Getting inside people’s frames

It seems clear that human beings bring specific frameworks of thought, ideas, emotions, and valuations to their social lives, and these frameworks affect both how they interpret the social realities they confront and the ways that they respond to what they experience. Human beings have “frames” of cognition and valuation that guide their experiences and actions. The idea of a practical-mental frame is therefore a compelling one, and it should be a possible subject for empirical sociological investigation.

The notion of a frame seems to originate (in sociology anyway) in the writings of Erving Goffman. Here is how he formulates the idea in Frame Analysis: An Essay on the Organization of Experience:

When the individual in our Western society recognizes a particular event, he tends, whatever else he does, to imply in this response (and in effect employ) one or more frameworks or schemata of interpretation of a kind that can be called primary. I say primary because application of such a framework or perspective is seen by those who apply it as not depending on or harking back to some prior or ‘original’ interpretation; indeed a primary framework is one that is seen as rendering what would otherwise be a meaningless aspect of the scene into something that is meaningful…. Whatever the degree of organization, however, each primary framework allows its user to locate, perceive, identify, and label a seemingly infinite number of concrete occurrences defined in its terms. He is likely to be unaware of such organized features as the framework has and unable to describe the framework with any completeness if asked, yet these handicaps are no bar to his easily and fully applying it…. Social frameworks … provide background understanding for events that incorporate the will, aim, and controlling effort of an intelligence, a live agency, the chief one being the human being…. Taken all together, the primary frameworks of a particular social group constitute a central element of its culture, especially insofar as understandings emerge concerning principal classes of schemata, the relations of these classes to one another, and the sum total of forces and agents that these interpretive designs acknowledge to be loose in the world. (21-22, 27)

The term “cultural sociology” is sometimes used to try to capture those research efforts that try to probe the meanings and mental frameworks that people bring to their social interactions. We can postulate that human beings are processors of meanings and interpretations, and that their frameworks take shape as a result of the range of experiences and interactions they have had to date. This means that their frameworks are deeply social, created and constructed by the social settings and experiences the individuals have had. And we can further postulate that social action is deeply inflected by the specifics of the mental and emotional frameworks through which actors structure and interpret the worlds they confront. At least a part of the disciplinary matrix of cultural sociology might be understood as the field of inquiry that tries to probe those frameworks as they are embodied in specific collectivities — working class people, women, African Americans, American Muslims, or college professors, for example. (Erving Goffman and Harold Garfinkel might be viewed as progenitors of this aspect of the sociology discipline; linklink.)

Wendy Griswold addresses part of this viewpoint on sociological research in her very good overview of the field in Cultures and Societies in a Changing World.

Most sociologists now view people as meaning makers as well as rational actors, symbol users as well as class representatives, and storytellers as well as points in a demographic trend. Moreover, sociology largely has escaped its former either/or way of thinking. The discipline now seeks to understand how people’s meaning making shapes their rational action, how their class position molds their stories—in short, how social structure and culture mutually influence one another. (kl 195)

So how have sociologists attempted to investigate these kinds of subjective realities? Here is how Al Young describes his research goals in The Minds of Marginalized Black Men: Making Sense of Mobility, Opportunity, and Future Life Chances:

I wanted to get a sense of whether poor black men looked beyond their immediate surroundings and circumstances when thinking about the future. Hence, the story told here is about how these men think about themselves as members of a larger social world — not just their communities and neighborhoods, but American society. (lc 134)

Part 2, “Lifeworlds,” explores the men’s own accounts of their past and contemporary circumstances. It is here that the experiences and situations that have positioned them as poor, urban-based black men are explored. Chapter 2 provides a vision of the social contexts that circumscribe these men’s lives and shape the comments and opinions that they shared with me. (lc 195)

In order to answer these questions Young conducted several dozen interviews with young black men on the south side of Chicago, and his interpretation and analysis of the results is highly illuminating.

Or take as another example the highly interesting work of sociologist Michele Lamont in Money, Morals, and Manners: The Culture of the French and the American Upper-Middle Class. Here Lamont studies the mentalities of high-status white men in the United States and France. Her question is a fairly simple one: how do these men formulate their judgments of success and failure in themselves and others? What features do they admire in others and which do they dislike? She conducts interviews with 160 men in four cities in France and the United States, and makes a sustained effort to discern the profiles of culture and value that she finds among these individuals.

I compare competing definitions of what it means to be a ‘worthy person’ by analyzing symbolic boundaries, i.e., by looking at implicit definitions of purity present in the labels interviewees use to describe, abstractly and concretely, people with whom they don’t want to associate, people to whom they consider themselves to be superior and inferior, and people who arouse hostility, indifference, and sympathy. Hence, the study analyzes the relative importance attached to religion, honesty, low moral standards, cosmopolitanism, high culture, money, power, and the likes, by Hoosiers, New Yorkers, Parisians, and Clermontois. (kl 179)

This kind of research is inherently interesting because of the light it sheds for readers about the lives and experiences of others. Reading Al Young or Michele Lamont offers the reader a window into the experience and meaning frameworks of people whose lives and experiences have been substantially different from our own; it helps us understand the ways in which these various individuals and members of groups understand themselves and their social worlds. All by itself this is a valuable kind of research. (Why did so many African Americans respond differently to the acquittal of OJ Simpson than their white counterparts and peers?)

But this kind of research becomes especially interesting if we find that the mental frameworks and systems of meanings that actors bring with them actually make substantial differences to their social actions and the choices that they make. In this case we can actually begin to create explanations and interpretations of social outcomes that interest us a great deal. (Why are some extremist militants so ready to put on suicide vests in actions that are almost certain to bring about their own deaths?)

A key issue with this kind of inquiry is methodological. How should we investigate and observe the subjective characteristics of thought and feeling that this work entails? What are appropriate standards of validity on the basis of which to assess assertions in this area? Sociologists like Alford Young and Michele Lamont have often chosen a methodology that centers on open-ended unstructured interviews — very much the kind of thing that Studs Terkel was so good at. What these sociologists add to the approach of a Studs Terkel or an Ira Glass is an effort to analyze and generalize from the interviews they collect in order to arrive at mid-level statements about the mentality and symbolic frameworks of this group or that. And both Young and Lamont succeed in providing portraits of their subjects that are highly insightful and sociologically plausible — we can understand the mechanisms through which these frameworks take hold and we can see some of the meso-level consequences that follow from them in specific social settings.

In a number of prior posts I’ve argued for an actor-centered sociology (link). And I’ve argued that we need to have better and more fully articulated theories of the actor if an actor-centered sociology is to be valuable.  What I am calling cultural sociology here is one way for the discipline of sociology to get down to business in providing more nuanced theories of the actor.

(I should note that the description provided here of cultural sociology makes the field seem highly actor-centered; but this isn’t entirely accurate. There are macro and meso zones of research in cultural sociology that are distinctly uninterested in the mental frameworks of the individual actors. Wendy Griswold captures this multi-level division of the field by referring to a “cultural diamond”, and the actor-centered aspect that I’ve described here is probably the smallest in terms of the volume of research conducted in the field. Here is Griswold’s description of the diamond:

I use the device of the “cultural diamond” to investigate the connections among four elements: cultural objects — symbols, beliefs, values, and practices; cultural creators, including the organizations and systems that produce and distribute cultural objects; cultural receivers, the people who experience culture and specific cultural objects; and the social world, the context in which culture is created and experienced. (kl 218)

In fact, the actor-centered dimension of the field gets relatively little spotlight in Griswold’s Cultures and Societies in a Changing World. If anything, one might argue that there should be more attention to the interface between frame and actor, so that individuals are not viewed as simply the passive bearers of this cultural icon or that.)

