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.

Separate social worlds

It is an interesting and important fact that most of us live our lives on orbits that seldom intersect with the orbits of some other categories of people in society.  The boundaries of our social worlds are often marked by major forms of social separation — race, income, residence, work, region, or age.  And this creates the result that we have very little understanding of how people from other social segments think, reason, feel, and organize their experiences.  We think in terms of stereotypes about other people in other segments of society, rather than having a concrete experiential basis in common with them.

When geography is a large part of this separation it is easy to understand — a suburban tax accountant in Massachusetts has very little daily experience that would permit him/her to gain knowledge of the thoughts, values, and experiences of rural Thai villagers.  But the striking fact is that there is often an equally deep separation between the phenomenal worlds of the suburban tax accountant and the homeless person in the nearby city or the blue collar woman who drives the local school bus.

This wouldn’t matter too much if everyone’s experiences and mental worlds were essentially similar. But they plainly are not.  Take poverty and affluence: the things that a poor person thinks about first when confronted with a small cash windfall are surely quite different from the affluent person.  Chronic deprivation probably gives the poor person a very clear recognition of his/her priorities for consumption that look very different from the affluent person.  Being offered a pair of basketball tickets to a Pistons game, for example: the poor person is likely enough to see the resale value of the tickets and the more pressing needs that he/she has for cash — and therefore is more likely to come to the decision to sell the tickets rather than attend the game.  Or take ethnic differences — a Yemeni immigrant in urban Michigan is likely to see the visit of a census worker in very different terms than does the middle-class suburbanite.

So the differences in worldview and values of people in different social segments are probably quite large.  And here is the important part of the story: it is valuable and interesting to find ways of reaching across these forms of separation and come to see how other people experience their worlds.  Each person’s experiences and perspectives on the world are enriched by deep, extensive engagement with people very different from him/herself.  This is one of the chief values of a diverse but interconnected social community.  And it is one of the most regrettable costs of a highly divided society.

Social institutions that help to allow people to connect meaningfully across these social divides are particularly valuable.  This is how the social value of “diversity” gets actualized.  Sometimes religious organizations offer this possibility to their members, when different economic or national communities come together to worship.  Military service can also have this effect — especially in countries with wide or universal military obligations such as Israel. Community service organizations like CityYear and AmeriCorps provide young people with an environment where they can have the opportunity of coming to know other people from very different social backgrounds.  And universities have this potential as well — though colleges haven’t been as successful as they should be at gaining this kind of cross-group understanding. Service-learning courses are one way that faculty in some universities have found to give their students meaningful exposure to the social realities that surround them — and therefore to give them a broader avenue through which to encounter the experiences and worldviews of the segments of society that don’t wind up in their middle-class orbits.

One of the reasons that Studs Terkel was such a fascinating writer and radio personality, was his ability to connect with people from widely different worlds.  His understanding of working America was dramatically different from that of most of us — because he had great curiosity about other people, and he had the motivation to go out and talk to them.  Here is Studs talking about the experience of the Great Depression — and the recession of 1997.

Tacit knowledge

Scientist and philosopher Michael Polanyi introduced the idea of “tacit knowledge” in his 1958 book, Personal Knowledge: Towards a Post-Critical Philosophy (Google Books link). The book was presented as a critique of the positivist conception of scientific knowledge and the idea of knowledge as a system of logical statements. Polanyi was trained as a physician before World War I; worked as a research chemist between the wars; and found his voice as a philosopher of science subsequently. (Michael Polanyi is the brother of Karl Polanyi, discussed here.)

This is an interesting concept, and one that captures an important dimension of knowledge that is absent in most philosophical treatments of epistemology (“knowledge is a system of true justified beliefs”). The simple idea is that there are domains of knowledge that are not represented propositionally or as a system of statements, but are rather somehow embodied in the knower’s cognitive system in a non-propositional form. This aspect of knowledge is more analogous to “knowing how” than “knowing that”. Polanyi gives the example of a physician in training learning to “read” an x-ray. What is first perceived simply as an unintelligible alternation of light and dark areas, eventually is perceived by the experienced radiologist as a picture of a lung with a tumor. So the physician has somehow acquired a set of perceptual and conceptual skills that cannot be precisely codified but that permit him/her to gain a much more knowledgeable understanding of the patient’s hidden disease than the novice. (This seems to be part of what Malcolm Gladwell is getting at in Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking.)

