What drives organizational performance?


We have a pretty good idea of the characteristics that support very high individual performance in a variety of fields, from jazz to track to physics to business. An earlier post discussed some of the different combinations of features that characterize leaders in several different professions (link). And it isn’t difficult to sketch out qualities of personality, character, and style that make for a great teacher, researcher, entrepreneur, a great soccer player, or an exceptional police investigator. So we might imagine that a high-performing organization is one that has succeeded in assembling a group of high-performing individuals. But this is plainly untrue — witness the New York Yankees during much of the 2000s, the dot-com company WebVan during the late 1990s, and the XYZ Orchestra today. (Here is a thoughtful Mellon Foundation study of quality factors in symphony orchestras; link.) In each case the organization consisted of high-performing stars in their various disciplines, but somehow the ensemble performed poorly. The lesson from these examples is an obvious one: the performance of an organization is more than the sum of the abilities of its component members.

In fact, it seems apparent that organizational performance, like physical health, is a function of a number of separate parameters:

  • clarity about mission
  • appropriateness of internal functional specialization
  • quality of internal communication and collaboration across units and individuals
  • quality and intensity of individuals
  • quality of internal motivation
  • quality of leadership

We might say that an organization is like a physical mechanism in the sense that its overall performance depends on the quality of the design, the appropriate interconnections among the parts, and the quality of the individual components.

So what else goes into determining great organizational performance besides the quality of the individuals who make it up? A few things are obvious. Of course it is true that having individual participants who have the right kinds of talents is crucial. A technology company needs excellent engineers and designers. But it also needs highly talented marketing professionals, financial experts, and strategic planners. And it needs these talented specialists in a number of critical areas. Why did Xerox PARC fail in spite of the excellence of its scientists and engineers, and the innovativeness of the products that they created? Because the organization lacked the ability — and the individuals — to turn those ideas and innovations into products that the public wanted to buy. (Here is Malcolm Gladwell’s take on Xerox PARC in the New Yorker; link.)

A key aspect of the problem of designing and tuning an organization’s features to ensure high performance is being able to determine with precision what the mission of the organization is. What is the organization fundamentally established to bring about? If the Red Cross is an organization that is intended to deliver resources and assistance to communities that have suffered extensive disasters, that implies one set of functional needs to be satisfied by divisions and specialists within the organization. If it is primarily a fund-raising and marketing organization aimed at raising public awareness and generating large amounts of public donations to be used for disaster relief, that implies a different set of internal specialists. So being clear about the overall mission of the organization is crucial for the designers, so they can skillfully design a set of divisions, specialists, and work processes that can work together effectively to carry out the tasks necessary to succeed in achieving the mission.

This point highlights the fact that an organization needs to have a functional structure in which the activities of individuals or departments carry out specialized tasks. These sub-units depend upon the high-level work of other departments or individuals, and the functional structure of the organization can be more or less appropriate to the task. The organization succeeds to the extent that its component parts succeed in identifying the needs and opportunities facing the organization and in carrying out their roles in responding to those needs and opportunities. Poor performance in one department can have the effect of ruining the overall success of the organization to carry out its mission — even if other departments are highly successful in carrying out their tasks. Charles Perrow highlights this kind of organizational deficiency in Normal Accidents: Living with High-Risk Technologies.

Here is another important variable in bringing about organizational effectiveness: the procedures within the organization that are designed to encourage high-quality effort and results on the parts of the individuals who occupy roles throughout the organization. One line of response to this issue flows through a system of supervision and assessment. This approach emphasizes measurement of performance and positive and negative incentives to motivate satisfactory performance. Supervisors are tasked to ensure that employees are exerting themselves and that their work product is of satisfactory quality.

But a different response proceeds through a theory of internal motivation. Leaders and supervisors encourage high-quality effort and achievement by expressing the valuable goals that the organization is pursuing and by offering the reward of participation in effective work that one cares about to employees. This positive motivational feature is strengthened if the organization visibly maintains its commitment to treat its employees fairly and decently. If an employee is proud to work for Ben and Jerry’s, he or she is strongly motivated to make the best contribution possible to the work of the company. In a nutshell this is the theory that underlies the very interesting literature of positive organizational scholarship (Kim Cameron and Gretchen Spreitzer, The Oxford Handbook of Positive Organizational Scholarship).

