Methodological nationalism

Are there logical divisions within the global whole of social interactions and systems that permit us to focus on a limited, bounded social reality?  Is there a stable level of social aggregation that might provide an answer to the “units of analysis” question in the social sciences?  This is a question that has recurred several times in prior postings — on regions (link), on levels of analysis (link), and on world systems (link). Here I’ll focus on the nation-state as one such system of demarcation.

We can start with a very compelling recent critique of current definitions of the social sciences.  Andreas Wimmer and Nina Glick Schiller offer an intriguing analysis of social science conceptual schemes in “Methodological nationalism and beyond: nation-state building, migration and the social sciences” (link). (Wimmer’s Nationalist Exclusion and Ethnic Conflict: Shadows of Modernity is also of great interest.) The core idea is the notion that the social sciences have tended to conceptualize social phenomena around the boundaries of the nation-state.  And, these authors contend, this assumption creates a set of blinders for the social sciences that makes it difficult to capture some crucially important forms of social interaction and structure.

Wimmer and Schiller characterize the idea of methodological nationalism in three forms:

The epistemic structures and programmes of mainstream social sciences have been closely attached to, and shaped by, the experience of modern nation-state formation….  The social sciences were captured by the apparent naturalness and givenness of a world divided into societies along the lines of nation-states….  Because they were structured according to nation-state principles, these became so routinely assumed and ‘banal’, that they vanished from sight altogether. (303-4)

A second variant, typical of more empirically oriented social science practices, is taking national discourses, agendas, loyalties and histories for granted, without problematizing themor making them an object of an analysis in its own right.  Instead, nationally bounded societies are taken to be the naturally given entities to study. (304)

Let us  now address a third and last variant of methodological nationalism: the territorialization of social science imaginary and the reduction of the analytical focus to the boundaries of the nation-state. (307)

The three variants of methodological nationalism … are thus ignorance, naturalization, and territorial limitation. (308)

Their view is a complex one. They think that the social sciences have been trapped behind a kind of conceptual blindness, according to which the concepts of nation and state structure our perception of social reality but disappear as objects of critical inquiry. Second, they argue that there were real processes of nation and state building that created this blindness — from nineteenth century nation building to twentieth century colonialism. And third, they suggest that the framework of MN itself contributed to the concrete shaping of the history of nation and state building. So it is a three-way relationship between knowledge and the social world.

“Nationalism” has several different connotations.  First, it implies that peoples fall into “nations,” and that “nations” are somewhat inevitable and compact social realities.  France is a nation.  But closer examination reveals that France is a social-historical construct, not a uniform or natural social whole. (Here is a discussion of Emmanuel Todd’s version of this argument; link).  Alsatians, Bretons, and Basques are part of the French nation; and yet they are communities with distinct identities, histories, and affinities.  So forging France as a nation was a political effort, and it is an unfinished project.

Second, nationalism refers to movements based on mobilization of political identities.  Hindu nationalists have sought power in India through the BJP on the basis of a constructed, mobilized (and in various ways fictional) Hindu identity.  The struggle over the Babri Mosque, and the political use to which this symbol was put in BJP mobilization, illustrates this point.  But “nationalist politics” also possess a social reality; it is all too evident that even fictive “national identities” can be powerful sources of political motivation.  So nationalist politics in the twentieth century were a key part of many historical processes.  (Michael Mann’s The Dark Side of Democracy: Explaining Ethnic Cleansing illustrates this point.)  And, of course, there may be multiple national identities within a given region; so the “nation” consists of multiple “nationalist” groups.  Ben Anderson’s Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism provides an extensive development of the political and constructed nature of ethnic and national identities.

What about the other pole of the “nation-state” conjunction — the state?  Here the idea is that the state is the seat of sovereign authority; the origin and enforcement of legal institutions; and the holder of a monopoly of coercive power in a region.  A state does not inevitably correspond to a nation; so when we hyphenate the conjunction we make a further substantive assumption — that nations grow into states, and that states cultivate national identities.