It is unremarkable to observe that many aspects of skilled performance depend on “knowledge” that cannot be articulated as a set of statements or rules (link). The basketball guard’s ability to weave through defenders and find his way to the basket reflects a complex set of representations of the court, the defenders, and probable behaviors of others that can’t be codified. So it seems fairly straightforward to conclude that human cognition incorporates representations and knowledge that do not take the form of explicit systems of statements. Rather, these areas of knowledge are more “intuitive”; they are more akin to “body knowledge.” But they are nonetheless cognitive; they depend on experience, they can be criticized and corrected, and they are representational of the world. (Talk to a skilled athlete about a complex task like finding a shot on goal in hockey or beating the defender to the basket, and you will be struck by the degree of intuition, gestalt, and realism that is invoked. And the same is true if you talk to an experienced labor organizer or a police detective.)
What is striking about Polanyi’s position in Personal Knowledge is that he shows that these forms of practical knowledge do not pertain solely to physical skills like wine-making, playing basketball, or piloting a tug boat. Instead, they extend deeply into the enterprise of scientific knowledge itself. An experimental chemist or physicist has an uncodified ability to interpret instruments, evaluate complex devices, or recognize unexpected results that is the result of experience and training and cannot be reduced to a recipe or algorithm. And the difference between a gifted sociologist and a pedestrian one is his/her ability to probe a set of social facts for the underlying patterns, mechanisms, or questions that they suggest. These are ideas that return again in post-positivist philosophers and historians of science like Thomas Kuhn, Norwood Hanson, and Peter Galison; each of these scholars emphasizes the tight relationship that exists in scientific education and imagination between scientific practices, scientific instruments, and scientific knowledge. Galison’s Einstein’s Clocks, Poincare’s Maps: Empires of Time is particularly interesting.
This recognition opens up a number of areas for empirical and theoretical research. The cognitive psychologist can ask a series of questions about how this kind of knowledge is represented in the knower’s cognitive system. Does the basketball guard have a “cognitive map” of the court that he updates regularly? (This is a subject for non-human cognitive psychology as well as human cognition.) And the phenomenological sociologist like Erving Goffman can probe in detail the forms of tacit knowledge that the skilled intellectual performer is making use of — the lawyer or accountant, or the research scientist (link).
This line of thought converges to some extent with arguments that Hubert Dreyfus advanced in What computers can’t do: A critique of artificial reason in 1972. (Here is his update of his position; What Computers Still Can’t Do: A Critique of Artificial Reason.) Dreyfus was fundamentally critical of artificial intelligence research in the 1960s, and the strategy of attempting to codify expert knowledge in the form of a set of rules that could then be implemented as computational algorithms. His position was a phenomenological one; basically, he took issue with the idea that cognitive competences like chess-playing, problem-solving, or pattern recognition could be reduced to a set of precise and separate rules and statements. Instead, there is a holistic aspect in ordinary practical knowledge that cannot be reduced to a set of discrete algorithms.
Of special interest for UnderstandingSociety is the question of whether ordinary people have “tacit social knowledge” of the social world they inhabit (link, link, link). What is involved in the competence a person demonstrates when he/she successfully navigates a formal dinner or a contentious union-hall argument? Can the knowledge that the competent social participant has about expected behavior from particular individuals be represented as a sum of propositional beliefs? Or, more plausibly, is this a good example of tacit knowledge, more akin to a rough map of a terrain than a codified set of statements? What about failures of tacit knowledge — clumsiness (link)? And what is the system of social cognition through which ordinary social knowers gain these cognitive competences and update them through subsequent experience? All of this makes me think that we need richer models of mental life and competence than we currently possess (link).

