Graphing the English-speaking university curriculum

Here is a fascinating and ambitious “big data” project that aims at probing and mapping the structure of the disaggregated university curriculum in the United States and other English-speaking countries. The project is called the Open Syllabus Project and is hosted at Columbia University with a team including Joe Kraganis (project director), David McClure (Stanford University Library), Dnnis Tenen, Jonathan Stray, Alex Gil, and Ted Byfield, along with others.  The project has collected over a million syllabi that are openly accessible on university websites; it has then created a database of the books and articles included in these syllabi. There are currently 934K items in the database of texts.

The project provides two basic tools. First, it allows users to search the database by title and see its frequency and co-references. It is also possible to filter by field, institution, state, and country; for each title it is possible to find the other titles most commonly associated with it in the filtered field of syllabi.

One immediate interest in this project is to see the top 10 or twenty titles overall and in various fields. Overall The Elements of Style, the Republic, the Communist Manifesto, Biology, and Frankenstein are the top five titles. In sociology the top five include Aristotle’s Ethics, JS Mill’s Utilitarianism, Plato’s Republic, Descartes’ Meditations, and Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics. In politics the top five include Huntington’s Clash of Civilizations, Hobbes’ Leviathan, Tocqueville’s Democracy in America, Aristotle’s Politics, and Machiavelli’s Prince.

These listings give a somewhat musty feel to the collective curriculum — the most common titles are “classics” at least 150 years old. (Sam Huntington’s Civilizations book and Ken Waltz’s Theory of International Politics are the only 20th century works of political science in the politics field top ten. Ranks 11-20 are more contemporary.) This might give the impression that the typical syllabus is dominated by the classics — not very encouraging for anyone who thinks that new ideas are needed to solve contemporary problems. But that impression is probably a statistical illusion. If the canon is relatively small (perhaps 100 titles) and the more contemporary and topical literature is very large (10,000 titles) then it is likely enough that items in the canon will show up more frequently, if only because there are lots of introductory courses in which those titles are used. There will be a broad spread of the more contemporary titles over the large number of syllabi, with the result that only a few will break through into the top rank.

Here is an example — my own Varieties of Social Explanation.

VSE appears in 62 syllabi in the database, and it is most commonly paired with Kuhn, Elster, Taylor, Lijphart, Fearon, and Winch. The syllabi including VSE break down by discipline like this: sociology (23), politics (5), economics (5), psychology (4), philosophy (1), other (28). There are 200 titles with which it is paired in at least four syllabi. Some of these would fit handily into a philosophy of social science course; others are more distant.

The most interesting tool currently available through the project is an interactive network graph of the 10,000 most frequently cited titles.

The methodology is not fully explained on the website, but it appears that items are assigned a metric to other titles based on the frequency of cross-reference between them. It results in an intriguing map of knowledge across the galaxy of disciplines. It is possible to zoom in on any region; below is a snapshot within the social science cluster.

It is possible to pick out the classics in the field — Durkheim, Weber, Mead, Dewey, Goffman, Bourdieu, Freire — in this cluster of titles. But this should not be equated with importance or influence. One’s eye may be drawn to the large central references in this graph — Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, for example, and these may appear as stars around which other items revolve. But equally interesting are the titles on the periphery  and in the interstices — titles which occur with a measurable frequency within the corpus of syllabi but which have relatively fewer affinities with other titles. And in fact many specialists in the various fields would probably find the most innovative works in their discipline on the periphery rather than in the core of these clusters.

This project is a great example of a big-data problem in the sociology of knowledge. The very hard question now is what to make of it; what light does it shed on the structure of university instruction and knowledge conveyance? What analytical questions need to be posed to this data set?

The math of social networks

A social network is constituted by a number of units (nodes) that are connected to each other by a defined relationship — for example, “x cites y”, “x sends 5 email messages a week to y”, “x and y belong to an organization in common.” There are a few wrinkles — the units may be persons, organizations, cities, journal articles, or other types of entities; the relationships may be uni-directional or bi-directional; and the linking relationships may represent categorical relationships or intensity relationships. “x and y are friends” is a bi-directional relationship; “x and y are close friends” is a bi-directional relationship recording intensity.

Some of the basic questions about a social network are easy to formulate but difficult to assess. Basically, we would like to know what groups of individuals are unusually closely interconnected with each other, relative to the average for the population as a whole.  Here are a few basic questions that we may have about networks of people.

  • Who is connected to whom?
  • Are there a subset of persons who are unusually well connected?
  • Are there sub-groupings of individuals who are more closely connected to each other than they are to others in the network?

This last point may be put into the language of “communities”: are there communities of individuals that can be identified on the basis of mathematical features of their positions within the graph of relationships defined by the data recording pairwise connections?

This question is especially important for sociologists because it goes to the heart of the reason why network maps are of sociological interest in the first place: we think that the social relationships among individuals explain important features of social action — readiness to mobilize for a political cause, for example; this intuition derives from the idea that individuals influence each other through the exchange of information and the observation of each other’s behavior; and so subgroups of persons with especially dense social connections with each other may have distinctive social characteristics as a group. So identifying the “communities” within a social network is an important sociological discovery.

This is where the mathematics of network graphs comes in. We need to have justifiable procedures for partitioning a network into sub-networks. These procedures need to make sense in terms of the intuition that there are often subgroups of nodes more closely related to each other. The procedures need to be non-arbitrary. They should be robust with respect to where we begin — it shouldn’t matter whether we begin analysis with this node or that node. And they need to be consistent with the fact that all the nodes are related to everyone else at some degree of separation. Neighborhoods that are entirely detached from the rest of the population are a trivial case; normally network ties extend transitively throughout a whole society.

