Microfoundations for rules and ascriptions


One of the more convincing arguments for the existence of social facts that lie above the level of individual actors is the social reality of rules and ascriptive identities. Bob and Alice are married by Reverend Green at 7 pm, July 1, 2015. The social fact that Bob and Alice are now married is not simply a concatenation of facts about their previous motions, beliefs, and utterances. Rather, it depends also on several trans-individual circumstances: first, that their behaviors and performances conform to a set of legal rules governing marriage (e.g., that neither was married at the time of their marriage to each other, or that they had secured a valid marriage license from the county clerk); and second, that various actors in the event possess a legal identity and qualification that transcend the psychological and observational properties they possess. (Reverend Green is in fact a legally qualified agent of a denomination that gives him the legal authority to perform the act of marriage between two qualified adults.) If Bob has permanently forgotten his earlier marriage in a moment of intoxication to Francine, or if Reverend Green is an imposter, then the correct performance of each of the actions of the ceremony nonetheless fails to secure the legal act of “marriage”. Bob and Alice are not married if these prior conditions are not satisfied. So the social fact that Bob and Alice are married does not depend exclusively on their performance of a specific set of actions and utterances.

Is this kind of example a compelling refutation of the thesis of ontological individualism (as Brian Epstein believes it is; link)? John Searle thinks that facts like these are fundamentally important in the social world; he refers to them as “status functions” (link). And Epstein’s central examples of supra-individual social facts have to do with membership and ascriptive status. However, several considerations suggest to me that the logical status of rules and ascriptions does not have a lot of importance for our understanding of the ontology of the social world.

First, ascriptive properties are ontologically peculiar. They are dependent upon presuppositions and implicatures that cannot be fully validated in the present. Consider the contrast between these two statements about Song Taizu, founder of the Song Dynasty: “Song was a military and political mastermind” and “Song was legitimate emperor of China.” The former statement is a factual statement about Song’s embodied characteristics and talents. The latter is a complex historical statement with debatable presuppositions. The truth of the statement turns on our interpretation of the legal status of the seven-year-old “Emperor” whom he replaced. It is an historical fact that Song ruled long and effectively as chief executive; it is a legal abstraction to assert that he was “legitimate emperor”.

Second, it is clear that systems of rules have microfoundations if they are causally influential. There are individuals and concrete institutions who convey and interpret the rules; there are prosecutors who take offenders to task; there are libraries of legal codes and supporting interpretations that constitute the ultimate standard of adjudication when rules and behavior come into conflict. And individuals have (imperfect) grasp of the systems of rules within which they live and act — including the rule that specifies that ignorance is no excuse for breach of law. So it is in fact feasible to sketch out the way that a system of law or a set of normative rules acquires social reality and becomes capable of affecting behavior.

Most fundamentally, I would like to argue that our interest is not in social facts simpliciter, but in facts that have causal and behavioral consequences. We want to know how social agglomerates behave, and in order to explain these kinds of facts, we need to know how the actors who make them up think, deliberate, and act. Whether Alice and Bob are really married is irrelevant to their behavior and that of the individuals who surround them. Instead, what matters is how they and others represent themselves. So the behaviorally relevant question is this: do Alice, Bob, Reverend Green, and the others with whom they interact believe that they are married? So the behaviorally relevant content of “x is married to y” is restricted to the beliefs and attitudes of the individuals involved — not the legalistic question of whether their marriage satisfied current marriage laws.

To be sure, if a reasonable doubt is raised about the legal validity of their marriage, then their beliefs (and those of others) will change. Assuming they understand marriage in the same way as we do — “two rationally competent individuals have undertaken legally specified commitments to each other, through a procedurally qualified enactment” — then doubts about the presuppositions will lead them to recalculate their current beliefs and status as well. They will now behave differently than they would have behaved absent the reasonable doubts. But what is causally active here is not the fact that they were not legally married after all; it is their knowledge that they were not legally married.

So is the fact that Bob and Alice are really married a social fact? Or is it sufficient to refer to the fact that they and their neighbors and family believe that they are married in order to explain their behavior? In other words, is it the logical fact or the epistemic fact that does the causal work? I think the latter is the case, and that the purely ascriptive and procedural fact is not itself causally powerful. So we might turn the tables on Epstein and Searle, and consider the idea that only those social properties that have appropriate foundations at the level of socially situated individuals should be counted as real social properties.

