Knowing the population

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Being clumsy

We’ve probably all been clumsy from time to time — knocking over the teacup on the desk when reaching for a pencil, dropping a jar when moving from the kitchen to the table, tripping on an uneven bit of sidewalk when walking the dog. We sometimes refer to this kind of behavioral mistake as “maladroit”.

Can we give an explanation of clumsy behavior?

Here as elsewhere, a little conceptual work is helpful. We might characterize a clumsy event as “an inadvertent negative result of a series of bodily movements intended to accomplish something else altogether.” And, it would seem, we need to add a characteristic of causation into the definition: the negative result came about as a consequence of the agent’s series of actions and movements — not simply an unfortunate coincidence. The actor bears responsibility for the negative result in some way. (We wouldn’t call it “clumsy” if I knock over the glass of wine because the waiter has just placed it at my elbow and out of my visual range; rather, this is simply an accident.)

It is also useful to consider the contrast that is intended by the use of the concept. The contraries of “clumsy” seem to include adjectives such as skillful, adroit, agile, graceful, or deft. (And consider whether there are nuances of differences among even these positive valence adjectives.) The idea of the degree of bodily control exercised by the actor comes into all of these concepts, both negative and positive. The agile and graceful person — an athlete or a dancer — is praised for his/her ability to place the body in exactly the way she wishes to. The clumsy person trips, drops, smashes, and spills — that is, he/she lacks the ability to control the results of bodily movements.

So “clumsy” is a feature of bodily performance, in which the intended course of affairs has gone wrong. It is a defect of performance and, derivatively, a defect of competence. A clumsy person is one who is prone to committing more than his/her share of clumsy actions. To refer to a movement or a person as clumsy is to find fault (though perhaps without blame); it is to highlight a deviation between what we expect of normal behavior and the observed behavior.

So what is the standard of competence and performance that we implicitly have in mind when we deploy the standards of “adroit” and “clumsy” when it comes to physical performances? It’s something like this. We recognize, first, that every physical action is actually a complex and orchestrated series of component movements. To catch a high fly ball requires the outfielder to predict the destination of the ball; to organize his leg and body movements in order to run to the destination; to prepare for the leap into the air; to extend the glove arm and snag the ball. But more prosaically, to pour a glass of water has a lot of the same complexity of orchestrated movements and calculations. Both activities require “body intelligence” — an active (unconscious) process of orchestration of sub-movements into larger perfomances.

Second, there is a substantial amount of knowledge gathering, calculation, and projection that is required in order for the actor to form a cognitive map of the arena of action: where the target will be at a particular point in time, what obstacles exist in the environment, and how the bodily movements need to be orchestrated on such a way as to avoid the obstacles and achieve the desired outcome. The waiter approaching the table to refill the water glasses is illustrative: he/she needs to observe and record the placement of the guests, their glasses, the floral arrangements, and the random items on the table; he needs to approach in such a way as to avoid contacting the guest or spilling the water on the guest; he needs to navigate the pitcher past the guest and between the flower arrangements; bring the pitcher adjacent to the water glass; and pour just enough water into the glass to fill it. Mission accomplished, he needs to withdraw the pitcher without knocking over the flowers or spilling on the guest. And, since the guests are in motion, be needs to regularly update the representation of the field of play and be alert to the possibility of sudden movements by the guest.

In other words, we expect quite a lot from the “adroit” waiter from the point of view of active knowledge gathering and skillful orchestration of movements based on the current cognitive map — representation of the world and management of the body. The adroit person is one who has a reasonably good representation of the physical spaces around himself/herself; has a reasonably good ability to project the future configuration of the space; and has a reasonably high ability to orchestrate the series of movements needed to accomplish a task and a high ability to bring the body to implement the resulting series of steps.

So where does “clumsy” come into this story? Evidently, clumsy mistakes can derive from any of these three sources. The cognitive representation of the field may be incorrect or glaringly incomplete (the waiter may have failed to note that the guest is particularly tall and consequently bumped his head in his forward motion) (faulty representation). Second, the waiter may miscalculate times and distances — he may think he can just clear the guest’s arm gestures as he passes with the water pitcher (faulty calculation). Or he may have a faulty ability to orchestrate his own physical movements. He intends to touch the pitcher to the lip of the water glass, but he over-shoots and breaks the glass (faulty orchestration and/or faulty implementation).

