Poverty and economics

How important should the subject of poverty be within the discipline of economics? Some economists appear to think it is a very small issue compared to the magnificent mathematics of general equilibrium theory. Others believe that economics should fundamentally be about the sources of human well-being and misery, and that understanding poverty is absolutely fundamental for economics. How should we try to sort this out?

Among the contemporary economists who have given the greatest attention to poverty and deprivation, Amartya Sen and Jean Dreze are particularly outstanding. Their research on well-being, quality of life, and hunger set a standard for the point of view that says that life quality and deprivation need to be at the top of the list of economic research goals. Here I’m thinking of books like Inequality ReexaminedPoverty and Famines: An Essay on Entitlement and Deprivation, and Hunger and Public Action.

The neoclassical free market purists stand at the other end of the garden.  The economists of the Chicago School put primary emphasis on the beneficent effects of untrammeled market behavior, and they give little attention to the “market imperfections” that poverty and deprivation represent. (The word “poverty” does not occur in the index of John Van Overtveldt’s good intellectual history of the Chicago School, The Chicago School: How the University of Chicago Assembled the Thinkers Who Revolutionized Economics and Business.) Poverty seems to be viewed as a normal and fair result of the workings of market institutions: some people make large contributions and earn high income, and others make small or zero contributions and earn low income.

The closing chapter of Milton Friedman’s Capitalism and Freedom is entitled “The Alleviation of Poverty.” Here Friedman admits that poverty is a problem, but conceives of only two solutions: private charity (which he agrees will not work in a large complex society) and direct transfers from tax revenues to payments to the poor (which is limited by the willingness of citizens to provide taxes for this purpose). The mechanism he prefers is a negative income tax: persons with incomes below a given threshold would receive payments determined by their income levels. “In this way, it would be possible to set a floor below which no man’s net income (defined now to include the subsidy) could fall” (192).

What this analysis leaves out is any consideration of the economic mechanisms that produce poverty within an affluent society, and how institutions could be adjusted so that poverty and inequality tended to fall over time as a consequence of the normal workings of economic institutions. Take race in America, for example — a set of institutions that many observers see as being crucial mechanisms in the production of urban poverty. Writing in 1962, Friedman argues that racial discrimination in employment is essentially impossible within a competitive market system (link). But we now understand the geography and social structuring of poverty much better. Racial segregation in housing has not disappeared; it has only worsened. Low-quality and ineffective schools are concentrated in low-income and racially segregated neighborhoods, so poor people have reduced educational opportunities. Access to jobs is also constrained by geography and educational opportunity. (Here is a recent post on the mechanisms of racial disparities; link). So it seems clear that our economy systematically reproduces poverty in inner cities rather than reducing it. And the situation of rural poverty is not substantially better.

This all has to do with the dynamics of income at the bottom end. But we have also seen persistent widening of income at the top end. American capitalism has produced ever-widening inequalities of income for at least the past forty years. Consider these two graphs of income by percentile provided by Lane Kenworthy:

(Source: Lane Kenworthy, Consider the Evidence blog (link))

So the idea that a properly functioning market economy will tend to reduce poverty and narrow the extremes of income inequality has been historically refuted — at least in the case of American capitalism.

It is apparent that the ills of poverty are debilitating to the families who experience it; their quality of life is dramatically lower than it needs to be in an affluent society. So that is one reason for economists to give higher priority to the study of the mechanisms and structures that reproduce poverty in the United States. But there is a more systemic reason as well: if 15% of all Americans live in poverty (46 million people), and if 22% of children live in poor households (16 million children), this implies a huge drain on the productive capacity of the American economy. Education, health, and inclusion are important components of economic growth; and each of these is harmed by the persistence of poverty. So economists ought to be in the lead when it comes to placing a priority on poverty research.

We need to have a much more systematic understanding of the institutions and structures through which access to income and the necessities of life is created. And this implies that the mainstream might be well advised to take counsel from structuralist economists like Lance Taylor. Here is how Taylor describes the intellectual foundations of structuralist macroeconomics in Reconstructing Macroeconomics: Structuralist Proposals and Critiques of the Mainstream:

In the North Atlantic literature, structuralism’s intellectual foundations lie within a complex described by labels such as [original, neo-, post-]-[Keynesian, Kaleckian, Ricardian, Marxian] which nonmainstream economists have adopted; numerous variants exist in developing countries as well. The fundamental assumption of all these schools is that an economy’s institutions and distributional relationships across its productive sectors and social groups play essential roles in determining its macro behavior. (1)

This emphasis on study of the concrete institutions embodied in a given economy, and the distributive characteristics that these create, seems like a very good starting point for arriving at a better understanding of the economic foundations of poverty than we currently have.

(Here is a post on some of the approaches to this kind of economic research taken by contemporary alternative economists.)

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Unexpected linkages

One of the things that I find most interesting in social development is the discovery of unexpected linkages between innovations in one field and outcomes in another. 

Here is a somewhat hypothetical example. Improvement of long distance banking transactions in Qing China produces an increase in the frequency of rebellion. How so? Because the long distance transport of merchant silver created a sub-culture of rural bandits preying on merchant travelers. The creation of letters of credit reduced these opportunities, and under-employed bandit gangs were more easily recruited into rebel forces. (This corresponds loosely to arguments offered by Liz Perry in Rebels and Revolutionaries in North China, 1845-1945 concerning the dialectic between predation and rebellion, though I’ve speculated a bit about the banking part.)

The general idea here is that large changes in social systems of interaction — roads, railways, telegraph systems, etc. — often create new opportunities for social actors that were not anticipated by designers but that have large social consequences.

