Reasoning about agents

Rational choice theory usually advances a highly abstract theory of decision-making — utility-maximizing choice among discrete options — and then draws deductive conclusions. But actual human reasoners don’t look much like this abstract ideal. It is interesting to consider how much one can explain while weakening the heroic assumptions about agent rationality. It turns out that it is possible to explain quite a bit of social behavior on the basis of a theory of agency that incorporates only a few qualitative assumptions about practical agency: purposiveness, deliberation, comparison, and choice — without the specific mathematics of utility theory. And this gives a basis for a “practical agency” type of social explanation that doesn’t fall directly under the many criticisms that are offered of formal rational choice theory. And it represents a framework of analysis that corresponds fairly directly to Aristotle’s conception of deliberation.

First, purposiveness. We assume that agents have purposes — states of affairs that they want to bring about. Their actions are intended to bring about their goals. (This is the basic assumption of means-end rationality.)

Second, deliberation. We assume that agents collect information about the courses of action that are feasible in the moment. And they collect information about the likely consequences of the various actions that they are considering. Within a deliberative process they choose an action to pursue.

Third, comparison. We assume that the agent deliberates by considering the advantages and disadvantages of each action (costs and benefits) and the degree to which the possible or probable effects of the choice serve the set of purposes the agent pursues. Further, the agent may compare choices on the basis of the nature of the action itself rather than solely on the basis of consequences — that is, the agent may combine deontological considerations with utilitarian considerations (this represents an element of Kant’s theory of moral decision-making). That is, the agent chooses on the basis of full comparison of the choices.

So far we have described purposive deliberation without invoking utilities. We have invoked the idea of preference in this account, because we have assumed that the agent prefers outcomes that better fulfill his/her purposes. And we have likewise invoked comparison and the idea of “more and less” of something in ranking outcomes. The apparatus of utility theory is one way of articulating or modeling these features — but we are not forced to attribute a full apparatus of utility measurement and aggregation in order to attribute purposiveness and comparison. It will suffice if the agent can judge “X is better than Y in fulfilling my purposes.”

So let’s refer to this less abstract description as a “broad theory of purposive agency”. The question here is a simple one: does this description give us enough to get a social explanation going? I believe that it does, and that this demonstrates that the conception of agents as purposive decision-makers is more durable than any particular formal theory of decision-making.

I support this observation with a single inconclusive illustration. We can reproduce the public goods problem, and the derivation of the rationality of free-riding, using only the comparative resources of the reduced theory of agency. And we can simultaneously prepare a theoretical location for future empirical research for those instances where free-riding does not materialize as expected.

First the derivation of the tendency toward free riding in the presence of public goods. The agent has preferences among the possible outcomes of possible collective action. He/she recognizes that the probability of realizing the collective good is not significantly altered by participation. Agent further recognizes that there is a cost to participation. Agent decides to not participate, based on costs and outcomes: the benefit of participation and non-participation is equal and the cost of participation is greater, so non-participation is preferred.

But now consider what happens when we turn on a deontological component of the comparison. Agent notes that non-participation involves taking unfair advantage of the actions of others. Agent prefers actions that are fair. Agent therefore chooses participation.

Finally, we might further complicate things by allowing that agent allows tradeoffs between the cost-benefit comparison and the deontological comparison. In some instances the weight of fairness prevails and agent chooses the less-good alternative. In other cases the situation reverses. Agent sacrifices minor unfairness and chooses the better outcome.

There are many, many examples of explanations in sociology, anthropology, and history that account for an outcome based on analysis of the situation of deliberation confronting a hypothetical set of purposive agents; and substantial explanations ensue. (As one example, consider Jean Ensminger’s explanation of Kenyan cattle-tending and bride price practices as a solution to a principal-agent problem between cattle owners and cattle tenders; Making a Market: The Institutional Transformation of an African Society.)

What kind of social knowledge does a football coach have?

I am struck by the difference between the football game that I watch, as a not-very-involved fan, and the one that the experienced coach or sportswriter sees. For me the game is a series of fast-moving passes, tackles, runs, interceptions, touchdowns, and athletic movements. But it doesn’t make a lot of sense as a whole — either within a single play or over an extended period of the game. Contrast that with the perceptions of the game by an experienced, expert observer. A football expert sees more than the individual movements; he sees an organized play unfolding; a missed assignment; an opportunistic change-of-plan by the quarterback; and a feature of a game plan that can gradually be inferred. In other words, the expert sees the movements of the players as a complex of strategic behavior, skilled performance, planning, and opportunistic adjustment.

What kind of cognition is this? What is the cognitive difference between the expert and non-expert observer? And how does this relate to social knowledge more generally?

