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May 22, 2010

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"Social Theory and the Empirical Social World"

Posted: 22 May 2010 12:26 AM PDT

Daniel Little looks at the role of theory in the social sciences:

Social theory and the empirical social world, by Daniel Little: How can general, high-level social theory help us to better understand particular historically situated social realities? Is it helpful or insightful to "bring Weber's theory of religion to bear on Islam in Java" or to "apply Marx's theory of capitalism to the U.S. factory system in the 1950s"? Is there any real knowledge to be gained by applying theory to a set of empirical circumstances?
In the natural sciences this intellectual method is certainly a valid and insightful one. We gain knowledge when we apply the theory of fluid dynamics to the situation of air flowing across a wing, or when we apply the principles of evolutionary theory to the problem of understanding butterfly coloration. But do we have the same possibility in the case of the social world?
My general inclination is to think that "applying" general social theories to specific social circumstances is not a valid way of creating new knowledge or understanding. This is because I believe that social ensembles reflect an enormous degree of plasticity and contingency; so general theories only "fit" them in the most impressionistic and non-explanatory way. We may have a pure structural theory of feudalism; but it is only the beginning of a genuinely knowledge-producing analysis of fourteenth-century French politics and economy or the Japanese samurai polity. At best the theory highlights certain issues as being salient -- the conditions of bonded labor, the nature of military dependency between lord and vassal. But the theory of feudalism does not permit us to "derive" particular features or institutions of French or Japanese society. "Feudalism" is an ideal type, a heuristic beginning for social analysis, rather than a general deductive and comprehensive theory of all feudal societies.  And we certainly shouldn't expect that a general social theory will provide the template for understanding all of the empirical characteristics of a given instance of that theorized object.
Why is there this strong distinction between physical theory and social theory? Fundamentally, because natural phenomena really are governed by laws of nature, and natural systems are often simple enough that we can aggregate the effects of the relevant component processes into a composite description of the whole. (There are, of course, complex physical systems with non-linear composite processes that cannot be deductively represented.)  So theories can be applied to complicated natural systems with real intellectual gain.  The theory helps us to predict and explain the behavior of the natural system.
The social world lacks both properties. Component social mechanisms and processes are only loosely similar to each other in different instances; for example, "fealty" works somewhat differently in France, England, and Japan. And there is a very extensive degree of contingency in the ways that processes, mechanisms, agents, and current circumstances interact to produce social outcomes. So there is a great degree of path dependency and variation in social outcomes, even in cases where there are significant similarities in the starting points. So feudalism, capitalism, financial institutions, religions, ethnic conflicts, and revolutions can only be loosely theorized.
That is my starting point. But some social theorists take a radically different approach. A good example of a bad intellectual practice here is the work of Hindess and Hirst in Pre-Capitalist Modes Of Production, in which they attempt to deduce the characteristics of the concrete historical given from its place within the system of concepts involved in the theory of the mode of production.
Is this a legitimate and knowledge-enhancing effort? I don't think that it is. We really don't gain any real insight into this manor, or the Burgundian manor, or European feudalism, by mechanically subsuming it under a powerful and general theory -- whether Marx's, Weber's or Pareto's.
It should be said here that it isn't the categories or hypotheses themselves that are at fault. In fact, I think Marx's analysis and categories are genuinely helpful as we attempt to arrive at a sociology of the factory, and Durkheim's concept of anomie is helpful when we consider various features of modern communities. It is the effort at derivation and subsumption that I find misguided. The reality is larger and more varied than the theory, with greater contingency and surprise.
It is worthwhile looking closely at gifted social scientists who proceed differently. One of these is Michael Burawoy, a prolific and influential sociologist of the American labor process. His book, Manufacturing Consent: Changes in the Labor Process Under Monopoly Capitalism, is a detailed study of the American factory through the lens of his micro-study of a single small machine shop in the 1940s and 1970s, the Allied/Geer factory. Burawoy proceeds very self-consciously and deliberately within the framework of Marx's theory of the capitalist labor process. He lays out the fundamental assumptions of Marx's theory of the labor process -- wage labor, surplus labor, capitalist power relations within the factory -- and he then uses these categories to analyze, investigate, and explain the Allied/Geer phenomena. But he simultaneously examines the actual institutions, practices, and behaviors of this machine shop in great participant-observer detail. He is led to pose specific questions by the Marxist theory of the labor process that he brings with him -- most importantly, what accounts for the "consent" that he observes in the Allied workers? -- but he doesn't bring a prefabricated answer to the question.  His interest in control of surplus labor and coercion and consent within the workforce is stimulated by his antecedent Marxist theory; but he is fully prepared to find novelty and surprise as he investigates these issues.  His sociological imagination is not a blank slate -- he brings a schematic understanding of some of the main parameters that he expects to arise in the context of the capitalist labor process.  But his research assumptions are open to new discovery and surprising inconsistencies between antecedent theory and observed behavior.
And in fact, the parts of Burawoy's book that I find most convincing are the many places where he allows his sociological imagination and his eye for empirical detail to break through the mechanism of the theory. His case study is an interesting and insightful one. And it is strengthened by the fact that Burawoy does not attempt to simply subsume or recast the findings within the theoretical structure of Marx's economics.
(Burawoy addresses some of these issues directly in an important article, "Two Methods in Search of Science" (link). He advocates for treating Marxist ideas as a research program for the social sciences in the sense articulated by Imre Lakatos. )
So my advice goes along these lines: allow Marxism, or Weber or Durkheim or Tilly, to function as a suggestive program of research for empirical investigation. Let it be a source of hypotheses, hunches, and avenues of inquiry. But be prepared as well for the discovery of surprising outcomes, and don't look at the theory as a prescription for the unfolding of the social reality. Most importantly, don't look to theory as a deductive basis for explaining and predicting social phenomena. (Here is an article on the role of Marxism as a method of research rather than a comprehensive theory; link.)