A fifth facet of organizational performance plainly has to do with internal communication, coordination, and collaboration. The eventual success or failure of an organizational initiative will depend on the activities of individuals and units spread out throughout the organization. The work of various of those units can be made more effective or less effective by the ease and seriousness with which they are able to communicate with each other. Suppose a car company is designing a new model. Many units will be involved in bringing the design to fruition. If the body designers, the power train designers, and the manufacturing engineers haven’t talked to each other, there is a likelihood that solutions chosen by one set of specialists will create major problems for the other specialists. (The Saab 900 of the late 1970s was a beautiful and high-performing vehicle; but because the design process had not taken into account the need for convenient servicing, it was necessary to remove the engine to carry out some common kinds of repair.) Thomas Hughes provides an excellent analysis of the organizational deficiencies of the design process used in the United States military aerospace sector in the 1950s and 1960s in Rescuing Prometheus: Four Monumental Projects That Changed the Modern World. Here is his comparison of good and bad organizational forms:

The top diagram is entirely hierarchical, with decision-makers at the top deciding the flow of work below and essentially no communication across sub-units. The bottom diagram, by contrast, involves a great deal of internal communication, allowing for adjustment of design and timing decisions so that the eventual plan has the greatest likelihood for success. The latter permits the implementation of systems engineering rather than component engineering. Here is Hughes’s depiction of what happens when an organization lacks good internal communication and coordination:

What this implies is that improving organizational performance is a bit like tuning a piano: we need to continually adjust the factors (motivation, collaboration, mission, leadership, specialization) in such a way as to create a joint system of activity that succeeds at a high level in creating the desired results.

(I used images of musical ensembles to open this topic. But how good is the analogy? Actually, it is not a particularly good analogy. The issue of the quality of the players is obviously relevant, and quality of leadership has an exact parallel in the symphony orchestra. But the task of giving an excellent performance of Dvorak’s ninth symphony is much simpler than that of bringing about a successful intervention by FEMA in response to a hurricane. There is a score for the musicians; there is a central conductor who keeps them in step with each other; and most crucially, there is no uncertainty about what to do once the third movement is finished; the musicians turn the page and move on to the fourth movement. Perhaps the jazz ensemble pictured above is a slightly better metaphor for a complex organization in that it leaves room for improvisation by the players. But even here, the activity is orders of magnitude simpler and easier to coordinate than a large organization whose actions take place over months or years, dispersed over thousands of miles and multiple sites of activity. So organizational effectiveness is a more complex process than musical coordination and performance.)

(I emphasize here the importance of collaboration as a variable in organizational effectiveness. This suggests examples drawn from team activities like soccer or a research laboratory. But some experts doubt the idea that teams are always superior to more hierarchical structures. Here is J. Richard Hackman on the positives and negatives of teams (link).)

Social justice and democratic stability


One thing I find interesting about the sustained demonstrations and protests in Madison, Wisconsin is the fact that people on the streets do not seem to be chiefly motivated by personal material interests. Rather, the passion and the sustainability of the protests against Governor Walker’s plans seem to derive from an outrage felt by many people in Wisconsin and throughout the country, that the Governor’s effort is really an attempt to reduce people’s rights — in this case, the right to come together as a group of workers to bargain together. This is a well established right in the private sector, protected by the National Labor Relations Act, and the rationale is substantially the same in the public sector.

So when the Governor attempts to eliminate the right to collective bargaining for public employees, he offends the sense of justice of many citizens in Wisconsin and elsewhere — whether or not they are directly affected, whether or not they themselves are members of unions. Restricting established social rights is a very serious thing — well beyond the specific calculation of interests that people might make. It’s morally offensive in the way that state efforts to roll back voting rights would be offensive.  And this moral offensiveness can be a powerful motivator of collective resistance.

So this seems to provide an intriguing clue about political mobilization more generally. To what extent is moral outrage, a perception of injustice, an important motivator of individual political engagement and activism?

When we look at the MENA rebellions, even from a great distance, it seems that concerns about social and political justice have as much prominence as more material motivations — demands for food subsidies, demands for state-sponsored jobs programs, etc. Egyptians, Tunisians, and Libyans interviewed on the BBC talk more frequently about the outrage of dictatorship and arbitrary state power than they do about material demands. And really, it’s hard to see an economic interest in forcing a certain kind of food subsidy program being strong enough to create enough of a political motivation to lead a person to stand up against fighter jets and attack helicopters.

This is an insight that James Scott expressed a generation ago in The Moral Economy of the Peasant: Rebellion and Subsistence in Southeast Asia, and E. P. Thompson a generation before that in Customs in Common, in the theory of the moral economy. In its essence, the theory holds that the fact of sustained violation of a person’s moral expectations of the society around him or her is a decisive factor in collective mobilization in many historical circumstances.  Later theorists of political activism have downplayed the idea of moral outrage, preferring more material motivations based on self-interest.  But the current round of activism and protest around the globe seems to point back in the direction of these more normative motivations — combined, of course, with material interests.  So it is worth reexamining the idea that a society that badly offends the sense of justice of segments of its population is likely to stimulate resistance.

