Monthly Archives: August 2015

is social science too anthropocentric?

Consider these statements: “A group just is the people who make it up.” “If a group can be said to have intentions at all, its intentions must somehow be the intentions of its members.” Or: “When a convention arises, such as the convention that a dollar has value, it must exist because the people who use dollars have imposed some meaning on material reality.”

In The Ant Trap: Rebuilding the Foundations of the Social Sciences, Brian Epstein criticizes an assumption that is implicit in these statements (which are mine, not his): that social phenomena can be fully explained by talking about people. It’s obvious that non-human phenomena–from evolution to climate change–influence or shape human beings. But the thesis that people fully determine social phenomena is worth critical scrutiny.

Epstein’s book is methodical and not subject to a short paraphrase, but some examples may give a flavor of the argument. For instance, is Starbucks composed of the people who work for it? Clearly not, because the coffee beans and water, the physical buildings, the company’s stock value, the customers and vendors, the rival coffee shops in the same markets, and many other factors make it the company that we know, just as much as its own people do. Indeed, its personnel could all turn over through an orderly process and it would still be Starbucks.

Likewise, if the Supreme Court intended to overturn the ban on corporate campaign contributions, was its intention a function of the preferences of the nine individual justices? No, because in order for them to intend to overturn the ban, they had to be legitimate Supreme Court justices within a legal system that presented them with this decision at a given moment. I could form an opinion of the Citizens United case, but I could not “intend” to rule for the government in that case, because I am not a justice. And what makes someone a justice at the moment when the Citizens United case comes before the court is a whole series of decisions by people not on the court, going back to founding era.

In general, Epstein writes, “facts about a group are not determined just by facts about its members.” And it’s not just other people who get involved. Non-human phenomena can be implicated in complicated ways. For instance, the Supreme Court is in session on certain days, and on all other days, a “vote” by a justice would not really be a vote. What makes us say that a certain day has arrived is the movement of the earth around the sun. So the motion of a heavenly body is implicated in the existence and the intentions of the Supreme Court. That is an apt example, because Epstein calls for a Copernican Revolution in which we stop seeing the social world as “anthropocentric.”

Note that we are talking here about grounding relations, not causation. Public opinion may influence the composition of the Supreme Court and its decisions. The movement of the earth does not influence or affect the Court, and you wouldn’t model it that way (with the earth as an independent variable). Rather, the court is in session on certain dates, and the calendar is grounded in facts about the solar system. Likewise, a president can influence the court, and you could model the president’s ideology as an independent variable. But the composition of the court is grounded in decisions by presidents and senates in a more fundamental way than causation. To be a justice is (in part) to have been nominated and confirmed.

When people criticize anthropocentrism, usually they mean to take human beings down a peg. But in this case, the critique is a testament to our creativity and agency. Human beings can create groups in limitless ways. We can intentionally ground facts about groups in circumstances beyond the control of their members, or indeed in facts that are under no human’s control (like the motion of the earth). It can be wise to limit the power of group members in just these ways. Epstein writes, “Our ability to anchor social facts to have nearly arbitrary grounds is the very thing that makes the social world so flexible and powerful. Why would we deprive ourselves of that flexibility?” But the same flexibility that empowers the human beings who design and operate groups also creates headaches for the analysts who try to model their work. “Compared to the social sciences, the ontology of natural science is a walk in the park.”

The Ant Trap does not offer one model as an alternative to the standard anthropocentric ones, because social phenomena are diverse as well as complex. But if we narrow the focus a bit from the whole social world and look at groups, they tend to require (in Epstein’s analysis), a two-level model. Various facts about each group are grounded in other facts. For instance, the fact that the Supreme Court is in session is grounded in facts about the calendar (as well as many other kinds of facts). In turn, these grounding relationships are anchored in different facts–for instance, facts about how US Constitution organized the judiciary system.

My day job involves very conventional social science. We study various groups, from Millennials and voters to Members of Congress. After reading The Ant Trap, I won’t think of groups in the same way again. I am not yet sure what specific methodological implications follow, but that seems an important question to pursue.