History of the present

What is involved in writing a history of the present? It’s not quite the oxymoron it may appear to be. It is often enough that we find ourselves in the middle of complicated, confusing, and interwoven events locally, regionally, or globally — events that require much the same sort of conceptual and integrative work that the Manchu conquest of China or the Odessa mutiny requires for the traditional historian. For example, think of the Red Shirt protests in Thailand a few months ago, or the financial crisis in September 2008. And think of the intellectual challenge presented for the observer to try to arrive at a somewhat detailed interpretation of what was occurring. This is an act of “apperception” — taking many separate pieces of evidence and experience and forging them together into a unified representation. And it seems to have a great deal in common with more traditional historical cognition.

There seems to be one specific way in which the task can’t be done at all. When we are in the midst of something big, we may be able to recognize that it is momentous without really being able to say what “it” is. That is because we don’t know how it is going to turn out. Is it a popular revolution of the have-nots against Thailand’s elites, or a short period of unrest? Is it the beginning of another Great Depression, or just a serious episode of financial turbulence? We can’t answer these questions until the events play out.

That point is fair enough, but it doesn’t really close off the discussion. There is still the question, what can contemporary observers do to understand and document an important event as it unfolds? And here the answer is very similar to traditional historical research. Observers can collect and record documents in real time. They can interview participants. They can view and interpret the communications of the powerful and the insurgents. And, on the basis of these kinds of investigations, they can begin to arrive at interpretations of what is occurring, over what terrain, by what actors, in response to what forces and motives. In other words, they can attempt to arrive at an evidence-based integrative narrative of what the processes of the present amount to.

Think, for example, of western academics who found themselves in Shanghai in the late 1930s. They were in a position to talk with ordinary people, Communist activists, and Guomindang officials. They were able to collect the ephemera of the social struggle that was underway. They were able to observe at close range the Japanese assault on the city. And, perhaps, they were forced to join one of the great mass evacuations in history, with tens of thousands of ordinary Chinese people fleeing the city on foot. These observers lived a bit of China’s history; but they were also in a position to write a part of its current history in 1938. One such academic was Professor Theodore Herman, who lived in China during the period and gathered an important collection of political posters and other ephemera (link).

And we can extend these examples indefinitely. Think of the young African-American activists who went south in 1963, who lived and made this piece of American history; and think of the perspective they were able to arrive at in conceptualizing America, 1963. And for some of these men and women, the discovery and writing of the history was itself an important part of the struggle. (Here is an excerpt of an interview with Professor Gloria House that gives a vivid sense of this aspect of historical experience and interpretation (link).)

So a couple of things seem true. One is that there is a form of “historical apperception” that is just as necessary for understanding the present as for understanding the past. A second point is that a given “history of the present” is doubly contestable: the contemporary’s angle of view may be limited enough that future historians will conclude that the apperception was fundamentally flawed; and the processes underway may turn out so differently from what was expected, that the mid-stream apperception may be judged basically misleading when the process is complete.

But a few other things are true as well. The participant has an immediate access to documents, speeches, and events that later historians can only envy; so by recording these observations the participant can lay a good foundation for later interpretations. The participant has often had direct experiences that give him or her a specific understanding of some aspects of the events — for example, the passions and motives associated with the period. And third, the participant’s historical observations may in fact be remarkably acute, taking observations of current activities and constructing them into a historical representation that holds up well. So attempting to write a history of significant events in the present is a valid intellectual goal.

So far I’ve looked at the easy part of the question: historical apperception of specific events and processes. Much harder is the more general question: to what extent is it possible for an observer in 2000 to attempt an interpretation of “fin-de-siècle” America? That is, to what extent is it possible to encapsulate the broad sweep of the present from the perspective of the present? And here we can probably agree with Zhou Enlai in 1989 when asked, “what is the significance of the French Revolution?” — “It is too early to tell.”

Technical practices

What is involved in providing a sociology of technical practices? (An earlier posting is also devoted to this question.) Here I am thinking primarily of technical material practices — building a house or a boat, distilling spirits, weaving a basket, maintaining a biological research lab, or repairing a photocopy machine. There is a degree of continuity in the “tacit knowledge” and embodied skills and methods that are represented in the plans and actions of practitioners of these different human activities. These bodies of knowledge and skill define the activity in a fairly specific way. And there are indefinitely many other configurations of practices that might have accomplished the same task. So a practice is historically and socially specific; it is the result of prior experimentation and adaptation in the context of needs, materials, and a physical environment within specific communities and locations.