Relations, processes, and activities

An earlier post asked what sorts of social entities exist. Posing the question this way leads us to think of persistent abstract things populating the social world — for example, structures, organizations, or institutions. But as a commentator to the earlier post pointed out, there are persistent phenomena in the social world that don’t look much like things and look more like activities and processes. Grammatically they have more in common with verbs than nouns. And when many such social phenomena are described using nouns, we are often forced to interpret them in a non-referential way.

Take the social realities of friendship, solidarity, and inflation.

The first is a characteristic of social relationships; it is a relational concept.  It doesn’t make sense to think of “friendship” as a concatenation of monadic atoms of “friend units”; rather, the concept of friend evinces a set of relational characteristics between persons.  So “friendship” doesn’t designate a continuing “thing” in the world; instead, it designates a complex relational and psychological feature of pairs of persons, widely separated across population and space.  Our theory of friendship encapsulates our interpretation of the mental and behavioral states of persons who are in the relationship of friendship with each other.

Solidarity has this feature of relationality, and it adds a feature of social motivation and psychological orientation to a group. We can ask whether solidarity exists in the social world, and we can reasonably answer that it does.  But when we affirm that “solidarity exists”, we really mean that “there are numerous instances of groups and individuals in which members of the group willingly conform their behavior to the needs and purposes of the group.”  Our explanation of “solidarity” is likely to invoke abstract ideas about individuals within consciously constituted groups rather than something analogous to a social substance.  So solidarity is not a thing, but rather a dynamic feature of consciousness shared in varying ways by individuals who orient themselves to a group.

“Inflation” is a different sort of social noun. It refers to a complex social state of affairs reflecting a set of processes in which prices of goods are determined by market forces and prices are rising across a range of commodities. We cannot define the social reality of “inflation” without specifying a set of distributed social facts and identifying a number of social processes.  So inflation too doesn’t look at all like a social thing.

Each of these social nouns corresponds to a social reality. But this reality doesn’t look much like a set of fixed entities or composites of entities. The semantics of objects and things doesn’t work well for this range of social vocabulary. And yet each of these terms identifies a domain that is perfectly well suited to empirical inquiry and discovery. The social reality of friendship practices differs across cultures; friendship practice has some degree of stability over time; and we can discover quite a bit about the culture, norms, and practices of friendship in a particular culture.  And likewise with solidarity and inflation.  Each is a legitimate object of empirical inquiry; and neither conforms to the ontology of “thing” with fixed location and properties.

What this discussion suggests is that our ontology of the social world needs to encompass not only a range and variety of entities — structures, institutions, organizations, but also ontological categories that reflect a more fluid set of social realities: processes, practices, rules, relations, and activities.  This observation converges with the styles of thought of thinkers as various as Charles Tilly and Norbert Elias; Tilly refers to “relational realism,” and Elias is an advocate of “process sociology”.

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.

Piecemeal empirical assessment of social theories

The philosophy of science devotes a large fraction of its wattage to this question: what is the logic of empirical confirmation for scientific beliefs? (A good short introduction is Samir Okasha, Philosophy of Science: A Very Short Introduction.) In the natural sciences this question became entangled with the parochial fact about the natural sciences, that scientific theories postulated unobservable entities and processes and that the individual statements or axioms of a theory could not be separately confirmed or tested. So a logic of confirmation was developed according to which theories are empirically evaluated as wholes; we need to draw out a set of deductive or probabilistic consequences of the theory; observe the truth or falsity of these consequences based on experiment or observation; and then assign a degree of empirical credibility to the theory based on the success of the observational consequences. This could be put as a slogan: “No piecemeal confirmation of scientific beliefs!”

This is the familiar hypothetico-deductive model of confirmation (H-D), articulated most rigorously by Carl Hempel and criticized and amended by philosophers such as Karl Popper, Nelson Goodman, Norwood Hanson, and Imre Lakatos. These debates constituted most of the content of the evolution of positivist philosophy of science into post-positivist philosophy of science throughout the 1960s and 1970s.

I don’t want to dive into this set of debates, because I am interested in knowledge in the social sciences; and I don’t think that the theory-holism that this train of thought depends upon actually has much relevance for the social sciences. The H-D model of confirmation is approximately well suited — but only to a certain range of scientific areas of knowledge (mathematical physics, mostly). But the social sciences are not theoretical in the relevant sense. Social science “theories” are mid-level formulations about social mechanisms and structures; they are “theories of the middle range” (Robert Merton, On Theoretical Sociology). They often depend on formulations of ideal types of social entities or organizations of interest — and then concrete empirical investigation of specific organizations to determine the degree to which they conform or diverge from the ideal-typical features specified by the theory. And these mid-level theories and hypotheses can usually be empirically investigated fairly directly through chains of observations and inferences.