See also Brian Epstein’s TedX Standford talk, which captures some of the book.


the Millennials and politics

The summer 2015 edition of Extensions, a journal from University of Oklahoma that has good reach on Capitol Hill, is devoted to “The Millennials.” The main scholarly pieces are by me (“Talking About this Generation: The Millennials and Politics”), Russell J. Dalton (“The Good News is, The Bad News is Wrong: Another View of the Millennial Generation”), and Molly W. Andolina and Krista Jenkins (“Does Hope Abide? Millennial Activists and the 2008 Obama Campaign”). I emphasize that many supposed differences among generations are not really generational. For instance, everyone has lost trust in government, regardless of their age or birth year. Also, differences among members of the same generation who represent different social classes usually dwarf differences among generations. The whole issue is free online (below), and my own piece can be downloaded from here.


although Millennials are most numerous, youth share is shrinking

Richard Fry of the Pew Research Center reports, “This year, the ‘Millennial’ generation is projected to surpass the outsized Baby Boom generation as the nation’s largest living generation, according to the population projections released by the U.S. Census Bureau last month.” His article is illustrated with this graph:

That analysis tells one important story. It suggests that the youngest generation will have growing political, economic, and cultural clout, which is true in some respects.

But there is also another valid story: even as the Millennials outnumber each of the older generations taken separately, younger people are declining as a percentage of the whole population. That analysis suggests that their political clout (dependent on their share of voters and activists) will likely shrink.

How can this be? On one hand, the youngest generation is larger than its predecessors because of population growth, while the older generations are shrinking because of mortality. (The downward slope of the Boomers in the Pew chart above is a momento mori.) Yet, on the other hand, each of the older age categories is larger today than the same category was in the past. The median age, after all, is rising. Since there are many age categories, not just two, it’s possible for the youngest generation to grow relative to every other generation while also shrinking relative to the whole. And that is what has happened over the past 50 years, as my graph shows:

age distribution

If we are champions of youth civic engagement, I think we can take some advantage of the large numbers of Millennials, but we must also address the fact that youth represent a smaller proportion of the whole population than ever before.

on Hillary Clinton and Julius Jones of #blacklivesmatter

The taped discussion between Hillary Clinton and Julius Jones of Black Lives Matter is a rich and fascinating document (full transcript here). Jones begins by telling HRC, “You and your  family have been personally and politically responsible for policies that have caused … disasters in impoverished communities of color. … And so I just want to know how you feel about your role in that violence and how you plan to reverse it?”

HRC acknowledges the very bad consequences of the War on Drugs and mass incarceration. But the two disagree about whether those policies were “extensions of white supremacist violence” (Jones) or else well-intentioned responses to the “very serious crime wave that was impacting primarily communities of color and poor people” and to the “very real concerns of people in the communities themselves” (HRC).

(NB It is possible that both interpretations are true, or at least partly so. For an interesting contemporaneous document on Black politicians and the 1994 Crime Bill, see this clipping, courtesy of the Brennan Center.)

Clinton repeatedly asks Jones for policy proposals, and Jones repeatedly presses Clinton for more explicit expressions of regret or changes of heart. The dialog ends with this exchange:

JONES: The piece that’s most important, and I stand here in your space, and I say this as respectfully as I can, but you don’t tell Black people what we need to do. And we won’t tell you all what you need to do.

HILLARY CLINTON: I’m not telling you—I’m just telling you to tell me.



HILLARY CLINTON: Well, respectfully, if that is your position then I will talk only to White people about how we are going to deal with the very real problems—

QUESTION: That’s not what I mean. That’s not what I mean. But like what I’m saying is what you just said was a form of victim-blaming. Right you were saying that what the Black Lives Matter movement needs to do to change white hearts—

HILLARY CLINTON: Look I don’t believe you change hearts. I believe you change laws, you change allocation of resources, you change the way systems operate. …

One difference here is about mechanisms of change. Clinton acknowledges that there is value to the “the consciousness-raising, the advocacy, the passion, … of your movement,” but she believes that change always requires the passage of laws that reallocate rights and powers. Jones thinks that what Clinton believes and says to other White people about their own responsibility is a crucial element of change.