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Expert knowledge

We often want the judgment of “experts” as we make important decisions in life, health, and business. But what exactly is an expert?

One aspect of the idea is the possession of a large fund of specialized knowledge. A civil engineer specializing in bridge design is an expert in part because he or she has mastered the mathematics and physics describing the mechanics of large physical systems, the chemistry and properties of various materials, and the best practices that currently exist for ensuring safety. So the expert can be relied upon to have command of the most up-to-date and scientific specialized knowledge about a topic area.

A second aspect of what we have in mind from an expert is a person who has had significant experience in acting and judging in a particular context (and who has refined his/her behavior according to the outcomes of those experiences). An experienced pilot has had the experience of landing an Airbus 330 at O’Hare Airport many times in many different weather conditions. As a result, he/she is ready to respond quickly to unusual wind conditions in a subsequent landing. Essentially this aspect of expertise comes down to trained behavioral skills and responses, permitting the expert to quickly adapt to somewhat unusual circumstances in the future. This is a combination of “muscle memory” and refined habit; it is the trained sensibility and physical awareness of an expert player.

Another aspect of expertise is refined sensibility and perception. This is more akin to the trained palette of a wine connoisseur — a refined ability to discern the flavors and odors of a pinot noir that are perceived more generically by the occasional wine drinker. Here the idea is that there are aspects of the world around us that can only be perceived and discerned by a trained observer. Michael Polanyi describes this aspect of medical training in Personal Knowledge: Towards a Post-Critical Philosophy (link).

A skilled physician has elements of all three kinds of expertise: the background fund of knowledge of physiology and disease that comes from medical training, the body of experience from which he/she has learned to judge and act, and a refined sensitivity to the minor indicators of disease that a non-expert would likely overlook. A skilled physician can diagnose an illness in a patient based on a body of symptoms, and he/she can prescribe a course of treatment that is likely to lead to alleviation of the disease or its symptoms.

An experienced news reporter may have an unusual ability to “see” the story that underlies a few unusual activities by the city planning commission, and he/she may have a skilled ability to summarize the facts of a story in a logical and readable way. The former is a developed skill of reading a situation; the latter is a developed skill in presenting a sequence of statements in a logical way. Both of these abilities are skills the reporter has cultivated through prior experiences and the feedback that came from success and failure. Further, the reporter may be an expert concerning the facts of a story — he/she may understand real estate law, the business of real estate development, and the forms of collusion that are common in major development projects.

The reason we seek out the advice of an expert in any of these senses when we are confronted with a high-stakes decision is that we think the expert has a better basis for understanding the problem we face and the options that are available to us, and a better basis for weighing the options. We think the expert can help us make the most reliable judgments and decisions in difficult cases. So appeal to an expert is a strategy for us to reach either knowledge or strategy that is better aligned with the world than our own intuitions and analysis would permit.

 
As we consider the role of experts in helping us reach personal and collective decisions, it is important to keep track of the epistemic warrant of various kinds of expert judgments. When we consider how best to respond to a nuclear power plant accident like Fukushima, we want nuclear engineers as experts who can advise the best short and medium-term remedies to the immediate hazards. But we might be more skeptical about the judgments of these same experts when it comes to assessing the long-term viability of nuclear power. The assumptions on the basis of which the expert offers the latter kind of judgment may actually be very shaky, whereas the knowledge of nuclear design and physics that is the basis of the former kind of judgment is very strong.
 
There is a place within the sociology of science and the sociology of science for study of “expertise”, and some sociologists like Marion Fourcade have turned their attention in this direction. Expertise can be viewed as a kind of social capital, on the basis of which the expert and those who employ his/her services are able to gain various kinds of advantages. Fourcade’s Economists and Societies: Discipline and Profession in the United States, Britain, and France, 1890s to 1990s is not specifically focused on the social composition of expertise, but it offers a good example of how the question might be pursued.
 

(I’ve addressed some of these issues earlier under the rubric of skilled cooperation (link) and technical knowledge (link).)

How things work

Social scientists have a set of abstract goals in approaching their work.  They want to formulate specific research questions about limited aspects of the social world and then arrive at empirical and explanatory insights into those matters. They look for the evidence of social structures and systems, regularities of social behavior in populations and groups, and so on. They are looking to provide abstract, general knowledge about how society works. They would like to arrive at clear “diagrams” of the social structures and mechanisms that constitute the contemporary social world.

But think about the challenge of understanding society from the other end of the stick — the perspective of the ordinary participant. From the participant’s perspective the situation often looks more like an environment of black boxes: how will the world respond if I do X, Y, or Z? And for a significant part of society, how the boxes work is a life-affecting mystery.

There is a significant proportion of almost any society for whom these kinds of questions can be answered with a satisfying routine: if I go to work today I can count on getting a day’s pay; my pay will permit me to satisfy my ordinary needs reasonably well; and tomorrow will be equally routine. The police won’t hassle me, my home won’t be broken into, my health is good, and my children’s school situation is good.  So there isn’t much at stake for this group of people as they consider how the social world around them works.

What about people for whom life is not routine and comfortable, however? Put yourself in the position of an African-American high-school-educated worker who has just lost his job in Taylor, Michigan. Suppose you’ve got an apartment for your family of five that costs $750/month. You’ve got an old car that breaks down frequently. While you’ve been working your family has just barely scraped by. Now that you’ve lost your job things are no longer routine. Unemployment insurance brings in less than 60% of the wages you’d been making. That’s not enough to cover all the bills you’ve got — rent, food, clothes for the children, gas for the clunker, a few medical bills.

So what choices does the environment offer now? The largest part of the family budget is the apartment. So maybe moving out early is a good choice — find something even cheaper, live in a shelter for a few months, live in the clunker. These are desperate choices — being homeless is desperate, and it’s hard to find an apartment for less than $500. Also, the landlord will probably want first and last month rent deposit as well as proof of employment, and you haven’t got that. So maybe it’s the shelter or the car.

Looking for a new job is an obvious choice. But the unemployment rate in Wayne County is much higher than the rest of the state and the nation. So that’s iffy. How about borrowing? Like many of your friends and family, you don’t have a credit card and you don’t have assets that could be the basis for borrowing. There’s nothing in the house that can be sold. And you’ve got about $1000 in cash. So what to do? Your landlord won’t be patient after a few months of missed rent checks.

Maybe looking for work outside of Wayne County will occur to you. Maybe there are jobs in Texas. But how would you find out? Would you use part of the thousand dollars and take a bus to Houston where you have a cousin, or to Dallas where you don’t know anyone? That leaves about $800 for your family to survive on while you’re gone — is that a good risk? And how likely is it that you’ll find work in Texas that will permit you to send enough money back home to make the difference? 

