Intellectual leaders

In 2005 the Nouvel Observateur published a special issue devoted to “25 grands penseurs du monde entier” — 25 great global thinkers. (The issue was published separately as Le monde selon les grands penseurs actuels.) The selection of thinkers was excellent: Stanley Cavell, Souleymane Diagne, Nestor Garcia Canclini, Sudhir Kakar, Vladimir Kantor, José Gil, Ian Hacking, Candido Mendes, Slavoj Zizek, Jon Elster, Kwame Appiah, Giorgio Agamben, Axel Honneth, Martha Nussbaum, Carlos Maria Vilas, Simon Blackburn, Toni Negri, Charles Taylor, Peter Sloterdijk, Richard Rorty, Philip Petitt, Daniel Innerarity, Jaakko Hintikka, Amartya Sen, and Michael Walzer. The volume consists of smart articles about each thinker offering a brief but meaningful précis of the thinker’s main contributions, followed usually by a short impromptu interview with the subject.  (Here is a brief description available online.)

The volume begins with these words:

A l’heure oú l’on parle d’une communauté intellectuelle mondiale virtuelle, on pourrait croire que ce que la planète compte de penseurs originaux est connu de tous ou, à tout le moins, accessible et disponsible à tous. Et pourtant, le provincialisme intellectuel sévit un peu partout, ainsi qu’en témoigne chez nous le germanopratisme de la classe intello-médiatique. On continue d’écrire et de réfléxir ici dans l’ignorance la plus totale de ce que d’éminents penseurs étrangers ont produit là.

A very strong impression of polyglot global intellect emerges from a reading of the whole issue. The collection as a whole is a great antidote to the various forms of parochialism to which the intellectual world is prone — national assumptions, disciplinary assumptions, north-south assumptions. These thinkers are original, innovative, and usually boundary-crossing. And they are most frequently concerned with issues that are front and center in the task of understanding and improving the global world we collectively inhabit.

There are quite a few cross-cutting themes that recur across various groups of these thinkers. (It would be a very interesting exercise to “tag” each of these thinkers with a handful of topics and then map the relationships among them.) And certainly this is true: we will collectively do a better job of understanding and improving our global world, if we find ways of engaging with the thinking, issues, and frameworks of observers throughout the world. Sociology and philosophy both require new ideas — and a deep and sustained international conversation can be a source of ideas and corrections to old ideas.

It is very interesting to take stock of the ways that the Internet can now facilitate these international conversations. YouTube is a good example; mixed among the millions of videos of pets and birthday parties are invaluable snippets of insight from the world’s most innovative thinkers. Certainly it would be possible to conduct a transformative advanced seminar in social theory — perhaps online! — based on materials and videos available on YouTube. But it is interesting as well what we can’t yet find on YouTube: selections from intellectuals and theorists from the developing world. It is substantially more difficult to locate web-based resources documenting the thinking of intellectuals from Africa, Latin America, or China.

Here are some YouTube resources on several of the thinkers included in the Nouvel Obs list. Roughly half of the people on the list are featured with snippets of lectures or interviews on YouTube. Think of this posting as a “mash-up” of great ideas and critical thinking.

Amartya Sen, March, 2005

Martha Nussbaum, 2006

Slavoj Zizek – Rules, Race, and Mel Gibson 2006 1/8, European Graduate School

Anthony Appiah, commencement speech at Dickinson College, 2008

Tony Negri, 2008

Stanley Cavell, 2002

Candido Mendes

Giorgio Agamben

Peter Sloterdijk

Richard Rorty

Daniel Innerarity

Social change in rural China

Contemporary China is a vivid demonstration of the fact that sociology is not a “finished” science. The processes of change that are underway in both rural and urban settings are novel and contingent. Existing sociological theory does not provide a basis for conceptualizing these processes according to a few simple templates — modernization, urbanization, structural transformation, demographic transition. Instead, a sociology for China needs to engage in sustained descriptive inquiry, to untangle the many processes that are occurring simultaneously; and innovative theory formation, in order to find some explanatory order in the many empirical realities that China represents. The social reality of China is complex — many separate processes are simultaneously unfolding and interacting; and it is diverse — very different conditions and processes are occurring in different regions and sectors of Chinese society.

