institutions through which knowledge is created and disseminated, in ways that are less complex that the whole with which we began. Likewise, we can offer specialized study of the “making of the English working class” that includes some of the factors that influenced labor and politics during the period — thereby making a contribution to a better understanding of the complex whole, industrial revolution.

In an odd way this line of thought seems to bring us back to one of the oldest debates in the history of philosophy going back to the pre-Socratic philosophers: does “nature” have a “nature”? The atomists believed that the complexity of the observed world depended ultimately on the simple properties of the components; whereas philosophers like Heraclitus maintained that nature consisted of “flux” all the way down.

(The  video mentioned at the top, “A Bird Ballet,” is beautiful and surprising. But I’m not certain that it fully illustrates the point I’m making about the social world. The ensemble of starlings depicted here shows a startling reality of shifting shapes and motions over time. The viewer is led to ask, how did this ensemble of thousands of organisms come to have this graceful and shifting dynamic?” So far it is a good analogy to the social. But an animal behavior specialist is likely to be able to give us a pretty simple explanation of how the individual-level flight behavior interacts across birds in flight, and results in the swarming behavior documented here. In this respect the swarm is simpler than the “heterogeneity all the way down” picture that I’m putting forward for complex social phenomena. Still, it is a powerful example of “wholes” that are less unified than they first appear.)

Variation as a social fundamental

Over 700 historians, sociologists, demographers, and political scientists enjoyed a splendid program of panels at the Social Science History Association in Long Beach this week (link). There were panels on recent historical demography, comparative historical analysis, and social mobilization research, as well as a pair of great panels on the work of Charles Tilly. There was even a smattering of papers suggesting possible opportunities for innovation in theory and research methods in historical sociology.  (A book panel on Neil Smelser’s recent The Odyssey Experience: Physical, Social, Psychological, and Spiritual Journeys illustrates this point: the book is highly original and demonstrates the value of seeking out new perspectives and angles of view on social behavior and social change.)

Here is one strong impression that emerges from the program.  Variation within a social or historical phenomenon seems to be all but ubiquitous. Think of the Cultural Revolution in China, demographic transition in early modern Europe, the ideology of a market society, or the experience of being black in America. We have the noun — “Cultural Revolution” — which can be explained or defined in a sentence or two as an extended social phenomenon of mobilization and conflict that took place in China from 1966-76; and we have the complex underlying social realities to which it refers, spread out over many cities, villages, and communes across China (The Chinese Cultural Revolution as History).  Or consider another general noun, “demographic transition,” defined as a period in which a population experiences abrupt decline in mortality, followed by a decline in fertility.  Using a variety of statistical methods, historical demographers can document the occurrence of a demographic transition in different periods in Sweden, Italy, Britain, and China.  And it turns out that there are both common features and distinguishing characteristics that emerge from detailed study — differences in timing, differences in social composition, differences in the mechanisms bringing these changes about.

In each case there is a very concrete and visible degree of variation in the factor over time and place. Historical and social research in a wide variety of fields confirms the non-homogeneity of social phenomena and the profound location-specific variations that occur in the characteristics of virtually all large social phenomena. Social nouns do not generally designate uniform social realities (post).  These facts of local and regional variation provide an immediate rationale for case studies and comparative research, selecting different venues of the phenomenon and identifying specific features of the phenomenon in this location. Through a range of case studies it is possible for the research community to map out both common features and distinguishing features of a given social process.

This description focuses on locational variation in processes — village to village, country to country. But social scientists often also highlight variations across social segments within a given location: class, race, gender, religion, occupation.  Do sharecroppers have a different fertility profile over time than the wealthy in a particular region at a particular time?  Are there significant differences in survival strategies for distinct groups defined by race or ethnicity in a city or a group of cities?

This situation of variation and case-specific research raises a number of challenging questions. One is the question of whether the phenomenon designated by the noun is one integrated social reality, with varied expressions across locations, or whether instead the different locations are simply loosely similar but independent occurrences. Simon Schama’s radical question — was there a French Revolution, or were there simply a congeries of periods and locations of disturbance? — illustrates this question (post), as does a previous discussion of the revolutions of 1848 (post).