Or maybe another part of Michigan might have more jobs. Not Flint, that’s for sure. But what about Grand Rapids? Now the question of race comes into the picture. How receptive is Grand Rapids to an unemployed black man looking for work? How will the police treat you when you arrive in the bus station? Are there social services that might help out till you found work? How would you know? Have you got any friends in GR who might be able to get you started?

You might be very well aware that a lack of education is holding you back. So maybe you can get some training at a community college to boost your job skills — welding or health tech, perhaps. But that takes time, and you’ve only got a thousand dollars and an unemployment check. That would have been a good idea a while ago, but it’s hard to see how to make it work now. 

And what about the criminal options? Maybe you know some guys who sometimes break into stopped rail cars in Detroit. Once in a while they find stuff that can be sold. Does that make sense? What’s the likelihood of being caught? Is there money in this kind of racket? How would you sort that out?

My point in this thought experiment is to draw out how different the “social epistemics” are for the marginalized 30-40% in our society from the rest of us. The routine relationships they have with the social world around them don’t satisfy their most basic needs. They’ve got to do something different. And none of the options are obvious in their mechanics or outcomes. There are uncertainties everywhere, and every choice is a bet against disaster. This is a very personal kind of social calculation: it requires figuring out which play may push destitution off for a few weeks or months. 

And yet in one sense they’re dealing with the same realities as the social scientist: large institutions (labor market, state social service agencies), informal social practices and networks (networks of people willing to share what they’ve got, networks of people preying on the formal economy), large social realities like racism and police violence.

One of the things I appreciate in Walter Mosley’s Easy Rawlins novels is the care Mosley takes to work out the ordinary street knowledge that Easy needed — and mastered — as he survived and thrived in the gritty world of Los Angeles in the fifties and sixties. Easy had a very strong street epistemology, not as a sociologist but as an intelligent observer of a complicate set of social black boxes. Here is one good example, A Little Yellow Dog : Featuring an Original Easy Rawlins Short Story “Gray-Eyed Death”.

Mundane knowledge: Toronto street people

 

There is a lot of interesting stuff we encounter every day, if we stop to think. Often we don’t have the knowledge necessary to make sense of it, so it remains interesting but opaque. And plainly each vignette has a dense set of social facts standing behind it that need to be teased out if we are to understand the vignette.

Here is an example. I’m in Toronto this morning and I’ve seen something here I haven’t seen in other cities — young people, mostly men, sleeping on the sidewalk at busy intersections. They look comfortable in down sleeping bags — as if they were camping out. But they aren’t camping; they’re sleeping in full daylight, with pedestrians and drivers passing in the hundreds every hour. Here is a specific guy sleeping on Bay St Sunday morning.

He looks to be in his twenties, lightly bearded. And, by the way, he’s got a plastic St Patricks Day hat near his head. As pedestrians walk by they take a curious look and then pass on. No one stops. It doesn’t look like a safe place to sleep — cars are passing in the street on the turn from Queen St, and just a slight mistake takes them onto the curb and onto the guy.

Now here’s an interesting development — a real homeless guy, over sixty, heavily bearded, dressed warmly, happens by. He takes a close look, then walks around the sleeping guy to check him out; stands and thinks for a minute, then moves on.

Why are they here? There was an Occupy Toronto demonstration in City Hall Park nearby yesterday — is this young guy an Occupy protester? The Old City Hall and green space is just across Queen St. Why hasn’t this guy chosen to locate himself on the grass somewhere more secluded? Perhaps because the police would make him move on; perhaps because more secluded space is also more vulnerable space. And why not in a city shelter? They exist, so why has this young guy chosen the street?

This one sleeping guy is perplexing enough; but in the past few days I’ve seen several other similar instances within ten blocks of City Hall. So it’s not an isolated example. Why does this take place here in Toronto but not Boston or Chicago? (I mean sleeping right in the middle of the sidewalk; of course there are homeless people in all those cities.)

But here is another interesting point to me: I’m observing this scene without any special background knowledge. What would a social worker, a street activist, or a policeman see that I don’t notice in this scene? The policeman might quickly have registered the fact that the green spaces across Queen St aren’t actually that attractive for sleeping because the police patrol them and evict sleepers. The activist might notice some features of the guy allowing her to identify the political statement he might be making. The social worker would have a much clearer idea about the shelter system. 

But now I get a chance for a little clarity. A block away I encounter two young guys (20s) sitting on the street, right at the curb, panhandling on Queen St. They greet me. I stop and talk to them. I ask why the guy down the street is sleeping right there on the sidewalk. G1 said that he sleeps there too sometimes. I asked why not in the park. He says because Mayor Ford has ordered that people be ticketed for sleeping in the park. He himself has been banned from City Hall grounds because of panhandling. And if you go near the Marriott entrance just down the block, Marriott security make you move. I asked why they don’t choose more secluded spots. G2 says you need to sleep near a vent for the warmth. The good secluded spots are taken. Sometimes these two guys find a spot under a structure down the street.

I ask about Occupy Toronto. G1 is enthusiastic. He says he was welcomed into the biggest tent, the Communist tent, and slept there while Occupy was going on. It was a 12-person tent. But the guys say the demonstration that I heard yesterday wasn’t Occupy, it was a demo about Syria. G1 says, why demonstrate against Syria when people here are suffering?

I ask if it is safe sleeping on the street. G1 says he’d been robbed recently. The thief ripped his inside pocket out and took a bag with 35 cents, a tooth brush and toothpaste. G1 says indignantly, “You’re going to rob a man for his toothpaste?” They say people have been killed down the street a ways. 

I ask about the city shelters. Neither of them wanted to go there: they refer to bedbugs, diseases, and seriously crazy people who might hurt you.

I ask about their educations. G1 says he’d failed 9th grade 5 times. G2 says he was close to graduating high school. G2 says people on the street sometimes have parents they can go back to, but G1 says his parents are both dead. G2 says it’s hard to get together “first and last” to get a place to live, but he’s trying. (First and last month rent for a lease.)

G1 gives me some advice about street people. He holds out his jacket, which is clean and in good shape aside from the ripped-out inner pocket. He says, when you see a guy who’s all dirty, bad clothes, bad teeth, that’s a crack-head. Whatever you give him he’ll just turn around and buy crack. He then grins to show me his teeth, all in good condition.

Both guys are friendly and very willing to talk. (Is there a personality type that does best as a panhandler? Are the same attributes of gregariousness that work well in business also good in this part of the street?) I liked these young guys, and it’s painful to know that there’s nothing for them in Toronto or in their futures.

Toronto people — what am I missing here? How do you understand this scene?

Sociology of knowledge: Berger

Sociology of knowledge: Berger

I’ve treated several approaches to the sociology of knowledge in the past month.  Peter Berger and Thomas Luckmann describe their book, The Social Construction of Reality: A Treatise in the Sociology of Knowledge, as fundamentally a contribution to this subject as well.  So this post will examine the assumptions they make about the topic.  Berger and Luckmann link their theorizing to George Herbert Mead and the “so-called symbolic-interactionist school of American sociology” (17).  This is a very suggestive link, and a promising starting point for an analysis of ordinary commonsense knowledge.  My complaint will be that Berger and Luckmann don’t in fact carry it off. 