Let’s take the last question first. Observing the football game is a lot like observing many other kinds of complex relational social interactions: a political campaign, a disaster involving hundreds of victims and responders, or a riot. The football game involves coordination among an number of purposive actors; a degree of organizational structure; the design and implementation of plans; processes of communication (successful and unsuccessful); and the ability of actors to respond to each other’s movements on the fly. (To change sports — when Larry Bird stole the inbound pass from Isiah Thomas in the last seconds of a celebrated playoff game against the Pistons, his teammate Dennis Johnson was already streaking to the basket in anticipation of the possibility of a stolen pass; he then made an uncontested layup and won the game.) These are common features of complex social interactions. So the football game is a complex, structured, and layered social event that unfolds over time; and the meaning and causes of particular actions and events are obscure to the casual observer, whereas they are apparent to the expert.

Perceiving the football game as a social event unfolding in time requires more than simply registering the movements of the players on the field. It is necessary to frame these movements within an apperception of the strategies and intentions that lie behind the actions: the attempt to deceive the opponent (fast footwork, the hidden ball trick); the sudden break to the center of the field by the receiver; the quarterback’s effort to buy time until a receiver becomes open. We need to have a basis for saying “what they are doing” that goes beyond a description of the movements and steps taken. And for the expert, a rich framework of understandings of actions, intentions, and strategies is brought to the observation of the particular play. The expert is able to place the actions of the quarterback, the left tackle, and the three receivers into a context of understandable actions and choices; and he is able to discern when something has gone wrong (receiver turned left rather than right, left tackle missed a block, quarterback panicked and threw the ball away …).

I want to suggest that the expert’s perception of the play on the field is a complex but veridical observation of a concrete relational social phenomenon; that it is more akin to perception than to theory formation; and that it reflects a complicated cognitive process through which the expert assembles a lot of knowledge about the game, about the habits and practices of players, about common strategies and tactics — and that all of this gets sized up in a quick apperception of the specific play. Finally, I want to suggest that this apperception is enormously richer than the crude empirical observations that the non-expert makes: “the center seems to have slipped, the pass was complete”.

If this analysis of the situation of the two observers — expert and duffer — is plausible, it has important implications for the knowledge that we have of other, less trivial forms of social interaction. Does the experienced labor organizer have a similar ability to size up a crowded shop floor and see where the stress points are, and who the likely leaders are? Does a field officer in the infantry have the ability to mentally organize the flow of the battle through the fog of war and arrive at a perception of how things are going — and what might work as a tactic for the next day? Does the ethnographer have the ability to put together the social cues that permit him or her to conclude that “there is some angry disagreement among members of the village today”? In each case I suspect that there is a good basis for saying, “yes, this is how observation of complex social situations goes for the expert observer.” And this implies that there is a kind of social knowledge that is analogous to perception even though it involves a very great amount of cognitive construction.

What is a social structure?

Are there such things as “social structures”? In what do they consist? What sorts of social powers do they exercise?

Consider a few candidates: the global trading system, the Federal government, the Chinese peasantry of the 1930s, the English class system, the Indian marriage system, race in the United States, the city of Chicago. Are these items examples of “social structures”?

What are the central assumptions we make in designating something as a social structure? (Note that the term “social structure” can be used in at least two important senses: first, as a causally operative institutional complex (the state or the market as causal social structures), and second, as a description of facets of the organization of society (demographic structure, urban-rural structure, structure of race and ethnicity, income structure). Here I will focus on the first sense of the term.)

Several ideas appear to be core features in our ordinary understanding of this concept. A social structure consists of rules, institutions, and practices. A social structure is socially embodied in the actions, thoughts, beliefs, and durable dispositions of individual human beings. A social structure is effective in organizing behavior of large numbers of actors. A structure is coercive of individual and group behavior. A social structure assigns roles and powers to individual actors. A social structure often has distributive consequences for individuals and groups. A social structure is geographically dispersed. Social structures can cause social outcomes involving both persistence and change.

We might try to reduce these intuitions to a definition: a social structure is a system of geographically dispersed rules and practices that influence the actions and outcomes of large numbers of social actors.

Now back to our original question: do such things exist? Before proceeding to a answer, a few points are evident. Any social entity must possess microfoundations in human mentalities and actions. There is no such thing as a social entity that lacks human embodiment–any more than there are works of art that lacks material embodiment. Social entities “supervene” upon human individuals.

This point also applies to any statements we might make about the putative causal powers of a social entity. So claims about the causal properties of social structures must be supplemented by a theory of the microfoundations of those powers. How does an extended social structure exert influence over the actions of located individuals?

And there is a final parallel point about claims about the geographical scope and coherence of a social entity. If we want to maintain that an entity exercises influence as a coherent and extended entity, we need to be able to specify the mechanisms through which this takes place. How does the Federal state exert its control and influence over the vast scope of the United States and its population?

So, with these qualifications about the unavoidable need for providing microfoundations–are there social structures?