So now we might speculate a bit: a clumsy person may be clumsy in virtue of deficiencies in any of the three areas — representation, calculation, and orchestration — and the nature of the clumsy performance is different for each of the three forms of deficiency. The first person may be clumsy because he/she doesn’t pay a lot of attention to the field of play; builds up an incomplete representation of the placement of the furniture; and, as a result, bumbles into the footstool or the coffee table. Or there may be another sort of cognitive defect — for example, a limited ability to remember the features of the cognitive map that has been developed — he keeps forgetting the footstool. The second person may have a deficient ability to project future states of the field of play based on its current state. He sees the revolving door in front of him, but mis-estimates how quickly it is moving and collides with it. The third person may have a full and sufficient cognitive representation of the field of play; may be fully able to run the dynamics forward in time through mental calculation; but may have difficulty in arranging the movements of the body accordingly. And this deficiency in turn may derive from various causes — a defective implementation of the routines of motion, an awkward geometry of the body so there is systematic misplacement of the feed, a slow neurological process leading to body movements that aren’t quite in synch, …

And here is one final thing we might observe, based on this treatment. A single clumsy act can be explained as the result of a single moment of bad performance — lapsing of attention to the environment, failing to calculate carefully the relevant future states, stumbling. An enduring characteristic of clumsiness, on the other hand, invites an explanation based on a feature of deficient competence in one of the areas mentioned above — a chronic problem in the actor’s cognition of the environment, or the actor’s ability to project future states, or the actor’s ability to orchestrate and control the movements of the body. And, if we were in the “clumsy-therapy” business, we might try to identify where the deficiency lies and then try to find ways of improving the actor’s competence in this area.

What kind of analysis is this? Partially it is an ordinary language analysis, along the lines of J. L. Austin. It involves diving into the nuances of meaning that we have in mind when we describe certain actions as “clumsy.” But partly it is a phenomenological inquiry: what is the state of mind and body that is associated with committing “clumsy” mistakes? What is the “life world” of imperfect performance? (Hubert Dreyfus (A Phenomenology of Skill Acquisition), Samuel Todes (Body and World), and Richard Sennett (The Craftsman) capture different parts of this perspective.) And, finally, it is a bit of speculative cognitive psychology; it is an attempt to work out the structure of the cognitive and motor activities that need to occur in the normal performance of activities like catching a fly ball or pouring a glass of water. And, based on this schematic analysis, it is an effort to see how the mistake of “clumsiness” can emerge from normal skilled performance. This is analogous to Noam Chomsky’s inventive use of grammatical “mistakes” as a clue to the underlying grammatical competence possessed by normal language users.

Habits, plans, and improvisation

How does thought figure in our ordinary actions and plans? To what extent are our routine actions the result of deliberation and planning, and to what extent do we function on auto-pilot and habit?

It is clear that much of one’s daily activity is habitual: routine actions and social responses that reflect little internal deliberation and choice. Habitual behavior comes into all aspects of life — daily morning routines (exercise, shower, choose a tie, make a fast breakfast), routine work activities (turn on the computer, check the email account, riffle through the paperwork in the inbox, review the morning’s business reports), and routine social contacts (greet the co-worker in the parking lot, gossip about the local news with the admin assistant, laugh about a lopsided weekend football score with a faculty colleague).

Particularly interesting is the last category of behavior — the fairly specific modes of interaction we’ve learned in response to typical social situations. What do you do if you bump into a person with your shoulder at a buffet line? How do you respond to a person who greets you familiarly but whom you don’t know? How do you interact with your boss, your peer, and your subordinate? How do you queue with other passengers when exiting a crowded airplane? When do you make a joke in a small group, and when is it better to keep quiet? In these and hundreds of other stereotyped social encounters we have learned stylized ways of behaving, so when the occasion arises we slip into habitual gear. And it seems certain that there are highly patterned differences in the repertoires of social habits associated with different cultures and sub-cultures — how to greet, how to handle minor conflicts, how to comport oneself. These repertoires of habits and stereotyped behavioral scenarios are an important component of the “culture” we wear.

