Infrastructures of evil

Politicians, generals, corporate directors, and ordinary men and women had a direct relationship to the evils of the twentieth century. Individuals, soldiers, CEOs, and government administrators did various things that we can now recognize as fundamentally evil. So we might be tempted to summarize the evils of the past as "large numbers of people doing inexcusable things …

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 …

James Scott on the earliest states

In 2011 James Scott gave a pair of Tanner Lectures at Harvard. He had chosen a topic for which he felt he had a fairly good understanding, having taught on early agrarian societies throughout much of his career. The topic was the origins of the earliest states in human history. But as he explains in …

Coleman on the classification of social action

Early in his theoretical treatise of rational-choice sociology Foundations of Social Theory, James Coleman introduces a diagram of different kinds of social action (34). This diagram is valuable because it provides a finely granulated classification of kinds of social action, differentiated by the relationships that each kind stipulates among individuals within the interaction. Here is …

Institutional logics — actors within institutions

  Why do people behave as they do within various social contexts -- the workplace, the street, the battlefield, the dinner table? These are fundamental questions for sociologists -- even when they are ultimately interested in the workings of supra-individual entities like organizations and structures. And generally speaking, sociology as a research tradition has perhaps …

Pragmatist theory of democracy

Jack Knight and Jim Johnson engage in a particular kind of political theory in their recent The Priority of Democracy: Political Consequences of Pragmatism.  They want to consider "democracies" as existing social systems embodying particular instances of various kinds of institutions. They want to know how those institutions are likely to emerge, and they want to …

Fresh thinking about government

The eminent neo-Confucian scholar Tu Weiming argues for the importance of bracketing our Western-centric ideas about society, progress, and justice when we think about our global futures. (Here is an interesting article by Tu titled "Mutual Learning as an Agenda for Social Development"; link.) So for a moment let us put aside the familiar rhetoric …

Intangible services

Neoclassical economics presents a pretty simple theory of the equilibrium price of a manufactured good. This theory also extends to a theory of the wage for skilled and unskilled labor. We postulate production and demand curves, and the equilibrium price is the point where supply equals demand. The supply curve is influenced by factors governing …

System changes in healthcare

One of the largest and most interesting processes of change going on in the United States today is the rapid redesign and adjustment of the American healthcare system. A key driver is this spring's passage of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (PPACA), but the more fundamental causes are the twin crises we face …

Works councils and US labor relations

image: Diego Rivera, Rouge Plant mural, Detroit Institute of Arts   The United States has one of the lowest rates of union representation of all developed countries. The 1994 level of unionized workers in the US had fallen to about 12 percent of private sector employment, and the trend is downward.  And the sole institutional …

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