Social embeddedness

To what extent do individuals choose their courses of action largely on the basis of a calculation of costs and benefits? And to what extent, on the contrary, are their actions importantly driven by the normative assumptions they share with other individuals with whom they interact? Mark Granovetter formulated this foundational question for the social sciences in his important 1985 contribution to the American Journal of Sociology, “Economic Action and Social Structure: The Problem of Embeddedness” (link). He used the concept of embeddedness as a way of capturing the idea that the actions individuals choose are importantly refracted by the social relations within which they function. This is a topic we’ve addressed frequently in prior posts under the topic of the social actor, and Granovetter’s contribution is an important one to consider as we try to further clarify the issues involved.

The large distinction at issue here is the contrast between rational actor models of the social world, in which the actor makes choices within a thin set of context-independent decision rules, and social actor models, in which the actor is largely driven by a context-defined set of scripts as he/she makes choices. The contrast is sometimes illustrated by contrasting neoclassical economic models of the market with substantivist models along the lines of Karl Polanyi’s The Great Transformation: The Political and Economic Origins of Our Time, and it links to the debate in economic anthropology between formalists and substantivists. Here is how Granovetter puts the fundamental question:

How behavior and institutions are affected by social relations is one of the classic questions of social theory. (481)

He argues that neither of the polar positions are tenable.  The formalist approach errs in taking too a-social view of the actor:

Classical and neoclassical economics operates, in contrast, with an atomized, undersocialized conception of human action, continuing in the utilitarian tradition. … In classical and neoclassical economics, therefore, the fact that actors may have social relations with one another has been treated, if at all, as a frictional drag that impedes competitive markets. (483, 484)

But the extreme alternative isn’t appealing either:

More recent comments by economists on “social influences” construe these as processes in which actors acquire customs, habits, or norms that are followed mechanically and automatically, irrespective of their bearing on rational choice. (485)

So action doesn’t reduce to abstract optimizing rationality, and it doesn’t reduce to inflexible cultural or normative scripts either. Instead, Granovetter proposes an approach to this topic that reframes the issue around a more fluid and relational conception of the actor. Like the pragmatist theories of the actor discussed in earlier posts (AbbottGrossJoas), he explores the idea that the actor’s choices emerge from a flow of interactions and shifting relations with others. The actor is not an atomized agent, but rather a participant in a flow of actions and interactions.

At the same time, Granovetter insists that this approach does not deny purposiveness and agency to the actor. The actor reacts and responds to the social relations surrounding him or her; but actions are constructed and refracted through the consciousness, beliefs, and purposes of the individual. 

The idea of embeddedness is crucial for Granovetter’s argument; but it isn’t explicitly defined in this piece.  The idea of an “embedded” individual is contrasted to the idea of an atomized actor; this implies that the individual’s choices and actions are generated, in part anyway, by the actions and expected behavior of other actors.  It is a relational concept; the embedded actor exists in a set of relationships with other actors whose choices affect his or her own choices as well.  And this in turn implies that the choices actors make are not wholly determined by facts internal to their spheres of individual deliberation and beliefs; instead, actions are importantly influenced by the observed and expected behavior of others.

Their attempts at purposive action are instead embedded in concrete, ongoing systems of social relations. (487)

Some of Granovetter’s discussion crystallizes around the social reality of trust within a system of economic actors. Trust is an inherently relational social category; it depends upon the past and present actions and interactions within a group of actors, on the basis of which the actors choose courses of action that depend on expectations about the future cooperative actions of the other actors. Trust for Granovetter is therefore a feature of social relations and social networks:

The embeddedness argument stresses instead the role of concrete personal relations and structures (or “networks”) of such relations in generating trust and discouraging malfeasance. (490)

And trust is relevant to cooperation in all its variants — benevolent and malicious as well. As Granovetter points out, a conspiracy to defraud a business requires a group of trusting confederates. So it is an important sociological question to investigate how those bonds of trust among thieves are created and sustained.

This line of thought, and the theory of the actor that it suggests, is an important contribution to how we can understand social behavior in a wide range of contexts. The key premise is that individuals choose their actions in consideration of the likely choices of others, and this means that their concrete social relations are critical to their actions. How frequently do a set of actors interact? Has there been a history of successful cooperation among these actors in the past? Are there rivalries among the actors that might work to reduce trust? These are all situational and historical facts about the location and social relations of the individual. And they imply that very similar individuals, confronting very similar circumstances of choice, may arrive at very different patterns of social action dependent on their histories of interaction with each other. 