Consider one complex example, the wide and heterogeneous range of processes involved in the transformations of rural society: the explosive growth of a periurban sector that is neither city nor village; the rapid expansion of businesses and factories; the creation of an entrepreneurial social segment; the migration of tens of millions of people from rural areas to cities and from poor areas to more affluent areas; the emergence of new social groups in local society; the push-pull relationships between central government and regional and local government; the shifting policy positions of the central government towards rural conditions; the occurrence of social disturbances — rural and urban — over issues of property, labor, environment, and corruption; the rise of ethnicity as a political factor; various permutations of clientelism as a mechanism of political control; and the social consequences of family planning policies (e.g. skewed sex ratios). These are all social processes involving policy makers, local officials, entrepreneurs, farmers, workers, business owners, activists, and other agents; they are processes that have their own dynamics and tempos; they are processes that interact with each other; and they aggregate to outcomes that are difficult or impossible to calculate on the basis of analysis of the processes themselves.

In other words: we can’t understand the current and future development of rural society in China based on existing theories of social change. Instead, we must analyze the current social realities, recognize their novelties, and perhaps discover some of the common causal processes that recur in other times and places. And we should expect novelty; we should expect that China’s future rural transformations will be significantly different from other great global examples (United States in the 1880s, Russia in the 1930s, France in the 1830s, etc.).

I began by saying that China demonstrates that sociology is not a finished science. But we can say something stronger than that: it demonstrates that the very notion of a comprehensive social science that lays the basis for systematizing and predicting social change is radically ill-conceived. This hope for a comprehensive theory of social change is chimerical; it doesn’t correspond to the nature of the social world. It doesn’t reflect several crucial features of social phenomena: heterogeneity, causal complexity, contingency, path-dependency, and plasticity. Instead of looking for a few general and comprehensive theories of social change, we should be looking for a much larger set of quasi-empirical theories of concrete social mechanisms. And the generalizations that we will be able to reach will be modest ones having to do with the discovery of some similar processes that recur in a variety of circumstances and historical settings.

There are some excellent current examples of research on contemporary China that conform to this approach. Kevin O’Brien attempts to discover a mechanism of social protest in his theory of “rightful resistance”(Rightful Resistance in Rural China); C. K. Lee identifies a set of mechanisms of mobilization in her treatment of “rustbelt” and “sunbelt” industries (Against the Law: Labor Protests in China’s Rustbelt and Sunbelt); and Anita Chan identifies some common mechanisms of the exploitation of immigrant labor in China’s Workers Under Assault: The Exploitation of Labor in a Globalizing Economy. Each of these books is a positive example of the kind of sociological research that will shed the most light on China’s present and future: empirically rich, theoretically eclectic, and mindful of contingency and multiple pathways as state, society, environment, and other social processes interact.

Coverage of the social sciences

Suppose we took the view that the social sciences ought to provide sufficient conceptual and methodological tools to analyze and explain any kind of social behavior. This would be a certain kind of completeness: not theoretical or explanatory completeness, in the sense of having a finished set of theories that can explain everything, but conceptual completeness, in the sense that there are sufficient conceptual resources to give a basis for describing every form of social behavior, and methodological completeness, in the sense that for every possible research question there are starting point for inquiry in the social sciences. And, finally, suppose we stipulate that there are always new hypotheses to be discovered and new theories to be invented.

If this is one of the ultimate aspirations for the social sciences, then we can ask — how close is the current corpus of social science research and knowledge to this goal?

One possible answer is that we have already reached this goal. The conceptual resources of anthropology, economics, political science, and sociology serve as a “fish-scale” system of conceptual coverage that gives us a vocabulary for describing any possible configuration of social behavior. And the most basic ideas about empirical research, causal reasoning, hypothetical thinking, and interpretation of meaning give us a preliminary basis for probing and investigating any of the “new” phenomena we might discover.

Another possible answer goes in the opposite direction. The concepts of the social science disciplines are parochial and example-based. When new forms of social interaction emerge we will need new concepts on the basis of which to describe and represent these social behaviors. So concepts and empirical knowledge must go hand in hand, and new discoveries will stimulate new concepts as well.

Consider this thought experiment. Suppose the social sciences had developed to this point minus micro-economics. The reduced scheme would involve many aspects of behavior and thought, but it would have omitted the category of “rational self-interest.” Is this a possible scenario? Would the reduced set be complete in the sense described above? And what kind of discovery would be required in order for these alternative-world social scientists to progress?