Greek mathematician and social scientist Moses Boudourides is focused on this problem in his current work. (Follow him on Twitter at link.)  Boudourides is deeply sensitive to the sociological importance of the questions, so his work does a great job of bridging the two fields of thought. Some of his current work is available online, and it is very useful for people who want to understand more about the mathematics of social networks. It falls into the field of graph theory in mathematics, and it serves as a good tutorial to current thinking about the mathematics of social networks.

Worth reading first is “An Introduction to Community Detection in Graphs” (link). Here Boudourides offers a clear exposition of the mathematical problem of identifying a set of neighborhoods within a complex graph and lays out three approaches that have been taken.

Our aim here is to present an introductory and brief discussion of the formal concept of community in the context of the theory of complex networks (and social network analysis) and to describe (mostly by examples) a few of the many computational techniques which are commonly used for the detection of communities in a graph-theoretic background. (1)

Here is his definition of a community in the context of a network graph:

By a community structure of such a graph, we mean a partition of the set of nodes into a number of groups, called communities, such that all nodes belonging to any one of these groups satisfy a certain property of relative cohesiveness. Note that one may consider partitions, which are not necessarily strict, i.e., one may allow the case of overlapping communities, when there exist graph nodes belonging to more than one groups (communities) of the partition. (1)

The three iterative techniques he describes for analyzing a complex network into sub-communities are —

  1. Betweenness — Centrality-based community detection
  2. k-Clique percolation
  3. Modularity maximization

In each case the analysis proceeds by working through the graph iteratively, identifying notes and links with certain characteristics, and arriving at a series of stages of community definition.  This process can proceed from above (divisive) or from below (agglomerative).

The “betweenness” approach derives from an application of the idea of “betweenness centrality” of edges: “the number of shortest paths between pairs of nodes that run through that edge” (3).  On this approach, edges are ranked by their betweenness measure; the highest ranked edge is removed; and the process is repeated for the reduced graph.  This is a divisive method.

The k-clique model is an agglomerative approach, or what Boudourides refers to as a “local community-finding approach” (6).  And modularity maximization approach begins with the graph as a whole and looks for regions that are locally higher in density than the graph as a whole.  Boudourides’ explanation of each of these methods is technical and clear.  He indicates that the MM approach is most widely used; but that it falls in a class of particularly intractable optimization problems like the traveling salesman problem (NP-complete).  Consequently it is necessary to design heuristic algorithms on the basis of which to arrive at approximate solutions.  (As I understand the point, however, there is no guarantee that the approximate solution will be close to the ideal solution.)

With these tools at hand, he offers a detailed example: analysis of a data set of individuals who participated in peace demonstrations against the war in Iraq and the organizations and issues with which they were associated. Data on these activists are included in the International Peace Protest Survey (IPPS).  And the resulting neighborhood maps are fascinating.  These results are described in detail in a detailed research report on “Communities in the IPPS Survey Data” [link] and a theoretical paper on “Why and How Culture Matters in Community Interorganizational Structure” [link]. These presentations show the real power of mathematical network theory, in that they bring out social relationships among individuals within this population of activists that couldn’t be discovered otherwise.  Here are a pair of network graphs for 972 activists in Italy presented in “Culture Matters”:

Boudourides’ particular goal here is to demonstrate the difference it makes to incorporate “cultural” affiliations into the structural analysis of the first figure.  Incorporating attitudes permits simplification of the community structure of this network, from nine communities in figure 5 to four communities in figure 6.  But more generally, the analysis demonstrates the analytical gain that is possible through this analysis, allowing us to discover important patterns of affiliation among these 900+ activists.  And this, in turn, appears very relevant when we come to trying to understand their behavior within a complex process of collective action. It allows us to give some rigorous detail to the idea that a social movement has a refined micro-structure underlying its macro-level actions and demands.

What is especially useful about these papers is the help they offer us non-specialists in understanding the mathematical techniques on the basis of which we can extract sociologically meaningful information from a network graph. This is a bit analogous to the gain we get from using statistical techniques to analyze and summarize a large data set. The statistical techniques allow us to winnow the data into a few statistical measures. And the techniques of graph theory that Moses Boudourides demonstrates allow a similar analytical power for the task of making sociological sense of a large network of connected individuals. In both cases it is necessary for us to understand the basics of the mathematical techniques if we are to use the tool appropriately.

Social networks as aggregators

We think of social phenomena as “relational” in some important respect. Individuals contribute to social outcomes through structured and dynamic relationships with other individuals. So outcomes are not just heaps of aggregated individual behavior; rather, they are the filigreed result of interlinked, coordinated, competitive and sometimes unintended actions of people who have intentional and structural relationships to each other. And we think of these relationships, often, in terms of the metaphors and analytics of social “networks.” So it is worthwhile giving some thought to how the machinery of social network theory can help us in better understanding the ways that social processes unfold. Here is a nice passage from Mario Diani’s introduction to Social Movements and Networks: Relational Approaches to Collective Action.

It is difficult to grasp the nature of social movements. They cannot be reduced to specific insurrections or revolts, but rather resemble strings of more or less connected events, scattered across time and space; they cannot be identified with any specific organization either, rather they consist of groups of organizations, with various levels of formalization, linked in patterns of interaction which run from the fairly centralized to the totally decentralized, from the cooperative to the explicitly hostile. Persons promoting and/or supporting their actions do so not as atomized individuals, possibly with similar values or social traits, but as actors linked to each other through complex webs of exchanges, either direct or mediated. Social movements are in other words, complex and highly heterogeneous network structures. (1)

This passage emphasizes quite a few themes that have been important throughout UnderstandingSociety — the heterogeneity of social phenomena, the difficulty of formulating a clear understanding of social ontology, and the challenge of representing the processes of aggregation through which individual social actions contribute to mid- and large-scale social outcomes.