This is not a trivial task, of course, and there are all sorts of challenging methodological and conceptual issues that must be addressed as the researcher undertakes to consider whether the world actually conforms to the statements he/she makes about it. But it is logically very different from the holistic empirical evaluation that is required of the special theory of relativity or the string theory of fundamental physics. The language of hypothesis-testing is not quite right for most of the social sciences. Instead, the slogan for social science epistemology ought to be, “Hurrah, piecemeal empirical evaluation!”

I want to argue, further, that this epistemological feature of social knowledge is a derivative of some basic facts about social ontology: social processes, entities, and structures lack the rigidity and law-governedness that is characteristic of natural processes, entities, and structures. So general, universal theories of social entities that cover all instances are unlikely. But second, it is a feature of the accessibility of social things: we interact with social entities in a fairly direct manner, and these interactions permit us to engage in scientific observation of these entities in a way that permits the piecemeal empirical investigation that is highlighted here. And we can construct chains of observations and inferences from primary observations (entries in an archival source) to empirical estimates of a more abstract fact (the level of crop productivity in the Lower Yangzi in 1800).

Let’s say that we were considering a theory that social unrest was gradually rising in a region of China in the nineteenth century because of a gradual shift in the sex ratios found in rural society. The connection between sex ratios and social unrest isn’t directly visible; but we can observe features of both ends of the equation. So we can gather population and family data from registries and family histories; we can gather information about social unrest from gazettes and other local sources; and we can formulate subsidiary theories about the social mechanisms that might connect a rising male-female ratio to the incidence of social unrest. In other words — we can directly investigate each aspect of the hypothesis (cause, effect, mechanism), and we can put forward an empirical argument in favor of the hypothesis (or critical of the hypothesis).

This is an example of what I mean by “piecemeal empirical investigation”. And the specific methodologies of the various social and historical sciences are largely devoted to the concrete tasks of formulating and gathering empirical data in the particular domain. Every discipline is concerned to develop methods of empirical inquiry and evaluation; but, I hold, the basic logic of inquiry and evaluation is similar across all disciplines. The common logic is piecemeal inquiry and evaluation.

(I find Tom Kelly’s article on “Evidence” in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy to be a better approach to justification in the social sciences than does the hypothetico-deductive model of confirmation, and one that is consistent with this piecemeal approach to justification. Kelly also reviews the essentials of H-D confirmation theory.)

Is there such a thing as capitalism?

Marx’s central theoretical concept is “capitalism.” He wanted to provide a theory of the capitalist mode of production; he wanted to discover the laws of motion of the capitalist mode of production; and he believed that there was a compact structural identity that is shared by capitalist economies. Later Marxist economists refined the concept somewhat by distinguishing among various stages of capitalist development, with thinkers such as Ernest Mandel and Paul Sweezy focusing on “late capitalism”.

My question here is a simple one. From the point of view of social ontology and concept formation in sociology — does it make sense to think of capitalism as a single thing with multiple instances across time and space? Is there a reason to think that “England, 1880,” “Germany, 1910,” “Japan, 1960,” “United States, 1980,” and “France, 2000” are all instances of a single economic system?

Consider briefly Marx’s account of the core features of capitalism. It is an economic system based on a particular and distinctive property system: private property in the means of production (capital) and private ownership of labor by the worker (labor). The worker is free to sell his/her labor power to multiple owners of capital; but, having been separated from all other forms of access to means of production, the worker is not free to withhold his/her labor altogether. So the worker is dependent on the capitalist for access to the means of subsistence; and the capitalist is dependent upon the worker as the creator of surplus value. It is a system that is premised on surplus extraction by owners of capital from the producers of value (workers). It is a system based on accumulation: constant growth and expansion of the appropriation of surplus value (profits). And it is a system based on accumulation rather than consumption. And, finally, Marx believes that these social institutions create an institutional logic for capitalist economies that is different from other modes of production — a tendency towards technological innovation, a tendency towards a falling rate of profit, the creation of an “industrial reserve army,” and the creation of a tendency towards economic crisis. It is this claim that permits Marx to assert that he has produced a theory that encompasses a whole class of social formations, rather than being simply a description based on a single case, British capitalism of mid-nineteenth century.

In order to carry this concept through, we would need to postulate that there is a core set of economic features and institutions that constitute the “essence” of capitalism; that these core features recur across multiple historical social formations; and that the differences that exist across historical cases are non-essential, accidental, epiphenomenal, or super-structural.