The fundamental criticism that Wimmer and Schiller express — the fundamental defect of methodological nationalism — is that it limits the ability of social scientists and historians to perceive processes that are above or below the level of the nation-state.  Trans-national processes (they offer migration as an example) and sub-national processes (we might refer to the kinds of violent mobilization studied by Mann in the Dark Side of Democracy) are either invisible or unimportant, from the point of view of methodological nationalism.  So the methodology occludes social phenomena that are actually of great importance to understanding the contemporary world.  Here is how they suggest going beyond methodological nationalism in the field of migration studies:

Going beyond methodological nationalism in the study of current migration thus may require more than a focus on transnational communities instead of the nation and its immigrants.  In order to escape the magnetism of established methodologies, ways of defining the object of analysis and algorithms for generating questions, we may have to develop (or rediscover?) analytical tools and concepts not coloured by the self-evidence of a world ordered into nation-states.  This is what we perceive, together with many other current observers of the social sciences, as the major task lying ahead of us.  We are certainly not able to offer such a set of analytical tools here. (323-24)

Wimmer and Schiller seem to point in a direction that we find in Saskia Sassen’s work as well: the idea that it is necessary for the social sciences to invent a new vocabulary that does a better job of capturing the idea of the interconnectedness of social activity and social systems (for example, in A Sociology of Globalization; link).  The old metaphors of “levels” of social life organized on an ascending spatial basis doesn’t seem to work well today when we try to deal with topics like global cities, diasporic communities, or transnational protest movements. And each of these critiques makes a convincing case that these non-national phenomena are influential all the way down into the “national” orders singled out by traditional classification schemes.

Disaffected youth


Every city seems to have its floating population of disaffected youth — school dropouts, occasional workers, drug users, skateboarders, hooligans, street people. How much of a problem is this? What are its dimensions? What are the social causes that influence the size and nature of this population in Detroit, Manchester, Cologne, or Novosibirsk? And are there social programs that can significantly diminish the number of young people who wind up in this category?

As for the importance of the problem, there are at least two aspects. In some times and places this population becomes a source of violence — youth gangs, football hooliganism, shop window breakage, and skinhead attacks on racial minorities, gays, or other targets. But second, whether violent or passive, the precipitation of a sub-class of young people with no skills, no jobs, and no futures is a huge social cost for the societies that produce them.

Here I’m mostly interested in the processes of neglect and social-economic disadvantage that play into the mentality of some young people, leading to the formation of an individual social psychology that brings about the low-level anti-social behavior that is observed. Basically — why do some young people drop out of the process of gaining an education, building a career, forming a family, and looking forward to the future, and instead spend their time hanging out in the streets? The skinhead phenomenon adds another element that is also worth understanding but is not the primary interest here — a degree of organizational effort by political entrepreneurs who work towards mobilizing disaffected youth around racist and nationalist agendas. This falls under the category of social mobilization studied by people such as Doug McAdam, Sidney Tarrow, or Charles Tilly. But here I’m more interested here in the process of socialization at the individual level that leads to the phenomenon of disaffection. (Several earlier posts have addressed the mobilization part of the story — for example, here.)

Here is a very interesting academic study by Robert MacDonald of the making of a “youth underclass” in the UK. Here is how MacDonald frames his problem of research:

Most young people in the UK make relatively ‘successful’, unproblematic transitions from school to work and adulthood. What do we call those that do not? Labels imply explanation, not just description. Terms with academic and policy currency tend to define such young people by something they are not or by their presumed social and economic distance and dislocation from ‘the rest’. How we might best describe, explain and label the experience and problem of so-called ‘socially excluded’, ‘disconnected youth’ is the focus of the paper.

To use the term “disaffected” is to bring a Durkheimian mindset to the table; it is to offer the beginnings of a diagnosis of the problem as well as a description. The phrase “disaffected” (or its cognate, “demoralized”) presents the problem as one of disconnection from prevailing social values and alienation from a set of moral ideas about how to behave. The “disaffected” no longer believe in the old chestnuts about working hard, listening to one’s parents, showing respect to others, obeying the law, and conforming to society’s expectations. So on this line of thought, the anti-social behavior of young people in this category derives from their “demoralization” — their failure, or society’s failure, to absorb a compelling set of normative standards about personal and social conduct.

But here is a slightly different tack we might take here. Perhaps disadvantaged youth disbelieve because they have lost all confidence in the underlying promise: conform to these norms and you will have a decent life. In other words, maybe the psychological cause of these forms of youth behavior is economic rather than moral; they are deeply discouraged about the possibility of a pathway to a better future than the world they seem around themselves at the moment. “Hopeless and angry” is a different state of mind than “disaffected.”