Here is a simple formulation of what I’m calling a technical practice:

A practice is an ensemble of techniques, skills, and stylized responses, embedded in a population at a time, accomplishing a specific range of domestic tasks, and sustained through social mechanisms of transmission.

There are a number of fundamental questions that this definition raises. How are practices embodied in individuals or groups? How do they proliferate, from one generation to the next and across social space? How does a given state of practical knowledge change over time, through transmission, mutation, and deliberate refinement? Do practices have a degree of stability over time, or do they morph so flexibly as to defy analysis? Are there “signatures” for given ensembles of practices — e.g. a set of features of device design in boat building or a set of techniques of water management in farming — on the basis of which we can observe the proliferation and change of a practice over time and space? Is there a self-referential element in practices—do practitioners deliberately or consciously modify their practices?

The example of traditional boat design and building is a good one to illustrate a technical practice (suggested in the images above). The boat-building traditions of medieval Scandinavia represent a body of skill and technique transmitted from master to apprentice, with variation over time and place. Farming practices in traditional agricultural societies provide another good example. In this case, the practice involves knowledge concerning crops, animals, seeds, irrigation, fertilizer, timing, and response to the unexpected. (This is the kind of local practical knowledge that James Scott describes in Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed.) It is embodied in local knowledge, folk beliefs, techniques and tools, and customs of a given population at a particular time. It is transmitted from practitioner to practitioner (perhaps parent to child) through training and imitation. Sometimes organizations play a causal role in transmission (e. g., a guild of boat designers and builders may deliberately control the transmission of relevant knowledge and skills from one individual to another). And it seems likely enough that historians can in fact observe the proliferation of technical practices such as these over centuries of time by observing the spatial distribution of artifacts associated with the practice. (Jon Elster discusses some aspects of the technical practices associated with traditional boat building in Explaining Technical Change: A Case Study in the Philosophy of Science.)

A particularly interesting question is the degree to which technical practices are “plastic” over time and space. How readily do they morph over time and space (akin to the way in which messages morph in the game of “telephone”)? Is there an analogy between a practice and a gene, in which the gene encodes instructions for the phenotype—producing a next-generation genotype? The stability of species through biological evolution depends on the fact that gene transcription is a highly accurate process, so the offspring is highly likely to encode the same bits of information as the parent. Is there the requisite stability within the domain of practices, or are we more likely to find significant differences in ostensibly similar practices across the villages of a region?

The stability question turns on the mechanisms of replication that social practices embody. Traditional social practices are not embodied in standard “handbooks” of best practice; instead, they are transmitted through networks of training and imitation. So changes are likely to occur during the replication of the practice at the local level. Innovation occurs as local illiterate but intelligent farmers or builders discover enhancements. These innovations are imitated and reproduced by neighbors and changes accumulate. Naturally, there is nothing inherently optimal or progressive about such a process. Good ideas and innovations die out; mediocre practices persist; and sometimes genuine advances occur.

Finally, the question about whether a technical practice has a specific signature — a characteristic set of tools, patterns of land use, and products — is crucial for our ability to track changes in practices historically. With a signature — for example, a characteristic form of ceramic glazing — it is possible to track the spread of a practice across time and space. It is then possible to track changes in practice over time and geography by tracking the dispersion of tools and products. For example, a new technique in ceramics can often be pinpointed in a place at a time; then through archeological research it is often possible to track the diffusion of the innovation over the next century to other places. And once we’ve done that, we can ask productive questions about what the mechanisms of the diffusion of practical knowledge were: migration of farmers and artisans, trade routes, the sale of books and pamphlets, …

It seems that technical practices in pre-modern societies are of particular interest for a couple of reasons. They give us a subject matter where it is possible to study local knowledge and skill in some detail. They represent a domain of human activity where it is possible to track change over time and to form some hypotheses about the social mechanisms that underlie the diffusion of techniques. And they are a fairly visible manifestation of some basic features of social life — the harnessing of knowledge and skill to solving some of the practical problems of life, and the creation of innovations through which these basic material needs might be satisfied in a marginally better way. And it wouldn’t be surprising to discover that the mechanisms that underlie the maintenance and diffusion of traditional techniques are also found in the practical knowledge communities of technicians in the modern world — photocopy machine repair specialists, airline mechanics, or lab technicians.