Here are some examples of these kinds of effects. Discovery of diamonds in a region leads to severe deforestation (as diamonds stimulate violent conflict, leading to large refugee flows, leading to new destructive uses of forests). Extension of trolleys in the Boston suburbs leads to an increase in the frequency of spikes in disease mortality (as carriers move around the region more frequently). Growth of the electric power grid in Pennsylvania results in a decline in church attendance (as young people find other social options in well-lit towns and cities).

I am led to think about these kinds of effects because of the rapidity of system change in China today. The train system, the extension of video surveillance, changes in social security provisions, the ever-growing population of internal migrants — all these processes are likely to have unexpected and novel consequences. And as complexity theory tells us, systems with multiple interlinked causal processes are vulnerable to abrupt changes of state as causal factors stimulate unexpected behaviors. This is familiar in ecological research, but it seems equally applicable to the social world.

One consequence of this line of thought is that we need to be cautious about predictions of the future that depend on smooth extrapolations of existing trends. In the case of China, perhaps the most confident prediction we can make is that there will be many surprises in the coming decades.

New thinking about agency and structure

The social sciences have chosen up sides around a number of dichotomies — quantitative versus qualitative research methods, macro versus micro, ethnographic versus causal. A dichotomy that spans many of the social sciences is the opposition of structure versus agency. “Structures” are said to be the objective complexes of social institutions within which people live and act. “Agents” are said to be human deliberators and choosers who navigate their life plans in an environment of constraints.  If structure and agent are considered to be ontologically distinct levels, then we have a series of difficult questions to confront.  For example: Which has causal priority?  Are structures determinative of social outcomes, with agents merely playing their roles within these structures?  Or are agents the drivers of social causation, and structures are merely secondary effects of individual-level actions and states of consciousness?  Are features of structures reducible or explicable in terms of the actions and characteristics of individuals?  Or, possibly, are the behavioral characteristics of individuals merely the consequence of the social structures they inhabit?

The contrast goes back to the founders, including Marx, Durkheim, and Weber.  And authors such as Anthony Giddens, Maurice Godelier, and Pierre Bourdieu provided second-generation refinements.  But new ideas have come forward in the past decade that merit reconsideration.

Some of this new thinking is contained in Peter Martin and Alex Dennis, eds., Human Agents and Social Structures. Here is a thumbnail of the approach taken by this group of philosophers and sociologists.

[The current book’s] aim is to be an intervention which seeks to make the case that structural, system, or holistic approaches to the understanding of social life and the explanation of human action are fundamentally misconceived — as, equally, are efforts which rest on individualistic assumptions. In essence, our view is that human social life is conducted in and through patterns of collaborative interaction: sociologically, our interest is thus not in the subjectivity of individuals but in the ways in which intersubjectivity is achieved and maintained. (7)

This group of researchers addresses the contrast between agency and structure; but really their goal is to help to dissolve the distinction.  They want to show that “structures” do not exist in any strong sense (including the senses associated with critical realism), and that a proper understanding of “agency” involves both subjective and objective features of the individual’s actions, thoughts, and situation.  Social relationships are densely intertwined with reasons, emotion, commitments, beliefs, and attitudes — the aspects of consciousness that make up agency and action.

Here is a representative statement about social structures:

The collective concepts (such as family, state, organisation, class and so on) — which have often been seen as fundamental to sociological analysis — have often encouraged ‘the temptation to reify collective aspects of human life’ (Jenkins 2002a:4); that is, to treat them as if they were real entities, independent of the human beings who constiTute them. (7)

Their affirmative theory of agency — now stripped of the notion that it is a polar opposite to structure — has much in common with the traditions of micro-sociology — Goffman, ethnomethodology, symbolic interactionism, and phenomenological sociology.  The idea here is to emphasize the very concrete ways in which each of these traditions succeeds in identifying the agent, the social actor, as both subjective and objective.  He/she is a subject, in the sense that the agent possesses thoughts, emotions, desires, aversions, allegiances, and the like, which in turn contribute to the actions and lives they live.  But the agent is objective, in the sense that he/she is embedded and developed within a concrete set of social relationships and institutions.

Thus each of these approaches develops in its own way the idea that human social life is carried out through processes of interaction among real people in specific situations, and each seeks to avoid the reification of collective concepts — there are no such ‘things’ as social ‘structures,’ ‘classes’, or indeed ‘societies’, yet terms such as these are indispensable, not only for sociologists but for the purposes of everyday communication. (14)

Martin and Dennis quote Anthony King with approval: “human agency is a collective product, germinated with others and dependent upon the social networks in which we al exist.  Human agency is better understood as the collective product of social relations … than as an autonomous individual power” 14).

So is there space within this view of sociology for investigation of “macro” features of society?  They argue that there is, but not as an autonomous domain:

There is nothing in the perspective developed here that would prevent the investigation of social phenomena conventionally described in terms of ‘macro’ structures. But what we are suggesting is that, for example, the ‘class structure’ must be conceived as the outcome of stratifying processes and practices, many of which — like the grading of students’ work or the awarding of educational credentials — may appear to be routine and mundane.  This interactionist sociologists have investigated the processes through which social class differences in educational attainment are produced. (15)

One reason I’m intrigued by the approaches taken to this aspect of social ontology by the contributors to Human Agents and Social Structures is that these approaches seem to converge with the ideas about “methodological localism” that I’ve been drawn to as a bottom-level description of social ontology (link).  On this approach, neither “structure” nor “agent” can be specified in its own terms alone; rather, we need to base our social concepts on the socially situated and socially constituted individual, located within a set of locally manifest social relations (linklink).  So we cannot separate agency and social location (structure); rather, the fundamental unit of social activity involves both aspects.