So how do the analytical resources of network theory contribute to a better understanding of the ways that actions aggregate into outcomes?  Diani emphasizes several ways in which network analysis has contributed to the study of contentious politics.

Network analysis as it is best known developed with reference to a ‘realist’ view of social structure as networks which linked together concrete actors through specific ties, identifiable and measureable through reliable empirical instruments.  This view represented an alternative to both views of social structures as macro fores largely independent from the control of the specific actors associated with them …., and views of structure as aggregates of the individual actors sharing determinate specific traits (5).

So if we take it as a plain fact about the social world that individuals have a range of meaningful and material relationships with other individuals, both proximate and distant, then it is plainly important to understand the effects that those relationships have on their consciousness and behavior.  These causal relationships are likely to extend in both directions — from the network to the actor, and from the actor back into the network.

What kinds of social relationships are most relevant to understanding social processes like contentious movements?  Particularly important are “personal ties linking prospective participants to current activists or dense counter-cultural networks affecting rates of mobilization in specific areas” (3).  Diani mentions “personal friends, relatives, colleagues, and neighbours; … people who share with prospective participants in some kind of collective engagement, such as previous or current participation in other movement activities, political or social organizations, and public bodies” (7).  To this list we might add membership and interaction within the kinds of civic and communal organizations that Robert Putnam emphasizes in Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community.

Here is the key point: different people find themselves in very different networks of social connections, and these relationships contribute to their social and political consciousness in diverse ways.  If we are interested in the spread of militant civil rights activism, as Doug McAdam is in Political Process and the Development of Black Insurgency, 1930-1970, or in the spread of fascist activism and mobilization in Europe in the 1920s and 1930s, as Michael Mann is in Fascists, it is highly relevant to discover the relationships and organizations through which individuals come into contact with each other and with the ideas of the nascent movements.  Likewise, if we are interested in the proliferation of support for the Deacons of Defense in the American South in the 1950s and 1960s, as Lance Hill is in The Deacons for Defense: Armed Resistance and the Civil Rights Movement, then it is important to identify the personal and organizational linkages through which ordinary people became aware of this response to white supremacy and violence.  Communication of ideas and political emotions requires a mechanism connecting the “signallers” and those to whom the messages eventually percolate, and this is not a depersonalized, homogeneous process.

Recruitment and mobilization is one aspect of contentious politics where social networks are plainly important.  Relationships in the workplace, the neighborhood, or the church or mosque are a likely location for the diffusion of a range of socially relevant material — news, gossip, indignation, shared views about politics.  And these relationships are a potential vector for the recruitment of followers and activists for a range of new political ideas — from civil rights to Tea Party to fascism.

Identifying coalitions of collective actors is another area of current research.  Once a topic has gained some degree of visibility and salience, it is likely enough that multiple groups will begin to focus on it.  Anti-tax activism is a good example — dozens of “citizen-based” organizations emerged in California in the 1950s and 1960s with the overall goal of limiting property and income taxes in the state, and it is useful to track the emerging relationships that developed among these organizations and their activists.

Diani also highlights the role that concrete social networks play in “framing and tactical adaptation of action repertoires” (4).  Framing has to do with the ways that issues are understood by the participants; so this topic unavoidably has to do with culture and social interpretation.  But the ways in which cultural frames are conveyed to people through a population are material processes that can be studied empirically.  And social networks play a key role in these processes.  As people interact with their friends and associates, they develop their political and social representations of the society around them.  These interactions are the direct embodiment of their social networks.  Diani singles out “communitarian and subculture networks” for particular attention: “communitarian ties operate at a minimum to strengthen the identity and solidarity among movement activists and sympathizers. At the same time, though, they provide the specific locus of social conflict in those cases where the challenge is eminently on the symbolic side and where, in other words, the definition of identities and the preservation of opportunities for the enactment of alternative lifestyles are mainly at stake” (9).  These features of identity-based mobilization, through networks of like-minded individuals, are important in Michael Mann’s analysis of the rise of fascism in Fascists as well:

The fascist core consisted everywhere of two successive generations of young men, coming of age between WorldWar I and the late 1930s. Their youth and idealism meant that fascist values were proclaimed as being distinctively “modern” and “moral.” They were especially transmitted through two institutions socializing young men: secondary and higher education, encouraging notions of moral progress, and the armed forces, encouraging militarism. Since the appeal was mainly to young men, it was also distinctly macho, encouraging an ethos of braggart, semi-disciplined violence, in peacetime encouraging militarism to mutate into paramilitarism. The character of fascism was set by young men socialized in institutions favorable to moralizing violence and eventually to murder. Yet the similarity of values between paramilitarism and militarism always gave fascism a capacity to appeal to armed forces themselves, not to the extent of inducing military rebellions but to the extent of generating sympathy there that at its most extreme could immobilize the army. (26)

“Fascists” were not fully formed at the moment they entered the movement. People may formally sign up for a movement and yet possess only a rudimentary knowledge of it – sympathy for a few slogans, respect for a charismatic F¨uhrer or Duce, or simply following friends who have joined. Most recruits joined the movement young, unmarried, unformed, with little adult civilian experience. On them, fascist parties and paramilitaries were especially powerful socialization agencies. These movements were proudly elitist and authoritarian, enshrining a pronounced hierarchy of rank and an extreme cult of the leader. Orders were to be obeyed, discipline to be imposed. Above all, they imposed a requirement of activism. Thus militants experienced intense emotional comradeship. Where the movement was proscribed, clandestinity tightened it. Many activists lost their jobs or went into prison or exile. Though this deterred many of the more fainthearted, among those remaining active such constraints further tightened the movement. (28)

The social processes that Mann describes here have to do with all three aspects — recruitment, mobilization, and framing; and they depend on the networks of relationships through which the core fascist values and worldviews were transmitted to new recruits.  Institutions were key in this transmission — the military, the workplace, the youth organization — and a large part of their influence was their ability to create a significant cohort of young men with a specific set of set of social relationships.