Modernism and social life

painting: Georges Braque, Woman with a Guitar (1913)

Image: Mexico City slum

Modernity is remarkably hard to define or capture. We might try this ostensive definition: it is the culture, mental framework, and social reality of the world created by the industrial revolution, mass society, urban life, and mass literacy and communication. It is the world of anonymous social relations, the market as a central social reality, the rational-bureaucratic state, and mass public opinion. It is what came after “the world we have lost” (Peter Laslett’s evocative phrase in The World We Have Lost: England Before the Industrial Age) — the pre-modern world of direct, face-to-face social relations, powerful religious beliefs, traditional regulation of village society, and very low levels of mobility for the individual. Stability, continuity, locality, and legible social relations capture the pre-modern world. And the modern world overturns each of these.

English critic (and blogger before his time) Thomas Carlyle saw it coming — and he didn’t care for it. Here are some of his descriptions of the social reality coming to England in the 1820s in Past and Present:

The condition of England, on which many pamphlets are now in the course of publication, and many thoughts unpublished are going on in every reflective head, is justly regarded as one of the most ominous, and withal one of the strangest ever seen in this world. England is full of wealth, of multifarious produce, supply for human want in every kind; yet England is dying of inanition. With unabated bounty the land of England blooms and grows; waving with yellow harvests; thick-studded with work-shops, industrial implements, with fifteen millions of workers, understood to be the strongest, the cunningest, and the willingest our Earth ever had … and behold, some baleful fiat as of Enchantment has gone forth, saying, “Touch it not, ye workers, ye master-workers, ye master-idlers; none of you can touch it, no man of you shall be the better for it; this is enchanted fruit!” (Book I, ch. 1)

But, it is said, our religion is gone: we no longer believe in St. Edmund, no longer see the figure of him “on the rim of the sky,” minatory or confirmatory? God’s absolute Laws, sanctioned by an eternal Heaven and an eternal Hell, have become Moral Philosophies, sanctioned by able computations of Profit and Loss, by weak considerations of Pleasures of Virtue and the Moral Sublime. (Book III, ch. 1)

And in fact, I think the task of making sense of a rapidly changing social reality was as stunning in the 1840s as it is today — Karl Marx, Thomas Carlyle, Alexander Herzen, Friedrich Engels, and Mikhail Bakunin all turned their imaginations and their critical abilities to the task of conceptualizing the changes that were sweeping across Europe and the globe in the first part of the nineteenth century. (Steven Marcus does a good job of capturing the cognitive and imaginative challenge faced by reflective observers in the early nineteenth century in Engels, Manchester, and the Working Class.)

So how can sociologists, historians, or artists and poets help us understand the nature of modernity? The cacaphony of the modern city is one powerful metaphor for the nature of the social modern. So the sociology of the city is a good place to start. And the jangled, fractured canvases of modernist painting evoke the conflicting, overlapping mentalities of the modern world; so perhaps we can learn something about the nature of modernity from reflective art historians.

Here is how art historian T. J. Clark reflects on the meaning of “modernity” in his spectacular book, Farewell to an Idea: Episodes from a History of Modernism.