 

Norbert Elias on the individual

Norbert Elias opens his 1987 book The Society of Individuals with these words:

The relation of the plurality of people to the single person we call the “individual”, and of the single person to the plurality, is by no means clear at present. But we often fail to realize that it is not clear, and still less why. We have the familiar concepts “individual” and “society”, the first of which refers to the single human being as if he or she were an entity existing in complete isolation, while the second usually oscillates between two opposed but equally misleading ideas. Society is understood either as a mere accumulation, an additive and unstructured collection of many individual people, or as an object existing beyond individuals and incapable of further explanation. In this latter case the words available to us, the concepts which decisively influence the thought and action of people growing up within their sphere, make it appear as if the single human being, labelled the individual, and the plurality of people conceived as society, were two ontologically different entities.

This Preface was written around the time of the publication of the volume in 1987; but the core of the book was originally written in the context of the composition of Elias’s 1939 book, The Civilizing Process: Sociogenetic and Psychogenetic Investigations.  So the ideas expressed in the primary essay of the book belong to the classic period of the development of his thought.

What is striking about this paragraph is Elias’s insistence, essentially, that we don’t know what we are referring to when we use the terms “individual” and “society.”  He rejects the twin views of “individualism” and “holism”, and he wants to arrive at a conception of “individual/society” that avoids the polarity between the two.

I interpret Elias’s analysis here in a way that roughly parallels the intuition I was grappling with in formulating the idea of “methodological localism” (link).  Fundamentally, the idea is that we can’t take the individual out of society or society out of the individual; instead, we begin with the socialized individual and build up more complex social processes and structures.  Here is a passage from the Preface that anticipates this idea of the socially constructed individual:

The entire stock of social patterns of self-regulation which the individual has to develop within himself or herself in growing up into a unique individual, is generation-specific and thus, in the broader sense, society-specific. My work on the civilizing process therefore showed me very clearly that something which did not arouse shame in an earlier century could be shameful in a later one, and vice versa – I was well aware that movements in the opposite direction were also possible.  But no matter what the direction, the evidence of change made clear to what extent individual people are influenced in their development by the position at which they enter the flow of the social process. (viii)

So individuals are socially and historically constructed; there is no such thing as the “pre-social” or “extra-social” individual.  Here is another statement of this point:

At birth individual people may be very different through their natural constitutions. But it is only in society that the small child with its malleable and relatively undifferentiated mental functions is turned into a more complex being. Only in relation to other human beings does the wild, helpless creature which comes into the world become the psychologically developed person with the character of an individual and deserving the name of an adult human being. (21)

But there are also dynamic and individuating features of societies; societies are distinct in ways that ultimately derive from the characteristics of existing individuals:

Society, as we know, is all of us; it is a lot of people together. But a lot of people together in India and China form a different kind of society than in America or Britain; the society formed by many individual people in Europe in the twelfth century was different from that in the sixteenth or the twentieth century. And although all these societies certainly consisted and consist of nothing other than many individuals, the change from one form of living together to another was clearly unplanned by any of these individuals.  (3)

What we lack – let us freely admit it – are conceptual models and an overall vision by which we can make comprehensible in thought what we experience daily in reality, by which we could understand how a large number of individuals form with each other something that is more and other than a collection of separate individuals – how they form a “society”, and how it comes about that this society can change in specific ways, that it has a history which takes a course which has not been intended or planned by any of the individuals making it up. (7)

And here is how Elias suggests that we commonly think about social reality:

One section of people approaches sociohistorical formations as if they had been designed, planned and created, as they now stand before the retrospective observer, by a number of individuals or bodies. … The opposing camp despises this way of approaching historical and social formations. For them the individual plays no part at all. … A society is conceived, for example, as a supra-individual organic entity which advances ineluctably towards death through stages of youth, maturity and age. (4-5)

It appears that Elias frames a false dichotomy here when he asks how society came about: either specific individuals planned and intended that social institutions should have specific functions, or a society is a whole that possesses its own dynamics of development.  But there is a third possibility: social institutions have their current characteristics because of the actions and choices of countless individuals; but these characteristics are largely the unintended consequence of the strategic interactions among many individuals.  So individual agency lies behind social institutions and structures; but these agents are usually operating within the framework of a limited set of goals and beliefs that have nothing to do with the eventual shape of the social institution.

So we need to follow Elias’s suggestion and look for new metaphors for understanding the relation between “society” and “individual.”  We need metaphors that work better for the third option — society as the unintended assemblage of many strategic activities of individuals.  Here is one: we might think of a social institution as a potlach supper rather than a seven-course meal designed by a chef.  Or, to use a metaphor explored in an earlier posting, we can understand society along the lines of a flea market: a somewhat orderly affair that derives from the separate and sometimes coordinated actions of hundreds of participants (link).  And in fact, Elias actually uses a similar metaphor:

And even in each present moment, people are in more or less perceptible motion. What binds the individuals together is not cement. Think only of the bustle in the streets of a large city: most of the people do not know each other. They have hardly anything to do with each other. They push past each other, each pursuing his or her own goals and plans. They come and go as it suits them. Parts of a whole? The word “whole” is certainly out of place, at least if its meaning is determined solely by a vision of static or spatially closed structures, by experiences like those offered by houses, works of art or organisms. (13)

Here is another interesting metaphor that Elias explores as a way of capturing “the social” — the complex intertwining of behavior in formal dance.