And what about the factor of motivation and personal ambition? To what extent is normal youth development propelled by internal factors of motivation and aspiration? And how much of a role does a social context that “demotivates” young people play in this picture?

Another line of thought has emerged out of research on youth gangs — the idea of the positive forms of solidarity and community that are provided by the gang as a welcoming social group. Young people who have lost the social support of their families and other traditional organizations may find that the street gang is the closest thing to “home” that they are able to locate. These are social groups with their own codes of behavior — even though their largest effects are profoundly anti-social.

A common recourse when it comes to trying to explain these kinds of outcomes is to refer to various “breakdowns” — breakdowns of the traditional family, of schools, of religion, of community organizations, or of public values. These are the institutions through which young people form their social psychologies, their identities, and their basic values. But if the young person lacks an emotionally meaningful connection to adults through some of these institutions, where will those positive social values come from?

Finally, it is worth noting that poverty and socio-economic disadvantage are not the only settings where youth disaffection occurs. Many observers in the United States have written about the use of drugs by affluent suburban high school students and other forms of involvement in anti-social activities. Wayne Wooden’s Renegade Kids, Suburban Outlaws: From Youth Culture to Delinquency documents some of this behavior.

Why is this an important problem for “understanding society”? Because the social processes through which the next generation of citizens — children, teenagers, and youth — is shaped are deeply influential on the nature of the society that will develop in twenty to forty years. If “disaffection,” “anger,” “demoralization,” and a propensity for anti-social behavior are inculcated in a large minority of the youth cohort, then society is likely to go through some very hard times in the coming decades.

It’s relatively easy to find some dimensions of these issues on the web. Here is an interesting report on “football hooliganism” prepared by Dr. Geoff Pearson of the Football Industry Group. Here is a blog posting from the UK on youth gangs and terrorist organizations. Here is a quick report on skinheads.

What is a peasant?

Quite a bit of China’s history has been framed in terms of the role of the “peasant” in Chinese society. Historians consider the features of the peasant economy; they examine the occurrence and dynamics of peasant rebellions and peasant mobilization; they ask about peasant culture and consciousness. What is a peasant? Is it a sociologically useful concept?

To start, we might consider a simple definition. A peasant is a smallholding farmer, producing crops for family consumption and for market exchange, using family labor throughout the farming cycle. Peasants live in villages; they engage in face-to-face relations with neighboring farmers; they possess a diverse range of cultural and religious beliefs and practices; they fall within a diverse range of social networks and local organizations (kinship organizations, temples, labor-sharing networks). (Robert Netting’s Smallholders, Householders: Farm Families and the Ecology of Intensive, Sustainable Agriculture provides a particularly astute analysis of peasant life.)

So peasants are farmers. But even within a society that is largely rural with a high percentage of smallholding farmers, there is still substantial social diversity within local society. Small traders, necromancers, martial arts instructors, bandits, minor officials, priests, moneylenders, elites, scholars, and large land owners all play roles within a peasant society — but they are not peasants. Their incomes derive ultimately from the farm economy, but their lifestyles, standards of living, values, and social status are all distinct from those of peasant farmers. So there is occupational diversity within rural society in almost every part of China, and a “peasant society” consists of many people who are not themselves “peasants”.

The definition of the peasant just offered focuses on the occupational or material situation of the individual. It is not surprising, then, that materialist social theory has given particular emphasis to the category of “peasant society” as a potentially explanatory social category. Marxist analysis gives substantial importance to the situation of peasants and workers, and other non-Marxist materialist thinkers have done so as well.

But we can reasonably ask whether this set of “existential” facts have very much to do with a person’s mentality and political behavior. Recall the very great range of social environments in which farming takes place in China — from the rice paddies and deltas of the lower Yangzi, to the wheat farms of Hebei and Shandong in the north, to the mountainous plots of Yunnan in the southwest. Recall as well the cultural diversity that occurs across this range — different ethnic groups, different local traditions, different religious and lineage practices. So it is worth asking the question, to what extent do members of village society share a peasant consciousness, simply in virtue of their social position as farmers? Is there any reason to believe that the material factors that define one’s status as “peasant” are more fundamental to consciousness than the cultural or ethnic factors having to do with one’s immediate social milieu? Does the peasantry constitute a distinct social group?