A second major question is the challenge of discovering causal and social mechanisms connecting the various social locations encompassed by the phenomenon. How did the activism and ideology of Cultural Revolution spread from Beijing to Nanjing and other locations? How did activism spread from city to rural locations? How did local circumstances cause changes and variations in the political movement? How much path dependency existed in the spread of revolutionary ideas and strategies?

There is a more epistemic set of questions as well, concerning generalizability. Fundamentally, if there is substantial variation across locations and instances of a given phenomenon, then to what degree can we say anything about the phenomenon as a whole? And what does the study of one location allow us to say about the larger processes? Does study of the Tsinghua student Red Guard movement tell us anything about Red Guard mobilization in other places? Or is it simply one of many different and contingent develoments of contentious politics during the period?  Can we generalize from case studies and comparative research?

We can also look at the problem from the other end of the telescope: are there any social phenomena that occur fairly homogeneously across all places where this phenomenon occurs?  Candidates might include:

  • Anti-Semitic violence across 19th-century Ukraine villages
  • Marriage / fertility practices across rural Sweden 1700-1800
  • Peasant revolts in medieval Germany
  • Process of protoindustrialization in villages and towns in Low Countries 1300-1600 (Industrialization Before Industrialization)

For examples like these we can ask a symmetrical set of questions to those posed above. What factors explain the uniformity of results for these processes across separate locations? Various explanations are possible:

  • There is a common set of conditions across the regions (e.g. famine or drought)
  • There are common causes that mobilize people in many separate places (tax protests, land confiscations)
  • There are common political traditions
  • There is substantial inter-location communication and influence
  • There are no large institutional or circumstantial variations that would drive significant variations in outcomes across locations

This is where the appeal to social mechanisms seems once more to be highly relevant and helpful.  If we work on the assumption that any large social process — the dispersed locations of contention associated with the French Revolution, say — is the compound result of a set of underlying causal social mechanisms, and if we hypothesize that many of these mechanisms are in play in some places but not in others; then we can explain both similarity and difference in the occurrence of the phenomenon across time and place.  Now the work of historical investigation can be put in these terms: identify some of the social mechanisms that evidently recur in various locations; identify some of the mechanisms that lead to significantly different results in some places; and identify some of the cross-location mechanisms that are at work to secure a degree of synchrony and parallel in the developments observed in different locations (communication systems, networks of leaders, dissemination of activists).  Case studies and comparative research permit both a degree of generalization and an explanation of variation.

In other words, the intellectual strategy here is to disaggregate the large social factor into the results of a larger number of underlying mechanisms; and then to attempt to discover how these mechanisms played out differently in different settings throughout the range of the French Revolution, protoindustrialization, or ethnic conflict in South Asia.  Significantly, this is exactly the strategy of research and explanation that Charles Tilly was led to in his emphasis on discovering the component social mechanisms that underlie social contention (McAdam, Tarrow, Tilly, Dynamics of Contention).

A better social ontology

I believe that the social sciences need to be framed out of consideration of a better understanding of the nature of the social—a better social ontology. The social world is not a system of law-governed processes; it is instead a mix of different sorts of institutions, forms of human behavior, natural and environmental constraints, and contingent events. The entities that make up the social world at a given time and place have no particular ontological stability; they do not fall into “natural kinds”; and there is no reason to expect deep similarity across a number of ostensibly similar institutions – states, for example, or labor unions. (W. V. O. Quine’s metaphor of the bushes shaped to look like elephants comes to mind here; Word and Object.)

So the rule for the social world is – heterogeneity, contingency, and plasticity. And the metaphysics associated with classical thinking about the natural world – laws of nature, common, unchanging structures, and predictable processes of change – do not provide appropriate metaphors for our understandings and expectations of the social world. Nor do they suggest the right kinds of social science theories and constructs.

Instead of naturalism, I suggest an approach to social science theorizing that emphasizes agency, contingency, and plasticity in the makeup of social facts. It recognizes that there is a degree of pattern in social life – but emphasizes that these patterns fall far short of the regularities associated with laws of nature. It emphasizes contingency of social processes and outcomes. It insists upon the importance and legitimacy of eclectic use of social theories: the processes are heterogeneous, and therefore it is appropriate to appeal to different types of social theories as we explain social processes. It emphasizes the importance of path-dependence in social outcomes. It suggests that the most valid scientific statements in the social sciences have to do with the discovery of concrete social-causal mechanisms, through which some types of social outcomes come about.