Berger and Luckmann want to show that reality is socially constructed.  This can mean two things: that the objective features of the world have assumed the shape they have as a result of social action; and the features of the objective world can only be understood through one or another conceptual schemes that are both incommensurable and irrefutable.  What they actually show pertains to the first interpretation, not the second. The most enduring contribution they make is to work out the case for this proposition: We as persons, and the social relations and processes within which we act, are iteratively created by previous social processes and individual actions.  So the book isn’t about knowledge; it’s about social reality.

It is apparent from page 1, that Berger and Luckmann have a non-standard conception of “knowledge”.  They define knowledge as “the certainty that phenomena are real and that they possess specific characteristics.”  This definition has more to do with the degree of subjective confidence that persons have in their beliefs, and less to do with the nature of those beliefs themselves. And yet the topic of knowledge, whether philosophical or sociological, is really only interesting if it sheds light on the ways in which cognitive entities arrive at and formulate representations of the world around them.

Berger and Luckmann want the sociology of knowledge to focus on commonsensical beliefs, not specialist or scientific knowledge.  “The sociology of knowledge must first of all concern itself with what people ‘know’ as ‘reality’ in their everyday, non- or pre-theoretical lives” (15).  This is a perfectly legitimate point.  But it doesn’t erase the need for conceptual analysis: what is the structure of commonsense knowing?  How do ordinary people “parse” their daily experiences into an organized representation of their worlds?  These questions are just a much of a philosophical issue for commonsensical knowledge as they are for Kant in his consideration of all empirical knowledge.

Much of the social world that we confront and about which we form beliefs has to do with institutions. Berger and Luckmann have a particular and narrow definition of an institution. “Institutionalization occurs whenever there is a reciprocal typification of habitualized actions by types of actors. Put differently, any such typification is an institution” (53).  The examples they give of institutions are practices that have grown up organically — e.g. conventionalized ways that a traditional village may have come to have organized the annual stag hunt.  But it would seem that there are many things that we would call “institutions” that fall outside this paradigm.  For example, the Internal Revenue Service is an institution. It consists of hundreds of thousands of employees, organized by a set of rules, disciplinary processes, and oversight mechanisms.  It is true that this institution specifies regular forms of conduct by the various people who are part of the institution.  But it certainly didn’t come about as the “sedimentation” of simpler forms of practice. More generally, their definition of an institution doesn’t seem to do justice to the social realities represented by organizations.

That said, this definition of an institution gives concrete meaning to one sense in which Berger and Luckmann mean to say that “social reality is a construction”: the institution itself is socially created by a group of people. “It is important to keep in mind that the objectivity of the institutional world, however massive it may appear to the individual, is a humanly produced, constructed objectivity” (60).  This is certainly correct.  But it doesn’t support or convey the other important implication of “social construction” — the idea that the world we experience is fundamentally constructed in terms of the concepts that we impose upon it.  This is the sense implied by Whorf and other conceptual relativists; but it doesn’t find expression in B-L’s analysis.

My overall assessment of the arguments offered by Berger and Luckmann here is somewhat negative: I don’t think they are offering a “sociology of knowledge” at all.  Instead, they are offering an interpretation of the actor(constituted by processes of socialization before biology is even completely finished) and of the social world in which we act (created by the practices, actions, and habits of concrete human beings over time).   It is essentially a sociological theory of the actor-in-social-context.  The discussions of primary and secondary socialization are empirically useful, in that they help steer us towards the concrete situations through which individuals learn about the roles and values they “should” recognize.  Seen from that perspective, the key chapters (II and III) are interesting and helpful. 

But the book has very little to do with the problem of mental representation; and it doesn’t have much to say about social cognition.  And the recurring theme, that there are alternative social realities, needs to be understood as relating to the social-stuff side rather than the knowledge side: social relations, habits, and patterns of social behavior could have unfolded differently.  There is nothing inevitable about the specific forms of interaction “our” society has codified.  We could have created different institutions.  But given the institutions and practices we’ve got, the task of knowledge is determined: we need to discover through participation and practice how they work.

So I’m not too excited about this book as one that contributes to a better understanding of cognition — I don’t find Berger and Luckmann’s analysis of knowledge and the social world very helpful.  The problem is, that they don’t have anything like a nuanced analysis of the relationship between thought and the world: the nature of conceptual schemes, the relationship between concepts and observations, and something like a naturalized analysis of evidence and belief acceptance.  In other words, they aren’t doing enough of the philosophical work that is needed in order to have a genuinely insightful basis for talking about the social construction of beliefs.  We need to know what goes into beliefs about the world before we can get very specific about how those belief systems are socially conditioned or constructed.  They acknowledge this limitation of their approach:

We therefore exclude from the sociology of knowledge the epistemological and methodological problems that bothered both of its major originators. By virtue of this exclusion we are setting ourselves apart from both Scheler’s and Mannheim’s conception of the discipline, and from the later sociologists of knowledge (notably those with a neo-positivist orientation) who shared the conception in this respect. (14)

They don’t seem to think this avoidance of philosophical issues reduces their ability to shed light on the topic.  Unfortunately, I think they were mistaken.

In fairness, I should acknowledge that the kind of analysis I’m looking for isn’t wholly absent.  Here is a statement that comes closer to the kind of analysis that I find generally lacking in their book:

I apprehend the reality of everyday life as an ordered reality. Its phenomena are prearranged in patterns that seem to be independent of my apprehension of them and that impose themselves upon the latter. The reality of everyday life appears already objectified, that is, constituted by an order of objects that have been designated as objects before my appearance on the scene. … In this manner language marks the co-ordinates of my life in society and fills that life with meaningful objects. (21)

This is the beginnings of a philosophy of knowledge.  It provides place-holders for some of the chief aspects of cognitive representation: the identification of permanent “objects”, a field of inter-related objects and relations, and a language in terms of which these items are represented and in terms of which one’s beliefs about them can be formulated.  Or in other words: this paragraph postulates concepts, a conceptual system, and an intensional orientation of the  subject towards the world (applying language to the “objects” around him or herself). And this world is “intersubjective” — other people share concepts and language with me, and are in similar relationships of interaction with the stuff of the world we inhabit (22).

So we have a start on the more conceptual side of the problem.  Unfortunately, this strand of thought is not further developed throughout the rest of the book.

Garfinkel on social competence

Harold Garfinkel made highly original contributions to the field of micro-sociology in the form of his program of ethnomethodology, and the fruits of these contributions have not been fully developed. His death a few weeks ago (link) has led quite a few people to look back and re-assess the importance of his contributions. This renewed attention is very much warranted. Studies in Ethnomethodology (1967) is the primary place where his ideas reached a broad public, so let’s take a look at some of the ideas advanced there.

The interest that I take in his work flows from the idea of agent-centered sociology that I’ve found so appealing — the idea of the situated actor, the idea that we need to have a substantially richer set of concepts in terms of which to characterize the actor’s thought processes, and the idea that current conceptions of the rational actor or the cultural actor are inadequate (link). In order to provide a basis for explanations of social outcomes deriving from the interactions of purposive agents, we need a developed and nuanced set of ideas about how agents tick. And theorists like Garfinkel and Goffman provide substantial resources in this area. (Here are discussions of Goffman; linklink.)