Let us imagine as a symbol of society a group of dancers performing court dances, such as the frangaise or quadrille, or a country round dance. The steps and bows, gestures and movements made by the individual dancer are all entirely meshed and synchronized with those of other dancers. If any of the dancing individuals were contemplated in isolation, the functions of his or her movements could not be understood. The way the individual behaves in this situation is determined by the relations of the dancers to each other. (19)

But within the bustle of the street or the coordination of the dance there is an underlying order (just as we found in thinking about the flea market analogy):

The invisible order of this form of living together, that cannot be directly perceived, offers the individual a more or less restricted range of possible functions and modes of behaviour. By his birth he is inserted into a functional complex with a quite definite structure; he must conform to it, shape himself in accordance with it and perhaps develop further on its basis. (14)

And this order poses a problem for individualism:

This network of functions within a human association, this invisible order into which individual purposes are constantly being introduced, does not owe its origin simply to a summation of wills, a common decision by many individual people. (15)

But here the false dichotomy mentioned above is important.  It doesn’t take an announced master plan to create a peasant militia or an age-specific practice of dating and courtship; rather, a series of opportunistic choices are made over time, by a number of different actors, leading to an institution that has characteristics that were intended by no one (see illustrations in Elizabeth Perry, Rebels and Revolutionaries in North China, 1845-1945).

This is an interesting and important contribution to the philosophy of society.  I’m inclined to think, though, that Elias does a better job of situating the “socialized, civilized individual” than he does in conceptualizing the social institution or structure.  There is a persistent structural-functionalism in the language, and a persistent attempt to attribute intentional design to social institutions, that fail to deliver on the promise of arriving at a better way of understanding both aspects of the “individual-society” relationship.

Great structures?



The scholars of the Annales school of French history characteristically placed their analysis of historical change within the context of the large structures — economic, social, or demographic — within which ordinary people live out their lives. They postulate that the broad and enduring social relations that exist in a society — for example, property relations, administrative and political relations, or the legal system — constitute a stable structure within which agents act, and they determine the distribution of crucial social resources that become the raw materials on the basis of which agents exercise power over other individuals and groups. So the particular details of a social structure create the conditions that set the stage for historical change in the society. (The recently translated book by André Burguière provides an excellent discussion of the Annales school; The Annales School: An Intellectual History.)

The Annales school also put forward a concept that applies to the temporal structure of historical change: the idea that some historical changes unfold over very long periods of time and are all but invisible to participants — the history of the longue durée. So large enduring structures, applying their effects over very long periods of historical time, provided a crucial part of the historical imagination of the Annales school.

Marc Bloch’s own treatment of French feudalism illustrates a sustained analysis of a group of great structures enduring centuries over much of the territory of France (Feudal Society: Vol 1: The Growth and Ties of Dependence), as does Le Roy Ladurie’s treatment of the causes of change and stasis in Languedoc in The Peasants of Languedoc. Fernand Braudel’s Civilization and Capitalism, 15th-18th Century, Vol. I: The Structure of Everyday Life represents another clear example of historical research organized around analysis of great structures. And though not a member of the Annales school, I would include M. I. Finley’s treatment of the ancient economy as another important example (The Ancient Economy); Finley attempts to trace out the features of property, economy, and political and military power through which ordinary life and historical change proceeded in the ancient world. But there is an important difference among the several works: Bloch, Braudel, and Finley represent an analysis of these structures as a whole, while Le Roy Ladurie’s work largely attempts to explain features of life over a very long time that show the imprint of such structures. One is macrohistory, while the other is microhistory.

What are some examples of putative “great structures”? There are several that readily come to mind: a nation’s economic system, its system of law, legislation, and enforcement; its system of government, taxation, and policy-making, its educational system, religious organizations and traditions, the composite system of organizations that exist within civil society, and the norms and relations of the family.

The scope of action matters here; the background assumption is that a great structure encompasses a large population and territory. (So we would not call the specific marriage customs that govern a small group of Alpine villages but extend no further a “great structure.”) And it is further assumed that the hypothesized structure possesses a high degree of functional continuity and integration; there are assumed to be concrete social processes that assure that the structure works in roughly the same way throughout its scope to regulate behavior.

The idea of a “great structure” thus requires that we attend to the contrast between locally embodied institutions showing significant variation across time and space, and the supposedly more homogeneous workings of “great structures.” We need to be able to provide an account of the extended social mechanisms that establish the effects and stability of the great structure. If we cannot validate these assumptions about scope, continuity, and functional similarity, then the concept of a “great structure” collapses onto a concatenation of vaguely similar institutions in different times and places.

To fit the bill, then, a great structure should have some specific features of scope and breadth. It should be geographically widespread, affecting a large population. It should have roughly similar characteristics and effects on behavior in the full range of its scope. And it should be persistent over an extended period of time — decades or longer.

The most basic question is this: are there great structures? On the positive side, it is possible to identify social mechanisms that secure the functional stability of certain institutions over a large reach of territory and time. A system of law is enforced by the agents of the state; so it is reasonable to assume that there will be similar legal institutions in Henan and Sichuan when there is an effective imperial government. A system of trading and credit may have centrally enforced and locally reinforcing mechanisms that assure that it works similarly in widely separated places. A normative system regulating marriage may be stabilized by local behaviors over a wide space. The crucial point here is simply this: if we postulate that a given structure has scope over a wide range, we need to have a theory of some of the social mechanisms that convey its power and its reproduction over time.

So the existence of great structures is ambiguous. Yes—in that there are effective institutions of politics, economics, and social life that are real and effectual within given historical settings, and we have empirical understanding of some of the mechanisms that reproduce these structures. But no—in that all social structures are historically rooted; so there is no “essential” state or economy which recurs in different settings. Instead, political and economic structures may be expected to evolve in different historical settings. And a central task of historical research is to discover both the unifying dynamics and the differentiating expressions which these abstract processes take in different historical settings.