And finally, this approach highlights what I call “methodological localism”: the view that the foundation of social action and outcome is the local, socially-located and socially constructed individual person. The individual is socially constructed, in that her modes of behavior, thought, and reasoning are created through a specific set of prior social interactions. And her actions are socially situated, in the sense that they are responsive to the institutional setting in which she chooses to act. Purposive individuals, embodied with powers and constraints, pursue their goals in specific institutional settings; and regularities of social outcome often result.

How does this perspective fit with current work in the social sciences? There are several current fields of social research that are particularly well suited to this approach. One is the field of comparative historical sociology, in its use of fairly detailed studies of similar cases in order to identify common causal mechanisms. Kathleen Thelen’s astute studies of different institutions of skill formation in Germany, UK, US, and Japan are an excellent case in point; she asks the twin questions, what causal processes give stability to a set of institutions? And what causal processes lead to a process of transformation in those institutions? The research methods of comparative historical sociology, then, are particularly well suited to the ontology of contingency, plasticity, and causal mechanisms (How Institutions Evolve: The Political Economy of Skills in Germany, Britain, the United States, and Japan).

Ethnography gives us a different angle on this same ontology. Ethnographers can give us insight into culturally specific mentalities—the “socially constructed individuals”. And they can give concrete analysis of the institutions that both shape individuals and are in turn shaped by them. More generally, qualitative research methods can offer a basis for discovery of some of the features of agency, mentality, and culture within the context of which important social processes take place. A good current example is Leslie Salzinger’s Genders in Production: Making Workers in Mexico’s Global Factories, a study of the social construction of femininity in the factories of the maquiladoras. C. K. Lee’s sociology of Chinese factory protests is also a model of a study that combines qualitative and quantitative methods; Against the Law: Labor Protests in China’s Rustbelt and Sunbelt.

The new institutionalism is a third theoretical perspective on social analysis and explanation. This approach postulates the causal reality of institutions; it highlights the point that differences across institutions lead to substantial differences in behavior; and it provides a basis for explanations of various social outcomes. The rules of liability governing the predations of cattle in East Africa or Shasta County, California, create very different patterns of behavior in cattle owners and other land owners in the various settings. (Mary Brinton and Victor Nee, The New Institutionalism in Sociology; Jean Ensminger, Making a Market: The Institutional Transformation of an African Society.) It is characteristic of the new institutionalism that researchers in this tradition generally avoid reifying large social institutions and look instead at the more proximate and variable institutions within which people live and act.

What kind of social science research and theory corresponds to these assumptions about social ontology? Here are some chief features–

  • They make use of eclectic multiple theories and don’t expect a unified social theory that explains everything
  • They are modest in their expectations about social generalizations
  • They look for causal mechanisms as a basis for social explanation
  • They anticipate heterogeneity and plasticity of social entities
  • They are prepared to use eclectic methodologies — quantitative, comparative, case-study, ethnographic — to discover the mechanisms and mentalities that underlie social change

We need a better sociology for the twenty-first century. If social scientists continue to be captivated by the scientific prestige of positivism and quantitative social science to the exclusion of other perspectives, they will be led to social science research that looks quite different from what would result from a view that emphasizes contingency and causal mechanisms. And if there are strong, engaging, and empirically rigorous examples of other ways of conducting social research that can come into broad exposure in the social sciences—then there is a greater probability of emergence of a genuinely innovative and imaginative approach to the problem of social knowledge.

What do polls tell us?

We’re all interested in the opinions of vast numbers of strangers — potential voters, investors, consumers, college students, or home owners. Our interest is often a practical one — we would like to know how the election is likely to go, whether the stock market will rebound, whether an influenza season will develop into a pandemic, or whether the shops in our cities and malls will have higher or lower demand in the holiday season. And so we turn to polls and surveys of attitudes and preferences — consumer confidence surveys, voter preference polls, surveys of public health behaviors, surveys of investor confidence. And tools such as aggregate and disaggregate the data to allow us to make more refined judgments about what the public’s mood really is. But how valid is the knowledge that is provided by surveys and polls? To what extent do they accurately reflect an underlying social reality of public opinion? And to what extent does this knowledge provide a basis for projecting future collective behavior (including voting)?