Here is a key statement of Garfinkel’s research goals in Studies in Ethnomethodology:

The following studies seek to treat practical activities, practical circumstances, and practical sociological reasoning as topics of empirical study, and by paying to the most commonplace activities of daily life the attention usually accorded extraordinary events, seek to learn about them as phenomena in their own right. (1)

A central empirical interest of Garfinkel’s is the nuance of the ordinary knowledge — commonsense knowledge — that people use to navigate their daily lives and tasks.  What presuppositions about actions and motives do jurors rely on as they reach judgments about truth and falsity of testimony?  What ellipses occur in ordinary conversations that are nonetheless intelligible to the participants because of unspoken background knowledge?  What implicit beliefs and standards do coders for the Los Angeles Suicide Prevention Center use to classify unexpected deaths (11 ff.)?

Here is Garfinkel’s explication of a conversation between husband and wife about their son’s putting a penny in the parking meter:

An examination of the colloquy reveals the following. (a) There were many matters that the partners understood they were talking about that they did not mention. (b) Many matters that the partners understood were understood on the basis not only of what was actually said but what was left unspoken. (c) Many matters were understood through a process of attending to the temporal series of utterances as documentary evidences of a developing conversation rather than as a string of terms. (d) Matters that the two understood in common were understood only in and through a course of understanding work that consisted of treating an actual linguistic event as “the document of,” as “pointing to,” as standing on behalf of an underlying pattern of matters that each already supposed to be the matters that the person, by his speaking, could be telling the other about. (39-40)

Garfinkel devised an experimental method for probing presuppositions that he referred to as “breaching” experiments: interactions with subjects that deliberately challenged their conversational or practical expectations. For example, a subject was invited to play the game of tic-tac-toe; and the researcher erased the subject’s first move and placed the subject’s mark in another location. The subject was incensed.  Another example:

My friend said to me, “Hurry or we will be late.” I asked him what did he mean by late and from what point of view did it have reference. There was a look of perplexity and cynicism on his face. “Why are you asking me such silly questions? Surely I don’t have to explain such a statement.  What is wrong with you today? Why should I have to stop to analyze such a statement? Everyone understands my statements and you should be no exception!”

Garfinkel takes the discomfort and irritation expressed by the subjects in these experiments to be an indicator of their expectations about normal social interaction. Here is one of his reflections about this dynamic:

Despite the interest in social affects that prevails in the social sciences, and despite the extensive concern that clinical psychiatry pays them, surprisingly little has been written on the socially structured conditions for their production. The role that a background of common understandings plays in their production, control, and recognition is, however, almost terra incognita. (49)

Here is a summary statement of Garfinkel’s goals:

I have been arguing that a concern for the nature, production, and recognition of reasonable, realistic, and analyzable actions is not the monopoly of philosophers and professional sociologists. Members of a society are concerned as a matter of course and necessarily with these matters both as features and for the socially managed production of their everyday affairs.  The study of common sense knowledge and common sense activities consists of treating as problematic phenomena the actual methods whereby members of a society, doing sociology, lay or professional, make the social structures of everyday activities observable. (75)

The way that I would like to paraphrase Garfinkel’s work is that he is offering an empirical research program designed to fill in a rich theory of the human actor’s “competence” in engaging in ordinary social interactions. What does the actor need to know about immediate social relationships and practices in order to get along in ordinary social life? And how can we study this question in empirically rigorous ways? The program of ethnomethodology is intended to focus attention on the knowledge of rules and practices that ordinary people employ to make sense of their social surroundings.

One objection that some purists might offer of this formulation is that it puts the object of investigation “inside the head,” rather than in the behavioral performances — primarily conversations and classificatory tasks — that Garfinkel primarily studies. It is thought that Garfinkel’s method is formal rather than mentalistic.  It is true that he says repeatedly that he is not interested in getting inside the head of the individuals he studies. But the logic of his findings still has important implications for the cognitive systems of the individuals, and this is in fact the only reason we would be interested in the research. So I want to understand his research along the lines of a Chomskian linguist: making inferences about psychologically real “competences and capacities” on the basis of analysis of non-mental performances (utterances).

On this approach, Garfinkel did not pretend to offer a full theory of agency or actor consciousness; instead, his work functioned as a sort of specialized investigation of one aspect of social cognition — the competences, rules, and practices we can attribute to specific actors on the basis of careful analysis of their observable performances.

(John Heritage’s Garfinkel and Ethnomethodology is generally recommended as a highly insightful survey and discussion of Garfinkel’s work.)

Connecting the dots

There isn’t very much transparency about the deep structure of almost any complex modern society. For most people their primary impressions of the society’s functioning comes from the mass media and their own personal experiences.  We each see the limited bits to which we are fairly directly exposed through our ordinary lives — the newsroom if we happen to be a beat reporter, the university if we are professors, the play-and-learn center if we are in the business of preschool education.  We gain a pretty good idea of how those networks of institutions and organizations work. But it’s very difficult to gain a birds-eye picture of the social system as a whole.

The most basic goal of Marx’s economic programme was to demystify the workings of the political economy of capitalism.  He wanted to sweep aside the appearances that capitalism presents and to lay bare the underlying social relations of inequality and exploitation that really constituted the causal core of the system. (This is the point of his theory of the fetishism of commodities; link.) And he believed that active systems of ideology and false consciousness conspired to conceal these workings from ordinary participants. In particular, he wanted to demonstrate the process through which wealth is created within capitalism, and the relations of inequality through which its benefits are distributed.  It is a class-based analysis, and Marx proposes to the proletariat (and the rest of us) that we look for the class mechanisms of our ordinary economic experiences.

What is unsatisfying about Marx’s theory in the current context is that in the end it isn’t really very much of an empirical demonstration.  It is an abstract model of how the theorist thinks capitalism works, rather than a detailed empirical exposure based on rigorous and diverse data that demonstrates the flows that he postulates.  It offers a schema for connecting the dots of our ordinary experience, but it doesn’t actually carry out the effort.

 

Other researchers have done so, of course; researchers who demonstrate the widening inequalities of income and wealth that market democracies contain, the consequences of these inequalities for people at both ends of the divide, the often degrading conditions of work that the majority of the working population experience, and so forth.  So on the dimension of wealth, income, and privilege, it isn’t too difficult to gather the information we need to better understand our current economic realities based on information that is readily available; but most Americans don’t seem to bother to do so. The ease with which the right has succeeded in setting the terms of popular ideas about organized labor, racial inequalities, and immigration bears that out. Lies and slogans replace honest factual argument.

And what about the other large determinant of outcomes in modern society, the workings of political power? Here too there are founding theorists who sought to lay bare the “real” workings of power in a market democracy.  Foucault is one; Domhoff and Mills sought to do so a generation earlier.  The goals of C. Wright Mills (The Power Elitelink) and G. William Domhoff (Who Rules America? Challenges to Corporate and Class Dominancelink) were similar to Marx’s, but in the sphere of political power within a democracy.  They wanted to demonstrate how the language of pluralism and representative democracy works to conceal a system of power and influence that was anything but egalitarian. They wanted to shred the ideologies and obscurantist narratives that conceal these political realities.