The lens of social networks, in short, seems to be a very powerful tool for understanding the processes of aggregation — upward, downward, and lateral — through which ideas, grievances, and actors come together into major social upheavals and movements.

What is perhaps more difficult to see, though, is how to engage in empirical research on the concrete networks of social relationships that have important effects on outcomes we care about.  As the United States moved towards civil war in 1860 and 1861, there were hundreds or thousands of individuals in the U.S. Army officer corps who had antecedently mixed loyalties — Southern birth, family still residing in the South, but a tradition of education and service within the U.S. Army.  So what accounts for the choices that were made by various officers when they had to decide — North or South? It is intuitively plausible that each officer’s concrete social network played an important role in his decision — appeals from family and friends, business relationships in Virginia, long-standing relationships with senior Northern officers, an education and cohort at West Point.  But it is not entirely clear how to turn this plausible view into a feasible research plan.

This is one reason why the Diani volume is such a worthwhile contribution.  Most of the contributors focus their work on specific empirical problems in the field of social contention.  Maryjane Osa looks at activist networks in the Polish People’s Republic; Christopher Ansell looks at community activism in the San Francisco Bay environmental movement; Jeff Broadbent looks at social networks in the Japanese environmental movement; and Chuck Tilly and Lesley Wood look at networks in contentious episodes in British history around 1828.  These are concrete, empirical-historical efforts to take the guiding ideas of network analysis and discover some substantive insights into the specific ways that a variety of protest movements unfolded.  And they give a better understanding of the contribution that social network analysis can offer to concrete historical research.

The public sphere

The current issue of Social Science History is devoted to a series of articles in honor of Charles Tilly (link), around the general theme of the “public sphere” (the theme of the Social Science History Association annual meeting in 2007). Tilly was an active presence in the Social Science History Association, and this issue recognizes Tilly’s originality and influence.  The volume contains contributions by several distinguished historical sociologists, including Tilly, Andreas Koller, Craig Calhoun, Andrew Abbott, and Elisabeth Clemens.

The concept of the public sphere isn’t a subject to which Tilly gave a lot of explicit attention; in fact, there is very little research on the social reality of the public sphere within comparative historical sociology quite generally.  The most directly relevant discussion of some of these topics in Tilly’s work probably occurs in his 2007 book, Democracy.  But the topic is ripe for consideration by comparative and historical sociologists, and for this reason the current SSH issue is a welcome start.

Andreas Koller formulates the general research question about the public sphere in his introductory essay in these terms:

Despite its central relevance for the members of modern societies for determining the course of their own history through reasoned debate and public choice, the study of the public sphere is not an integrated research field. … This introduction seeks to provide an overview of analytic and historical dimensions that enables one to decipher a number of discussions that are spread out over many disciplines and often proceed in multiple disciplinary terminologies.  Such a quest for an integrative framework is a necessary condition for well-defined comparative and historical research. (262-63)

Before a comparative historical sociologist could begin to investigate a phenomenon such as the “public sphere,” it is necessary to have a preliminary conception of what we are talking about.  As Koller points out, most discussions of the concept begin with the ur-text in the study of the public sphere: Jurgen Habermas’s 1962 book, The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere: An Inquiry into a Category of Bourgeois Society.  Here are some preliminary descriptions of the public sphere offered by several of the contributors to this special issue of SSH:

Andreas Koller: [The public sphere] refers to a public of speaker(s) and audience that organizes itself and determines its own future by the force of the better argument, and it refers to its object, the public good. (Koller, 263)

 Charles Tilly: No one has so far developed crisp measures of the public sphere’s expansion and consolidation in one regime or another.  In that regard, comparative-historical research faces gigantic conceptual, technical, and empirical challenges.  But surely one indicator worth tracing is change in the frequency and character of gatherings in which people make collective claims on others, including public authorities. (Tilly, 292)

Craig Calhoun: It is instructive to situate the idea of the public sphere in this context.  This gives the influential account of Jurgen Habermas its central pathos: the public sphere arises as part of civil society, incorporating adults who have gained maturity and intellectual autonomy in another of its parts, the family.  It is oriented to forming rational-critical opinion on matters of universal interest to citizens, and through this to informing state policy. But it is debased and corrupted when the state-society division collapses amid bureaucratization, organized interest-group politics, and mass society in the twentieth century. (Calhoun, 302)

Craig Calhoun: The notion of the political public sphere centered on the idea that private persons might come together through reasoned communication to consider public issues and inform public policy. (Calhoun, 303)

Andrew Abbott: In this article I take this last as my definition of public spheres: public spheres are symbolic spaces within which a group’s normative affairs are discussed in some sense for themselves…. So I shall take public spheres as an empirical possibility while making no detailed claims about their characteristics. (Abbott, 338)

Elisabeth Clemens: At the core of the philosophical legacy of the Enlightenment lies a vision of rational individuals governing themselves through collective deliberation.  By means of critical discourse, self-interested or private individuals reflect on common concerns and discover the nature of the public good, justice, and truth. (Clemens, 374)

What these snippets have in common is the idea of a public consisting of deliberative individuals engaging in debate over policies and legislation, in relation to conflicting ideas of the public good. (There is an evident connection between this definition and Rousseau’s theories of the general will; link.) There is the idea here that a collectivity can arrive at a publicly shared conception of its good, through open and public debate.  And, in common with theorists of deliberative democracy, there is the idea that public debate can transform individual citizens’ conceptions of themselves and the public good.  So debate is not merely expressive of current opinions and preferences; it is potentially transformative.

