Category Archives: epistemic networks

seeking a religious congregation for a research study

I am seeking a congregation (of any religion, denomination, tradition, size, and location) for a research study. My interest is in testing a new method that I have been developing with colleagues that could apply to any community. I would give the congregation’s leadership–or its full membership–easy-to-understand findings about shared values and areas of disagreement within their congregation that should have practical value for planning events and programs.

Please consider whether this project might interest a congregation to which you belong or one that you know. Inquiries are welcome. More details follow:

I would ask the clergy or other leader(s) of the congregation to encourage members to take anonymous online surveys. The minimum would be two: a short survey with open-ended responses followed by a multiple-choice survey a week or two later that is based on the first one. I would be interested in repeating the multiple-choice survey months later to understand change, although that’s optional. If it’s practical, I would also like to visit and observe informally to get a feel for the community.

I would publish a scholarly study that would refer to the congregation anonymously (e.g., “a Protestant church in the Northeastern USA”). I would also provide the congregation with concise findings in PowerPoint format and would be happy to discuss them. No money would change hands. The congregation would own the PowerPoint and would not be obliged to publish or share it in any way. No individuals would be obligated to take the surveys, and I would expect only some people to do so. No identifiable information about individuals would be shared either within or beyond the congregation.

I could provide more detail about the method, but in brief, we don’t simply ask people their opinions about values, beliefs, and norms. Instead, we ask them how their personal opinions relate to each other. For instance, do they value A because they value B? Do they think that A causes B? From those responses, we generate network diagrams of the beliefs of each respondent and of the community as a whole. In this study, the questions would focus on religion and the congregation as a community, not on politics (unless respondents happen to bring up political matters).

Typically, each person’s responses are unique—a nice illustration of the uniqueness of human beings and how much we lose when we assign people to categories. Yet we typically see clusters of agreement and disagreement that can otherwise be overlooked. Understanding these patterns should provide ideas for visitors, readings, events, discussion groups (etc.) that would be valuable for the specific congregation.

what if people’s political opinions are very heterogeneous?

Here is what I will call a “top-down” theory of public opinion: Everyone should assess the most important issues of the day. An example might be the federal budget. Individuals are entitled to their personal beliefs or preferences about taxation, spending, and deficits; nevertheless, these three topics have an objective logical structure. If you want lower taxes and no deficits, you must favor spending cuts. If you want more spending, you must support either tax increases or bigger deficits. It is a civic obligation to think through your own complete view of these issues.

Analyzing a nationally representative survey of such matters should reveal that: a) most citizens hold opinions about them, and b) everyone recognizes the same underlying logic, even as they disagree about priorities. Citizens should vote according to their priorities, and the majority should prevail.

If, however, a) and b) are false, then democracy is flawed. Perhaps people should learn more and pay more attention, or the political system should offer greater clarity, or perhaps democracy is simply a false ideal.

Philip Converse’s “The Nature of Belief Systems in Mass Publics” (1964) has been enormously influential (cited more that 11,000 times). He does not employ exactly the framework with which I began this post, but his analysis suggests that democracy is a flawed ideal.

Analyzing surveys of political specialists, such as congressional candidates, Converse finds that these respondents meet both tests mentioned above. Professional politicians and other experts hold opinions on the great issues of the day that fit together in similar ways, even as they debate the contested questions. However, according to Converse, surveys of representative Americans reveal scant opinions and no consistent structure among opinions. Ordinary people are not, therefore, in a position to weigh in on the debates of the day.

Converse doesn’t use network analysis, but I can convert his core findings into network maps. (For those interested, I turned every tau-gamma coefficient above .05 in Converse’s Table 7 into an edge in these graphs.)

Congressional candidates share the following model of the political debate ca. 1962.

Whether candidates are Democrats or Republicans is strongly related to their views of federal interventions on education, housing, and employment, and those issues are linked together. Military aid to foreign countries is not connected–it stands alone as a topic. (“FEPC” means the proposed Fair Employment Practices Commission.)