But, like Marx to some extent, their writings too remained schematic. They offered a framework for thinking about political power that was radically different from that of the pluralists. But they didn’t really provide a detailed empirical exposure of the workings of this system in real time.  So here again, we’d like to have an organized way of connecting the dots within the contemporary world.  How do corporations use lobbying firms and campaign PACs to shape policy and legislation to their liking? How is it going on today? And, as is the case of the domain of economic inequalities, there are plenty of sources today shedding light on aspects of these processes.  But these political realities seem if anything, even more difficult to perceive.

The blog Naked Capitalism approximates the kind of dot-connecting that I’m describing, with specific application to the financial industry. Here a group of very expert observers are taking the trouble to track the complexities and the hidden interests involved in the financial industry, and to try to make sense of what they find in an honest way. I. F. Stone was a one-man dot-connector in the 1960s when it came to the Indochina War (Best of I. F. Stone). The opening chapter of Frances Fox Piven’s Challenging Authority: How Ordinary People Change America does a good job of sketching out the influence systems that set the planets in motion in American democracy. And Bob Herbert’s last column for the New York Times does it as well (link).  We need exactly these kinds of effort in other areas too — defense contracting, influence peddling, the pharmaceutical industry, news media, …  We need help connecting the dots of how our society works, who pulls the strings and who benefits.

Blogging, critical journalism, and crusading thinkers like I. F. Stone and Frances Fox Piven can help a lot. And, by the way, it must be done in a way that is committed to high standards of empirical fidelity; it needs to inspire the kind of trust that Stone was able to do fifty years ago. And maybe, with the makings of a more truthful shared understanding of how our society actually works, we will succeed in creating a politics that transforms it.

 

Deciphering French society

 

Louis Maurin recently published a valuable book on contemporary French society, Déchiffrer la société française, which is intended to shed light on the social realities of France in a way that is genuinely accessible to the public.  There are chapters on population, the family, schooling, immigration, unemployment, consumption, and social values, among other important topics (link).  The book is intended to capture and encapsulate some of the data that is available through French sources that will make the basic outlines of France more transparent to the public.  (There is a companion website for the book as well.)  Denis Clerc provides the preface for the book — another voice in French society calling for greater transparency about inequalities.

Maurin believes that there is a wide gap between the rhetoric that French elites and journalists use to characterize contemporary French society, and the social realities.  In order for France to successfully address the social problems it faces, it is important for the public to have a better understanding of the background and the current realities.  So the goal of this project is straightforward:

À l’encontre de ce mouvement, ce livre vise à dresser un état de lieux et à expliquer certains mécanismes du fonctionnement de la société française. Il s’agit bien d’abord de «déchiffrer», car l’objectif est, autant que faire se peut, de mesurer et d’analyser des évolutions. Sans fétichisme du chiffre, il devient indispensable de mettre sur la table des données pour sortir de la rhétorique française où chacun se paie de bons mots. Ce qui permet à tout le monde d’avoir raison en même temps, faute de pouvoir être départagé par les faits. Dans la mesure du possible, nous essaierons de présenter des séries sur longue période, pour élargir les perspectives. L’objectif est aussi de « déchiffrer » des phénomènes qui ne sont pas tous immédiatement perceptibles. De dégager des tendances pour mieux comprendre l’évolution de la société dans un monde où l’avenir semble, pour beaucoup, très incertain. Sur la plupart des phénomènes présentés, vécus au quotidien, chacun a sa petite idée, qu’il s’agisse de famille, d’école, d’immigration, de chômage… Toute la difficulté de la démarche et son intérêt consistent à échapper aux expériences personnelles pour analyser le comportement d’un ensemble. (Avant-propos)

[To counter this trend, this book aims to develop a baseline description and to explain some mechanisms of how French society functions.  It is indeed a first effort, because the goal is, as far as possible, to measure and analyze trends.  Without making a fetish of data, it is necessary to provide tables of facts in order to escape the rhetoric to which everyone pays lip service.  Without facts, everyone can claim to be right at the same time.  Wherever possible, we attempt to present a series of data over a long period, to broaden the perspective.  The goal is also to “decipher” phenomena that are not immediately obvious.  We seek to identify trends in order to better understand society in a world where the future for many is very uncertain.  For most of the phenomena presented, each individual has his/her own perspective, whether it concerns the family, schooling, immigration, unemployment, …  The challenge is to separate out one’s personal experiences in order to analyze the behavior of the larger group.]

Each topic is a fundamental one — population, nuptiality, family, schooling, immigration, employment, consumption.  And the data that Maurin summarizes are often striking and unexpected.

Here is a striking graph of the absolute number of marriages and divorces since 1960, and a graph of family size changes between 1900 and 1970.  The marriage rate increased sharply in the 1960s into the early 70s; it then went into a steep decline.

 

 

Here are several graphs representing economic and social changes in the past thirty years.  The first tracks the percentage of adults in different socio-economic groups: workers, managers, professionals, executives, farmers, and permanently unemployed. The second tracks the fairly steep decline in the number of hours worked annually by a worker, from under 2000 to under 1500.  The third tracks the shifting composition of the workforce, documenting a dramatic decline in industrial labor from 35% to 15%.  And the fourth graph tracks union membership, from a high of 30% in 1949 to a low of 8% in 2005.  This is surprising for Americans who think of the French workforce as being highly unionized.

 

 

 

 

Here is an indication of how French consumption has evolved over the past sixty years.  Television and washing machines started early; home computers and mobile phones came in the decade of 1990-2000.  (It appears that several labels may be switched on this graph; it’s hard to believe that microwave ovens became common well before refrigerators.  And in fact the 2007 snapshot from INSEE suggests that these two labels have been switched.)

Here is a snapshot from INSEE for household items for 2007:

 

And what about education?  Maurin draws attention to the progress of the bac over the past 60 years.  The creation of the bac technologique and the bac professionnel in 1968 and 1988 respectively conjoined with growth in the bac general to produce rapid increase from the mid 1980s through 1990s; and the total has remained flat since the 1990s.

 

 

Maurin expresses a certain amount of disappointment with the discipline of academic sociology in France for its failure to provide a “public” sociology — an empirical and theoretical research program aimed at shedding light on the most pervasive patterns in French society today. (“Malgré des progrès récents, le monde scientifique — la sociologie, en particulier — ne semble plus vraiment chercher à dresser ce portrait social de la France;” avant-propos.) And here again in the conclusion:

La statistique n’est pas seule en cause : la recherche laisse de côté de très nombreux domaines, pourtant indispensables à la compréhension du monde contemporain, quand bien même les données existent. Les sociologues qui travaillent sur des sujets aussi essentiels que les revenus, la mobilité sociale ou la consommation ne sont qu’une poignée. Dans certains domaines, comme l’exclusion ou l’immigration, ils se comptent par dizaines… Personne ne conteste la nécessité de ces travaux. Il n’en demeure pas moins que, pour partie, la sociologie française s’attache aux «dominés », oubliant que, pour analyser les processus de domination, il faut aussi regarder vers le haut. (Conclusion)

[The data are not the only cause.  Researchers leave to the side many domains that are indispensable to comprehending the contemporary world, even when the data exist. Sociologists who work on such essential subjects as income, social mobility, or consumption are only a handful.  In some domains, such as exclusion or immigration, they are fewer than dozens.  No one can disagree about the necessity of this work.  Instead, the French sociologists prefer to focus on the “dominated”, forgetting that it is necessary to look at the top in order to understand the processes of domination. (Conclusion)]

In short — French society is as complicated as any other, with its own history and current social forces.  And many of the social realities the French currently face are obscure in their causes and their distribution across regions and classes.  So it is particularly important for authors like Maurin to help pull back the curtain from some of these basic social facts.