The sociology of class


According to the traditional definition, a class is defined in relation to the broad structure of the property system. A group of people belong to the same class when they occupy the same position within the property system governing labor, physical assets, and perhaps intangible assets such as knowledge or money. This is a structural definition of the concept of class. In nineteenth-century France we might have classified the population into land owners, capital owners, wage laborers, artisans, professionals (accountants, architects), intellectuals, government officials, civil service workers, small merchants, smallholding farmers, tenant farmers, landless workers, and lumpenproletariat. And these groups can be roughly triangulated according to their ownership of three major elements: labor power, valuable skills and knowledge, and economic assets (land, property, wealth).

Another way of putting the point is to ask: where does the individual gain his/her income — from the sale of labor time, from the sale or rent of physical assets, or from the sale or rent of expertise? Workers derive their income from the sale of their labor time; capitalists, financiers, and landlords derive their income from their ownership of physical and financial resources, and professionals, experts, and intellectuals derive their income from their possession of scarce expert knowledge and skills. (That’s Pierre-Joseph Proudhon pictured above by Courbet, an intellectual in artisanal garb.)

So we might capture nineteenth-century French social reality from this point of view along these lines:

Of course, things can be classified according to any principle we might offer. So the value of a particular classification must be justified in terms of the explanatory or causal work that it does. The explanatory thrust of the theory of class goes along the lines of a sociological hypothesis: people who have a similar location within a system of property relations will also develop other important similarities: similarities of thought, values, style, behavior, and politics, for example. And so Marx believed that structurally-defined classes of people were likely to further develop a similar class consciousness — a similar framework of thought in terms of which they understand the social forces around them; and he expected that classes of people would come to share a signature framework of political motivation — a set of ideas, interpretations, and values that would motivate them to engage in collective action together.

This is where the substantive sociology of class comes in; in order to provide credibility for this set of expectations about class consciousness and political motivation, we need to have some ideas about the concrete sociological mechanisms that might plausibly lead from “common position in the property relations” to “common forms of consciousness and political motivation.” And here there are quite a few things that can be said — both by Marx in the 1850s and contemporary observers in the 2000s. First, a common position in the property relations often implies a number of concrete similarities of experience across individuals — common features of the workplace, common neighborhoods in cities, common experiences in the system of schooling that is in place. These kinds of shared social positions suggest two things: first, a common process of shaping through which perceptions and motivations develop in each individual; and second, a common reality that individuals who experience these environments are likely to be able to perceive. It is highly plausible that a group of men and women who have spent their lives in a nineteenth century textile factory while living in a concentrated workers’ slum, will have developed a similar consciousness and social style from the discipline and work processes of the factory and their shared social associations in their neighborhoods.

So miners in Wales or northern Michigan are exposed to similar work environments; similar firms and styles of management; and similar life outcomes that might be expected to create a “miner’s consciousness” and a miner’s political mentality. Smallholding wine growers across the landscape of nineteenth century France are exposed to similar natural, social, and economic circumstances that are likely to shape the development of their personalities and worldviews, that are in turn likely to create an ideal-typical “wine grower” who fairly accurately represents the worldview and behavior of wine growers.

Second, there is a fact that is more apparent today than it was to nineteenth-century sociological observers, that has to do with what we now understand about social networks and social capital. Common locations of work and residence make it highly likely that occupational groups (miners, architects, professors) will fall within sharply distinguished sets of social networks, and they will have access to different combinations of social capital (civic organizations, religious groups, secret societies). And the consciousness and political behavior of an individual is surely influenced in very profound ways by each of these social categories — networks and social capital. So the fact of similarities in these respects is likely to give rise to similarities in consciousness and action as well.

And, of course, there is the fact of the social reality of exploitation in each of these circumstances: miners and wine growers are subject to coercive social relations that succeed in separating them from a substantial portion of the fruits of their labors. Coal miners will identify the profit-driven mine owners as the source of their exploitation and wine growers may identify the wine jobbers who buy their product cheaply and sell it dearly in the cities as the source of their exploitation. But each group comes to recognize the social reality of the property relations through which their productive labor is “expropriated” by other powerful forces. Recognition of the fact of exploitation is a key component of the process of the formation of class consciousness.

So it seems plausible to suppose that there are identifiable social mechanisms through which occupational groups come to have shared worldviews and similar political behaviors. But the theory of class asserts more than this; it asserts that wage laborers in many occupations will come to recognize themselves as fundamentally similar to workers in other occupations. The theory of class postulates a sociology of “escalation” of class identity, from the particular occupation, work group, and neighborhood to the larger (and more abstract) class that encompasses many occupations and work groups in widely separated locations. So, it is postulated, fast food workers, auto workers, and air traffic controllers will come to identify together, not simply as a set of occupational groups, but as an extended group of “persons who are forced to sell their labor to capital in order to satisfy life needs.” And, further, the theory postulates that it will be possible for a strong form of group solidarity to emerge across this fairly heterogeneous and physically separated set of occupational groups.

It isn’t entirely clear what the sociological mechanisms are supposed to be that facilitate this escalation of class identity, however. Classical Marxism depends heavily on the idea of a party and a group of activists who do the “class education” that leads workers from a narrowly parochial view of their situation to one that encompasses the common situation of wage labor. But this depends on a fairly sizable historical coincidence — the emergence of a militant and disciplined class-based party. And it is very hard to see how non-planned forms of sociological change might lead to this escalation — hard to see, that is, how air traffic controllers, McDonalds workers, and steel workers might spontaneously come to regard each other as belonging to a single class subject to exploitation by another abstractly defined class.