This basic and compelling idea has an important implication for sustainable social and political stability in a political regime. If citizens react collectively to sustained injustice, then a regime that wants to rule sustainably needs to respect the demands of justice.  It is important for a social order to arrive at a rough-and-ready shared understanding about the rights and obligations that citizens have, and it is important for the state to conduct itself in ways that honor those expectations.

This sounds like a social contract theory, and it certainly has something in common with that normative theory. But its relevance here is more sociological. It is the basis of a prediction about what social and political circumstances will elicit sustained protest and resistance, and which kinds of arrangements are likely to be accepted indefinitely by the population. And it leads to a policy recommendation for any regime that wants to create a stable, ongoing polity: work hard to make sure that social arrangements and institutions treat citizens fairly, and don’t gratuitously violate their deeply held convictions about their rights and about the general features of justice.

So what moral expectations do American citizens have about how society ought to work? Several things seem fairly clear. Americans care about equality of opportunity. We are deeply rankled by the idea that the good opportunities in society are somehow captured by an elite of any sort. Second is the idea of equal treatment of all citizens by the institutions of the state. Teenagers and persons of color rankle at being singled out for special attention by the police. Women rightly seethe at the persistence of institutions in the workplace that continue to treat them differently. Arab Americans rightly resent special scrutiny at airports.  We don’t accept status inequality easily — especially in our own cases.  And third, we are very sensitive about the inviolability of our rights — our right to vote, right to go where we want, right to speak our minds and associate with whomever we want to.

What Americans don’t yet seem to have is a specific moral sensitivity to extreme inequalities of income and wealth. The fact of the accelerating concentration of income at the top doesn’t seem to produce the moral outrage in the US that perhaps it would in France or Germany. And maybe this comes from another element of our moral economy — the idea that inequalities are all right as long as they are fairly earned. But more information about bonuses on Wall Street and the banking industry may begin to erode that tolerance.

It is intriguing to have widely separated examples of social mobilization going on right now.  Surely there are sociologists and political scientists working right now to interview leaders and followers in Egypt, Madison, or Benghazi trying to sort out the motivations and social networks through which these movements arose and solidified.  As a theoretically informed prediction, it seems likely that moral motivations like resentment of arbitrary power, violations of strongly held rights, and persistent status inequalities will be found to have played a role.


The moral sentiments

One of Adam Smith’s contributions to the study of philosophical ethics is his book, The Theory of Moral Sentiments. It is an interesting work, one part descriptive moral psychology, one part theory of the emotions.  Here is the opening paragraph (link):

How selfish soever man may be supposed, there are evidently some principles in his nature, which interest him in the fortune of others, and render their happiness necessary to him, though he derives nothing from it except the pleasure of seeing it. Of this kind is pity or compassion, the emotion which we feel for the misery of others, when we either see it, or are made to conceive it in a very lively manner. That we often derive sorrow from the sorrow of others, is a matter of fact too obvious to require any instances to prove it; for this sentiment, like all the other original passions of human nature, is by no means confined to the virtuous and humane, though they perhaps may feel it with the most exquisite sensibility. The greatest ruffian, the most hardened violator of the laws of society, is not altogether without it.

So Smith asserts as a matter of empirical fact that there are common moral emotions and feelings — sympathy, pity, compassion — that underlie human social and moral behavior.  And the most basic kinds of morally motivated behavior — altruism in particular — are explained by the workings of these natural emotions of empathy with other human beings.  So Smith posed a fundamental question: is there an innate human moral psychology, beyond the reach of training and teaching, that accounts for our willingness to give to others and sometimes sacrifice important interests for the good of others?  Why do firemen rush into the highly dangerous environment of a large fire in order to rescue the people inside?

Now fast-forward to the post-Darwinian world; look at the human organism from the point of view of the study of primate behavior; and ask this key question: Is there an evolutionary basis for social behaviors? Are there emotions supporting cooperation that were selected for through our evolutionary history? Is a moral capacity hardwired?

Philosophers have treated this question in the past.  Allan Gibbard’s Wise Choices, Apt Feelings: A Theory of Normative Judgment is a particularly good example. Here is how Gibbard describes the situation.