“Modernity” means contingency. It points to a social order which has turned from the worship of ancestors and past authorities to the pursuit of a projected future — of goods, pleasures, freedoms, forms of control over nature, or infinities of information. This process goes along with a great emptying and sanitizing of the imagination. Without ancestor-worship, meaning is in short supply — “meaning” here meaning agreed-on and instituted forms of value and understanding, implicit orders, stories and images in which a culture crystallizes its sense of the struggle with the realm of necessity and the reality of pain and death. The phrase Max Weber borrowed from Schiller, “the disenchantment of the world,” still seems to me to sum up this side of modernity best. (7)

“Secularization” is a nice technical word for this blankness. It means specialization and abstraction; social life driven by a calculus of large-scale statistical chances, with everyone accepting (or resenting) a high level of risk; time and space turned into variables in that same calculus, both of them saturated by “information” and played with endlessly, monotonously, on nets and screens; the de-skilling of everyday life (deference to experts and technicians in more of the microstructure of the self); available, invasive, haunting expertise; the chronic revision of everything in the light of “studies.” I should say straightaway that this cluster of features seems to be tied to, and propelled by, one central process: the accumulation of capital, and the spread of capitalist markets into more and more of the world and the texture of human dealings. (7)

Is it not the case that the truly new, and disorienting, character of modernity is its seemingly being driven by merely material, statistical, tendential, “economic” considerations? We know we are living a new form of life, in which all previous notions of belief and sociability have been scrambled. And the true terror of this new order has to do with its being ruled — and obscurely felt to be ruled — by sheer concatenation of profit and loss, bids and bargains: that is, by a system without any focusing purpose to it, or any compelling image or ritualization of that purpose. It is the blindness of modernity that seems to me fundamental, and to which modernism is a response. (8)

painting: Pablo Picasso, The Poet (1911)

And what about the city? How does the sociology of the city shed light on the cultural reality of the modern world? The modern city represented a coming-together of many of the currents of social change that constituted the heterogeneous mix of “modernity.” A large and disconnected population, substantial inequalities, civic anonymity, alienation, bureaucratic administration, modern policing and public services, street cars, and a virtual absence of overarching social solidarity conjoined to create a jangled social configuration with the angular properties of a modernist portrait.

An earlier posting focused on Engels’s sociology of the city. But here is how Georg Simmel puts it in “The Metropolis and Modern Life”:

The deepest problems of modern life flow from the attempt of the individual to maintain the independence and individuality of his existence against the sovereign powers of society, against the weight of the historical heritage and the external culture and technique of life. This antagonism represents the most modern form of the conflict which primitive man must carry on with nature for his own bodily existence. The eighteenth century may have called for liberation from all the ties which grew up historically in politics, in religion, in morality and in economics in order to permit the original natural virtue of man, which is equal in everyone, to develop without inhibition; the nineteenth century may have sought to promote, in addition to man’s freedom, his individuality (which is connected with the division of labour) and his achievements which make him unique and indispensable but which at the same time make him so much the more dependent on the complementary activity of others; Nietzsche may have seen the relentless struggle of the individual as the prerequisite for his full development, while socialism found the same thing in the suppression of all competition — but in each of these the same fundamental motive was at work, namely the resistance of the individual to being leveled, swallowed up in the social-technological mechanism.

The Chicago School of sociology is particularly on target when it comes to understanding “modernity”, given its strong emphasis on understanding the social reality of Chicago as a turbulent, jangled social reality.

(See Julia Adams, Elisabeth S. Clemens and Ann Shola Orloff, eds., Remaking Modernity: Politics, History, and Sociology (Politics, History, and Culture), for some very thoughtful discussions of the study of “modernity” by contemporary historical sociologists.)

The difference ontology makes

Quite a few posts here over the past few months have been on the subject of social ontology: what can we say about the nature of the social world? I’ve focused on characteristics like heterogeneity, plasticity, and contingency, and have also given thought to some of the processes through which social phenomena are “composed” of lower-level processes and mechanisms. (The topics of methodological individualism, localism, and holism fall in this category.) Why are these questions important to the philosophy of social science? And how could they possibly contribute to better research and theory in the social sciences?

One answer is that it isn’t really possible to investigate any domain without having some idea of what sorts of things the domain consists of. So attempting to arrive at perspicuous models of what the social world is made up of is a necessary step on the way to more specific forms of empirical and causal research.