Another (related) difference is about the diagnosis of social problems. Clinton sees a set of interlocking causes for mass incarceration, including well-intentioned laws, economic factors, racism, etc. “You know, it’s not just an economic issue—although I grant that some of you will see it like that. But it’s more than that and I think there is a sense that, low level offenders, disparity treatment, we’ve got to do something about that. I think that a lot of the issues about housing and about job opportunities—’Ban The Box’—a lot of these things, let’s get an agenda that addresses as much of the problem as we can.”

In partial contrast, Jones sees one root cause to the problem, and it involves the hearts of white people (which Clinton has said you can’t change). Jones says, “Until someone takes that message and speaks that truth to White people in this country so that we can actually take on anti-Blackness as a founding problem in this country, I don’t believe that there is going to be a solution.”

My thoughts, for what they’re worth:

First, if it is ever helpful to ask any candidate about her values and priorities, then it is appropriate to probe Hillary Clinton’s “heart” on questions about race. I tend to think that we rely too much on psychological evaluations of candidates. Our impressions are almost always inaccurate, because our relationships with politicians are mediated; and they have less scope for choice than we assume. But this is a huge issue on which President Hillary Clinton might have quite a bit of scope for choice. She also has a problematic record. It is helpful to know what she deeply thinks now. That is information a citizen can use in deciding how and whether to vote.

But I have doubts about a general strategy of trying to get people to acknowledge their privileges. (This is more about the White voters to whom HRC would talk about white supremacy than about her own opinions.) “Privilege” means an unjustifiable advantage. Telling people they have a privilege may easily remind them of an advantage that they will want to protect. Cases are rare indeed when large numbers of people have acknowledged privileges and then dropped them. One example was August 4, 1789, when representatives of the French aristocracy stayed up all night voting to repeal the various privileges of the nobility. It was a glorious night but it did not end well.

The last paragraph may seem cynical, but I am optimistic about other paths to change that do not involve getting privileged people to acknowledge their privileges. The oppressed can gain leverage (economic or political) and negotiate change. Or a majority can be persuaded that change is in their interests as well. For instance, middle class white people may be persuaded that mass incarceration is unnecessarily expensive. In the transcript, HRC says, “That’s what I’m trying to put together in a way that I can explain and I can sell it.  Because in politics, if you can’t explain it and you can’t sell it, it stays on its shelf.” I don’t know if she has in mind arguments about cost, but they would exemplify arguments that she could “sell.”

I am generally committed to a critique of root-cause analysis. (See Roberto Unger against root causes and this post on the idea of root causes in education.) I believe that problems typically involve multiple causes and complex feedback loops; and sometimes you can make the most substantial and lasting difference by attacking an apparently superficial element of a system. That said, the Black Lives Matter campaign is making a strong argument that racism, if not the one root cause of a wide range of problems, is at least necessarily involved in any solution.

Finally, I do not agree with Clinton that you can’t–or shouldn’t–“change hearts.” In the 2008 primaries, she and Senator Obama had an important debate about the role of bottom-up social movements in reforming society by changing values and perceptions. Clinton tended to disparage their impact, arguing, for instance, that the main impact of the Civil Rights Movement came from politicians’ passing the Civil Rights Acts. I think Obama was right to emphasize the deep changes in values and everyday behavior that arose from the social movement. (See Wilentz v. Ganz on the Obama social movement and the Clinton/Obama spat.)

However, a national political leader is well placed to pass laws but poorly placed to lead a social movement, as I think we have observed during President Obama’s period in the White House. So it could be that HRC is correct about the role she should be playing, even if she is wrong to downplay social movements that change hearts.

(Cf. #Blacklivesmatter and Sen. Sanders: social democracy and identity politics.)

debating the continued importance of institutions

Back in June, at the Boston Civic Media conference, I was part of a panel with Ethan Zuckerman, Director of the MIT Center for Civic Media, Christine Gaspar, director of the Center for Urban Pedagogy, and Doris Sommer, professor and Director of the Cultural Agents Initiative at Harvard University. Among other topics, we debated the continued importance of institutions in a world increasingly characterized by loose networks. I took an institutionalist (maybe even an unrepentantly paleo-institutionalist) line. Boston Civic Media has put up a brief and cogent summary of the panel as well as the full audio, which is below. See also “why I still believe in institutions,” which I posted immediately after.