There are some shared features of peasant experience that would provide a partial answer to this question. First is the common experience of insecurity. Farmers are more vulnerable than most economic groups to the vagaries of weather, water, and soil. Second is the fact of surplus extraction. Because they are the most numerous group in most traditional societies, the state and other powerful agents in society have an interest in extracting part of the peasant’s surplus from him/her. This occurs through rent, interest, and taxation. And it is a commonplace that the peasant’s life is often held hostage to predatory surplus extraction. Peasants are close to be bottom of the ladder when it comes to power, status, and influence — so they are vulnerable to exploitation.

These considerations suggest that there is in fact an important basis of group mobilization that is associated with one’s status as “peasant”. Farmers share an interest in famine relief, drought assistance, and collective action against predatory taxation or rent increases; so their status as peasants may contribute to deliberate efforts aimed at the development of class consciousness and group identity formation. Peasant organizations may emerge that deliberately cultivate political action and consciousness around peasant issues. And this in turn suggests a more complicated answer to the primary question here: one’s status as a peasant may not determine one’s outlook on the social world or one’s mentality; but the struggles associated with making a life within the context of rents, taxation, drought, and famine may lead to the forging of a peasant consciousness that does in fact influence political behavior and solidarity.

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.

"Moral economy" as a historical social concept

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The reality of society


We sometimes speak of “global society”, we refer to “French society”; and we also think of face-to-face organizations and neighborhoods as small societies or social groups. There is an important conceptual point in the background in these common ways of speaking: what are the features of interaction or relationship that must obtain in order for a group of people to constitute a “society” or a “social group”?

There are a couple of points that are fairly obvious. These ensembles of individuals are not social groups:

  • all the people in the state whose last name begins with “J”
  • all the people in the world who enjoy spicy food
  • all the people in the world
  • the set of people who live within 100 miles of their state or provincial capital city

We would probably say that these aren’t social groups or societies for several reasons:

  • these ensembles bring together very heterogeneous and disassociated individuals
  • these individuals don’t interact significantly and persistently with each other
  • the individuals in each case lack a common identity
  • the individuals in these groups do not share a single set of values or mores
  • the populations described here do not possess a dense set of social networks that link almost all members of the group together
  • there is not a set of social structures that serve to coordinate and orient the behavior of all or most of the members of these ensembles

The fundamental point is that it would seem that the members of a society, as opposed to a random assembly of individuals, must have some strands of connection with each other.

So we might try this out: a society is a set of individuals —

  • who share a broad identity with each other, in at least the minimal sense that they regard themselves as members of the same society.
  • who share some set of values and ideas — perhaps non-uniform but overlapping
  • who are related to each other through economic, political, or social interactions and networks of connections
  • who are subject to a common set of social institutions.

But these criteria are debatable. Does the first criterion above threaten to rule out Canada and Spain, because there are Quebecois and Basque separatist groups within these countries? Are the people who choose to live in the isolated compound of the Yearning for Zion ranch a part of United States society, given their extreme efforts to avoid any relationships with the larger society? Is a Facebook group of “friends” a society, given that the members are generally geographically and socially dispersed?

Most fundamentally, the criteria for defining an assembly of people as a “society” can’t be too restrictive because a “society” is a looser assembly than some other kinds of social groupings — religious organizations, social movements, or labor unions, for example. In each of these latter instances there is a high degree of coherence, solidarity, and shared identity and values across members of the group. Societies, on the other hand, embody diversity and difference across persons: multiple values, multiple social networks, multiple group identities. So somehow our definition of society needs to fall intermediate between the random assemblages of persons listed first, and the intentional communities mentioned above.

We might say, then, that a society is knit together by only an overlapping but non-comprehensive set of relationships, values, and identities. Individuals share values and identities with some other individuals; this defines one aspect of the “social-connectedness” graph of a society. And individuals interact with other individuals through economic, political, or cultural transactions; this defines another aspect of a social-connectedness graph. Everyone in a society is related through a set of network relationships to many other people in society; but there is no set of network relationships that encompasses everyone. And I suppose that it is possible that, when we have drawn out a massively complex graph of networks and relationships within the population, that there may be some groups that exist in “islands” within the larger social map, with relationships with each other but not with outsiders.