Moreover, it is very apparent today that there are multiple axes around which collective identities can form. Kinship relations in southern China cut across structural class relations, and it is certainly possible that the Li clan will have a stronger sense of identity than the landless workers — even though the Li clan contains both landlords, peasant farmers, and landless workers. Religious affinities may be mobilized as a source of collective identity — again, with the likelihood of creating groups that cut across class lines.

So this line of thought suggests that there is a fairly large gap in the theory of class in even its application to the nineteenth-century case: the problem of how to explain the postulated escalation of consciousness from the particular work group and occupation to the more general category, “working class.”

This leaves for another posting the most important question: to what extent is the theory of class relevant to 21st-century society? To what extent can American political conflicts, perceptions, parties, and movements be explained on the basis of occupational and class identities? To what extent do the most important fissures in our society derive from economic conflicts that can be assimilated to the theory of class?

System tendencies?


A central theme of many of the posts here is the contingency, heterogeneity, and path dependency of social processes. I used the metaphor of a “constrained random walk” in an earlier posting to characterize many social processes. This figure is intended to stand in contrast to the idea of an inevitable development towards an optimum or equilibrium point, on the one hand, or the idea of an inevitable system failure, on the other.

The idea here is this: from starting point A, there are numerous possible states of affairs Oi that might be reached over an extended period of time. There is no sense in which the course from A to the actual historical outcome Om is inevitable or unique. (From the starting point of Europe in 1910, including the social, political, and economic realities of the nations of Europe, multiple outcomes were accessible by the time of 1920: exhausting war, emergence of new and effective international organizations that sustained the peace, inspired just-in-time diplomacy bringing hostilities to an early termination, …). Each of the pathways leading from A to Oi might be individually explicable, in terms of the situations of structure and agency that were present during the period of development. Virtually every point in the “space” of outcomes would be accessible, although some outcomes might be substantially less likely than others. Along the way there are likely to be cul-de-sacs; but in the aggregate, the space of possible outcomes from many historical starting points covers the full sphere of possibilities. Putting the point crudely, you can get anywhere from anywhere.

This conception emphasizes deep contingency in social change. But what about the symmetrical facts of “constraint” and “imperative” — the limitations imposed by existing institutions and organizations at any specific stage and the positive impulses to change that are often embodied in the incentive structures of existing institutions? Is the contingency of social events to some extent reduced by the relative durability of existing core social institutions? Is there such a thing as a “logic of institutions” that is embodied in a particular configuration of core social institutions, with the result that societies embodying these institutions will be most likely to develop in one way rather than another?

This description lies at the heart of Marx’s analysis of social systems as modes of production. Marx believed that the core institutions that defined the property system, the system of labor control, and the distribution of wealth have deep effects on individual agency, leading and constraining agents to behave in ways that lead in the aggregate to certain kinds of social outcomes. Modes of production have system tendencies that can be inferred from their basic institutional features. A particularly clear example is his analysis of the “law” of the falling rate of profit within capitalism: firms are required to maximize profits; they have the opportunity of introducing capital-intensive technologies that lower costs, thereby increasing profits in the short run; competition with other profit-maximizing firms pushes prices down to the new cost of production; the rising capital-labor ratio in industry creates a falling rate of profit. So capitalism embodies a system tendency towards a falling rate of profit over time. Similar reasoning underlies Marx’s prediction of financial crises within capitalism. (See an earlier posting on Marx’s conception of capitalism.)

And in fact, if we could make two assumptions, then Marx’s reasoning about the tendencies of capitalism would be very compelling: the assumption that the core economic institutions are fixed and unchanging, and the assumption that there are no other social-political-economic institutions in play that might serve as resources for policies and actions that would offset the predicted tendencies of capitalism. However, neither of these assumptions is correct. The institutions of any major social order — feudalism, the Chinese agrarian economy, capitalism, state socialism — are always the composite of a vast number of lower-level institutions; and these lower-level institutions are usually in a state of flux. So the core institutions are not fixed and unchanging. The traditional Chinese agrarian economy was remarkably resilient in face of a range of deep challenges over centuries; adjustment of basic social institutions permitted Chinese society to cope better with environmental and international circumstances than a modeled Chinese economy would have predicted.

Second, even more fundamentally, a society is not simply a “mode of production,” constituted by an economic structure. Rather, there are a range of other, equally fundamental institutions and practices — cultural, political, legal, community-based and national — through which resourceful agents attempt to solve personal or social problems at various points in time. So the “logic” of the economic institutions is only one part of the overall social trajectory; instead, we have the strategic interaction and aggregation of political, cultural, social, demographic, and legal institutions that complement and offset the workings of the economic structure. And further, we can correctly say that each of these aspects of social organization has its own “system tendencies.” Elected legislatures have a logic that derives from the calculations of political self-interest of the legislators, community-based organizations have their own logic, various demographic regimes have their own tendencies (for example, the favoring of boy children produces skewed sex ratios that have negative political effects), and so forth.

So the tentative conclusion that I draw from these various considerations is, once again, to give the nod to contingency while recognizing the partial imperatives created by the various sets of core institutions that are embodied in a society at a given time. Structures do of course constrain agents. But structures interact with each other, leading to surprising results. And structures change in response to a variety of causes, including the strategic efforts of agents to modify them. So the upshot is, once again, that we should expect a high degree of contingency in outcomes over extended periods of historical time. Historical experience may well support the discovery that “capitalism creates a tendency towards X” or “fascist politics create a tendency towards Y”. To that extent, there are “system tendencies”. But it is rare for one particular sub-system (property relations, electoral system, demographic regime) to dominate the overall historical trajectory. And so the system tendencies of one partial set of core institutions rarely become the system tendencies of the overall social whole.