A second answer derives from recognition of the harm that has been done to the cause of knowledge by misconceived ontologies in the history of science. This has been especially true in areas of knowledge adjoining human life and activity — radical behaviorism in psychology, naturalism and positivism in sociology, and what Andrew Abbott calls the “variables paradigm” in quantitative social science. Better science will result from more propititious ontology, because we won’t be in the situation of trying to force the social world onto the wrong sorts of boxes.

Third, there are good reasons for thinking that reasoning about social ontology is possible. If ontological thinking were purely apriori, then we might be reasonably skeptical about our capacity to move from philosophy to the world. But we have a form of access to social reality that we lack for the realities of nature and mathematics: we are participants in social reality and our thoughts and actions are constitutive of that reality. So theorizing about social reality of ontology isn’t wholly apriori; rather, it is more akin to a form of intelligent observation of real social processes around us. Ontological thinking is really a form of empirically informed theorizing, at a fairly abstract level.

Let’s turn now to the question of how concretely better social ontological thinking can help create better social research.

Researchers will be encouraged to explore multiple methodologies and theories when a more satisfactory social ontology guides them. Pluralism finds strong support in the ontology explored here, given the emphasis offered to social heterogeneity and contingency.

Some specific research strategies and questions are likely to arise as a result of more adequate social ontologies. Questions about causal mechanisms and processes of composition will receive special attention.

Fields of research like comparative historical sociology and case study methods will receive theoretical support and encouragement, since these approaches are particularly well suited to the ontological ideas revolving around heterogeneity, plasticity, and composition.

So, to return to the original question: it is in fact very appropriate and potentially helpful for philosophy of social science to give more attention to social ontology than it has traditionally done. The social world of the twenty-first century is chaotic and rapidly changing, and we need better mental frameworks within which to attempt to make sense of this complexity and change.


What is the role of trust in ordinary social workings? I would say that a fairly high level of trust is simply mandatory in any social group, from a family to a workplace to a full society. Lacking trust, each agent is forced into a kind of Hobbesian calculation about the behavior of those around him or her, watching for covert strategies in which the other is trying to take advantage of oneself. The cost of self-protection is impossibly high in a zero-trust society. Gated communities don’t help. We would need to have gated and solitary lives. Even our brothers and sisters, spouses, and offspring would have to be watched suspiciously. We would live like Howard Hughes at the end of his life.

To begin, what is trust? It is a condition of reliance on the statements, assurances, and basic good behavior of others. The status of commitments over time is essential to trust. We need to consider whether we can trust a neighbor who has promised to return a lawn mower — will he keep his promise? Can we trust the car park attendant not to take the iPod from the glove compartment? Can we trust the phone company to not add hidden fees to our bill in a corporate decision that they won’t be noticed by most consumers?

It is sort of a commonplace in moral philosophy that you can’t trust a pure egoist or an act utilitarian. The reason is simple: trust means reliance on the correct behavior of other agents even when there is an opportunity for gain in incorrect behavior and the probability of detection and sanctions is low. The egoist will reason on the basis of the advantage he/she anticipates and will discount the low likelihood of sanction. But likewise, the act utilitarian will add up all the utilities created by “correct action” and “incorrect action”, and will be bound to choose the action with the greater utility. The fact of an existing promise or other obligation will not change the calculation. So the act utilitarian cannot be trusted to honor his promises and obligations, no matter what.

Standards of “correct behavior” are difficult to articulate precisely, but here’s a start: telling the truth, keeping promises and assurances when they come into play, acting according to generally shared rules of professional and social ethics, and respecting the rights of others. We sometimes describe people and organizations whose behavior conforms to these sorts of characteristics as possessing “integrity”.

In general, agents whose behavior is governed solely by calculation of consequences cannot be trusted, since occasions requiring trust are precisely those in which we need to rely on others to do the right thing in spite of consequences that would favor doing the wrong thing. (For example, taking the iPod in circumstances where there are dozens of attendants and the theft cannot be attributed to one person; keeping the lawnmower if the owner is in a state of rapid-onset dementia; adding the phony charges in a business environment where it can be predicted with confidence that only 5% of customers will notice and the penalties are trivial.)