(Each chapter offers a short list of key internet sources that allow the reader to pursue the data questions of the chapter directly.  A few key resources on population, labor, poverty, family, immigration, and education include —

  • Eurostat (Service statistique de l’Union européenne link)
  • INED (Institut national d’études démographiques link)
  • INSEE (Institut national de la statistique et des études économiques link)
  • CNAF (Caisse nationale d’allocations familiales link)
  • Ministère de la Justice link
  • Secrétariat d’état à la Famille link
  • Cité nationale de l’immigration link
  • Gisti (Groupe d’information et de soutien des immigrés link)
  • Ministère de l’éducation nationale link
  • CEE (Centre d’étude de l’emploi link)
  • Céreq (Centre d’études et de recherches sur les qualifications link)
  • IRES (Institut de recherches économiques et sociales link)
  • Ministère de l’emploi link
  • Observatoire des inégalités link
  • Observatoire national de la pauvreté et de l’exclusion sociale link
  • Crédoc (Centre de recherche pour l’étude et l’observation des conditions de vie link)
  • Iresco (Institut de recherche sur les sociétés contemporaines link)
  • Cevipof (Centre de recherches politiques de Sciences-Po link)

There is a volume of valuable data available from these sources.)

 

Concrete sociological knowledge

Is there a place within the social sciences for the representation of concrete, individual-level experience?  Is there a valid kind of knowledge expressed by the descriptions provided by an observant resident of a specific city or an experienced traveler in the American South in the 1940s?  Or does social knowledge need to take the form of some kind of generalization about the social world?  Does sociology require that we go beyond the particulars of specific people and social arrangements?

There is certainly a genre of social observation that serves just this intimate descriptive function: an astute, empathetic observer spends time in a location, meeting a number of people and learning a lot about their lives and thoughts.  Studs Terkel’s work defines this genre — both in print and in his radio interviews over so many years.  A particularly good example is Working: People Talk About What They Do All Day and How They Feel About What They Do.  But Studs is a journalist and a professional observer; does he really contribute to “sociological knowledge”? (See this earlier post on Studs.)

Perhaps a better example of “concrete, individual-level experience” for sociology can be drawn closer to home, in Erving Goffman’s work.  (Here is an earlier discussion of some of Goffman’s work; link.)  Here are the opening words of The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life (1956):

I mean this report to serve as a sort of handbook detailing one sociological perspective from which social life can be studied, especially the kind of social life that is organised within the physical confines of a building or plant. A set of features will be described which together form a framework that can be applied to any concrete social establishment, be it domestic, industrial, or commercial. 

The perspective employed in this report is that of the theatrical performance; the principles derived are dramaturgical ones. I shall consider the way in which the individual in ordinary work situations presents himself and his activity to others, the ways in which he guides and controls the impression they form of him, and the kinds of things he may and may not do while sustaining his performance before them. In using this model I will attempt not to make light of its obvious inadequacies.  The stage presents things that are make-believe; presumably life presents things that are real and sometimes not well rehearsed. More important, perhaps, on the stage one player presents himself in the guise of a character to characters projected by other players; the audience constitutes a third party to the interaction — one that is essential and yet, if the stage performance were real, one that would not be there. In real life, the three parties are compressed into two; the part one individual plays is tailored to the parts played by the others present, and yet these others also constitute the audience. Still other inadequacies in this model will be considered later.

The illustrative materials used in this study are of mixed status: some are taken from respectable researches where qualified generalisations are given concerning reliably recorded regularities; some are taken from informal memoirs written by colourful people; many fall in between. The justification for this approach (as I take to be the justification for Simmel’s also) is that the illustrations together fit into a coherent framework that ties together bits of experience the reader has already had and provides the student with a guide worth testing in case studies of institutional social life. (preface)

 Goffman’s text throughout this book relies on numerous specific descriptions of the behavior of real estate agents, dentists, military officers, servants, and medical doctors in concrete and particular social settings.  Here are a few examples:

[funerals] Similarly, at middle-class American funerals, a hearse driver, decorously dressd in black and tactfully located at the outskirts of the cemetery during the service, may be allowed to smoke, but he is likely to shock and anger the bereaved if he happens to flick his cigarette stub into a bush, letting it describe an elegant arc, instead of circumspectly dropping it at his feet. (35)

[formal dinners] Thus if a household is to stage a formal dinner, someone in uniform or livery will be required as part of the working team. The individual who plays this part must direct at himself the social definition of a menial. At the same time the individual taking the part of hostess must direct at herself, and foster by her appearance and manner, the social definition of someone upon whom it is natural for menials to wait. This was strikingly demonstrated in the island tourist hotel studied by the writer. There an overall impression of middle-class service was achieved by the management, who allocated to themselves the roles of middle-class host and hostess and to their employees that of maids — although in terms of the local class structure the girls who acted as maids were of slightly higher status than the hotel owners who employed them. (47-48)

[hospitals] Thus, if doctors are to prevent cancer patients from learning the identity of their disease, it will be useful to scatter the cancer patients throughout the hospital so that they will not be able to learn from the identity of their ward the identity of their disorder. (The hospital staff, incidentally, may be forced to spend more time walking corridors and moving equipment because of this staging strategy than would otherwise be necessary.) (59)

[hotel kitchens] The study of the island hotel previously cited provides another example of the problems workers face when they have insufficient control of their backstage. Within the hotel kitchen, where the guests’ food was prepared and where the staff ate and spent their day, crofters’ culture tended to prevail, involving a characteristic pattern of clothing, food habits, table manners, language, employer-employee relations, cleanliness standards, etc. This culture was felt to be different from, and lower in esteem than, British middle-class culture, which tended to prevail in the dining room and other places in the hotel. The doors leading from the kitchen to the other parts of the hotel were a constant sore spot in the organization of work. (72)

So Goffman’s sociology in this work is heavily dependent on the kind of concrete social observation and description that is at issue here.  Much of the interest of the book is the precision and deftness through which Goffman dissects and describes these concrete instances of social interaction.  This supports one answer to the question with which we began: careful, exacting and perceptive description of particular social phenomena is an important and epistemically valid form of sociological knowledge.  Studs Terkel contributes to our knowledge of the social world when he accurately captures the voice of the miner, the hotel worker, or the taxi driver; and a very important part of this contribution is the discovery of the singular and variable features of these voices.