Meanwhile, this is the result of using the same method with Converse’s data from representative adults at the same time:

There are no links at at all among the ideas (meaning no coefficients > .5). Converse suggests that people are not in a position to play the role expected in a “civics class” theory of democracy, assessing and voting on the issues of the day.

Now here is a rival, “bottom up” theory: The social world is enormously complex. Responsible people may hold opinions on myriad issues, and no one can have a view about everything. Even if we focus on a single domain, such as the federal budget, it is highly complex. Federal spending includes funds for many different purposes. Each federal program has a financial cost, but it also has moral significance, behavioral impact, symbolic meaning, likelihood of success, etc. If people are diverse and free, they will naturally form many different structures of opinions about the range of topics that they have considered so far.

Imagine a sample of people, each of whom holds a thoughtful and carefully considered view of public issues and connects each opinion to other opinions in rigorous ways. However, each person holds a unique structure. Then, if researchers contact each person and ask a short list of survey questions (out of the innumerable questions that they could ask), and the aggregate survey data is analyzed using the methods pioneered by Converse, it will reveal no significant links at all. The heterogeneity of individuals’ beliefs will yield very low coefficients at the group level. Their graph will look just like the second graph above–not because they are tuned out of politics or undisciplined in their thinking, but because they differ.

Converse (p. 44) explicitly acknowledges this possibility. He notes that if people’s opinions become “increasingly idiosyncratic” as they move away from the elite, we will find “little aggregative patterning of belief combinations” in their data, because they will not know “what goes with what” (presumably, according to the elites) and will “therefore put belief elements together in a great variety of ways.”

However, Converse counters with a different kind of evidence. According to his analysis of longitudinal data from the American National Election Studies from 1958-60, most people’s opinions on most issues change as if by sheer chance as time passed. This implies that they do not hold “well knit but highly idiosyncratic belief systems” (p. 47). Instead, they have no “meaningful beliefs” at all (p. 51). The exceptions are various small and specialized “issue publics” who hold stable opinions about specific concerns, including many Blacks and some White Southerners on questions of race.

On this point, I would only note that an enormous number of longitudinal studies have been conducted since 1962, and some find stability over time (e.g., Kustov, Laaker & Reller 2021), unexplained–and perhaps random–change (Jaeger, M. M. 2006), or a mix of the two, depending on this issue (Kiley & Vaisey 2020). For instance, according to the last of those studies, the proportion of individuals who change their opinions about abortion is extraordinarily low. Converse’s blanket claim that most people’s opinions on most issues change randomly seems overstated.

I do not assume that all of my fellow Americans (or anyone else) holds complex and rigorous mental models of politics. Some people hardly hold any opinions, or cannot connect their opinions together, or do so in illogical ways. My point is that we cannot tell from aggregate data what proportion of people hold thoughtful views unless we assume that all worthy views must manifest the same structure. Converse uses scare quotes around the word “proper” when he mentions “the sophisticated observer’s assumption of what beliefs go with other beliefs,” but if we seriously doubt that elites understand the “proper” arrangement, then we should expect regular people to exhibit great diversity.

In that case, we should seek to understand the heterogeneous structures of ordinary people’s views. This kind of research has three important purposes:

  1. It may counter the very low assessment of public capacity that is fashionable now in political science, deriving from Converse. That skepticism may prove self-reinforcing, since experts who doubt the public’s ability to reason will not be motivated to defend or improve democracy.
  2. It may yield specific findings about structures of thought shared by sub-groups. Those insights will be invisible as long as we only we ask whether the public shares the structures assumed by political elites.
  3. It offers a perspective on political institutions. Even if many people hold worthy but heterogeneous structures of ideas, we probably still need mass elections to address prominent topics, such as whether to raise or cut taxes. I support that kind of democracy. But it will always be frustrating, because the structure presented by elites will fail to match the reasonable structures in many people’s minds. Fortunately, we can complement mass majoritarian democracy with other forms of participation. Civil society provides an enormous range of specialized groups, and individuals can choose to join the groups that match their personal ideologies, exit ones that don’t, advocate for adjustments within the groups they belong to, and compete for new members. Meanwhile, relatively small and relatively discursive bodies, such as local town meetings or Participatory Budgeting sessions, offer individuals opportunities to share their idiosyncratic views in public. We might understand those venues as opportunities for deliberation that can yield wiser judgments. Or we might understand such venues as places where people can display their uniqueness, as Hannah Arendt advocated. Thus a “bottom up” theory supports decentralization, pluralism, or polycentricity.