So there are two basic models of action that people can choose: consequentialist and “constrained by obligations” (deontological). The first approach is opportunistic and myopic; the other reflects integrity and the validity of long-term obligations.

But here we have a problem. The most ordinary social transactions become almost impossible in a no-trust environment. If I can’t trust my bank to hold my savings honestly, or my employer to keep its commitments about my retirement accounts, or the passenger on the seat next to me on a long airplane flight to not go through my briefcase if I drift off to sleep — then I am forced into a condition of exhausting, sleepless vigilance. And, of course, we do generally trust in these circumstances.

But it is an interesting problem for research to consider whether different societies and groups elicit and sustain different levels of trust in ordinary life, and what the institutional factors are that affect this outcome. Is there a higher level of trust in Bloomington, Illinois than Chicago or Houston? Is trust a feature of the learning environment through which people gain their social psychologies? Are there institutional features that encourage or discourage dispositions towards trust? And what are the compensating mechanisms through which social interactions proceed in a low-trust environment? Is that where “trust but verify” comes in?

Components of one’s "social identity"

A social identity is a complex thing. It involves the ways in which one characterizes oneself, the affinities one has with other people, the ways one has learned to behave in stereotyped social settings, the things one values in oneself and in the world, and the norms that one recognizes or accepts governing everyday behavior. And it profoundly affects the ways we behave and respond to the world.

So a social identity invokes a number of different areas of psychological competence: knowledge, motivation, perception, memory, personality, and emotion, to name a few. And yet one’s social identity seems to stand a bit apart from any of these psychological concepts singly. Cognitive psychology focuses on some aspects of this mix; social psychology and personality psychology focuses on other aspects; but there is no area of psychology that attempts to capture all of “social identity” as a psychological real process or structure.

Moreover, a social identity is embodied in an individual; and yet it is produced by the experiences we have in relations to other individuals and groups. A social identity can be said to be a feature of a group or a community as much as it is a feature of particular individuals within a given community. And this fact is causally important: we can’t explain the individual’s identity without reference to the sustained and fairly consistent features of the group with respect to its social identity. So a social identity has an aspect of “social-ness” that cautions us against a narrowly psychological interpretation of the concept.

We might single out a number of aspects of a social identity as a psychologically real construct, embodied in a particular person through a particular body of experience and a specific location within a community:

  • an epistemic frame in terms of which I understand the social world
  • an element of my psycho-cognitive-emotional apparatus
  • a model of how to behave in certain common social settings
  • a self-ascription defining the features of action and comportment that are most defining of “me” in the world
  • a self-valorization of the things that are most worthwhile to me
  • an account of who I’m related to and similar to; who my affinity groups are
  • a map expressing my location within a particular extended community

In addition, it is important to recognize the feature of “intersectionality” that characterizes social identities: the ways in which one’s identity involves a crossing of different grounds of identity and affinity. (University of Michigan social psychologist Elizabeth Cole has published a useful recent article called “Coalitions as a Model for Intersectionality: From Practice to Theory” in Sex Roles; here is a link. I also found the Wikipedia article on intersectionality to be valuable.)

Identities aren’t “pure” expressions of one particular feature of one’s location in the social world; instead, features of sexual identity, geographical identity, class identity, racial and ethnic identity, professional identity, and cohort identity all play a role in constituting one’s overall identity. This means that it is important to give concrete attention to the multiple forms of social influence and immersion through which a given individual comes to embody a complex social identity; we need to look to the microfoundations of identity formation. (See more on this approach here.)

And this point about intersectionality also raises the likelihood of internal conflict. One’s identity as an Asian American may be in some conflict with features of identity derived from one’s location within the hip-hop generation or one’s professional status as a junior member of an accounting firm. And the modes of behavior implicated by one strand may be at odds with those created by the other strands.

Innovative efforts to provide fresh approaches to the study of social identities are emerging in several fields. Paula Moya and Michael Hames-Garcia’s Reclaiming Identity: Realist Theory and the Predicament of Postmodernism is an introduction to a genuinely innovative approach to the study of identities that attempts to bring literary criticism, race and gender studies, and social theory into one extended discussion.