Consider now human beings evolving in hunting-gathering societies.  We could expect them to face an abundance of human bargaining situations, involving mutual aid, personal property, mates, territory, use of housing, and the like.  Human bargaining situations tend to be evolutionary bargaining situations.  Human goals tend toward biological fitness, toward reproduction.  The point is not, of course, that a person’s sole goal is to maximize his reproduction; few if any people have that as a goal at all.  Rather, the point concerns propensities to develop goals.  Those propensities that conferred greatest fitness were selected; hence in a hunting-gathering society, people tended to want the various things it was fitness-enhancing for them to want.  Conditions of primitive human life must have required intricate coordination–both of the simple cooperative kinds involved, say, in meeting a person, and of the kind required for bargaining problems to yield mutually beneficial outcomes. Propensities well coordinated with the propensities of others would have been fitness-enhancing, and so we may view a vast array of human propensities as coordinating devices.  Our emotional propensities, I suggest, are largely the results of these selection pressures, and so are our normative capacities. (67)

One of Gibbard’s key points is an analytical one. He argues against the idea of there being specific moral content, ethical principles, or moral emotions that are embodied in the central nervous system (CNS) as a result of variation and selection. Instead, he argues for there being a hardwired set of more abstract capacities that have CNS reality and selection advantage: the ability to learn a norm and to act in accordance with it.  (Richard Joyce makes a similar point: “Evolutionary psychology does not claim that observable human behavior is adaptive, but rather that it is produced by psychological mechanisms that are adaptations.  The output of an adaptation need not be adaptive” (5).)

This is the part that seems counter-intuitive from a simple Darwinian point of view. Wouldn’t an organism possessing a genetically determined disposition to act contrary to its mortal interests almost necessarily have less reproductive success? So shouldn’t such a gene quickly lose out to a more opportunistic alternative? Gibbard considers the evolutionary arguments surrounding the topic of altruism (including Richard Dawkins’ Selfish Gene), and concludes — not necessarily.  It is possible to mount an evolutionary argument that establishes the fitness-enhancing characteristics of some specific kinds of altruistic behavior.

So what does the current research on this topic add to what we already knew?  And, can we draw any interesting connections back to the venerable Smith?

In fact, there seems to be a new surge of interest in the topic.  A number of philosophers and psychologists are now interested in treating moral psychology as an empirical question, and they are interested in working back to the evolutionary environment in which these human capacities emerged.   (For example, Richard Joyce, The Evolution of Morality and Walter Sinnott-Armstrong, ed., Moral Psychology, Volume 1: The Evolution of Morality: Adaptations and Innateness.)  Particularly interesting is research by Michael Tomasello and his collaborators.  Tomasello is the co-director of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology.  He argues that human beings are hardwired for cooperation, empathy, and social intensionality in a very interesting recent book, Why We Cooperate.  A great deal of his research has to do with experiments and observations of human children (9-24 months) and of young non-human primates.  He finds, essentially, that infants and children display a range of behaviors that seem to reveal a natural readiness for altruism, sharing, coordination, and eventually following of norms.  “I only propose that the kinds of collaborative activities in which young children today engage are the natural cradle of social norms of the cooperative variety.  This is because they contain the seeds of the two key ingredients” (89-90).  He presents a range of experimental data supporting these ideas:

  • Human infants have a pre-cultural disposition to be helpful and empathetic (12-14 months) 
  • Human toddlers adjust their cooperative and normative behavior to be more attentive to the behavior of others: generous to the generous and not to the ungenerous. 
  • Human infants and toddlers have a precultural disposition to absorb and enforce norms. 
  • The emotions of guilt and shame to be hardwired to conformance to norms. 
  • Infants appear to take a “we” intentional stance without learning.  They are able to quickly figure out what another agent is trying to do.
  • Chimps differ from human infants in virtually each of these areas. 

Here is a particularly interesting piece of evidence that Tomasello offers in support of the idea that human evolution was shaped by selection pressures that favored social coordination: the whites of the eyes in the human being.  Almost all non-human species have eyes that are primarily dark; whereas human eyes feature a large and conspicuous circle of white (the sclera).  The whites of the eyes permit an observer to determine what another individual is looking at — allowing human individuals to achieve a substantially greater degree of shared attention and coordination.  “My team has argued that advertising my eye direction for all to see could only have evolved in a cooperative social environment in which others were not likely to exploit it to my detriment” (76).

So does this recent work on the evolutionary basis of moral emotions have anything to do with Smith and the moral sentiments?  What the two bodies of thought have in common is the idea that there is a psychological foundation to moral behavior, cooperation, altruism, and helping.  Pure maximizing rationality doesn’t get you to “helping”; rather, there needs to be some psychological impulse to improve things for the other person.  Where evolutionary psychology differs from Smith is precisely in the nature of the explanation that is offered for this moral psychology; we have the advantage of having a pretty good idea of how natural selection works on biological traits, and we are therefore in a better position than Smith was to explain why human beings possess moral sentiments.  What we cannot yet answer is the question of the nature of the mechanism at the level of the central nervous system or the cognitive system, of how these moral sentiments are embodied in the human organism.