"No Gold Watch"

Posted: 22 May 2010 12:22 AM PDT

David Warsh paints a somewhat gloomy picture of the "fate that, in varying degrees, awaits almost all retirees in Western Europe and North America in the next twenty years":

No Gold Watch, by David Warsh: Another generation of US workers, at least significant numbers of them, are being forced into retirement sooner than expected and without ceremony, by the Bust. As Catherine Rampell noted in The New York Times last week, millions of people have been dismissed – file clerks, ticket agents, autoworkers and the like – who might otherwise have stopped working in more orderly fashion.

 "But because of the recession," Rampell writes, "winter came early."

This has happened before, notably in the 1980-82 recession, when the steel and domestic manufacturing industries led the casualty list; and, after 1990, when banks and other financial institutions shed millions of jobs. This time clerical and administrative workers have borne the brunt – 1.7 million of them have lost their jobs since the recession began in the fourth quarter of 2007. These are people for whom there was no gold watch. Is there anything for them besides the informal respect and affection of their peers? ...

Out of curiosity, I took a look at Studs Terkel's Working: People Talk About What They Do All Day and How They Feel About What They Do. Terkel, a legendary Chicago radio interviewer and author, talked to more than 130 people of various occupations about their jobs, then edited and organized the results to produce a 600-page best-seller sufficiently beloved to have inspired a Broadway musical  and a graphic novel. The Chicago Historical Society agreed last week to put nearly 6,000 hours of his interviews online over the next two years.

Working appeared in 1974.  Terkel dwells at greater length on the dissatisfactions of work– the boredom and breakdowns and petty humiliations – than on its pleasures. He tends to value blue-collar jobs over office work.  He quotes Freud from Civilization and Its Discontents – "his work at least gives him a secure place in a portion of reality, in the human community" – but compares his own role as interviewer to that of a physician lancing a series of mostly painful boils. John Coleman, the Haverford College president who famously spent a leave semester taking a series of menial jobs in 1973, speculates about the pain of losing a job at age fifty.  Terkel ruminates about the pain that can come of having one.

Evidence of oligopoly – of the lack of competition – is everywhere in Working. In the 75 pages devoted to the automotive industry, there is no intimation to be found of the flood of competition that will begin to show up in the next few years in the form of better-made cars from Japan. Nor is there much of a hint of the computer revolution that will begin in a few years, displacing tens of millions. Typewriters, cash registers, phonograph records and skilled spot welders are everywhere.