At the same time, it is clear that Goffman goes beyond the concrete descriptions of restaurants, medical offices, and factory floors that he offers to formulate and support a more general theory of social behavior: that individuals convey themselves through social roles that are prescribed for various social settings, and that much social behavior is performance.  (This performative interpretation of social action is discussed in an earlier post.)  And this suggests that there is a further implicature within our understanding of the goals of sociological knowledge: the idea that concrete descriptions should potentially lead to some sort of generalization, contrast, or causal interpretation.

Civic engagement and formative institutions

A disposition towards civic engagement and community service seems to be a very fundamental component of social psychology that differs significantly across cohorts and populations.  But the frequency of this motivation across the population is also surely a key component of the health of social order.  One would hypothesize that this is an aspect of individual motivation and identity that determines the level at which a community will succeed in accomplishing its most critical tasks such as poverty alleviation, remedies for poor schools, or addressing homelessness.  If a city has a significant level of high-poverty schools, with associated low levels of student academic success in the early grades, surely it is helpful when a significant number of adults and young people experience a desire to help address the problem through mentoring and tutoring programs.

But the question of how this component of social psychology works is a complex one.  What are the influences in daily life through which children and young people acquire this sensibility?  What are the value systems and institutional arrangements that encourage or discourage a disposition towards civic engagement?  What kinds of experiences increase (or reduce) an individual’s motivation to be involved in community service?  (Here is an earlier posting on this question.)

Doug McAdam and Cynthia Brandt have addressed part of this question through a study of young people who have been involved with Teach for America (NYT story).  Their article, “Assessing the Effects of Voluntary Youth Service: The Case of Teach for America,” appeared in Social Forces this month.  Here is how the authors describe their project:

We use survey data from all accepted applicants to Teach for America (TFA) between 1993-98 to assess the longer-term effect of youth service on participants’ current civic attitudes and behaviors.

Their survey includes individuals who were accepted into Teach for America in the relevant years.  They break the population into three groups: graduates, drop-outs, and non-matriculants.  Their central findings are these:

  • “The graduates seem to have emerged from their TFA experience with an enhanced attitudinal commitment to service and civic life.” 
  • “Bottom line: relative to their age peers, our subjects participate at very high levels in all the forms of civic/political participation we examine.”
  • “The graduates lag significantly behind one or both of the other groups in their current levels of participation in “civic activity,” “institutional politics” and “social movements.””
  • “On all seven dimensions of civic life—service, civic activity, institutional politics, social movements, voting, charitable giving and pro-social employment—the graduates lag significantly behind one or both comparison groups.”

These are surprising findings.  The TFA population as a whole shows a higher level of civic engagement than the general population.  But within the TFA population, the graduates lag.  This seems to cast doubt on one of the central claims for community service: that the experience leads young people to develop characteristics that make them more engaged in the future.

McAdam and Brandt offer a few hypotheses about how we might explain these findings: burnout, delay in transition to career, a feeling of “having done my part,” a sense of disillusionment with service; and the possibility that non-matriculants may have had other experiences that are even more conducive to lifetime civic engagement.

Here is their summary conclusion:

What, in the end, are we prepared to say about the significantly lower levels of current service on the part of matriculants relative to non-matriculants?  Temporary exhaustion on the part of recent graduates (and drop-outs) appears to be a part of the story.  But so too are negative reactions to TFA and, for many, the isolating nature of the teaching experience.  Whatever the mix of these (and unmeasured) explanatory factors, the stark fact remains: far from increasing subsequent civic involvement, the TFA experience appears, for some, to depress current service participation.

But here is another striking conclusion based on their data: the gap evidenced in the civic engagement of the graduates is entirely explained by the 15% of graduates whose experience with TFA left them dissatisfied.  The 85% who were satisfied with the program demonstrate the same levels of civic engagement as the drop-outs and non-matriculants.  “It is the 15 percent of the graduates who have a retrospectively negative view of their TFA experience who account for the service/civic “gap” between graduates and the other two subject groups.”  This suggests that a program for community service needs to work hard to assure that the expectations of its volunteers are met.

McAdam and Brandt go out of their way to indicate that their research should not be understood as a foundation of criticism of TFA or of programs of civic engagement more broadly.  Rather, their goal is to find ways of assessing causal claims that are made on behalf of programs of youth engagement and community service.  In order to influence attitudes and behavior, we need to have evidence-based analysis of how a variety of relevant institutions actually work.  This kind of survey research is one such instrument of assessment.

The largest national service program in the US today is AmeriCorps (including CityYear).  Here is a link to an ongoing study of AmeriCorps members and their levels of civic engagement following their period of service.  McAdam and Brandt summarize the most recent findings of the AmeriCorps study:

The 2008 results are representative of the findings from the study as a whole.  While AmeriCorps members differ from those in the comparison group on some attitudinal items, behavioral effects are few and far between.  The two groups—AmeriCorps and comparison—were compared on fourteen measures of civic participation, including voting, charitable giving, and volunteer service.  They differed on only four, with one of the differences favoring members of the comparison groups.  In short, the modal behavioral effect appears negligible.

The survey research that McAdam-Brandt have done is one interesting and important way of trying to gauge the impact of a certain kind of institution on a feature of social psychology.  It is intriguing to wonder whether other tools might also shed light on the transformative and developmental processes that occur within the experience of intensive community service.  For example, how does the experience of working together in a racially and socially mixed group affect the social understandings and motivations of the young people who are involved?  How does the experience of spending a summer in a public health clinic in Chiapas influence the college students who participate?  Are there qualitative methodologies available that would shed more light on these concrete mechanisms of identity formation?  Would a study based on interviews and focus groups provide some insight into the processes of change that young people undergo in an AmeriCorps placement, a CityYear team, or an intense two months in a poor community in Mexico?

Suppose a researcher carried out a focus-group study on a group of CityYear corps members from September to April, and suppose the research provided evidence suggesting that Corps members had acquired specific competences of inter-community understanding.  Suppose interviews and focus group videos show that white corps members had demonstrated a growing ability to understand the situations and worldviews of their black or brown fellow corps members, and vice versa.  This would be evidence for judging that the CityYear environment leads to social-psychological development in the area of inter-cultural and inter-racial competence.  The young people who have undergone these experiences have become more attuned to racism, racial disadvantage, and the nuances of difference that exist in the perceptions of white, black, and brown young people.  They have increased their skill and confidence in interacting with a wider range of people.  And, presumably, they will live their adult lives with greater commitment to inter-group dialogue and struggle to reduce the inequalities associated with race in our country.  How might this set of facts relate to the framing of a longitudinal survey of CityYear alumni?

Essentially we would reason along these lines.  If the changes and developmental mechanisms that were documented in the qualitative study are real and durable, then there should also be differences in the attitudes and behaviors of CityYear alumni five, ten, and fifteen years later.  So a survey of alumni, along with an appropriately defined control group, should demonstrate significant differences in attitude and behavior.  And if there are no such differences, then we would be pushed towards concluding either that the developmental changes identified in the qualitative study were spurious, or they were indurable.  So there is a close logical relationship between the hypotheses suggested  by the qualitative study (about processes and effects of social development) and the longitudinal study (about the attitudes and behaviors of a population at later moments in time).

This is important work if we are interested in helping young people acquire the attitudes, values, and practices that will make them good citizens and caring members of communities.  And ultimately, it is a question that can be usefully investigated using a variety of tools of social and behavioral research.

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