How can race be a cause of something like asthma?

Though I’ve posed this posting around the question of “race and asthma,” the question here isn’t really about public health. It is rather concerned with the general question, how can a group characteristic be a causal factor in enhancing some other group characteristic?

Suppose the facts are these: that African-Americans have a higher probability of developing asthma, even controlling for income levels, education levels, age, and urban-suburban residence. (I don’t know if the facts support this statement, but it is the logic that I am concerned with here.) And suppose that the researcher summarizes his/her findings by saying that “being African-American causes the individual to have a higher risk of developing asthma.” How are we supposed to interpret this claim?

My preferred interpretation of statements like these is to hypothesize a causal mechanism, presently unknown, that influences African-American people differentially and produces a higher incidence of asthma. Here are a few possibilities:

  • (a) African-Americans as a population have a lower level of access to quality healthcare and are more likely to be uninsured. Asthma is a disease that is best treated on the basis of early diagnosis. Therefore African–Americans are more likely to suffer from undiagnosed and worsening asthma. This hypothesis is inconsistent with the assumed facts, however, in that the assertion is that the pattern persists even when we control for income.
  • (b) Asthma is an inner-city disease. It is stimulated by air pollution. African-Americans are more likely to live in inner-city environments because of the workings of residential segregation. So race causes exposure which in turn causes a higher incidence of the disease. (Again, this hypothesis is inconsistent with the stated facts that stipulate having controlled for residence.)
  • (c) There might be an unidentified gene that is more frequent in people with African ancestry than non-African ancestry and that makes one more susceptible to asthma. If this were correct, then we would expect the discrepancy to disappear if we control for frequency of this gene. Groups of white and black people randomly selected but balanced so that the frequency of the gene is the same in both groups should show the same incidence of asthma.
  • (d) It could be that there is a nutritional component to the onset of asthma, and it could be that cultural differences between the two communities lead the African-American population to have higher levels of exposure to the nutritional cause of the disease.

And of course we could proliferate possible mechanisms.

In each case the logic of the account is similar. We proceed by hypothesizing a factor or combination of factors that increase the likelihood of developing asthma; and then we try to determine whether this collalateral factor is more common in the African-American community. Some of these stories would amount to spurious correlations, while others would constitute stories in which the fact of race (as opposed to a factor with which race is accidentally correlated) plays an essential role in the causal story. (Reduced access to healthcare and inner city air pollution fall in this category, since it is institutional race segregation that causes the higher-than-normal frequency of urban residence for African-Americans.)

So this is a potential interpretation of the causal meaning of a statement like “race causes an increased risk of X.” But is this now a fact about individuals or groups? Do the causal interpretations here disaggregate from group to individual? Does “higher incidence in the population” disaggregate onto statements about the factors that influence the individual’s separate risk? It appears that this causal mechanism interpretation does in fact disaggregate to the individual level, since each describes a factor that pertains to the individual and that directly influences his/her likelihood of developing the disease.

What would be most perplexing is if there were multiple sets of causal mechanisms, each independent of the others and each creating a race-specific difference in incidence of the disease. For example, it might be that both exposure to air pollution and lack of health insurance lead to a higher incidence of the disease; and further, it might be that inner-city residents do in fact have adequate healthcare but exposure to inner-city pollution; while suburban African-Americans might have less healthcare and limited exposure to air pollution. In this set of facts, both African-American populations would display higher-than-normal incidence, but for different and unrelated reasons.

Impersonal social causes?

There is a substantial place in social causation for mechanisms that link the intentions of powerful actors to the specific features of the outcome. “The outcome came about because the powerful actor wanted it to.” Why are there no petroleum refineries in mid-town Manhattan? Because zoning and planning boards have deliberately excluded such activities.

But what about causal mechanisms that are not the result of strategic choices by social actors? Are there impersonal social causes?