The incompleteness of alternative-world social science is fairly evident. There would be important ranges of behavior that would be inscrutable without the concept of rational self-interest (market equilibria, free-rider problems). And the solution would appear fairly evident as well. These gaps in explanatory scope would lead investigators to ask, what is the hidden factor we are not considering? And they would be led to discover the concept of rational self-interest.

The moral seems to be this: it is always possible that new discoveries of anomalous phenomena will demonstrate the insufficiency of the current conceptual scheme. And therefore there is never a point at which we can declare that science is now complete, and no new concepts will be needed.

At the same time, we do in fact have a rough-and-ready pragmatic confidence that the social sciences as an extended body of theories, concepts, and results have pretty well covered the primary scope of human behavior. And this suggests a vision of the way the social sciences cover the domain of the social as well: not as a comprehensive deductive theory but rather as an irregular, overlapping collection of concepts, methods, and theories — a set of fish-scales rather than an architect’s blueprint for all social phenomena.

Collective behavior and resource mobilization theory

The study of collective behavior and social movements has been a central sub-discipline of sociology since the 1970s. This is understandable for several reasons — first, because collective behavior is inherently an important sociological process, and second, because the 1960s and 1970s witnessed particularly significant social movements in the US and other parts of the world. The US civil rights movement, the Vietnam anti-war movement, Czechoslovakia and France in 1968, and a variety of anti-colonial struggles in Asia, Latin America, and Africa made social movements particularly salient for sociologists in the 70s and 80s.

There are several different kinds of research questions that can be posed about social movements. One line of inquiry is descriptive and ethnographic. Researchers could immerse themselves in the concrete details of specific examples of social movements, discovering some of the specific characteristics and processes that were to be found in specific examples. Moreover, researcher could recognize the importance of failure and provide a similar level of description and narrative for failed social movements as well. This kind of descriptive research is very important in the study of any complex social phenomenon.

Second, given the interest that sociologists have in the explanation of social processes, it would be natural for sociologists to attempt to discover the causes of successful social mobilization. Comparative sociologists might approach this task by trying to discover some macro-social factors that would appear to distinguish successful from unsuccessful mobilizations. In other words, they might isolate a handful of examples of successful and unsuccessful social movements, and then use sociological theory and imagination to identify a set of macro-factors that might be thought to be conducive to (or inhibiting of) successful social mobilization. This strategy suggests use of Mill’s methods to sort out necessary and/or sufficient conditions for the outcome. And it would issue in pronouncements like “successful social movements require X, Y, and Z as necessary conditions.”

A third possible approach combines some features of both of these. This third approach acknowledges that each social event embodies a great deal of particularity and contingency — thus requiring a substantial amount of descriptive research. But this third approach also postulates that there are causes of successful and unsuccessful mobilization and that these take the form of concrete social-causal mechanisms. So this approach directs the researcher to engage in concrete research with the goal of discovering some of the concrete social mechanisms that appear to have been critical. This research in turn has some promise in providing the basis for some limited generalizations in the study of social movements. If we find that there are some common challenges that efforts at social mobilization confront, this is a beginning of a more general treatment. And if we find that there are a handful of key mechanisms that recur in many cases, this further supports the development of more generalized statements about mobilization. (This is roughly the approach that McAdam, Tarrow and Tilly take in Dynamics of Contention.)

Now let’s return to the role that resource mobilization theory plays in the study of social movements. This concept is said to be one of the primary theories of social movements. Its primary competitor on the 1980s was “political process theory.” My question here is a simple one: in what sense do either of these concepts function as theories of social movements? If they are intended to serve as nouns in sentences like these — “Social movements always occur in circumstances where there is more X in the social context” — then I want to say that neither concept is likely to serve well and neither really functions as a theory of collective behavior. This usage is attempting to fulfill the second project above, namely, offering an account of the necessary and sufficient conditions of mobilization. However, given the contingency and heterogeneity of social events, it is unlikely that there are any such conditions. But the situation is much better if we take the view that both “resource mobilization” and “political process” theories serve to describe social mechanisms that are found in many different instances of social movements — though often in different forms and levels of importance. On this approach, “resource mobilization” is a theory of a social process or circumstance that is a relevant causal mechanism in many different instances of social movements. But it does not function as a general theory of social movements; instead, it is a developed description of a social mechanism that can be recognized in a variety of contexts (not all of which involve social movements).