See also: Moral and Political Discussion and Epistemic Networks; modeling a political discussion; individuals in cultures: the concept of an idiodictuon; ideologies and complex systems; don’t let the behavioral revolution make you fatalistic, polycentricity: the case for a (very) mixed economy, etc. I also acknowledge Jon Green, Nic Fishman, Sarah Shugars, and others who are working in this general domain today.

Moral and Political Discussion and Epistemic Networks

Yesterday, I got to give an International Society for Quantitative Ethnography (ISQE) Webinar on “Moral and Political Discussion and Epistemic Networks.” I really enjoyed the questions and conversation. This is the video of the whole event:

Abstract: An individual holds linked beliefs about political or moral issues, which we can model as a network. How these ideas are linked together influences the person’s actions and opinions. When individuals discuss, they share some portions of their respective networks of which they are conscious at the time. Some network structures are better than others for discussion: overly centralized or scattered networks are problematic. Individuals tend to demonstrate similar network structures on different issues. Thus, relying on certain kinds of networks is a character trait. People, with their respective networks of ideas, are also embedded in social networks. An idea is more likely to spread depending on features of both the social network and the idea networks of the people who interact. As a whole, a population may develop a shared network structure. An idea that is widely shared and frequently central in individuals’ networks becomes a norm. Institutions are partly composed of such norms. A community or a culture is a single network with disagreement. Ultimately, all such networks interconnect. This theory has implications for politics, ethics, and research methodologies.

Additional ISQE webinars are listed here.

modeling a political discussion

In 2015, students at my university, Tufts, and at Kansas State University discussed the same topic–the social determinants of health–in online forums. Colleagues and I analyzed the text in a novel way. The underlying theory is that conversations can be modeled as networks, where the nodes are specific ideas and the links are reasons and other connections that people assert. Specifically, we sought to use Epistemic Network Analysis (ENA) to model and compare the conversations. ENA is now very easy to use online and I have been playing with it for other purposes. One of its distinctive features is its ability to locate specific ideas at meaningful locations on a two-dimensional graph so that you can see dimensions of agreement and disagreement.

Our results are now published as Peter Levine, Brendan Eagan & David Williamson Shaffer, “Deliberation as an Epistemic Network: A Method for Analyzing Discussion,” in Barbara Wasson and Szilvia Zörgo (eds.), Advances in Quantitative Ethnography, proceedings of the Third International Conference, ICQE 2021 Virtual Event, November 6–11, 2021 (Springer Switzerland, 2022), pp. 17-33.

The image I reproduce with this post shows one particular ENA visualization of the discussions. The one at Tufts is in blue; the one at KSU is in red; and the one in the middle shows the difference between them (literally, the Tufts network subtracted from the KSU network).

You would have to read our paper to get a full explanation, but here is a glimpse. Basically, the Tufts students tended to connect inequities in health with race and class. Some of the KSU students also made those connections, but some of them drew connections between bad health outcomes and personal behavior, for which they blamed individuals’ upbringings. Thus the KSU discussion roughly looks like a triangle with three corners (race and class, personal choices, and health outcomes), while the Tufts discussion omits one of those corners.

The same result might have been clear enough from a conventional approach–reading, interpreting, and (possibly) coding the transcripts. However, we argue that the plausibility of the ENA findings validates the method, which can then be used to model other discussions.

individuals in cultures: the concept of an idiodictuon

In linguistics, a language is a whole system of communication used by a group, encompassing its semantics, grammar, and pragmatics. A dialect is a particular form of a language typical of a specific region. A sociolect is like a dialect, except that it is used by a dispersed social group, such as a profession or a class. A register is a form of a language used in a particular situation or context, such as by lawyers in court. And an idiolect is the distinctive way that an individual speaks: that person’s active vocabulary, grammar, accent, and preferred forms and style of speech.