There are rare but real instances of social changes that occur without any intermediary of social action — for example, the eruption of Mount Vesuvius and the extinction of Pompeii. But these events fall outside the scope of the social sciences. And there are important social explanations that begin in impersonal features of the natural environment — for example, the configuration of rivers in China’s early history. But what makes these into social explanations is the analysis of the social behavior through which agents adapt these conditions to their needs. (See Mark Elvin’s truly excellent environmental history of China for more on this; The Retreat of the Elephants: An Environmental History of China.) But social explanations always involve actors — and that means that intentional social action always comes into the picture in some way. So we might begin by saying that there are no impersonal social explanations, if by that we mean “explanations of social outcomes that do not involve the actions of persons.”

It is important to observe that there are actually two distinctions that are relevant here. There is the “personal-impersonal” distinction, and there is the “intended-unintended” distinction. In an obvious sense all social causation is “personal”, in the sense that social causal mechanisms are always embodied in the constrained actions of socially constituted actors or persons. So the actions of deliberate actors are part of all social causation. But the intentions of the actors are often unrelated to the social outcome we are trying to explain. So in these cases the outcome is not caused by actors’ intention that it should come about. In the refinery example — it may be that there is no regulation prohibiting this kind of activity, but the cost of real estate makes the proposition unattractive from a cost-benefit perspective. On this scenario we would have the result occurring as an unintended consequence of the choices of a large numbers of independent actors.

These are the most interesting social explanations: explanations of social patterns or outcomes that are not the result of design or intention, but that nonetheless emerge through the purposive actions of large numbers of agents. These are “unintended consequences” explanations or “aggregative” explanations. We can quickly identify dozens of such examples: the silting of river deltas as a result of flood-management strategies upstream; the expansion of black-market sales of cigarettes as a result of new taxes on tobacco; the expansion of traffic flows as a result of the opening of the third harbor tunnel in Boston; etc. These explanations are “aggregative” in the sense that they work by “aggregating” the lower-level choices and preferences of individual actors into a higher-level social pattern. (Thomas Schelling offers numerous intriguing examples along these lines in his book, Micromotives and Macrobehavior.)

So now we can answer our original question. There are no social causes that work entirely independently from social actors, and actors are purposive. So all social causation stems from “intentional” human behavior; persons are always involved in social outcomes. However, there are many social outcomes that are unintended and unrecognized by all the participants. The participants’ intentions are local and parochial; whereas the social outcome is large and unforeseen. These instances are the most interesting problems for social inquiry. We might refer to these as “agency-based explanations of unintended and unforeseen outcomes.”

This suggests a different way of classifying social causes: outcomes that are the intended result of specific powerful actors (conspiracy, leadership, dictatorship); outcomes that are the result of strategic interaction among a small group of purposive agents (bargaining, collusion, cooperation); outcomes that result from concerted collective action by large groups with some sense of collective goals (boycotts, strikes); and outcomes that are the aggregate result of uncoordinated but constrained choices by large numbers of independent agents (markets, habitation patterns).

This classification also makes it more apparent why the concept of power is central in social explanation. The first three categories imply a distribution of powers across specific agents and groups, in order to account for the postulated connection between the agent’s purposes and the eventual outcome. And the fourth category implies the exercise of power by some other agency, to account for the observed constraints on choice that constitute the heart of this type of explanation.

A "peasant" revolution?

The Chinese communist party became a peasant revolutionary party after the spectacular destruction of the urban basis of the movement by Chiang Kai-shek in Shanghai in 1927. But who and what was a peasant, and how did this group become a revolutionary group?

In one sense the answer is obvious. China’s population consisted of a majority of poor farmers at the time of the collapse of the Qing dynasty, under a variety of forms of land tenure. They were poor, had little land, and were subject to exploitation by landlords, lenders, and the state. So we might say that this answers both questions: peasants were poor farmers, they were a large majority throughout China, and they were potentially revolutionary as a result of their poverty and exploitation. All that was needed was a party that could mobilize and activate them.

This response is too simple, however, for several reasons. First, the concept of peasant is a social and political construction. A “farmer” is an agricultural producer; but this fact about production status tells us little about how rural people defined their own social realities or the way that others defined them.