These ideas are expressed in the language of political philosophy and the theory of democracy.  But the subject matter becomes an object of study for sociologists when we realize that each aspect of the definition refers to a social reality that is highly variable across time, space, and culture.  So it is an empirical question, to consider to what extent Qing China, pre-revolutionary Iran, or medieval England had social realities that corresponded to any of these categories: the public intellectual, the engaged citizen, public debate, or public policy.  Was there a Qing public? Were matters of common concern debated openly or publicly, or were they decided behind closed doors by an Imperial bureaucracy?  Did subjects of the Qing state regard themselves as public individuals?

Tilly’s essay in this volume focuses on one aspect of this sociological topic: to what extent did new forms of public debate and agitation begin to emerge in England in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries?  He treats this as an empirical matter:

My collaborators and I gathered the evidence to examine how the development of British capitalism, transformation of the British state, and popular political struggle itself shaped changes in the ways that ordinary Britons made collecdtive claims — changes in their repertoires of contention. (292)

He finds that there was a marked increase in the frequency of contentious gatherings, which he attributes to a rise in mass-based organizations and a mass-based public media.  (Much of this research is presented in his more extensive contribution to Social Movements and Networks: Relational Approaches to Collective Action, “Contentious Connections in Great Britain, Britain, 1828-34”, with Lesley Wood.)

So this is one empirical approach that a comparative historical sociologist could take to the problem of trying to assess the scope and growth of the public sphere.  A very different approach is offered by Andrew Abbott in his contribution to the SSH volume, “Pragmatic Sociology and the Public Sphere: The Case of Charles Richmond Henderson.”  Abbott moves from meso to micro in this piece.  He too counts things in order to assess the scope of the public sphere.  But in this case, what is counted is appearances in the Chicago Tribune.  Abbott attempts to gauge Charles Richmond Henderson’s prominence in the public sphere by counting and classifying Henderson’s presence in Chicago’s leading newspaper.  How frequently does Henderson’s name appear in the Tribune, in comparison to other prominent professors?

Henderson was chaplain and professor of sociology at the University of Chicago between 1892 and 1915, and it turns out that he had a remarkably high level of visibility in the Tribune.  He was a prominent public figure.  Abbott attempts to make sense of the public persona of Anderson through a brief intellectual and professional biography of the man; and he tries to arrive at some judgments about the causes and impact of his prominence.  “Over his quarter century at the University of Chicago, Henderson became one of Chicago’s and even America’s most visible reform figures” (342).  And much of his prominence was deliberate: Henderson sought out opportunities for bringing his convictions to the attention of a broader public than the university.  Clubs and conferences were a frequent venue; Henderson was deeply interested in bringing his ideas to the public through these venues.  And Abbott makes the important point that Chicago consisted, not of one public, but of an archipelago of publics: business elites, religious communities, immigrant communities, professional groups, … (351).

Both of these empirical studies of certain aspects of the public sphere are intriguing and engaging.  Taken as a whole, the SSH volume provides a diverse palette of work, and it plainly does no more than scratch the surface of the kinds of sociological research that are suggested by the topic of the public sphere.  Abbott, Calhoun, Tilly, and the other contributors give an intriguing sense of the kinds of investigations that can be undertaken; there is much work to do in this area.  Consider this variety of questions that need to be posed about the public sphere from a comparative sociology point of view:

  • How did the public sphere evolve in England between 1600 and 1900?
  • How does the public sphere differ in France, Germany, and England?
  • Did China have a public sphere in the late Imperial period?
  • What are some important differences in repertoire and performance within the public spheres of different countries and periods?
  • How do intellectuals participate in the public sphere in different times and places?
  • What role does organized public protest play in the public sphere?

(The photo above captures two historical ends of the idea of the public sphere: the polis and the protest. It captures a major protest in Athens following the 2009 financial crisis of the Greek state.)

Spatial patterns in the US

Here are four interesting graphics representing different kinds of activity in the United States.  The top panel represents population concentrations across the United State.  The second image is air traffic across the country, and the third image is internet traffic across the country.  The final image is a photograph of the United States from space at night, showing the concentration of lights across the country.  Basically the images correspond to where people live; where they travel; and where they exchange data.  Unsurprisingly, the maps line up very well.

The most interesting question to consider is not the structure of the networks represented by air travel and internet activity.  The nodes of both air travel and internet traffic line up exactly with the cities and metropolitan areas represented in the population map, and they align well with the concentration of lighted areas in the bottom frame as well.  The patterns of both air travel and internet traffic take the form of a swath extending from the dense eastern corridor of the US (Boston to Washington) to California (San Francisco to San Diego), with Chicago standing out as a significant node in the middle of the country.  This is entirely obvious and predictable; travel and communication follow population density.

Rather, the more interesting question is this: to what extent is there evidence of internet and air traffic at a node that is disproportionately greater than would be expected given the population of that node?  This is the kind of question that drives Saskia Sassen’s classification of cities as local, regional, national,  and global (The Global City: New York, London, Tokyo and Global Networks, Linked Cities).  (Here is an earlier post on Sassen’s work.)