It seems that this theory of the actor would be amenable to empirical investigation.  The methodologies of experimental economics could be adapted to study of the relational intelligence that Granovetter describes here. Recent works by Ernst Fehr and Klaus Schmidt explore related empirical questions about decision making in the context of problems involving fairness and reciprocity (Foundations of Human Sociality: Economic Experiments and Ethnographic Evidence from Fifteen Small-Scale Societies and “The Economics of Fairness, Reciprocity and Altruism – Experimental Evidence and New Theories”; link).

(These topics have come up in earlier discussions here. Here is a post on Chuck Tilly’s treatment of trust networks; link. Amartya Sen’s discussion of “rational fools” is relevant as well, as is his account of the role that commitments play in action (link). It seems likely that Granovetter would argue that Sen’s solution is still too formalist, in that it attempts to internalize he social relations component into the actor’s calculations. This is true of the “identity economics” approach as well; (link).)

Dewey on habits

I’ve sought here to discover some of the origins of current neo-pragmatist theories of the actor. John Dewey’s writings are certainly crucial for that quest. So what did Dewey contribute to a pragmatist understanding of how people act? one place to look for an answer is in a 1922 book, HUMAN NATURE AND CONDUCT: An Introduction to Social Psychology. It is a particularly interesting book to read, in that Dewey goes back and forth between a kind of descriptive psychology and some astute theorizing about morality as a constraint on action.

A particularly central part of Dewey’s theory of action is the idea of habit. He believes that a large volume of our ordinary human conduct is not deliberative or plan-ful at all, but is rather based on habit. So what is habit? Here is a brief description in Human Nature and Conduct:

Habit means special sensitiveness or accessibility to certain classes of stimuli, standing predilections and aversions, rather than bare recurrence of specific acts. It means will. (kl 386)

The word habit may seem twisted somewhat from its customary use when employed as we have been using it. But we need a word to express that kind of human activity which is influenced by prior activity and in that sense acquired ; which contains within itself a certain ordering or systematization of minor elements of action ; which is projective, dynamic in quality, ready for overt manifestation; and which is operative in some subdued subordinate form even when not obviously dominating activity. (Kindle Locations 378-381)

In the tradition of deliberative rationality, the idea of will is central. The agent deliberates about ends and means and chooses (wills) a means that will bring about her ends. So the will is the fundamental element of action. But in fact, Dewey argues that the idea of “will” itself can be understood as a compound of habits, rather than a self-originating deliberation about ends and means.

By will, common-sense understands something practical and moving. It understands the body of habits, of active dispositions which makes a man do what he does. Will is thus not something opposed to consequences or severed from them. (Kindle Locations 403-404)

Dewey’s discussion of habit and action is particularly sensitive to the relationship between the constraints and practices of the body and human patterns of action. He uses an extended example of “standing straight”, and points out that “good posture” is a complex characteristic involving the environment, the body, and the will. But crucially, the unadorned will (“I will henceforth stand straight”) cannot in fact determine subsequent behavior. In fact, he argues that the idea of standing straight can only come to us once we are bodily capable of good posture:

Only the man who can maintain a correct posture has the stuff out of which to form that idea of standing erect which can be the starting point of a right act. (Kindle Locations 302-303)

Given a bad habit and the ” will ” or mental direction to get a good result, and the actual happening is a reverse or looking-glass manifestation of the usual fault-a compensatory twist in the opposite direction. Refusal to recognize this fact only leads to a separation of mind from body, and to supposing that mental or ” psychical” mechanisms are different in kind from those of bodily operations and independent of them. (Kindle Locations 312-314)

 He also emphasizes the point that habits in action generally presuppose a social context:

But since habits involve the support of environing conditions, a society or some specific group of fellow-men, is always accessory before and after the fact. Some activity proceeds from a man; then it sets up reactions in the surroundings. Others approve, disapprove, protest, encourage, share and resist. (Kindle Locations 167-169)

 Or in other words, we acquire our habits of behavior through exposure to other actors.

We often fancy that institutions, social custom, collective habit, have been formed by the consolidation of individual habits. In the main this supposition is false to fact. To a considerable extent customs, or wide-spread uniformities of habit, exist because individuals face the same situation and react in like fashion. But to a larger extent customs persist because individuals form their personal habits under conditions set by prior customs. (Kindle Locations 523-525)

This is a point made elsewhere in the blog in the context of the idea of methodological localism: the individual takes shape through the persistent fact of existing social practices and norms. Here is a representative example of Dewey’s ideas about the social construction of the individual.

