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November 04 2011

"Yes, in my Backyard! Strengthening the European Local" by Kajsa Borgnaes

As the financial crisis intensifies, it is becoming increasingly clear that our deeply indebted economies need restructuring. The key focus must be on the signals prices send out to states, firms and...

August 29 2011

"On Glocalization coming of Age" by Zygmunt Bauman

One is tempted to say: social inventions or re-inventions (as the newly invented/discovered possibility of restoring to the city square the ancient role of the agora on which rules and rulers were...
Reposted by02mydafsoup-01 02mydafsoup-01

July 27 2011

Social explanation and causal mechanisms

To explain a social outcome or regularity, we need to provide an account of why and how it came about; and this means providing a causal analysis in terms of which the explanandum appears as a result.

Having a causal theory of a realm requires having an ontology: what kinds of things exist in this realm, and how do they work? Along with others, I offer a social ontology grounded in the actions and relations of socially constituted actors, which I refer to as methodological localism (link). (This is also the ontology asserted by the programme of "analytical sociology";  link.)

This entails, basically, that we need to understand all higher-level social entities and processes as being composed of the activities and thoughts of individual agents at a local level of social interaction; we need to be attentive to the pathways of aggregation through which these local-level activities aggregate to higher-level structures; and we need to pay attention to the iterative ways in which higher-level structures shape and influence individual agents.  Social outcomes are invariably constituted by and brought into being by socially constituted, socially situated individual actors (methodological localism). Both aspects of the view are important. By referring to "social constitution" we are invoking the fact that past social arrangements have created the social actor. By referring to "social situatedness" we invoke the idea that existing social practices and rules constrain and motivate the individual actor. So this view is not reductionist, in the sense of aiming to reduce social outcomes to pre-social individual activity.

We also want to refer to supra-individual actors -- firms, agencies, organizations, social movements, states. The social sciences are radically incomplete without such constructs. But all such references are bound by a requirement of microfoundations: if we attribute intentionality to a firm, we need to be able to sketch out an account of how the individuals of the firm are led to act in ways that lead to the postulated decision-making and action (link).

So, then: what is involved in asserting that social circumstance A causally produces social circumstance B? There are, of course, numerous well developed answers to this question: statistical inference based on correlations of occurrences, conditional probabilities, and necessary-sufficient condition analysis. My view, however, is that there is a more basic meaning of causation: A caused B iff there is a sequence of causal mechanisms leading from A to B. This approach is especially suitable for the social realm because, on the one hand, there are few strong statistical regularities among social outcomes, and on the other, it is feasible to identify social mechanisms through a variety of social research methods -- comparative analysis, process tracing, case studies, and the like.

The social mechanisms approach (and the scientific realism that lies behind it) goes back at least as early as the late 1980s. An early statement of the view was presented in my Varieties Of Social Explanation: An Introduction To The Philosophy Of Social Science in 1991.  Mario Bunge and Jon Elster took similar positions. The view took a large step forward, on the theory side, with the publication of Hedstrom and Swedberg's Social Mechanisms: An Analytical Approach to Social Theory (1998), and on the empirical research side with the publication of McAdam, Tarrow, and Tilly's Dynamics of Contention (2001). There are important differences; theorists within analytical sociology largely favor methodological individualism and mechanisms grounded in rational individuals, whereas Tilly and his colleagues favor "relational" mechanisms. But in each case the model of agent-centered explanations that either require microfoundations or are plainly compatible with such a requirement.  (Here is a recent post on causal mechanisms.)

Several social scientists have anticipated this approach through their own concrete analysis of aggregation phenomena.  A good illustration is Thomas Schelling.  His work presents a large number of examples of mundane social outcomes that he explains on the basis of simple individual-level choices and an aggregation mechanism (Micromotives and Macrobehavior, Choice and Consequence). Features of organized crime, traffic patterns, segregation, and dying seminars all come in for treatment.  Schelling demonstrates in concrete terms what sorts of things we can identify as "social mechanisms" and traces them back to the circumstances of action of individuals in social situations.