Second, the mobilization of “peasants” along class lines requires an organized political effort by a party that aggressively makes for the salience of class over other affinities — kinship, lineage, regional identity, or ethnicity. Marx expressed his assessment of the lack of solidarity of the French peasantry of the 1840s in these terms: “A small-holding, a peasant and his family; alongside them another small-holding, another peasant and another family. A few score of these make up a village, and a few score of villages make up a Department. In this way, the great mass of the French nation is formed by simple addition of homologous magnitudes, much as potatoes in a sack form a sack of potatoes” (Marx, The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte). In order for a population to become a self-conscious identity group, it is necessary for a deliberate process of identity-formation to take place. The CCP worked single-mindedly to create this affinity with class identity throughout the 1920-30s in rural China. (Lucien Bianco, Peasants Without the Party: Grass-Root Movements in Twentieth-Century China; Odoric Wou, Mobilizing the Masses: Building Revolution in Henan.)

And third, it turns out that the politically defined status of “peasant” incorporated its own definition of internal inequality — between rich, middle, and poor peasants. These terms of internal differentiation played a prominent role in the mobilization strategies and policies of the CCP in its drive to revolution. The CCP emphasized conflicts within the class of peasants as much as the conflicts between peasants and others.

The mobilization strategies of the CCP of the 1930s were aimed at creating a large and energized supporting population of poor and middle peasants. They pursued this goal by recruiting local cadres who could communicate the party message to their intended supporters and by offering a program of land reform and social reversal that would strongly appeal to this group. Their efforts were successful in several important base areas, and the CCP was in fact able to cultivate a loyal base among poor and middle peasants. Moreover, this group increasingly provided recruits for middle and higher positions of leadership in the military and political organizations of the party.

So we might say that the peasant movement was in fact created and shaped by CCP doctrines in the 1930s as a contingent but portentious social force in China. And for the first 30 years of the Chinese communist state serious efforts were made to retain the loyalties of this social segment.

Explaining large social formations: fascism

In a previous post I discussed the problem of explaining fascism. Let’s return to this issue as a topic for historical and social inquiry.

There are clearly a number of different explanatory questions we might have in mind: why did fascist movements emerge and gain popular support in the first three decades of the twentieth century? Why did these movements prevail in several countries and not in others? (This version parallels Skocpol’s question about revolutions.) Why did fascist states develop the political institutions they did in Germany, Italy, and Spain? How did fascist states and leaders exercise power? What prevented the rise of powerful fascist movements on France and Britain — in spite of the presence of ultra-nationalist leaders and organizations?

These are all different questions — even if there are relations among them. A particularly central question concerns the factors that were conducive to the emergence of extremist beliefs and organizations in certain periods and what factors favored the growth and power of some of these movements. This is a bundle of questions about the conditions that favor collective mobilization and ideological formation on a mass society. It is the sort of research question that Chuck Tilly and other scholars of popular mobilization have been concerned with.

Another set of questions about the course of fascism has more to do with institution building and state formation. Given the goal of creating powerful stare institutions within the general framework of fascist ideas and goals, what institutional and organizational possibilities existed? Here we might refer to the repertoire of mass organization that fascist “revolutionaries” brought to their movement, as well as the historical and practical options that existed. This area of inquiry may provide a basis for answering questions about the
particular nature of fascist political institutions.

Finally, the distinct question of why it was that fascist movements and leaders were able to defeat democratic movements and states requires that we identify some of the circumstances that weakened democratic regimes. This may be a wide range of factors: challenges of war, ideological conflict with communists and other critics of the state, and the economic circumstances of the great depression. (These fall in the same category as the circumstances that Skocpol brings forward as being relevant to the success or failure of revolutions.)

It would appear that social scientists and historians have better tools for addressing the issue of successful mobilization than the institutional or causal conditions surrounding seizure of power and state building. Schematically, we might consider a causal narrative along these lines: Conditions that favor fascism include the presence of a marginalized group of young people who are subject to great economic insecurity; an ideology that combines nationalism, ethnic
suspicion, and disaffection from established social institutions and values, and a compelling narrative of how and why this group ought to wield power. To this we might add a few propitious international conditions: the threat of war, a widening economic crisis, and a broad
view that the modern state isn’t up to handling these challenges.

This approach sketches out a view of what might be a basis for an explanation of the rise of fascist social movements. Here we have singled out several causal-social factors that facilitate popular mobilization and the politicization of social movements. What it doesn’t yet explain is why and in what circumstances these movements are likely to grow powerful enough to challenge the existing state structure; this remains for another discussion.

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