Fundamentally, a city that originates 10 times the volume of internet traffic compared to other cities of similar size is worth looking at in detail.  Its activity level suggest an exceptional concentration of organizations and people that are unusually integrated into global networks of communication and data exchange.  It is a location for knowledge-intensive activity: high-end services, banking, universities; and it is a place with intensive relations to other nodes.  Likewise, a city that originates 5 times as many air-travel passengers as comparably sized cities elsewhere is likely to be a specialized location for business and high-end service activity (or else a population of very dedicated tourists).  In other words, the most interesting feature that these data sets might show us about the economic roles of US cities is not visible in the graphics presented here.

So it would be very interesting to be able to “divide” the activity levels represented by the middle two graphs by the populations represented by the top graph, so we could see which cities in the US are “super data exchangers” and “super travel generators”.  And this would give us an indication of the degree of high-end, knowledge-intensive activity that is concentrated in the place — thereby providing a measure of its importance in the national and global economy.  It is possible, for example, that Ann Arbor or Madison would show up as spikes of internet activity relative to their relatively small populations; and Raleigh-Durham might show up as a spike of air travel relative to population, reflecting an unusual concentration of high-end service businesses in this region.  The above-average data and air-traffic nodes are perhaps the dynamic centers of 21st-century economic activity.

Likewise, it would be interesting to identify the cities that have lower-than-expected levels of travel or internet activity; this would suggest local economies that are somewhat more self-contained and less integrated into the national economy than other locations.  And it would be interesting to see if there are significant pairings among locations for either kind of transaction; for example, is the volume of data exchange between Los Angeles and New York significantly greater than that between New York and Chicago or Boston?  And would this serve as an indicator of the degree of economic and business integration between these specific locations?

These views of the United States are interesting because they allow us to see the country as an inter-connected system of places and activities. They serve as something like a dynamic CT scan of the brain: certain connections between places “light up”, providing an indication of systemic activities that warrant further investigation.

(The middle panel was published in the Harvard Alumni Magazine (link).  The population map comes from Urbanomnibus (link).)

Are social networks fundamental?

There are several natural starting points when we begin thinking seriously about the social world and how it works. For example, we can begin with individual agents and try to understand social patterns as the expression of common features of reasoning and motivation by stylized agents. This is roughly the strategy underway in rational choice theory, neoclassical economics, game theory, and methodological individualism. Or we might begin with an account of group attributes — race, class, gender, ethnicity, religion. This is roughly the way in which Durkheim, Giddens, and Du Bois begin — with a kind of macro-social set of categories in terms of which we attempt to understand social structure and behavior.

The concept of a social network doesn’t fit neatly into either category. It is larger than a collection of individuals, in that we have to specify a set of relationships among individuals in order to define a social network. But it is much more concrete and agent-based than the super-categories of race, class, or gender turn out to be. So my question here is a fundamental one: Is the concept of a social network one of a very small number of concepts that must be invoked in virtually every kind of social explanation? As such, is the concept of a social network, and the associated concepts of concrete social relationships it brings with it, a fundamental component of any satisfactory social ontology?  And does the concept of a social network define a crucial space between the micro and the macro?  (A good recent effort to link social networks theory to an important area of social science research is Mario Diani and Doug McAdam, Social Movements and Networks: Relational Approaches to Collective Action.)

A couple of points are pretty obvious. One is that social networks do in fact constitute a key causal mechanism underlying many social processes. We can explain important features of social and political life by identifying the concrete social networks that exist within the population: the transmission of ideas, knowledge, and styles through a population; the selection of important leaders in government and industry; the effective reach of the state; the course of mobilization within a community around an important issue; and the effectiveness of a terrorist group, to name a few examples. A second point is that networks have specific features of topology and functioning that have causal consequences that are largely independent from the personal characteristics of the people who constitute it. For example, information may travel more quickly through a network of people containing many midsized nodes than one containing just a few mega-hubs. And this structural fact may suffice to explain some social outcomes: for example, this rebellion succeeded (because of rapid transmission of information) whereas that one petered out (because of ineffective communications).

Consider two very different examples of group behavior: synchronized cheering in a stadium and the spread of boycotts in Alabama in the early 1960s. The first case involves no social network at all. Cheerleaders stationed around the field initiate the chant as the noise moves to their part of the stadium, and many fans respond when called. Fan behavior is explained by the fan’s observation of the behavior of other fans and the motions of the cheerleader. The boycotts had a different dynamic. Organizations emerged which set about to mobilize support for the strategy of boycott. Some of this effort took the form of public calls to action. But a larger part of the mobilization occurred through the workings of extended networks of engaged people — ministers, union activists, student organizations, and civil rights groups. And the effectiveness and pattern of dissemination of the call to action depended critically on the scope and structure of each of these networks of networks — networks among leaders of diverse organizations and subordinate networks clustered around each leader. (Doug McAdam describes these processes in detail in Political Process and the Development of Black Insurgency, 1930-1970.)

These examples seem to lead to a couple of observations. One is that social networks are not critical for every form of social action. But the exceptions are pretty simple cases of spontaneous coordination. And second, the example of civil rights mobilization illustrates very clearly why we should expect that social networks are usually crucial. The reason is straightforward: almost all social outcomes require a degree of coordination, communication, and mobilization. A social network is not the only way of bringing these factors about — cheerleaders and television stations can do it too. But the causal importance of social networks is likely to be great in many cases. And for this reason it seems justified to conclude that social networks are in fact fundamental to social explanation.  Likewise, it appears correct to say that they function as bridging mechanisms from micro to macro, in that they help to convey the actions of local agents onto larger social outcomes (and back!).

(Several earlier posts are relevant to this topic: agent-based modeling, transnational protest, ethnic strife.)