(It is interesting to contrast this line of argument with that of Tom Nagel in The Possibility of Altruism.  Nagel argues against the moral psychology of Hume — very similar to that of Smith — and argues that altruism is actually a feature of rationality.  We behave altruistically, fundamentally, because we have a rational representation of the reality of the external world and of other persons; and to recognize the reality of another person is immediately to have a reason to help the other person.  So no “motor” of moral emotion is needed in order to explain altruistic behavior.  On this approach, we don’t need to postulate moral sentiments to explain moral behavior; all we need is a rich conception of practical rationality.)

Assurance game

How does a group of people succeed in coming together to contribute to a collective project over an extended period of time?  For example, what leads a group of unemployed workers to travel to the capital to lobby for an extension of unemployment benefits, or a group of expatriate Burmese people in London to attend demonstrations against the junta?  What motivations are relevant at the individual level? And what circumstances are most conducive to creating and sustaining collective action?

Purely self-interested egoists won’t make it — that is the message of Mancur Olson’s Logic of Collective Action: Public Goods. The maximizing egoist will reason that the activity will either succeed or fail independent of his/her own participation.  If it succeeds then he will enjoy the benefits of cooperation; and if it fails he will have avoided the wasted costs of participation.  Either way the egoist does better by refraining from participation.  So collective action in pursuit of a public good is all but impossible within a society of rationally disinterested egoists.  As Amartya Sen observes in “Rational Fools” (link),  “The purely economic man is indeed close to being a social moron.” 

But we know that this conclusion does a bad job of describing real social life.  People in villages, communities, political parties, religious organizations, public television audiences, and ethnic groups do in fact often succeed in getting themselves organized and mobilized in pursuit of a public good for the group.  Often the level of mobilization is below the level that would be optimal for production of the good for the population; often it is fairly straightforward to identify the symptoms of incipient free-riding; but ordinary social experience and history alike are replete with examples of voluntary collective action.

Many theories can be articulated in order to account for the spontaneous occurrence of collective action.  People may be irrational; they may be motivated entirely by non-utility considerations; they may be governed by norms of solidarity beyond their rational control; they may be disciplined by grassroots organizations that punish defectors; there may be an evolutionary basis hard-wired into the human cognitive-deliberative system that favors cooperation; or, for that matter, there may be a hard-wired impulse towards punishing defectors from common projects that tips the balance of utility calculation for would-be free-riders.

But here is a factor that seems to be a credible observation about social motivation and that still makes sense of the behavior in deliberative terms.  Many real social actors seem to be what might be called “conditional altruists”: they are willing to contribute some effort or personal resource to a collective project if they have grounds for confidence that a reasonable number of other members of the group will contribute as well. (Jon Elster explores the idea in The Cement of Society: A Survey of Social Order.)  And it isn’t that these actors make a calculation error along the lines of the fallacy of unanimity — “I want the benefits of the collective action, and it won’t occur without me.”  Instead, they seem to reason in ways that would please a communitarian: “I’m a member of this group, I believe that other members will do what’s good for the group, and I’m willing to do my part as well.”  This is a fairly explicit willingness to sacrifice the benefits of free riding.  But the conditional part is important as well: the conditional altruist is calculating about the likelihood of success in the collective undertaking, and is willing to participate only if he/she judges that enough other people will contribute as well to make the undertaking feasible.

Conditional altruism thus attributes a common moral psychology to social actors, which we might refer to as the “fairness factor.”  Individuals are willing to factor collective goods into their calculation of the costs and benefits of action, and they have some degree of motivation to act in accordance with a proposed collective action that would benefit them even if they could evade participation.  They are disposed to act fairly: “If I benefit from the action, I should take my fair share of creating the benefit.”  (Allan Gibbard’s Wise Choices, Apt Feelings: A Theory of Normative Judgment offers an effort to bring together the evolutionary history of the species with a philosopher’s analysis of moral reasoning.)

If fairness or conditional altruism are real components of human agency (for all or many human beings), then we can identify a few factors that are likely to increase the likelihood of cooperation and collective action.  Measures that increase the actor’s assurance of the behavior of others will have the effect of eliciting higher levels of collective action.  And it is possible to think of quite a few social circumstances that have this effect.  A shared history of success in collective action is clearly relevant to current actors’ level of assurance about future cooperation.  Shared history can be made more powerful in the present through the currency of songs, stories, and performances that highlight earlier successes (Michael Taylor, Community, Anarchy and Liberty).  Researchers who study peasant village communities emphasize the importance of face-to-face relations among villagers; individuals know a good deal about the past behavior of their neighbors, which can provide a better basis for predicting their future cooperative behavior (Robert Netting, Smallholders, Householders: Farm Families and the Ecology of Intensive, Sustainable Agriculture). And members of small, stable communities also know that they will need to interact with each other long into the future — increasing the cost of non-cooperation today (Robert Axelrod, The Evolution of Cooperation: Revised Edition).