Previous authors have used these distinctions from linguistics to inform models of culture. Language offers a useful model or example for understanding culture because we are familiar with explicit efforts to learn second languages, to list components of a given language in a dictionary, and to invent a writing system to represent a language (Goodenough 1981, p. 3; Goodenough 2003). I am especially interested in the aspects of culture that involve value-judgments: ethics, politics, aesthetics and religion.

I believe the following ten points from linguistics are relevant to thinking about culture (in general) and specifically about values:

  1. Registers, dialects, sociolects, and languages all encompass variation. Each person talks and understands differently from others and evolves as a speaker over time. Therefore, the same body of communication by real human beings can be carved up in many ways. For instance, we can draw a dialect map of the USA that shows more or fewer regions, and we can declare the same material to be a language or a dialect depending on whether we prefer to accentuate differences or similarities.
  2. Idiolects do not nest neatly inside dialects and sociolects, which do not not nest neatly inside languages. They are more like complex Venn diagrams. An individual may draw on several dialects or languages. In cases of code-switching, the individual sometimes uses one register or sociolect and sometimes switches to a different one. Or people may consistently use a mix of influences from multiple sources. For instance, Spanglish is characterized by Spanish influences on English–and there are several different regional Spanglish dialects within the United States today. On the other hand, imagine an elderly American whose speech reflects some influence of Yiddish from the old country. Her idiolect is then not part of any dialect but is a unique mix of two languages with which she may successfully communicate even though no one else nearby sounds like her.
  3. Nobody knows all of any given language, dialect, or sociolect. An effort to catalogue an entire language describes a body of material that none of the users know in full. For instance, nobody knows all the meanings of all the words in an impressive dictionary (which is, itself, an incomplete catalogue of the entire language). Instead, people share sufficient, overlapping portions of the whole that they can communicate, to varying degrees.
  4. Each of us knows our own entire idiolect. (That is what the word means.) However, we could not fully describe it. For instance, I would not be able to sit down and list all the words I know and all the definitions I employ of those words, let alone the grammatical rules I employ. If I were presented with a dictionary and asked which words I already know, I would check too many of them. The dictionary would prompt me to recall words and meanings that are normally buried too deep in my memory for me to use them. That brings up the next point:
  5. Language is dynamic, constantly changing as a result of interaction. A language constantly borrows from other languages. A person’s idiolect is subject to change depending on whom the person talks to. The best way to characterize an idiolect or a language (or anything in between) is to collect a corpus of material and investigate its vocabulary and grammar. That is a worthwhile empirical exercise, but it requires a caveat. The corpus is a sample taken within a specific timeframe. The idiolect or the language will change.
  6. It is possible to make a language (or a smaller unit, like a sociolect) relatively consistent among individuals and sharply distinguish it from other languages. For instance, a government can set rules for one national language and encourage or even compel compliance through schooling, media, religious observance, and even criminal penalties. Law schools teach students to talk like lawyers in court. However, there are also language continua, in which local people speak alike, people a little further away speak a little differently, and so on until they become mutually unintelligible. Before the rise of the nation-state and modern mass media, language continua were much more common than sharply distinguishable languages. Linguistic boundaries require exercises of power that are costly and never fully successful. Meanwhile, at the level of an idiolect, individuals may strive to make their own speech consistent and distinctive or else let it change dynamically in relation with others. People vary in this respect.
  7. Language is–in some way or degree–holistic. That is to say, the components of a language depend on other components. For instance, a definition of a word uses other words that need definitions. I leave aside interesting and complicated debates about holism in the philosophy of language and presume that some degree of holism is inescapable.
  8. Therefore, it can be helpful to diagram an idiolect, a dialect, or a language as a network of connected components rather than a mere list. I am not saying that language is a network; language is language. However, semantic network diagrams are useful models of idiolects, dialects, and languages because they identify important components (e.g., words) and connections among them. A semantic network diagram for a group of people will capture only a small proportion of each individual’s language but may illuminate what they share, showing how they communicate effectively.
  9. While words and other components of language are linked in ways that can be modeled as networks, people also belong to social networks, linked together by relationships of influence. A celebrity influences many others because many people receive her communications. The celebrity is the hub of a large social network. At the opposite extreme, a hermit would not influence, or be influenced by, anyone (except perhaps by way of memories).
  10. Whole populations change their languages surprisingly quickly, and sometimes without mass physical migration. The same population that spoke a Celtic language (Common Brittonic), transitioned partly to Latin, then fully to Germanic Anglo-Saxon, and then to a mixture of Anglo-Saxon and French without very many people ever moving across the sea to England. Today about 33 million people in South Asia also speak dialects of it. A few people can strongly influence a whole population due to their network position–which, in turn, often reflects power.