It is interesting to reflect a bit on how habits are socially and psychologically embodied, and to consider whether this is an avenue through which social differences among groups are maintained. (This topic parallels earlier postings on local cultures and practices.)

What is “habitual” about these forms of behavior is the idea that they seem to be learned patterns of response, involving little reflection or deliberation. They become small “programs” of behavior that we have internalized through past experience; and they are invoked by the shuffling of the cards of ordinary experience. It is as if the “action executive” of the mind consults a library of routines and deploys a relevant series of behaviors in the context of a particular social environment.

But of course, not all action is habitual. The opposite end of the spectrum includes both deliberation and improvisation. These categories themselves are different from each other. Deliberation involves explicit consideration of one’s goals, the opportunities that are currently available within the environment of choice, and the pro’s and con’s of the various choices. Deliberation results in deliberate, planned choice. This represents the category of agency that is partially captured by rational choice theory: deliberate analysis of means and ends, and a calculating choice among possible actions. Planning is an extended version of this process, in which the actor attempts to orchestrate a series of actions and responses in such a way as to bring about a longterm goal.

Improvisation differs from both habit and deliberation. Improvisation is a creative response to a current and changing situation. It involves intelligent, fluid adaptation to the current situation, and seems more intuitive than analytical. The skilled basketball player displays improvisational intelligence as he changes his dribble, stutter-steps around a defender, switches hands, and passes to a teammate streaking under the basket for the score. At each moment there are shifting opportunities that appear and disappear as defenders lose their man, teammates slip into view, and the shot clock winds down. This series of actions is unplanned but non-habitual, and it displays an important aspect of situational intelligence. Bourdieu captures a lot of this aspect of intelligent behavior in his concept of habitus in Outline of a Theory of Practice.

New angles on French history

In teaching an undergraduate seminar on the philosophy of history, I tried to come up with some readings that would stimulate some genuinely new thinking on this subject. Several things worked well, including simply reading some talented contemporary historians carefully. But the most truly innovative and stimulating twist was a week spent reading and discussing Robert Darnton’s numerous reviews of books on the period of the French Revolution in the New York Review of Books. (Darnton’s own book, The Great Cat Massacre: And Other Episodes in French Cultural History, was also a great addition to the seminar — but that’s another posting.)

Written over roughly a twenty-year period, Darnton’s smart reviews provide a great perspective on how the historiography of the French Revolution has changed. From the structural, class-centered approach of Albert Soboul, through Richard Cobb’s insistence on mentalités, or Simon Schama’s person-centered telling of the story, it is possible to see a shifting scene of historians’ judgments about causes, structures, ideas, movements, and scale. All by itself this is an important insight into historical understanding. And it illustrates an important fact about historical knowledge: no event is ever known with finality. (This parallels the point made in my recent posting on China’s Cultural Revolution.)

But in our discussions we also found that it is possible to look at Darnton’s reviews themselves as an extended and implicit historiographical essay. In his commentary on the writings of others Darnton also reveals many of his own historical intuitions. And of course Darnton’s own ethnographic turn in The Great Cat Massacre — evidently worked out while Darnton was teaching an interdisciplinary seminar with Clifford Geertz — is itself an important step on the historiography of French social change. And so the project of trying to discover whether there is a coherent and innovative philosophy of history nested within these reviews proved to be a fruitful one — there is. And this provides an interesting new avenue of approach to the problem of formulating a philosophy of history, a different wrinkle on the insight that we can learn a lot from observing the practice of great historians.

Several points come out of this set of reviews quite vividly: for example, the deep contingency of historical change, the importance of the particular, the importance of experience and mentalités, the dialectic of events and agents, and the difficulty of framing a large historical event.

(If you have a subscription to the New York Review of Books, all the reviews are available electronically in the archive.)

"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.

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