Processes versus structures

Comparative historical sociology seeks to provide an answer to this type of question: what causes certain kinds of large historical outcomes? And it proceeds, often, on the basis of controlled comparison of a small number of cases. Theda Skocpol’s classic book, States and Social Revolutions: A Comparative Analysis of France, Russia and China, is a good example of the approach. So far so good. But what kinds of causes do CHS researchers typically look for? The method of comparison is often described in terms of Mill’s methods of similarity and difference. Find cases with variation in the outcome to be explained and similar/different causal conditions; and then seek out patterns of co-variation that suggest that certain factors are necessary and/or sufficient conditions for the outcome to be explained. These factors are then said to cause the outcome. (Mill’s approach to social research is described in Fred Wilson’s entry on Mill in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.)

This way of formulating the approach has fairly strong ontological presuppositions. Basically, it assumes that social causes are large, pervasive factors that obtain or fail to obtain in the multiple cases. For example, in explaining revolution the investigator might identify food crisis, population density, weak state institutions, and war as potential causal factors, and then compare the cases with respect to the variance of these factors. The comparative method assumes that large social units (societies, regions, social groups) are the operative units, and their causal properties are largescale, pervasive social conditions.

But what if our view of social causation is focused at a more disaggregated level — not at the level of gross social conditions and structures, but at the level of lower-level processes and mechanisms? What if we thought that the action is really taking place at the level of the contingent unfolding of social processes at more local levels? This ontology wouldn’t imply that the large social factors just mentioned are not part of the true causal story. But it would cast serious doubt on the expectation that there will be neat patterns of covariance across cases identified solely at this level. And yet this is exactly what Mill’s methods require.

The turn to concrete social mechanisms as the unit of social analysis suggests that it is most fruitful to seek out explanations of outcomes as the “concatenation” of a set of common social mechanisms (Social Mechanisms: An Analytical Approach to Social Theory). And this implies that the traditional comparative method is not likely to succeed; there won’t be a neat pattern of co-variation at the level of macro-characteristics and structures. So what is the alternative?

We might say that a credible alternative, still falling within a broad definition of “comparative historical sociology”, is this: select a number of cases for detailed study. Uncover in some detail the processes and factors that appear to have led to the outcome (process-tracing). And arrive at generalizations by discovering that certain mechanisms or processes recur across multiple cases, and that large structural factors interact with these processes in recurring ways.

This is the approach that McAdam, Tarrow, and Tilly take in Dynamics of Contention. And it would appear to me that this approach permits an appropriate marriage between social ontology and social science methodology. The methodology is suited to the ontological insight that social phenomena are composed of lower-level social mechanisms and processes, and the outcomes are the contingent and path-dependent result of the concatenation of these mechanisms. There are no “laws of revolution” (or war, or civil strife); rather, there are a large number of social mechanisms that can be observed in many instances of these large social outcomes. These mechanisms can be rigorously analyzed, and we can explain outcomes (for example, the success of the Bolshevik revolutionary strategy) as the result of a concatenation of various of these mechanisms.

Structures in Marx’s thought

The concept of a social structure has often played a large role in social theorizing. The general idea is that society consists of an ensemble of durable, regulative structures within the context of which individuals live and act. Sometimes structures are interpreted functionally: the ensemble of structures constitute a system, and discrete structures satisfy important social functions. This is a physiological approach to society: what are the chief sub-systems in society and what do they do; how do they fit together to assure the continuing functioning of society?

There is much to fault in this set of ideas about the constituent parts of society — for example, its tendency to reify a continually shifting social reality and its tacit assumption that the social order is a system in functional equilibrium.

But here I want to ask a smaller question: does Marx offer a social ontology that includes enduring social structures?

It would appear that the answer is a resounding “yes”. Marx looks at capitalism as a system. For example, consider this statement from the Preface to the Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy:

In the social production of their life, men enter into definite relations that are indispensable and independent of their will, relations of production which correspond to a definite stage of development of their material productive forces. The sum total of these relations of production constitutes the economic structure of society, the real foundation, on which rises a legal and political superstructure and to which correspond definite forms of social consciousness. The mode of production of material life conditions the social, political and intellectual life process in general. It is not the consciousness of men that determines their being, but, on the contrary, their social being that determines their consciousness. At a certain stage of their development, the material productive forces of society come in conflict with the existing relations of production, or — what is but a legal expression for the same thing — with the property relations within which they have been at work hitherto. From forms of development of the productive forces these relations turn into their fetters. Then begins an epoch of social revolution. With the change of the economic foundation the entire immense superstructure is more or less rapidly transformed. In considering such transformations a distinction should always be made between the material transformation of the economic conditions of production, which can be determined with the precision of natural science, and the legal, political, religious, aesthetic or philosophic — in short, ideological forms in which men become conscious of this conflict and fight it out. Just as our opinion of an individual is not based on what he thinks of himself, so can we not judge of such a period of transformation by its own consciousness; on the contrary, this consciousness must be explained rather from the contradictions of material life, from the existing conflict between the social productive forces and the relations of production.

Here and elsewhere Marx picks out the forces of production and relations of production as the fundamental determinants of historical change. He identifies social classes as the chief actors in society. And he offers a conception of the capitalist mode of production as consisting of an economic base — the economic structure — and an ensemble of superstructural elements — law, state, ideology, religion, culture –that stand above the economic structure and serve to preserve its conditions of reproduction. All of this invokes an ontology of social structures, social systems, and functional interdependency (G. A. Cohen, Karl Marx’s Theory of History: A Defence).