The framework of social mechanisms as a basis for social explanation raises an important question about the role and scope of generalizability that we expect from a social explanation. Briefly, the mechanisms identified here show a degree of generalizability; as McAdam, Tarrow and Tilly assert, social mechanisms can be expected to recur in other circumstances and times. But the event itself is one-of-a-kind. This is a familiar feature of Tilly's way of thinking about contentious events as well: the American Civil War was a singular historical event. But a good explanation will invoke mechanisms that recur elsewhere. We shouldn't expect to find general theories of civil wars; but our explanations of particular civil wars can invoke quasi-general theories of mid-level mechanisms of conflict and escalation. (Here is a recent posting on general and specific causal claims.)

Another important methodological question for this approach to social explanation is the issue of explaining general statistical patterns in social life.  What if we want to explain something more quantitative -- say a gradually rising divorce rate or the finding that co-habitants before marriage have higher divorce rates than non-co-habitants? On the social mechanisms approach, we would want two things. First, we would like an agent-level mechanism that explains the statistic; and second, we would like to find a common cause if the phenomenon is similar in several countries.

Finally, the actor-based mechanisms approach invites an area of study which is now being referred to as "aggregation dynamics" (link, link).  We need to have theories and tools that permit us to aggregate different micro-level processes over time into meso- and macro-outcomes, taking into account the complexity of causal interactions in a dynamic process.  The tools of agent-based modeling are relevant here (link).

January 24 2011

"Ed Miliband Takes First Steps Towards a New Socialism" by Neal Lawson

Socialism is what Labour governments do. So famously spoke Herbert Morrison, senior Labour cabinet member and deputy leader of the Labour Party in 1945.  On one level, 65 years later, Morrison’s words look paternalistic at best and plain arrogant at worst. It was socialism done to the people. But it was a sound bite that summed up the times, that unique moment in British history which allowed one strand of the left to dominate the agenda. Post-war centralisation, Fordism, Fabianism and a kind of parliamentary Leninism came together to create the perception that socialism is indeed what Labour governments do.

Wind forward those 65 years and you have a party that still believes pretty much in this adage. At the tail end of the Brown government just about every problem would be rectified by the use of the state. Perversely though, much of this frantic activity was not to regulate or replace the damage done by free markets but to prop them up so they could again wreck havoc on the nation. Hence, the state bailed out the banks – not so they could be reformed, but returned as fast as possible to their old ways. The free market may well lead to the strong state – but eventually that state is broken as it attempts to paper over the cracks of the symptoms of markets that are too free – while never addressing those unfettered freedoms. Brilliantly, Brown turned a crisis of neo-liberalism into a crisis of the state.

Is this entrenched and misguided view, and more recently also the New Labour view, of the state as the supporter of the free market about to change? Well, read Ed Miliband’s speech to the Fabian Society on Saturday and make up your own mind. In it, Miliband talks about the centralising Fabian tradition as the ‘idea of socialism as a kind of missionary work to be undertaken on behalf of the people’ and goes on to say ‘that the bureaucratic state and the overbearing market will never meet our real ambition as a party, that each citizen can be liberated to have the real freedom to shape their own lives’.

It is this paradigm shift away from the Fabian tradition that will help define not whether Labour can get back into office (that prize is determined by the Governments political skills and the strength of the economy), but whether Labour can get back into power, as they indeed were in 1945, and with a statecraft relevant to today’s complex, diverse and less deferential world. The Fabian speech staked out the ground – now a huge amount of detailed work has to be done to back up the end of civil service socialism. So what is the role of the state, what should it do and how should it do it? This means determining what can be left to the market and what should be the role of the third sector and community or civil society organisations. When the state does act we need to know how – not by targets or creating markets but through the co-production of services by users and workers.

It means getting to grips with incredibly thorny issues for the left like deciding the balance between equity and diversity. The central state will still have a strong role – particularly when it comes to redistribution. But if we want socialism to be what people do – then local decisions are going to have to come into play. The diversity that localism spawns hits up hard against the universalism of traditional left politics. We want both, and that my friends is a paradox we are going to have to learn to live with.

All of this begins to stake out some of the territory of the good society as an alternative to the big society. Ed Miliband has taken the first step in a long march to a new socialism. It is a march that he cannot hope to complete alone.