Microstructure of strife


Let’s work backwards in thinking about sustained inter-group violence, and begin by considering some of the street-level incidents that constitute a period of violence against or between groups. What factors are necessary to the occurrence of inter-group violence in a region? And how can an understanding of these factors contribute to better strategies of conflict reduction and prevention?

I’m thinking here particularly of ethnic and sectarian violence, including examples like these — periods of violence in Northern Ireland, upsurges of the Intifada, stone-throwing against vehicles of another group, violent ethnic cleansing in Bosnia, violent settler resistance to resettlement in Israel, ultra-orthodox attacks on more secular Jews in Jerusalem, or Hindu violence against Muslim communities in India. A group of teenagers throw rocks at visible members of another religious group. A cell of young men place a fire bomb in a department store in a Protestant area. A mob rages through a Muslim neighborhood, attacking innocent households. A gang of toughs pressures a minority family to move from the majority neighborhood with threats and beatings. What motivates the participants to involve themselves in these violent actions? And what social factors are necessary in order to turn a few violent individuals into a major violent inter-group event?

Quite a few earlier postings are relevant to various aspects of these questions (thread). And, as has been frequently mentioned here, Charles Tilly’s theories of contentious politics are crucial here (Dynamics of Contention, Contentious Performances). Here my interest is in line with the idea of promoting peace: if we understand the dynamics of contention better, perhaps we can do a better job of designing institutions and policies that minimize the occurrence of inter-group strife.

We can begin to analyze these examples by providing some analytical questions: what are the contentious social groups?Are acts of violence spontaneous or orchestrated? Are there contentious organizations providing a degree of stimulus and coordination to the violent acts? Are participants “professionals” or ordinary members of civil society? What is the nature of the grievances that motivate typical participants and stimulate the incidents of violence? What role do media play in the etiology of the outburst of violence? (For example, it is now well understood how radio broadcasts were used to spread ethnic killings in Rwanda.)

Studies of contentious politics can perhaps be summarized along the lines of a small handful of causal components:

  • motivation and mobilization of followers;
  • actions and reach of organizations;
  • availability of resources and opportunities; and
  • existence of social networks.

Who are the followers and what motivates them? What are the organizations that are working towards mobilization for acts of violence? What are the motivations and tactics of leaders of these actions? The role of political entrepreneurs and their private political interests appear to be important factors in the occurrence of ethnic and religious strife. (Atul Kohli offers this kind of analysis of Hindu violence against Muslims in India in Democracy and Discontent: India’s Growing Crisis of Governability.) And finally, what networks of communication and mutual support exist among individuals, leaders, and organizations? (Mario Diani and Doug McAdam have a very interesting recent collection on the latter factor; Social Movements and Networks: Relational Approaches to Collective Action.)

This broad analysis of the components of contention is useful for peace studies because it suggests a number of avenues of strategy and tactics for reducing inter-group violence. Violence requires followers; so reducing the motivations and grievances that ordinary people have to join a violent social group is obviously a positive step. (This pertains to the line of thought expressed in an earlier posting about the relationship between justice and peace.) Violent movements usually require organizations to coordinate and stimulate attacks; so governments and security services can work to disrupt or contain violent organizations. (The multi-decade struggle in the United States against the Ku Klux Klan is an example.) And, symmetrically, people interested in peace can support organizations in the same terrain that reject violence — thus reducing the appeal of violent organizations. Once the centrality of social networks is recognized in the mechanisms of stimulating, spreading, and escalating violence, security agencies can themselves undertake to map out the networks of violence that exist and disrupt them. And the crucial role that resources play in violent mobilization — access to funds, weapons, or media, for example — suggests a strategy of resource denial to the forces of order. The state and other agencies can work to reduce the availability of necessary resources to violent organizations.

It seems apparent that if we are to succeed in reducing social conflict and violence, we need to have a good understanding of the social mechanisms through which these conditions arise. And fortunately, there is a very rich literature on social contention that can be incorporated into the study of the structural conditions of peace.

Social entrepreneurs

Social entrepreneurs are people who want to bring about non-routine projects, collaborations, or organizations where they didn’t previously exist in order to solve a perceived social problem. This is very different from working within an existing organization and using its official resources to bring about a particular result. An example might be a community activist who conceives of a storefront operation providing financial advice to local homeowners facing foreclosure. In order to bring this about, he or she needs to secure financial commitments from some potential partners, recruit expert volunteers from others, and gain cooperation from community neighbors to trust and use the service. And, finally, the project needs to deliver a reasonable percentage of its promised benefits — some number of troubled mortgage holders need to be successful in retaining their homes thanks to the service.

There are examples of highly successful social entrepreneurs everywhere — think of Geoffrey Canada and the creation of the Harlem Children’s Zone (link), Matt and Jessica Flannery and the creation of Kiva, a successful peer-to-peer micro-lending program (link), Father William Cunningham and Eleanor Josaitis and the founding of FocusHope in Detroit (link), or Millard and Linda Fuller, founders of Habitat for Humanity (link). And we don’t have to turn to the high-profile cases to find great examples of skillful social entrepreneurship — every city is home to community leaders and innovators who have created coalitions or organizations that have significantly contributed to solutions for important social problems.

It is interesting to notice that the idea of social entrepreneurship brings in the social in two different ways. Social entrepreneurs are involved in addressing social problems; so the object of the entrepreneurial activity is to enhance some aspect of the public good or to solve a social problem, rather than achieving a private “return on investment”. But second, social entrepreneurship depends on putting together voluntary coalitions among a number of independent social actors in a sustained common effort. A purely private and self-financed effort to provide meals for homeless teenagers would be a laudable effort; but I’m not sure I would call it “social entrepreneurship.” It doesn’t confront the key problem of locating potential partners, engaging them in the project, and sustaining the collaboration over the long term. So a social entrepreneur involves social cooperation at the input side and public goods on the output side.