There are several important factors to consider.

First is the heterogeneity of social characteristics across a population at virtually every level of scale — including especially attitudes and beliefs. No matter what slice of the social demographic we select — selecting for specific age, race, religion, and income, for example — there will be a range of opinions across the resulting group. Groups don’t suddenly become homogeneous when we find the right way of partitioning the population.

Second is an analogous point about plasticity over time. The attitudes and preferences of individuals and groups change over time — often rapidly. In polling I suppose this is referred to as “voter volatility” — the susceptibility of a group to changing its preferences in response to changing information and other stimulation. And the fact appears to be that opinions and beliefs change rapidly during periods of decision-making. So knowing that 65% of Hispanic voters preferred X over Y on October 10 doesn’t imply much about the preferences of this group two weeks later. This is precisely what the campaigns are trying to accomplish — a new message or commercial that shifts preferences for an extended group.

Third are questions having to do with the honesty of the responses that a survey or poll elicits. Do subjects honestly record their answers; do they conceal responses they may be ashamed of (the Bradley effect); do they exaggerate their income or personal happiness or expected grade in a course? There are survey techniques intended to address these possibilities (obscuring the point of a question, coming back to a question in a different way); but the possibility of untruthful responses raises an important problem for us when we try to assess the realism of a poll or survey.

Fourth are the standard technical issues having to do with sampling and population estimation: how large a set of observations are required to arrive at an estimate of a population value with 95% confidence? And what measures need to be taken to assure a random sample and avoid sample bias? For example, if polling is done based solely on landline phone numbers, does this introduce either an age bias or an income bias if it is true that affluent young people are more likely to have only cell phones?

So, then, what is the status of opinion surveys and polls as a source of knowledge about social reality? Do public opinion surveys tell us something about objective underlying facts about a population? What does a finding like “65% of Iowans favor subsidies for corn ethanol” based on a telephone poll of 1000 citizens tell us about the opinions of the full population of the state of Iowa?

Points made above lead to several important cautions. First, the reality of public opinion and preference itself is fluid and heterogeneous. The properties we’re trying to measure vary substantially across any subgroup we might define — pro/con assessments about a candidate’s judgment, for example. So the measurement of a particular question is simply an average value for the group as a whole, with the possibility of a substantial variance within the group. And second, the opinions themselves may change rapidly over time at the individual level — with the result that an observation today may be very different from a measurement next week. Third, it is a credible hypothesis that demographic factors such as race, income, or gender may affect attitudes and opinions; so there is a basis for thinking that data disaggregated by these variables may demonstrate more uniformity and consistency. Finally, the usual cautions about sample size and sample bias are always relevant; a poorly designed study tells us almost nothing about the underlying reality.

But what about the acid test: to what extent can a series of polls and surveys performed over many subgroups over an extended period of time, help to forecast the collective behavior of the group as a whole? Can we use this kind of information to arrive at credible estimates of an election in two weeks, or the likely demand for automobiles in 2009, or the willingness of a whole population to accept public health guidelines in a time of pandemic flu?

Social surprises

The near meltdown of the US financial system this week came as a surprise to most of us — experts, legislators, and citizens alike. That isn’t to say that the components of the disaster were unknown — the subprime crisis, the earlier financial undoings of Fannie Mae and Bear Stearns this summer, and the sudden collapse of Lehman Brothers last week. But what has come as a surprise is the severity of the warnings by the Federal Reserve and Treasury that the entire financial system is only a few steps from seizure and collapse. This is a catastrophic system failure — and no one would have anticipated its possibility six months ago.

Think of a few other surprises in the past thirty years — the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Iranian Revolution, or the emergence of China as a roaring engine of market-based growth. In each case the event was a discontinuous break from the trajectory of the past, and it surprised experts and citizens alike. (The photo above depicts the surprising Yeltsin standing on a tank in 1991.)