What is particularly interesting about this topic is the fact that actual social outcomes show a wide range of variations in the degree of self-interest and fairness that seems to be present.  Some groups seem to act more like Mancur Olson egoists; others (like Welsh coal miners) seem to act as though they have a very high “solidarity and fairness” quotient.  So no single answer to the question of collective action seems to work: “people are rational egoists,” “people are altruists,” or “people are conditional altruists.”  Rather, a given opportunity for collective action seems to display a mix of all these styles of reasoning.  These variations could be the result of several independent factors: differences in the formation of individuals’ moral psychology (emphasizing individualism or community from infancy); differences in current institutional settings (arrangements that make future interactions seem more likely to each participant); even potentially differences in personality or the genetic basis of decision-making across individuals.

I’m sure that there is work in experimental economics that probes the boundaries of this feature of practical reasoning.  Ordinary social experience informs us that people have different levels of willingness to undertake sacrifice for a group’s projects.  And having a more nuanced empirical understanding of how people behave in the settings of potential cooperation and collective action would help refine our understanding of the thought-processes and styles of reasoning through which individuals decide what to do. Here is an interesting paper by Ernst Fehr and Klaus Schmidt titled “The Economics of Fairness, Reciprocity and Altruism – Experimental Evidence and New Theories.”

"Moral economy" as a historical social concept

The concept of a “moral economy” has proved useful in attempting to describe and explain the contentious behavior of peasants in response to onerous social relations. Essentially, it is the idea that peasant communities share a set of normative attitudes concerning the social relations and social behaviors that surround the local economy: the availability of food, the prices of subsistence commodities, the proper administration of taxation, and the operation of charity, for example. This is sometimes referred to a “subsistence ethic”: the idea that local social arrangements should be structured in such a way as to respect the subsistence needs of the rural poor. The associated theory of political behavior holds something like this: peasant communities are aroused to protest and rebellion when the terms of the local subsistence ethic are breached by local elites, state authorities, or market forces.

Here I want to highlight this concept by asking a few foundational questions. Fundamentally, what kind of concept is it? How does it function in social interpretation, description, or explanation? And how does it function as a component of empirical investigation?

The concept of moral economy was extensively developed by E. P. Thompson in The Making of the English Working Class (1961) and an important essay, “The Moral Economy of the English Crowd in the Eighteenth Century,” originally published in Past and Present in 1971 and included in Customs in Common: Studies in Traditional Popular Culture. The concept derives from Thompson’s treatment of bread riots in eighteenth century Britain. In MEWC Thompson writes:

In 18th-century Britain riotous actions assumed two different forms: that of more or less spontaneous popular direct action; and that of the deliberate use of the crowd as an instrument of pressure, by persons “above” or apart from he crowd. The first form has not received the attention which it merits. It rested upon more articulate popular sanctions and was validated by more sophisticated traditions than the word “riot” suggests. The most common example is the bread or food riot, repeated cases of which can be found in almost every town and county until the 1840s. This was rarely a mere uproar which culminated in the breaking open of barns or the looting of shops. It was legitimised by the assumptions of an older moral economy, which taught the immorality of any unfair method of forcing up the price of provisions by profiteering upon the necessities of the people. (MTWEC, 62-63)

After describing a number of bread riots in some detail, Thompson writes, “Actions on such a scale … indicate an extraordinarily deep-rooted pattern of behaviour and belief …. These popular actions were legitimised by the old paternalist moral economy” (66). And he closes this interesting discussion with these words: “In considering only this one form of ‘mob’ action we have come upon unsuspected complexities, for behind every such form of popular direct action some legitimising notion of right is to be found” (68). And Thompson often describes these values as “traditional” or “paternalist” — working in opposition to the values and ideas of an unfettered market; he contrasts “moral economy” with the modern “political economy” associated with liberalism and the ideology of the free market.

In “The Moral Economy of the Crowd” Thompson puts his theory this way:

It is possible to detect in almost ever eighteenth-century crowd action some legitimising notion. By the notion of legitimation I mean that the men and women in the crowd were informed by the belief that they were defending traditional rights or customs; and, in general, that they were supported by the wider consensus of the community. On occasion this popular consensus was endorsed by some measure of licence afforded by the authorities. More commonly, the consensus was so strong that it overrode motives of fear or deference. (“Moral Economy,” CIC 188)

It is plain from these passages that Thompson believes that the “moral economy” is a real historical factor, consisting of the complex set of attitudes and norms of justice that are in play within this historically presented social group. As he puts the point late in the essay, “We have been examining a pattern of social protest which derives from a consensus as to the moral economy of the commonweal in times of dearth” (247).