The question here is a simple one: what are some of the factors that permit some people to be successful in efforts at social entrepreneurship and others strikingly not? There are also other groups of people — those who would never consider the idea of creating a new social project in any circumstances and those who look at social causes as a moment for personal gain, for example. But just consider the well-intentioned actors who undertake to put together a successful coalition for the public good — what distinguishes between those who succeed and those who fail?

A couple of related concepts in the social sciences are immediately relevant to this question — in particular, the concept of social capital and the idea of a social network. Putting the point very intuitively — success in a project of social entrepreneurship is more likely if the agent has more social relationships of trust and confidence with other influential players to bring to bear in the effort. And likewise, he/she is more likely to succeed in some rough proportion to the depth and weight of the social networks within which the agent is located. (Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone : The Collapse and Revival of American Community is one place where the idea of social capital is applied to contemporary society.)

Crudely, the individual’s capacity to make things happen is multiplied by the strength of the organizations he/she can call upon in support of the effort. This point segues to the point about social networks: if the agent is in a position to call upon the support and collaboration of other resource holders as a result of personal and professional relationships, then he/she is more likely to succeed in putting into place the elements needed for establishment of the project.

Let’s apply these points to our community activist. Suppose this individual has developed strong relationships with regional foundations, businesses, semi-governmental organizations, and elected officials. And suppose that these relationships have resulted in a deep reservoir of trust in the activist’s perseverance and integrity. Finally, suppose the agent has a well-developed plan for establishing and maintaining the center with high credibility of success. He/she has a good “business plan” for the social project.

It is believable that this actor is much more likely to succeed than his twin with very weak personal and organizational relationships. Our organizer will have a good chance of persuading these potential partners to make the financial commitments and commitments of engagement needed to put the financial counseling center in place. And if the center is successful over several years, it is also likely that the agent’s fund of trust and confidence will deepen — making the next project even more achievable.

This part of the story concerns the social location of the actor — the networks and organizations the agent can turn to in seeking support for the project. What are the features of personality and character that support and deepen these elements of social capital?

Here are several. Trust and credibility are essential. This is true because the success of the enterprise requires the continuing cooperation of voluntary partners. The agent needs to inspire trust in the partners. And inspiring trust isn’t just a fact about current behavior or a persuasive smile — the agent needs to have a track record of behavior that validates that trust as well.

Second, credible competence is crucial as well. The agent needs to be able to make the case that the project can succeed and that he/she has the skills needed to carry it out. This too depends heavily on one’s history — the best evidence of future competence is demonstrated past competence.

This also implies a third characteristic — a need to be able to communicate clearly and credibly. Simply being a good communicator isn’t enough, but failing to communicate well certainly weakens the likelihood of success in bringing together a durable partnership.

And we can’t overlook the characteristics of originality and imagination. Solving difficult social problems requires new ideas and innovative approaches. So the successful social entrepreneur probably needs to have a focused imagination that permits him/her to conceive of new potential solutions — or at least recognize them when other people invent them.

One wonders, finally, if there is a dimension of empathy and emotional intelligence that plays an important differentiating role among different social actors in this kind of activity. How important is it for the social entrepreneur to be able to understand and express the human importance of the issue? And how important are these skills in sustaining coalitions once they have begun? It seems believable that this is very important indeed.

It appears that social entrepreneurship is ready for some serious academic study, along the lines of studies of private entrepreneurship over the past several decades. Here is a report of a preliminary study of Ashoka fellows in social entrepreneurship (link). And the Center for Social Innovation at Stanford Graduate School of Business offers some interesting examples as well (link).

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.

Are there discrete social mechanisms?

McAdam, Tarrow and Tilly direct our attention to the level of the concrete social mechanisms that recur in many instances of social contention (Dynamics of Contention). They specifically refer to escalation, radicalization, brokerage, and repression as examples of social mechanisms that produce the same effects in the same circumstances, and that concatenate into historical processes and events. To this list I would add my own examples — free-rider problems, norm diffusion, and communications networks.

I wholeheartedly endorse the idea that social explanations need to proceed on the basis of an analysis of underlying social mechanisms. But can this program be carried out in a Mendeleev sort of way — try to discover a “table of elements” of causal mechanisms that aggregate into “molecules” of social contention?

The closer I look at the argument, the more concerned I become about the discreteness and elementality of the items MTT offer as examples. Take brokerage — isn’t this really an umbrella term that encompasses a number of different kinds of negotiation and alliance-formation? So brokerage isn’t analogous to “expansion of ice during freezing” — a clear example of a physical causal mechanism that is homogeneous across physical settings. Brokerage is rather a “family-resemblance” term that captures a number of different instances of collective behavior and agency.

If we find this line of thought somewhat persuasive, it suggests that we need to locate the causal connectedness among social settings at an even deeper micro-level. It is the situation of “agents with interests, identities, networks, allies, and repertoires” that constitutes the causal nexus of social causation on contention — not a set of frozen mid-level groups of behaviors such as brokerage or radicalization. Instead, these mid-level concepts are descriptive terms that allow us to single out some broadly similar components of social contention.

Or in another vocabulary: the level at which we find real causal connections in the social world is the level of the socially situated and socially constituted individual in interaction with other individuals — the perspective of methodological localism (Levels of the Social). This doesn’t undermine causal realism — but it does undermine the idea that there are meso-level “causal mechanisms” such as brokerage that really recur across instances.

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