The point of this list is to suggest some similarities with other aspects of culture. Like a language, another part of a culture can be modeled as a shared network of components (e.g., beliefs, values, or practices) as they are used by people who are organized in social networks, which reflect power.

Such a model is a radical simplification, because each individual holds a distinctive and evolving set of components and connections (e.g., linked moral values); but simplifications are useful. And we can model culture usefully at multiple levels, from the individual to a vast nation.

There are precedents for this kind of analysis. The anthropologist Ward Hunt Goodenough encountered the concept of idiolects in the 1940s, while studying for a doctorate in anthropology (Goodenough 2003). By 1962, he had postulated the idea of “each individual’s private culture, if we may call it that, [which] includes his conception of several wholly or partially distinct cultures (some well elaborated and others only crudely developed in his mind) which he attributes to others individually and collectively, both within and without his community. A person’s private culture is likely to include knowledge of more than one language, more than one system of etiquette, more than one set of beliefs, more than one hierarchy of choices, and more than one set of principles for getting things done” (Goodenough, 1963, 261)

Later, Goodenough named a private culture a “propriospect” from the Latin words for “private” and “view” (Goodenough 1981, p. 98). Harry Wolcott summarizes: “Propriospects … are networks of sense-making connections created and constantly being reformulated by each of us out of direct experience. As we develop and refine our competencies, simultaneously we ‘construct” (and continually ‘re-model’) our individual propriospects” (Wolcott 1991, p. 267).

Individuals may actually share fundamental characteristics of a group, they may perceive themselves to share those characteristics, and they may be viewed by others as sharing them–but these perceptions do not necessarily align, because every group encompasses diverse propriospects. For instance, you might think that believing in God is essential to a culture; and since you believe in God, you are part of that culture; but someone else may define the culture differently and view you as an outsider.

In a review of Goodenough, Mac Marshall (1982) wrote, “While some may disagree with the finer points of his argument, his position on these matters represents the dominant orientation in American anthropology today.”

A different precedent derives from the Polish tradition of humanistic sociology, founded by Florian Znaniecki in the early 1900s. In the 1980s, a Polish sociologist named Marek Ziolkowski (later a distinguished diplomat) wrote interestingly about “idio-epistemes” (presumably from the Greek words for “private” and “knowledge”) meaning “not only … the cognitive content of an individual’s consciousness at a given moment, but … the whole potential content that can be activated by the individual at any moment, used for definite action, and reproduced introspectively.”

Ziolkowski called on sociologists to “enquire into the social regularities in the formation of idio-epistemes, seek relationships among them, establish basic intragroup similarities an intergroup differences.” He acknowledge that any individual will have a unique mentality, “yet every individual shares an overwhelming majority of opinions and items of information with other definite individuals and/or groups.” Those similarities arise because of shared environments and deliberate mutual influence. Ziolkowski coined the word “socio-episteme” for those aspects of an idio-episteme that are shared with other individuals. As he noted, these distinctions were inspired by concepts from linguistics.

Even earlier, in 1951, the psychologist Saul Rosenzweig had coined the word “idioverse” for an individual’s universe of events” (Rosenzweig 1951, p. 301).

An analogous move is Wilfred Cantwell Smith’s influential redefinition of “religion” from a bounded system of beliefs (each of which contradicts all other religions in some key respects) to a “cumulative tradition” of thought and behavior that varies internally and overlaps with other traditions (Smith 1962). According to this model, everyone has a unique religion, although shared traditions are important.