The pace of change accelerated in the early 1980s when China began to enter world markets, followed by Brazil, Russia and India.  New competitors entered one industry after another in which the United States had been dominant or insulated altogether from competition by regulatory or technological barriers.

Globalization won't go on forever. No tree grows to the sky.  The fast-growing economies that have joined the global economy since 1980 will top out eventually, at least temporarily, in a generation or two, just as did Japan. In the meantime, firms of all nations will become even more accustomed to competing internationally.  Their  employees will adjust accordingly. Terkel's method was brilliant, but attitudes towards social causation and personal responsibly have changed greatly since he wrote.  We need a new Working for the twenty-first century.

And the victims of the Bust of 2008-10? They'll do what the steelworkers and the bankers did as part of the cohorts of 1990-82 and 1980-82:  they'll search extensively for new jobs, retrain, relocate or, if they are over fifty, confront the possibility that they will never work again in their accustomed field, perhaps not work at all. They'll reduce consumption, explore the social safety net, titrate their savings, move to their second homes or sell them, take part-time jobs on spec, or simply capitulate to a life of leisure sooner and with less income than they expected, and cultivate their interests. 

This is an exaggerated version of a fate that, in varying degrees, awaits almost all retirees in Western Europe and North America in the next twenty years, as modest tax increases and benefit cuts become general.  We should view with sympathy those who are in the van. A somewhat reduced retirement, sooner or later, will happen to us all.

links for 2010-05-21

Posted: 21 May 2010 11:02 PM PDT

Random Thoughts on China

Posted: 21 May 2010 07:38 PM PDT

Just a couple of thoughts before I head to the airport for the long flight home. Someone once told me that China is an interesting mix of the very old and the very new -- there's very little in the middle. And that does seem to be true. It is due to the abrupt transition that has been made, most places do not develop so rapidly and hence have middle-aged parts, not just old and new, and the pace of the transition shows. There are inevitable growing pains associated with development that is this rapid.

My casual observation both from all the government presentations on the economy I heard from various government ministers over the last two days and from walking around is that the economic development mirrors this pattern that. There is the new and efficient, and there are the old ways of doing things that are much less modern and much less efficient. There's very little in the middle. As I said on a tweet yesterday while strolling around, although growth of output has been high, it seems to me that there are still many, many people playing "small ball" economically, and hence there is still quite a bit or room for productivity to increase.

Anyway, glad I had the opportunity to come here and see what is happening first hand, particularly the ability to hear from and talk to people from the agencies in charge of economic development (though most of them were involved in one way or another with job creation and development, so I didn't hear all about all the issues they face). I am in the heart of Beijing, fairly close to the Forbidden City -- you don't see many cranes, etc. constructing new buildings since this area is already pretty densely developed -- so I may not have gotten a very good sense of the old-new balance (even so, there is lots of construction in evidence, mostly old buildings being gutted or raised to make room for something else). All in all, it's a pretty interesting place. I saw no signs of anything but full spreed ahead,

Looks like the next conference is Budapest in June. That will be interesting too. If someone had told me that starting a blog would lead to world travel on other people's dimes, I would have laughed. But it has. And all I can say is huh. Cool. Didn't expect that.

I am not looking forward to getting to the airport 2 hours early, my 12 hour flight, 6 hour layover in SF, and then the 1 hour flight to Eugene (and on the way here, one plane was delayed an extra three hours). But clicking my heels together and wishing I was back in Kansas (OK, Oregon) won't get it done, so I guess I don't have much choice. So I'd better get going -- maybe I can connect at the airport. If not, and I'm pretty much out of the international data plan I got before coming, no more internet until SF. I hope I don't get tremors from the withdrawal (I have two posts that I set before I left to publish later tonight).

Apologies for writing so little the last several days. The opportunity cost was giving up the chance to use the few free hours I had to see (a little bit of) Bejing, and I decided MU/P was higher for sight-seeing than for most anything else. But Tim Duy did a pretty good job picking up the slack, so I owe him a thanks.

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