The functionalism implicit in this ontology has been deeply challenged (Jon Elster, Making Sense of Marx; Daniel Little, The Scientific Marx). The bottom line of these criticisms seems inescapable: there is no basis whatsoever to expect that social structures will develop that are functionally suited to the needs of the social system. There is no process of natural selection for social arrangements. So if there is alignment across structures, we need to seek out the specific social mechanisms that bring it about.

But what about the structuralism? Is this ontology a credible one if it is separated from the functionalist assumption?

Here we need to be very careful at every step of the argument. Marx is right that Britain and France possessed a set of property relations in capital and labor in the mid-nineteenth century. These relations were distinct from those of French feudalism in the fourteenth century. These social relations are durable and coercive. Those differences created different historical dynamics in nineteenth-century Britain and France. So far so good — there were durable, coercive social relations embodied on the two societies, and it doesn’t seem misleading to call these “structures.” Moreover, these structures had historical effects, much as Marx described them to have. Likewise, his definitions of “proletariat” and “capitalist” are rigorous and historically grounded. So Marx succeeds in identifying social structures in particular societies.

But here it is very important to avoid the error of reification: the assumption that the structures of capitalism are substantially the same in every capitalist society, or the same in one capitalist society over time. Rather, there are substantial and causally important differences across the basic economic institutions, and the situations of the great classes, in different capitalist societies. This is one of the central insights of the new institutionalism (Kathleen Thelen, How Institutions Evolve: The Political Economy of Skills in Germany, Britain, the United States, and Japan). These differences over time and across societies in turn imply that the structuralism of the concept of the capitalist mode of production must be abandoned as well. There is no super-category of “capitalism” and its logic that can be used to subsume the historical trajectories of multiple societies.

Finally, it bears repeating that all theories of structures require microfoundations. Structures do not exist free-standing; instead, they must be embodied on the actions and thoughts of socially constituted individuals. (See Levels of the Social for more on this.) I don’t think Marx would object to this stricture — I think he actually provides an agent-centered political economy himself. But the more holistic advocates of French structuralism (Althusser or Poulantzas, for example) would object strenuously.

So this leaves us with a pretty tame version of a Marxian structuralism. Social structures exist. They vary from society and across time. They are not functionally adapted. There are no transcendent structures possessing a unique historical dynamic. And, finally, all these claims about causally active social structures need to be compatible with microfoundations at the level of the social actors.

Large social forces?

We often analyze the world around us in terms of large social forces and trends — globalization, the rise of ethnic identities, the spread of global capitalism, the rise of China as a coming super-power. These large forces are the “folk theories” through which we try to make sense of the world as it changes around us. But do these constructs actually make sense from an analytical, social scientific point of view? Or are they more akin to the large supra-historical categories advanced by pseudo-historians such as Toynbee or Spengler?

One reason for drawing that last conclusion is a justified skepticism about large impersonal social causes. We need to know what the microfoundations are, the concrete local mechanisms through which any social force works — and merely postulating that “the forces of globalization are producing more social unrest”, for example, doesn’t provide the necessary illumination at that level.

This critical concern comes along with another: the observation that “folk” concepts of large social forces (for example, “spread of extremism” or “globalization”) often encompass a pretty wide and heterogeneous set of lower-level processes. Presumably globalization works differently in Australia, Kenya, and London. So the term is more of an umbrella than a specific theory of how the world works.

But all of this said — is there any rigorous and scientifically justifiable use for the idea of large social forces?

I think there is such a use. The concerns just mentioned are entirely valid. But they don’t exclude the possibility that there are some processes of change in the world that are large and systemic, and that do have the requisite degree of microfoundations at the disaggregated levels. The examples I can think of come largely from the economic realm, but I am sure we could come up with cultural and social examples too.

— The global effects of the Great Depression in the 1930s. The stock market crash of 1929 created financial and business consequences all over the United States. And the alterations in demand and price for commodities such as cotton or coal had consequences throughout the world. Small peasant farmers in North China were forced to reconfigure their cropping regimes as a result of events that took place on Wall Street. So we can say that the Great Depression was a large social force and one whose consequences were global in scope.

— The Asian financial crisis of 1997 likewise created a cascading series of effects that were eventually felt everywhere in the world.

— The SARS epidemic of 2002-2003 was an example of the possibility of global pandemic caused by the rapid transmission of exposure from China to Canada through the air travel system.

In each case we have an example of a large social cause. And we have a good understanding of the “transmission belt” through which these local events can have global consequences. It is the degree of integration among separate agents and groups that is created by national and global markets, communications systems, and transportation systems. Markets have foundations that are both global and local. They signal future events to millions of independent actors throughout space. These actors modify their behavior. And these shifts in turn create new market situations. So the rapid transmission of information, people, and products constitutes the microfoundational account that is needed for asserting the large social force.

There are similar stories that can be told for the transmission of ideas and cultural variations — e.g. new forms of Christian or Muslim activism. (Stephen Greenblatt has some great examples of the transmission of cultural ideas in Marvelous Possessions: The Wonder of the New World.)

So the forces of globalization are real enough. And they depend upon mechanisms of transmission that create a systemic interdependence of behavior in widely separated places. Moreover, the examples give us an idea about how to characterize the idea that “globalization is changing the world.” We can break this claim down into the idea — an empirical one — that asserts that there is a rising level of integration across societies, achieved by communications systems, transportation systems, and economic interdependency, through which the actions of people in Indonesia and the UK are much more systemically interconnected than they were a century ago. The analytical task is to be as specific as possible in identifying the pathways through which global influence of a factor is achieved, and not to engage in lazy thinking about big social forces that we really don’t understand.

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