So the logic of Thompson’s ideas here seems fairly clear: there were instances of public disorder (“riots”) surrounding the availability and price of food, and there is a hypothesized “notion of right” or justice that influenced and motivated participants. This conception of justice is a socially embodied historical factor, and it partially explains the behavior of the rural people who mobilized themselves to participate in the disturbances. He recapitulates his goal in the essay, “Moral Economy Reviewed” (also included in Customs in Common) in these terms: “My object of analysis was the mentalité, or, as I would prefer, the political culture, the expectations, traditions, and indeed, superstitions of the working population most frequently involved in actions in the market” (260). These shared values and norms play a key role in Thompson’s reading of the political behavior of the individuals in these groups. So these hypotheses about the moral economy of the crowd serve both to help interpret the actions of a set of actors involved in food riots, and to explain the timing and nature of food riots. We might say, then, that the concept of “moral economy” contributes both to a hermeneutics of peasant behavior and a causal theory of peasant contention.

Now move forward two centuries. Another key use of the concept of moral economy occurs in treatments of modern peasant rebellions in Asia. Most influential is James Scott’s important book, The Moral Economy of the Peasant: Rebellion and Subsistence in Southeast Asia. Scholars of the Chinese Revolution borrowed from Scott in offering a range of interpretations of peasant behavior in the context of CCP mobilization; for example, James Polachek (“The Moral Economy of the Kiangsi Soviet” (1928-34). Journal of Asian Studies 1983 XLII (4):805-830). And most recently, Kevin O’Brien has made use of the idea of a moral economy in his treatment of “righteous protest” in contemporary China (Rightful Resistance in Rural China). So scholars interested in the politics of Asian rural societies have found the moral economy concept to be a useful one. Scott puts his central perspective in these terms:

We can learn a great deal from rebels who were defeated nearly a half-century ago. If we understand the indignation and rage which prompted them to risk everything, we can grasp what I have chosen to call their moral economy: their notion of economic justice and their working definition of exploitation–their view of which claims on their product were tolerable and which intolerable. Insofar as their moral economy is representative of peasants elsewhere, and I believe I can show that it is, we may move toward a fuller appreciation of the normative roots of peasant politics. If we understand, further, how the central economic and political transformations of the colonial era served to systematically violate the peasantry’s vision of social equity, we may realize how a class “of low classness” came to provide, far more often than the proletariat, the shock troops of rebellion and revolution. (MEP, 3-4)

Scott’s book represents his effort to understand the dynamic material circumstances of peasant life in colonial Southeast Asia (Vietnam and Burma); to postulate some central normative assumptions of the “subsistence ethic” that he believes characterizes these peasant societies; and then to explain the variations in political behavior of peasants in these societies based on the moments of inconsistency between material conditions and aspects of the subsistence ethic. And he postulates that the political choices for action these peasant rebels make are powerfully influenced by the content of the subsistence ethic. Essentially, we are invited to conceive of the “agency” of the peasant as being a complicated affair, including prudential reasoning, moral assessment based on shared standards of justice, and perhaps other factors as well. So, most fundamentally, Scott’s theory offers an account of the social psychology and agency of peasants.

There are several distinctive features of Scott’s programme. One is his critique of narrow agent-centered theories of political motivation, including particularly rational choice theory. (Samuel Popkin’s The Rational Peasant: The Political Economy of Rural Society in Vietnam is the prime example.) Against the idea that peasants are economically rational agents who decide about political participation based on a narrowly defined cost-benefit analysis, Scott argues for a more complex political psychology incorporating socially shared norms and values. But a second important feature is Scott’s goal of providing a somewhat general basis for explanation of peasant behavior. He wants to argue that the subsistence ethic is a widely shared set of moral values in traditional rural societies — with the consequence that it provides a basis for explanation that goes beyond the particulars of Vietnam or Burma. And he has a putative explanation of this commonality as well — the common existential circumstances of traditional family-based agriculture.

One could pull several of these features apart in Scott’s treatment. For example, we could accept the political psychology — “People are motivated by a locally embodied sense of justice” — but could reject the generalizability of the subsistence ethic — “Burmese peasants had the XYZ set of local values, while Vietnamese peasants possessed the UVW set of local values.”

This programme suggests several problems for theory and for empirical research. Are there social-science research methods that would permit us to “observe” or empirically discern the particular contents of a normative worldview in a range of different societies, in order to assess whether the subsistence ethic that Scott describes is widespread? Are peasants in Burma and Vietnam as similar as Scott’s theory postulates? How would we validate the implicit theory of political motivation that Scott advances (calculation within the context of normative judgment)? Are there other important motivational factors that are perhaps as salient to political behavior as the factors invoked by the subsistence ethic? Where does Scott’s “thicker” description of peasant consciousness sit with respect to fully ethnographic investigation?