So what is a surprise? It is an event that shouldn’t have happened, given our best understanding of how things work. It is an event that deviates widely from our most informed expectations, given our best beliefs about the causal environment in which it takes place. A surprise is a deviation between our expectations about the world’s behavior, and the events that actually take place. Many of our expectations are based on the idea of continuity: tomorrow will be pretty similar to today; a delta change in the background will create at most an epsilon change in the outcome. A surprise is a circumstance that appears to represent a discontinuity in a historical series.

It would be a major surprise if the sun suddenly stopped shining, because we understand the physics of fusion that sustains the sun’s energy production. It would be a major surprise to discover a population of animals in which acquired traits are passed across generations, given our understanding of the mechanisms of evolution. And it would be a major surprise if a presidential election were decided by a unanimous vote for one candidate, given our understanding of how the voting process works. The natural world doesn’t present us with a large number of surprises; but history and social life are full of them.

The occurrence of major surprises in history and social life is an important reminder that our understanding of the complex processes that are underway in the social world is radically incomplete and inexact. We cannot fully anticipate the behavior of the subsystems that we study — financial systems, political regimes, ensembles of collective behavior — and we especially cannot fully anticipate the interactions that arise when processes and systems intersect. Often we cannot even offer reliable approximations of what the effects are likely to be of a given intervention. This has a major implication: we need to be very modest in the predictions we make about the social world, and we need to be cautious about the efforts at social engineering that we engage in. The likelihood of unforeseen and uncalculated consequences is great.

And in fact commentators are now raising exactly these concerns about the 700 billion dollar rescue plan currently being designed by the Bush administration to save the financial system. “Will it work?” is the headline; “What unforeseen consequences will it produce?” is the subtext; and “Who will benefit?” is the natural followup question.

It is difficult to reconcile this caution about the limits of our rational expectations about the future based on social science knowledge, with the need for action and policy change in times of crisis. If we cannot rely on our expectations about what effects an intervention is likely to have, then we can’t have confidence in the actions and policies that we choose. And yet we must act; if war is looming, if famine is breaking out, if the banking system is teetering, a government needs to adopt policies that are well designed to minimize the bad consequences. It is necessary to make decisions about action that are based on incomplete information and insufficient theory. So it is a major challenge for the theory of public policy, to attempt to incorporate the limits of knowledge about consequences into the design of a policy process. One approach that might be taken is the model of designing for “soft landings” — designing strategies that are likely to do the least harm if they function differently than expected. Another is to emulate a strategy that safety engineers employ when designing complex, dangerous systems: to attempt to de-link the subsystems to the extent possible, in order to minimize the likelihood of unforeseeable interactions. (Nancy Leveson describes some of these strategies in Safeware: System Safety and Computers.) And there are probably other heuristics that could be imagined as well.

Composition of the social

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Discipline, method, hegemony in sociology

An earlier post referred to the “Perestroika” debate within political science. There are similar foundational debates within other social science disciplines, including especially sociology. What is particularly striking is not that there are deep disagreements about the methodology and epistemology of sociology — this has often been true within sociology, going back to the methodenstreiten that divided the German-speaking social sciences around the turn of the twentieth century, but rather the degree to which these disagreements have been so divisive and polarizing within the discipline in the U.S. in the past forty years.

Several interesting books that focus on some of these debates within sociology include George Steinmetz, The Politics of Method in the Human Sciences: Positivism and Its Epistemological Others; Immanuel Wallerstein, The End of the World As We Know It: Social Science for the Twenty-First Century; Craig Calhoun, Sociology in America: A History; and Alvin Gouldner, The Coming Crisis of Western Sociology. Andrew Abbott’s Chaos of Disciplines is also a very interesting treatment of the sociology of the social science disciplines and the mechanisms through which a discipline defines its boundaries and maintains “discipline”.