We come back to the fact that individuals begin their career as infants. For the plasticity of the young presents a temptation to those having greater experience and hence greater power which they rarely resist. It seems putty to be molded according to current designs…. Education becomes the art of taking advantage of the helplessness of the young; the forming of habits becomes a guarantee for the maintenance of hedges of custom. (Kindle Locations 571-573)

Moreover, individual habits in turn contribute to social patterns:

Our individual habits are links in forming the endless chain of humanity. Their significance depends upon the environment inherited from our forerunners, and it is enhanced as we foresee the fruits of our labors in the world in which our successors live. (Kindle Locations 207-209)

And habits are the foundation of ethical ideas as well:

Education becomes the art of taking advantage of the helplessness of the young; the forming of habits becomes a guarantee for the maintenance of hedges of custom. (Kindle Locations 578-579)

So the fact of habit in action is in fact a very fundamental part of Dewey’s view of the social world and the individual actor’s role in that world. And it is a role that suggests that Dewey differs very fundamentally from the Aristotelian view of deliberative rationality in action, where the actor identifies a set of ends, arrives at a set of beliefs, and reasons to a conclusion about what action to choose. (It seems to have more in common with another aspect of Aristotle’s theory of action, the role that virtue plays in ordinary conduct.) Dewey doesn’t say that there is nothing deliberative about action; but he appears to believe that habit is more common and more fundamental; further, he seems to believe that many examples of the exercise of will are in fact examples of the influence of nested sets of habits. Dewey seems to accept this implication about the subordinacy of reasoning to habit:

Habit, occupation, furnishes the necessity of forward action in one case as instinct does in the other. We do not act from reasoning; but reasoning puts before us objects which are not directly or sensibly present, so that we then may react directly to these objects, with aversion, attraction, indifference or attachment, precisely as we would to the same objects if they were physically present. (Kindle Locations 1724-1726)

This component of a theory of action seems valid with respect to a range of human behaviors and interactions, but it seems to seriously undervalue the fact of conscious deliberation in action. It cannot be denied that human actors do sometimes approach problems of action — what to do? — in a conscious and deliberative way.  This is the kernel that underlies rational choice theory, and it seems to be a plain and undeniable part of human problem solving and choice.  Dewey’s understanding of action as the result of an ensemble of socially instilled habits seems in the end to be unsatisfactory as a full theory of action.

George Herbert Mead on the self

Sociologists sometimes come back to George Herbert Mead as a founder who still has something important to contribute to contemporary theory. This is especially true in ethnomethodology and symbolic interactionism, but it comes up in current lively discussions of pragmatism and action as well. So what can we learn from reading Mead today?

Mead writes and thinks in a way that is both scientific and philosophical. His contributions are to the field of “social psychology,” and he locates himself within a discourse that includes Watsonian behaviorism and William James’s introspectionism. But much of his prose seems very familiar to me as a philosopher. You can hear the reverberations of earlier philosophical debates in his writing — Cartesianism, Hegelianism, Dilthey’s hermeneutics — and his style of argumentation also feels philosophical. (I never read Mead during my training as a philosopher, though the pragmatist spirit surely infused the Harvard philosophy department, with its intellectual affiliations to James and Peirce.)

Let’s take a quick tour through some of the topics in Mind, Self, and Society: From the Standpoint of a Social Behaviorist (Works of George Herbert Mead, Vol. 1). The title is entirely descriptive; the core issue is how to characterize the “me” — the personal, the conscious individual, the intentional actor, and to theorize about how the self is related to the social world. Mead’s fundamental view is that the tradition of philosophy has gotten the relationship backwards; philosophers have built the social from the individual, but actually the self is in some important way the sum of its social relations.

The difference between the social and the individual theories of the development of mind, self, and the social process of experience or behavior is analogous to the difference between the evolutionary and the contract theories of the state as held in the past by both rationalists and empiricists. The latter theory takes individuals and their individual experiencing—individual minds and selves—as logically prior to the social process in which they are involved, and explains the existence of that social process in terms of them; whereas the former takes the social process of experience or behavior as logically prior to the individuals and their individual experiencing which are involved in it, and explains the existence in terms of that social process. (222).

Mead favors the “social first” approach. This doesn’t rest on some kind of spooky Durkheimianism about irreducible social wholes, but rather the point that individuals always take shape within the ambit of a set of social relationships, language practices, and normative cues.