And differences there are, of course. One important dimension of difference is the degree and nature of state involvement in the economy. But other differences are equally important: the subtle but distinctive differences in property systems that exist in England, Germany, Japan, or the United States; the differences that exist in regulatory regimes (such as those documented by Frank Dobbin); the cultural differences that exist across “capitalist” societies with respect to attitudes towards wealth, the environment, or inequalities; and so on for a continuing and broad range of differences across societies.

Given this fact of sociologically important differences across historical instances of capitalism, we appear to have two theoretical choices. The first is to postulate that the common, core institutions of capitalist societies impose a logic of development on capitalist societies that is more fundamental than any of the evident differences across instances. The other is to judge that the concept of capitalism is simply a nominal social category, grouping together a number of societies which have some similarities and also important differences. Or, following Weber, we might say that capitalism is an ideal type, an organizing and idealized concept that singles out a set of features that often hang together, but recognizing that no particular society perfectly exemplifies all these features.

It seems to me that Marx fell into a fetishim of his own in reifying the capitalist mode of production as a general historical category. We are better off following the lead of the new institutionalists, recognizing that every society has a somewhat different configuration of basic institutions; and acknowledging that these differences make a difference in the development and historical trajectory of these societies. There are important commonalities across many or most of the societies that Marx would call “capitalist” — a deep conflict of interest between capital and labor, a likelihood that economic property ownership will support political power and influence, and other common features. But to judge that “every capitalist society develops in the same way” goes well beyond what history or theory would support. Instead, we need to have specific, factual analysis of each of the societies we are interested in, and should highlight the differences that exist as well as the commonalities that recur. This finding takes us further down the road of emphasizing particularity and difference as much as generalization and regularity in social science theorizing.

Aggregating social trends

Would we say that discerning and aggregating social trends is an important kind of social knowledge? What about explaining social trends? What is a social trend, anyway?

Suppose people notice that crimes are getting less frequent but more violent; or that Thai restaurants are replacing Chinese restaurants at the bottom end in Chicago; or that young people are using instant messages more than telephone or email. Are these social trends? I suppose that, most simply, these are statements about changing frequencies of certain kinds of social occurrences over time. And “noticing” means counting and tracking the results of past observations. There are important conceptual and measurement issues here — how we identify the kinds of events whose frequency is “important” or “of interest”? How do we assure that we are counting in a way that is accurate — not over- or under-reporting? But the basic logic is fairly clear. To say that there is a trend for X is to say that the frequency of X relative to the population is changing in a sustained way.

Is the discovery of social trends an important effort for sociology? Probaby so, for several reasons. We are interested in knowing “how society is changing” — and the frequencies of various kinds of social actions are themselves an important component of social change. So discovering and documenting changing patterns of social behavior — “trend-spotting” — is an important piece of sociological discovery.

But there are two other reasons to think trends are important for sociology. A trend (more Thai restaurants) may be an indicator of some other more important social change — aging of the Chinese population in Chicago, or an influx of Southeast Asian immigrants in a certain time period. But, second, some social trends may function as causes of other future changes in social behavior. A rising trend in male-female sex ratios in China or India may be a potential cause of future social disorder; A rising frequency of soccer violence may be both an indication of rising youth alienation and a cause of future state action (more repression, more social welfare intervention). A trend towards longer sentences for non-violent crime may produce a rise in violent crime in the future (as non-violent criminals “graduate” to violent crime through longer exposure to violent criminals). Finally, discovery of trends can produce strategies of adaptive behavior — trends in consumer taste may permit some businesses to create a whole new market for a product, trends in violent crime may produce new policing strategies, and trends in young voters using the web for communication may suggest new campaign tactics.

Finally, it should be noted that some “trends” may not be true features of social behavior at all, but rather the reslt of heightened awareness of certain kinds of social behavior. (Teachers often say “our students are getting worse every year” … even though the statistics on performance say the opposite.)

We asked above what is involved in explaining social trends. Surely there must be a range of different social mechanisms that would produce change in the frequencies of various social behaviors: incentives, filters, external shocks, imitation, changes in the composition of the underlying population. For example, suppose we observe a trend towards fewer incidents of purse-snatching in Miami, and we observe as well that the median age of the population has
increased from 50 to 60. The change in the age structure may explain the trend. In this case, there may be no change at all in the behaviors of the various age groups — no trend there — but a change in frequency relative to the total population nonetheless.

(This discussion of “social trends” places the concept in the domain of “changing distributions of individual social behavior”. Is there a structural counterpart about collective entities? Can we make true and justified statements about the trends of change among — labor unions, states, churches, or universities?)

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