In sociology it is possible to map the main fault lines within the discipline in several ways. First, we can distinguish quantitative-statistical research from both qualitative-ethnographic approaches and comparative-historical approaches. (It’s worth observing that this results in a tripartite division of methods rather than the simpler bipolar “quantitative-qualitative” divide. Historical and comparative studies are distinct from statistical studies, but they are also distinguishable from ethnographic interpretations.) Or we can characterize this space in terms of “large-N, small-N, single-N” studies. And we can distinguish broadly among positivist and anti-positivist perspectives; causal and interpretive perspectives; realist and anti-realist perspectives; critical and orthodox perspectives; and there are probably other important dimensions of disagreement as well. In addition to these large divisions among methodological approaches, there are also a large number of frameworks of thought that involve a combination of method and theory — for example, feminist sociology, post-structuralist sociology, critical theory, and post-colonial sociology.

The disputes between these methodological frameworks seem to continue to create large, fractious divides within graduate sociology departments, with advocates for one method or the other claiming virtually exclusive legitimacy. And this struggle for methodological primacy appears to extend to the editorial policies of major sociology journals, association programs, and tenure deliberations. Until fairly recently — the 1990s, let us say — the quantitative-statistical faction held sway as the hegemonic methodological doctrine. Inspired by positivism and the example of the natural sciences and perhaps guided by governmental and foundation funding priorities, quantitative studies were considered most scientific, most rigorous, most objective, and most explanatory. Historical and interpretive studies were treated as “ideographic” or anecdotal — not well suited to discovering important social regularities. And yet it seems apparent that many problems of sociological interest are not amenable to quantitative or statistical research.

Let’s consider for a moment how these issues ought to work — how method, theory, and the world ought to be related. In any area of science there is a range of phenomena that we want to understand. So we need to have tools for investigating the real, empirical characteristics of this stuff, and we aim to arrive at theories that explain the more interesting features of this domain of real phenomena. Finally, we need some intellectual resources on the basis of which to arrive at the desired knowledge — we need some methods of inquiry, some models of theory, and some ideas about the underlying ontology of the phenomena we are studying. So the world exists; we want to gain knowledge and understanding of this world; and we need some tools for investigating and theorizing this world.

But here is the key point: the central focus here is knowledge, not method. Method is a tool for helping us to arrive at knowledge. For any given empirical question there will be a variety of methods on the basis of which to investigate this problem. And ideally, we should select a set of tools that are well suited to the particular characteristics of the problem at hand.

In other words, analysis of the situation of knowledge producers would suggest methodological pluralism. We should be open to a variety of tools and methods, and should design research in a way that is closely tailored to the nature of the empirical problem. And therefore young sociologists — graduate students — should be encouraged to be eclectic in their reading and thinking; they should be exposed to many of the approaches, perspectives, and methods through which imaginative sociologists have addressed their problems of research and explanation.

This general recommendation in favor of pluralism in sociology is strengthened when we consider the fact of the inherent heterogeneity of the social world. (See an earlier posting on this subject.) There is not one single kind of social process, for which there might conceivably be a uniquely best kind of method of inquiry. Rather, the social world consists of a deeply heterogeneous mix of processes, some of which are better suited to an ethnographic or comparative approach, just as other processes may be best studied quantitatively. If one is interested in the topic of corruption, for example — he/she will need to be informed about institutions, culture, principal-agent problems, social psychology, and many other potentially relevant sociological factors. And these researches may well require a combination of statistical analysis, comparison across a select group of cases, and ethnographic investigation in a small number of specific cases and individuals.

In other words, there are very deep arguments supporting the value and epistemic suitability of methodological pluralism. And this in turn suggests that sociology departments are well advised to incorporate a variety of methods and frameworks into their doctoral programs.

Fortunately, it appears that this rethinking is now taking place in a number of top sociology departments in the U.S., and the formerly hegemonic position of quantitative methods is now being challenged by a more pluralistic treatment of methods and frameworks. And this is all to the good: the result will be a better sociology and a better understanding of the heterogeneous, novel, and rapidly changing world in which we find ourselves.

Heterogeneity of the social

I think heterogeneity is a very basic characteristic of the domain of the social. And I think this makes a big difference for how we should attempt to study the social world “scientifically”. What sorts of things am I thinking about here?