Our contention is that mind can never find expression, and could never have come into existence at all, except in terms of a social environment; that an organized set or pattern of social relations and interactions (especially those of communication by means of gestures functioning as significant symbols and thus creating a universe of discourse) is necessarily presupposed by it and involved in its nature. (222)

Mead’s theory postulates that the self is built up out of imitative practices, gestures, and conversations over time. The individual forms a reflective conception of his / her self that derives from example and engagement with specific other actors within his / her social space. Here is how he puts his theoretical stance in the first few pages:

I have been presenting the self and the mind in terms of a social process, as the importation of the conversation of gestures into the conduct of the individual organism, so that the individual organism takes these organized attitudes of the others called out by its own attitude, in the form of its gestures, and in reacting to that response calls out other organized attitudes in the others in the community to which the individual belongs. This process can be characterized in a certain sense in terms of the “I” and the “me,” the “me” being that group of organized attitudes to which the individual responds as an “I”. (185)

One thing that makes Mead’s position here more distinctive is the way that it fits into his broader theory of symbolic manipulation. His ideas about rationality rotate around the human being’s ability to use and manipulate symbols. This is what reflective thought involves, according to Mead: to assign symbols to features of he world, and then to choose actions based on reasoning about the relationships among those symbols.

Here is another clear statement about the self and the social:

The mind is simply the interplay of such gestures in the form of significant symbols. We must remember that the gesture is there only in its relationship to the response, to the attitude. (188)

This insistence on the primacy of social relationships for defining the self might imply a problem for the first human self; but actually the development of sociality presumably parallels exactly the development of language and action. We aren’t forced to begin in a social contract, stat of nature point of view.

So what does action and intention look like on Mead’s approach? He asks the question, what role does thought play in action? He concludes that it does play a role; but that the role is not entirely inside the head. His example turns the rational actor model on its head. Rather than deriving outcomes from the bare calculating actor, he understands the actor’s deliberations in terms of the values and attitudes of his/her social environment. Speaking of a hypothetical policy maker who identifies strongly with his/her community, he writes:

He is successful to the degree that the final “me” reflects the attitude of all in the community. What I am pointing out is that what occurs takes place not simply in his own mind, but rather that his mind is the expression in his own conduct of this social situation, this great co-operative community process which is going on. (187)

And here is a nice description of purposive action.

In the type of temporary inhibition of action which signifies thinking, or in which reflection arises, we have presented in the experience of the individual, tentatively and in advance and for his selection among them, the different possibilities or alternatives of future action open to him within the given social situation—the different or alternative ways of completing the given social act wherein he is implicated, or which he has already initiated. (90)

This is a reasonable statement of the situation of purposive deliberation: the person entertains in thought the various behaviors he/she can undertake and the possible consequences of those behaviors. The person then chooses a behavior in consideration of which of those consequences is most favored. So this passage conforms loosely to the desire-belief-outcome model and provides an explication of an aspect of consciousness and reflexivity. What is perhaps somewhat more surprising, however, is that Mead’s position here seems mildly inconsistent with the earlier expressed ideas of the self as a reflection of the social world in which the biological individual abides. This passage suggests more of a traditional individual-rationality approach to action.

Another common thread in Mead’s various discussions of action and behavior is his use of the idea of “habit”.  Mead places “habit” as an alternative to “intelligent conduct”:

It is the entrance of the alternative possibilities of future response into the determination of present conduct in any given environmental situation, and their operation, through the mechanism of the central nervous system, as part of the factors or conditions determining present behavior, which decisively contrasts intelligent conduct or behavior with reflex, instinctive, and habitual conduct or behavior—delayed reaction with immediate reaction. That which takes place in present organic behavior is always in some sense an emergent from the past, and never could have been precisely predicted in advance—never could have been predicted on the basis of a knowledge, however complete, of the past, and of the conditions in the past which are relevant to its emergence; and in the case of organic behavior which is intelligently controlled, this element of spontaneity is especially prominent by virtue of the present influence exercised over such behavior by the possible future results or consequences which it may have. (98)

He turns to the concept of habit to explain language and to describe ordinary actions in the world.

One of the most interesting currents in sociology today is the new pragmatism — I’m thinking of work by Neil Gross and Hans Joas in particular.  Several earlier posts have focused on their efforts to provide a new theory of the actor that draws upon pragmatism (linklink).  Mead’s theory of the self provides some of the intellectual foundations of this approach; but it doesn’t tell the whole story.  In particular, the provocative ideas that are foundational in the new pragmatism —

  • “focus on the action rather than the actor”,
  • “action is a flow of improvisational adaptations”, and
  • “action is relational rather than individual”

— seem not to originate in Mead.  Mead’s central contributions (in a Twitter-sized bite) seems to be that the self is constituted and created by its social context; and there is a large component of “habit” in ordinary social action.

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