December 10 2010

"What Future for Cosmopolitanism?" by Olaf Cramme

The cosmopolitan ethos is in bad shape, yet transformational politics overwhelmingly depends on our ability to govern on many different levels

Today, crises are everywhere. The financial and economic crisis of 2008 spiralled into a fiscal crisis, and the subsequent debt crisis has enveloped the eurozone in an outright fight for its survival. Conventional wisdom suggested that neoliberalism and its market believers would suffer most. Instead, it is the crisis of social democracy which stands out while the public realm is under huge pressure. What is going on?

One interesting way of looking at this conundrum is through the prism of cosmopolitanism – a strand of political thinking which gained considerable momentum after the fall of the Berlin Wall. In short, cosmopolitanism works from the premise that all human beings belong to a single community. In appreciating difference and otherness, it seeks new forms of integration and identity that enable respectful coexistence across borders. The aim is to overcome the dualities of the “domestic” and the “global”, primarily by promoting new democratic forms of political rule beyond the nation state.

To many observers, it became palpable that we were entering a cosmopolitan age: the spread of modern communication technologies and the massive increase in global travel meant that political issues could no longer be dealt with in isolation. From the rise of multi-national corporations to the risks of global warming, new requirements for collective action steadily accrued. Global social movements, such as Attac, and the creation of the International Criminal Court in The Hague, represented some of the many outcomes. Indeed, the objective and subjective conditions for an influential cosmopolitan identity seemed overwhelming.

The last few years, however, have cast a dark shadow over this assumption. The reaction to the global financial and economic crisis brought the most obvious manifestation of this unease: the state is back, and not always in a benign manner. Yet there are also some deeper trends and developments which affect the normative core of cosmopolitanism. Summarised by scholars in three principles – tolerance, democratic legitimacy, effectiveness – this core now looks worryingly undermined.

First, there is considerable agitation around tolerance and its limits. This is not to suggest that we are witnessing a fundamental breakdown of societal relationships between groups of different beliefs and moral values, let alone heading towards a clash of civilisation of some kind. Rather, it indicates that policymakers in western liberal democracies, spun-out by polarising debates over civil liberties, multiculturalism and human rights, have lost confidence in the degree of openness and pluralism that our societies can actually bear.

Second, the democratic legitimacy of many of our regulatory systems looks fragile and is increasingly being contested by political players of all colours. This includes the international institutions under the UN framework, largely incapable of agreeing on a more balanced governance structure; a European Union struggling for wider popular acceptance; and a number of nation-states that have become plunged into controversy over appropriate forms of representation. The basic consequence of all this seems to be that redefining or ceding “national sovereignty” has become ever so difficult, if not (temporarily) impossible.

Third, quite a few transnational arrangements – whether treaties, pacts or processes – put together during the last two decades and sold to citizens as major steps towards managing interdependencies, have simply failed to deliver or are in danger of falling behind expectations. Examples include the Kyoto Protocol, the Millennium Development Goals, and the EU Stability and Growth Pact. Those who were always sceptical about institutionalising inter-state responsibilities undoubtedly feel the wind in their sails. Integrationists, up against it, are not having an easy time in the eye of the storm.

So is there even a crisis of cosmopolitanism? Politically, it appears more of a problem for the left than the right. This has less to do with morality despite frequent attempts to portray the right as heartless and/or indifferent, in particular when it comes to questions of poverty and climate change. In truth, concerns for any form of misery are as strongly ingrained in conservative social Catholics as they are in liberal do-gooders.

No, the reason for this lies in the inability of the left to respond to its critics in the actual debates about tolerance, democratic legitimacy and effectiveness. The left is inconsistent and hesitant in relation to important cultural issues, for instance on immigration. It is often speechless about how to empower individuals and restore trust in democratic processes, both within and beyond the nation-state. And it pays far too little attention to the specific challenge of how to use the levers of governance more effectively and creatively in the pursuit of social democratic objectives.

To many on the left, this is understood as an invitation to strengthen social democracy’s communitarian roots. They rightly recognise the importance of civil society, reciprocity and localism to centre-left politics. Yet this must not happen at the expense of cosmopolitan thinking, indispensable for any outward-looking social democratic project. Transformative politics in the 21st century much depends on our ability to shape and influence large-scale processes beyond our borders. Cosmopolitanism is central to this. We must make it work sooner rather than later.

© Reprinted with the permission of Policy Network

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