In other areas of science a theory of a domain is thought to be a compact set of hypotheses that explain all the phenomena of the domain. “Resource mobilization” and “political process” cannot function in this way. However, each of these concepts can function as a description of a limited but real social mechanism; and in this way they each can play a constructive role in explaining important instances of collective mobilization and social movements.

Biography and personality psychology

Think about the relationship between researching a biography of a complex individual and compiling a set of theories about personality development. The individual, Mr. X, is a particular person whose life and personality took shape through a long series of contingent happenings. The biographer’s task is to arrive at some insights into Mr. X’s motivations and desires; his features of character (courage, magnanimity); his weaknesses; as well as providing an illuminating account of some of the shaping events and choices that Mr. X made along the way. Mr. X’s actions and choices are comprehensible — but in order to understand them we need to know what he thought, wanted, intended, resisted, and chose, and why. In other words, we need a fairly detailed profile of Mr. X’s personality, preferences, and vanities. We need to know Mr. X as a particular and unique person.

Now it is worth commenting that this biographical description is itself a generalization. When we write that “Mr. X was concerned about how his actions were perceived, and often acted out of a desire to put his actions in a good light” — we are making a generalization across Mr. X’s lifetime of choices. And we are also hypothesizing something not directly observable — a persistent feature of Mr. X’s subjective world of choosing, his self-consciousness. In the course of the biography we might make statements such as “Mr. X chose to stay in his job at the New York Times because it was very prestigious; whereas Ms. Y was more adventurous in her career and moved to” This comparison implies that both X and Y have persistent traits of personality — traits that led them to make different choices under similar circumstances.

So a biography is a compilation of several different kinds of assertions or observations: some of the things that happened to the subject, some of the actions and choices the subject made, some hypotheses about the subject’s personality and motivational system, and an interpretation of the causes and reasons of some of these choices. The biography asserts a degree of consistency over time — Mr. X can be counted on to behave similarly in circumstances that raise the same intra-personal issues — even as it documents the particularity and uniqueness of Mr. X in contrast to other persons in similar circumstances. So a biography combines particularity and a certain kind of generality.

Now consider a textbook in personality psychology. The textbook too is interested in explaining why people behave as they do. But it approaches the problem from the point of view of taxonomy, causal analysis, and generalized explanations. The taxonomy part comes in through the effort to describe a handful of personality “types” — individuals sharing a cluster of personality characteristics that make them similar in action to each other and different from others. The causal analysis comes in through the door of a set of hypotheses about what constitutes a personality; how features of personality are embodied in the individual; how they are cultivated or shaped through development; and how they manifest in patterns of action. And the generalized explanations enter in the form of statements about groups of people sharing common personality features: “Ethnic massacres often occur as a result of manipulation of group emotions through the media.” The task of the theories of personality psychology is to provide a basis for explaining behavior; but unlike biography, personality psychology singles out the common features of personality that are found in a whole group of actors.

Now, if the classification exercise could be done in a really successful way — so that we conclude that there are personality types A, B, and C, and here are the behavioral dispositions of the three types — then biography would be unnecessary. All we need to know is whether Mr. X is an A, a B, or a C. In fact, however, we know that people are more varied than this. At best the small handful of personality types associated with personality theory can be construed as ideal types, pure versions of the various hypotheses; but we will also understand that very few people exactly embody exactly one of these ideal types. Instead, people’s motivations and personalities are a blend of numerous currents; and the role of biography is to identify these particular confluences in the subject of interest.

This is an interesting contrast for the social sciences, because there is a parallel distinction in the description and analysis of social particulars. Sometimes social scientists are primarily interested in stripping the “individuals” they consider (wars, revolutions, cities) down to a small list of characteristics about which they attempt to arrive at generalizations. And sometimes they are interested in treating the “individual” as a complex particular with its own life history and personality. The urban geographer may want to consider all United States cities with more than 500,000 inhabitants as a group, and then to arrive at some hypotheses and generalizations about this set of cities. This is analogous to the personality psychology of the distinction. Or the urban geographer may want to focus in on the particular identity and persona of one city — Chicago — and treat it as a biographer might treat Franklin D. Roosevelt. Both approaches are legitimate. The second, however, is perhaps undervalued in the social sciences because of its particularity. As discussed in the previous posting, however, there are good reasons for thinking that understanding the richness of empirical detail of a city like Chicago is itself a worthwhile sociological task.