Let’s start with some semantics. A heterogeneous group of things is the contrary of a homogeneous group, and we can define homogeneity as “a group of fundamentally similar units or samples”. A homogeneous body may consist of a group of units with identical properties, or it may be a smooth mixture of different things, consisting of a similar composition at many levels of scale. A fruitcake is non-homogeneous, in that distinct volumes may include just cake or a mix of cake and dried cherries, or cake and the occasional walnut. The properties of fruitcake depend on which sample we encounter. A well mixed volume of oil and vinegar, by contrast, is homogeneous in a specific sense: the properties of each sample volume are the same as any other. The basic claim about the heterogeneity of the social comes down to this: at many levels of scale we continue to find a diversity of social things and processes at work. Society is more similar to fruitcake than cheesecake.

Heterogeneity makes a difference because one of the central goals of positivist science is to discover strong regularities among classes of phenomena, and regularities appear to presuppose homogeneity of the things over which the regularities are thought to obtain. So to observe that social phenomena are deeply heterogeneous at many levels of scale, is to cast fundamental doubt on the goal of discovering strong social regularities.

Let’s consider some of the forms of heterogeneity that the social world illustrates.

First is the heterogeneity of social causes and influences. Social events are commonly the result of a variety of different kinds of causes that come together in highly contingent conjunctions. A revolution may be caused by a protracted drought, a harsh system of land tenure, a new ideology of peasant solidarity, a communications system that conveys messages to the rural poor, and an unexpected spar within the rulers — all coming together at a moment in time. And this range of causal factors, in turn, shows up in the background of a very heterogeneous set of effects. (A transportation network, for example, may play a causal role in the occurrence of an epidemic, the spread of radical ideas, and a long, slow process of urban settlement.) The causes of an event are a mixed group of dissimilar influences with different dynamics and temporalities, and the effects of a given causal factor are also a mixed and dissimilar group.

Second is the heterogeneity that can be discovered within social categories of things — cities, religions, electoral democracies, social movements. Think of the diversity within Islam documented so well by Clifford Geertz (Islam Observed: Religious Development in Morocco and Indonesia); the diversity at multiple levels that exists among great cities like Beijing, New York, Geneva, and Rio (institutions, demography, ethnic groups, economic characteristics, administrative roles, …); the institutional variety that exists in the electoral democracies of India, France, and Argentina; or the wild diversity across the social movements of the right.

Third is the heterogeneity that can be discovered across and within social groups. It is not the case that all Kansans think alike — and this is true for whatever descriptors we might choose in order to achieve greater homogeneity (evangelical Kansans, urban evangelical Kansans, …). There are always interesting gradients within any social group. Likewise, there is great variation in the nature of ordinary, lived experience — for middle-class French families celebrating quatorze Juillet, for Californians celebrating July 4, and for Brazilians enjoying Dia da Independência on September 7.

A fourth form of heterogeneity takes us within the agent herself, when we note the variety of motives, moral frameworks, emotions, and modes of agency on the basis of which people act. This is one of the weaknesses of doctrinaire rational choice theory or dogmatic Marxism, the analytical assumption of a single dimension of motivation and reasoning. Instead, it is visible that one person acts for a variety of motives at a given time, persons shift their motives over time, and members of groups differ in terms of their motivational structure as well. So there is heterogeneity of motives and agency within the agent.

These dimensions of heterogeneity make the point: the social world is an ensemble, a dynamic mixture, and an ongoing interaction of forces, agents, structures, and mentalities. Social outcomes emerge from this heterogeneous and dynamic mixture, and the quest for general laws is deeply quixotic.

Where does the heterogeneity principle take us? It suggests an explanatory strategy: instead of looking for laws of whole categories of events and things, rather than searching for simple answers to questions like “why do revolutions occur?”, we might instead look to a “concatenation” strategy. That is, we might simply acknowledge the fact of molar heterogeneity and look instead for some of the different processes and things in play in a given item of interest, and the build up a theory of the whole as a concatenation of the particulars of the parts.

Significantly, this strategy takes us to several fruitful ideas that already have some currency.

First is the idea of looking for microfoundations for observed social processes; (Microfoundations, Methods, and Causation: On the Philosophy of the Social Sciences). Here the idea is that higher-level social processes, causes, and events, need to be placed within the context of an account of the agent-level institutions and circumstances that convey those processes.