Several of the instances offered above fit the terms of our provisional definition. They are large complexes of rules and practices that influence behavior and outcomes. And it is straightforward to begin to provide a description of the microfoundations upon which they exist: the social components through which these structures are embodied and through which they exercise influence on individuals and groups. The US Federal Government functions as a system of branches of government, each with its own departments governed by formal and informal rules. And the “reach” of the state down to the local and individual level is secured by the socially implemented forms of power that are locally expressed (bank inspectors, law enforcement agencies, tax auditors, …).

This is an example of a large social structure that operates through a high degree of formal institutionalization. But some of the examples mentioned above depend primarily on informal mechanisms — the workings of widespread beliefs and attitudes, along with a diffused willingness of individuals to “enforce” the requirements of the structure. Structures relying primarily on informal mechanisms include the Indian marriage system or the English class system.

Is “race” a structure in American society? Plainly it possesses some of the key elements identified above. The reality of race leads to an uneven distribution of opportunities and outcomes, so “race” is a social fact with distributive consequences. It has the element of coercion: racial prejudice and patterns of discrimination are imposed on individuals without an “opt-out” possibility. And we can identify many of the social mechanisms through which race and racial discrimination work; so the category possesses microfoundations. Today many of those mechanisms are “informal” rather than “formal”; but of course the legal institutionalization of racial discrimination is a recent fact in American history. So “race” is a structural feature of American society.

Several of the examples mentioned above appear to fall outside the category of social structure, however; for example, “Chinese peasantry”. These examples appear to be large factors that play a role in large social structures, but are more akin to elements than systems. So the structure that defines “Chinese peasantry” is the system of property, agriculture, and kinship that defines the peasant’s role and opportunities in society; the category of “peasant” identifies one node within that system or structure.

What about “the city of Chicago”? Is this a structure or some other category of social entity? I am inclined to say that the city of Chicago is a complex social entity, not a structure. It falls within a variety of structures in America and the world–the global trading system, the electoral process, and the politics of national funding for large cities; and it embodies within it a variety of smaller structures–the public school system, lending practices, nepotism. But the city itself does not function as a regulative system coordinating the activities of large numbers of individuals. Rather, it is a complex social entity composed of a mix of social practices, behaviors, systems, and relationships.

Variation across a social identity

What does possession of a social identity come down to, for the individual? And how do identities vary across the population of people who possess this identity?

First, let us stipulate that an identity is a feature of consciousness, an aspect of mentality. And let us stipulate further that an identity comes to one as a result of one’s experiences in the world, and one’s attempt to make sense of those experiences. These assumptions are not indisputable — it might be maintained that one can be unaware of one’s social identity, or that one’s social identity is constituted by one’s position in society (a structural fact rather than a fact about one’s experience). But these are credible beginnings.

Next, it is clear that an identity is not one unified element of consciousness–an ineffable but uniform sense of being “Irish,” “Southern”, or “Hindu”. Instead, an identity must be more like a flavor or a scent: a complex but distinctive blend of more basic elements (tastes or smells). This feature already implies several broad forms of differentiation across an identity group: the mix of elements may be different (a little rosemary blended into the scent of a rose), and there may be differences in the intensities of various elements in the mix.

What are the components of which an identity is composed? Here are some plausible candidates: memories and stories, values, emotions, ways of reasoning, factual beliefs, a sense of justice. (Notice that some of these are content and some are mental process–beliefs versus reasoning, for example). Presumably there are other components that should be considered; but these will do for now.

Where do these elements come from for the individual? Through learning and lived experience. One’s rich and intimate experience of living with others — family, friends, neighbors — who possess values and who tell stories about “who we are” is a thick form of personal development. And one’s own experience of the values and emotions of others — the experience of racism and discrimination if one is black and gay — is a powerful catalyst for shaping one’s view of the world. This experience shapes one’s values, sense of justice, and key memories.

Now return to the question of variation across a group. It is clear that an identity shaped along these lines will show great variation across individuals. Each individual’s experiences are somewhat different. And each person will process those experiences somewhat differently. What makes an identity a socially shared identity is the fact that some groups have a high degree of commonality of experience — both through exposure to the prior generation and through one’s own experiences in everyday life. But at the same time it is apparent that there will be substantial variation in values, memories, narratives, and styles of thought within the identity group. So the social identity of being “Latino”, “Polish”, or “disabled” should not be expected to be a uniform and homogeneous feature of consciousness. The metaphors of “flavor” and “patchwork” serve us better.

This brings us to a preliminary conclusion: social identities should be expected to show significant variation across individuals.

[It is intriguing to note that it would be possible to pursue this theory of the psychological constitution of a social identity by trying to measure and map the variations of the components across a population. Opinion surveys would permit measurement of the distribution of certain diagnostic values and judgments of injustice, for example. We could then ask questions like these: Are these characteristics correlated within the population? Do some variables show more variance than others? How do these distributions of the variables compare with those of the general population?]

(See Mentalités, Identities, and Practices for more on this subject.)

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