So to answer my original question — what kind of concept is the “moral economy”? — we can say several things. It is a proto-theory of the theory of justice that certain groups possess (18th-century English farmers and townspeople, 20th-century Vietnamese peasants). It implicitly postulates a theory of political motivation and political agency. It asserts a degree of generality across peasant societies. It is offered as a basis for both interpreting and explaining events — answering the question “What is going on here?” and “Why did this event take place?” In these respects the concept is both an empirical construct and a framework for thinking about agency; so it can be considered both in terms of its specific empirical adequacy and, more broadly, the degree of insight it offers for thinking about collective action.

Agency, action, and norms

How do norms influence behavior? More fundamentally, what is a norm?

The question arises for two separate reasons. First, we are interested in knowing why people behave as they do (agency). And second, we are interested in knowing how large social factors (moral and cognitive frameworks, for example) exert influence over individuals (social causation).

The agency question is the more fundamental. Philosophers typically want to answer the question in terms of a model of practical rationality and deliberation. One philosophical answer derives from Aristotle and represents action as the result of rational deliberation. Individuals have a set of goals and values; they have a set of beliefs about the world; and they deliberate about the choices they confront with the aim of achieving their goals consistent with their values, given their beliefs about the world. But philosophers and thinkers as diverse as Nietzsche, Skinner, or Adorno would take issue with this reason-centered theory of action. Other sources of behavior might include unconscious habits or prejudices, instincts, impulses, emotions, and role-playing. A model that incorporates these diverse possible influences on action is unavoidably complex — but human behavior is likewise complex.

Now let’s try to locate the role of norms within a theory of agency. Norms have to do with the reasons and motives that people have for their actions. A norm is a particular kind of influence on action: it is a rule of behavior that leads someone to do something that is otherwise contrary to immediate impulse or interest. Norms get us to do things we don’t want to do.

We might say, then, that a norm is a rule of behavior — for example, “Don’t wear shorts to a business meeting,” “Don’t take coins from the blind man’s cup,” “Give up your seat on the bus to a disabled person.” And a rule can either be internally or externally represented; this means that the the rule may be internalized into the agent’s process of decision-making, or it may influence the agent’s behavior through punishments and rewards.

Even this simple discussion raises questions, however. Do norms have to be consciously accessible to the agent? Is a moral principle such as “Always keep your promises” a norm, or do ethical principles fall in a different category? Do norms have rational justification, or are they simply an accidental social product like tastes or styles?

As for the ways in which norms influence behavior —

It would seem that there are only a few mechanisms through which norms could possibly influence individual and collective behavior, largely distinguished by being external and internal.

First, it may be that there is an effective mechanism of social education through which each individual develops or activates an internally regulative system of norms or rules. This process can be described as “moral education.” The most superficial observation of social behavior indicates that this is so, and social psychologists and sociologists have some ideas about how these systems work. But the bottom line appears fairly clear: individuals who are reared in normal human settings eventually possess action-behavior systems that embody a set of personal norms that influence their conduct. We might draw the analogy to the example of language learning: a normal human child is exposed to the linguistic behavior of others, and arrives at a psychologically realized grammar that guides his/her own language production.

Second, a norm might be embodied in the attitudes, judgment, and behavior of others in such a way that their actions and reactions create incentives and disincentives for the actor. For example, others may possess a set of norms concerning civility in public discourse, and they may punish or reward others according to whether their words are consistent with these norms. In this case the agent conforms to the requirements of the norm out of a calculation of costs and benefits of performance. (It would appear that there is a possibility of circularity here: the externally imposed norm depends upon the internally embodied norm of enforcement of the content of the rule on the part of others.)

Third, it might be the case that there are some norms of inter-personal behavior that are hard-wired. Some norms might have a biological, evolutionary basis. This is the line of thought that sociobiologists have explored with varying levels of success. The emotional responses that adults have to infants and children probably fall in this category — though it is a conceptually interesting question to consider whether these emotional responses are “norms” or simply features of the affective system. This is relevant to the work that Allan Gibbard does in Wise Choices, Apt Feelings: A Theory of Normative Judgment. Gibbard’s fundamental insight seems to be that there must be an evolutionary basis for the “norm-acquisition system” — the features of human psychology that permit them to acquire certain kinds of moral motives (altruism, friendship, fairness).

So — what can we say about norms? Human beings act on the basis of deliberation, norm, impulse, and emotion. So our theory of practical rationality and action must make a place for the workings of norms. Second, norms are transmitted to individuals through concrete social processes — family experiences, schooling, religious institutions, etc. Our theories of social life must incorporate an account of the processes of normative education through which individuals come to possess a particular normative structure. These experiences are the counterpart to the exposure to language on the part of the infant. And third, norms are socially enforced through the actions of others. So norms are socially embodied — in the institutions of enforcement, the institutions and practices of moral education, and in the practical cognition of the individuals who make up the society.