Second is the method of causal mechanisms advocated by McAdam, Tarrow, and Tilly, and discussed frequently here (Dynamics of Contention (Cambridge Studies in Contentious Politics)). Put simply, the approach recommends that we explain an outcome as the contingent result of the concatenation of a set of independent causal mechanisms (escalation, intra-group competition, repression, …).

And third is the theory of “assemblages”, recommended by Nick from accursedshare and derived from some of the theories of Gilles Deleuze. (Manuel Delanda describes this theory in A New Philosophy of Society: Assemblage Theory And Social Complexity.)

Each of these ideas gives expression to the important truth of the heterogeneity principle: that social outcomes are the aggregate result of a number of lower-level processes and institutions that give rise to them, and that social outcomes are contingent results of interaction and concatenation of these lower-level processes.

Large social forces?

We often analyze the world around us in terms of large social forces and trends — globalization, the rise of ethnic identities, the spread of global capitalism, the rise of China as a coming super-power. These large forces are the “folk theories” through which we try to make sense of the world as it changes around us. But do these constructs actually make sense from an analytical, social scientific point of view? Or are they more akin to the large supra-historical categories advanced by pseudo-historians such as Toynbee or Spengler?

One reason for drawing that last conclusion is a justified skepticism about large impersonal social causes. We need to know what the microfoundations are, the concrete local mechanisms through which any social force works — and merely postulating that “the forces of globalization are producing more social unrest”, for example, doesn’t provide the necessary illumination at that level.

This critical concern comes along with another: the observation that “folk” concepts of large social forces (for example, “spread of extremism” or “globalization”) often encompass a pretty wide and heterogeneous set of lower-level processes. Presumably globalization works differently in Australia, Kenya, and London. So the term is more of an umbrella than a specific theory of how the world works.

But all of this said — is there any rigorous and scientifically justifiable use for the idea of large social forces?

I think there is such a use. The concerns just mentioned are entirely valid. But they don’t exclude the possibility that there are some processes of change in the world that are large and systemic, and that do have the requisite degree of microfoundations at the disaggregated levels. The examples I can think of come largely from the economic realm, but I am sure we could come up with cultural and social examples too.

— The global effects of the Great Depression in the 1930s. The stock market crash of 1929 created financial and business consequences all over the United States. And the alterations in demand and price for commodities such as cotton or coal had consequences throughout the world. Small peasant farmers in North China were forced to reconfigure their cropping regimes as a result of events that took place on Wall Street. So we can say that the Great Depression was a large social force and one whose consequences were global in scope.

— The Asian financial crisis of 1997 likewise created a cascading series of effects that were eventually felt everywhere in the world.

— The SARS epidemic of 2002-2003 was an example of the possibility of global pandemic caused by the rapid transmission of exposure from China to Canada through the air travel system.

In each case we have an example of a large social cause. And we have a good understanding of the “transmission belt” through which these local events can have global consequences. It is the degree of integration among separate agents and groups that is created by national and global markets, communications systems, and transportation systems. Markets have foundations that are both global and local. They signal future events to millions of independent actors throughout space. These actors modify their behavior. And these shifts in turn create new market situations. So the rapid transmission of information, people, and products constitutes the microfoundational account that is needed for asserting the large social force.

There are similar stories that can be told for the transmission of ideas and cultural variations — e.g. new forms of Christian or Muslim activism. (Stephen Greenblatt has some great examples of the transmission of cultural ideas in Marvelous Possessions: The Wonder of the New World.)

So the forces of globalization are real enough. And they depend upon mechanisms of transmission that create a systemic interdependence of behavior in widely separated places. Moreover, the examples give us an idea about how to characterize the idea that “globalization is changing the world.” We can break this claim down into the idea — an empirical one — that asserts that there is a rising level of integration across societies, achieved by communications systems, transportation systems, and economic interdependency, through which the actions of people in Indonesia and the UK are much more systemically interconnected than they were a century ago. The analytical task is to be as specific as possible in identifying the pathways through which global influence of a factor is achieved, and not to engage in lazy thinking about big social forces that we really don’t understand.

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