These coinages–idioverse, propriospect, idio-episteme, and cumulative tradition–capture ideas that I would endorse, and they reflect research, respectively, in psychology, anthropology, sociology, and religious studies. However, none of the vocabulary has really caught on. There may still be room for a new entrant, and I would like to emphasize the network structure of culture more than the previous words have done. Thus I tentatively suggest idiodictuon, from the classical Greek words for “private” and “net” (as in a fishing net–but modern Greek uses a derivation to mean a network). An individual has an idiodictuon, a group has a phylodictuon, and a whole people shares a demodictuon.

These words are unlikely to stick any better than their predecessors, but if they did, it would reflect their diffusion through a social network plus their utility when added to people’s existing networks of ideas. That is how all ideas propagate, or so I would argue.

A final point: “culture” encompasses an enormous range of components, including words, values, beliefs, habits, desires, and many more. Given this range, it is useful to carve out narrower domains for study. Language is one. I am especially interested in the domain of values, so I would focus on the interconnections among the values that people hold.

Note, however, that there is no neat way to distinguish values from other aspects of culture, such as desires and urges or beliefs about nature. In his influential empirical theory of moral psychology, Jonathan Haidt identifies at least five “Moral Foundations,” one of which is “sanctity/degradation.” I would have treated this category as a powerful human motivation, akin to sexual desire or violence, but not as a moral category, parallel to “care/harm.” Maybe Haidt is right, or maybe I am, but the evidence isn’t empirical. People actually see all kinds of things as the basis for action and make all kinds of connections among the things they believe. They may link a moral judgment to a metaphysical belief, or a personal aversion, or an aspect of their identity, or a belief about prevailing norms. When we carve out an area for study and call it something like “morality” or “ethics” (or “religion,” or “politics”) we are making our own claims about how that domain should be defined. Such claims require philosophical arguments, not data.

So the steps are: (1) define a domain, a priori, (2) collect a corpus of material relevant to that domain, (3) map it as a network of ideas, and (4) map the human relationships among people who hold different idiodictuons.

For me, the ultimate point is to try to have better values, and the study of what people actually value is preparatory for that inquiry. Clifford Geertz concludes his famous “Thick Description” essay: “To look at the symbolic dimensions of social action–art, religion, ideology, science, law, morality, common sense–is not to turn away from the existential dilemmas of life for some empyrean realm of de-emotionalized forms; it is to plunge into the midst of them. The essential vocation of interpretive anthropology is not to answer our deepest questions, but to make available to us answers that others, guarding other sheep in other valleys, have given, and thus to include them in the consultable record of what man has said.” 

References:

  • Geertz, Clifford, “Thick description: Toward an interpretive theory of culture.” In Geertz, The interpretation of cultures. Basic books, 1973. (pp. 41-51).
  • Goodenough, Ward, Cooperation in change : an anthropological approach to community development. New York, Russel Sage 1963
  • Goodenough, Ward H. In Pursuit of Culture, Annual Review of Anthropology 2003 32:1, 1-12
  • Goodenough, Ward H. Culture, Language and Society (Menlo Park: Benjamin Cummings, 1981)
  • Mashall, Mac, “Culture, Language, and Society by Ward H. Goodenough” (review), American Anthropologist, 84: 936-937.
  • Rosenzweig, Saul. “Idiodynamics in Personality Theory with Special Reference to Projective Methods 1.” Dialectica 5, no. 3-4 (1951): 293-311.
  • Smith, William Cantwell, The Meaning and End of Religion (1962), Fortress Press Edition, Minneapolis, 1991
  • Wolcott, Harry F. “Propriospect and the acquisition of culture.” Anthropology & Education Quarterly 22, no. 3 (1991): 251-273.
  • Ziolkowski, Marek, “How to Make the Sociology of Knowledge Sociological?.” The Polish Sociological Bulletin 57/60 (1982): 85-105.

See also individuals’ ideologies as networks; ideologies and complex systems; judgment in a world of power and institutions: outline of a view; from I to we: an outline of a theory, etc.