Wednesday, July 31, 2013

A new history of China

James Lee and Byong-Ho Lee have created a remarkable new course on Coursera titled "A New History for a New China, 1700-2000: New Data and New Methods, Part 1". This production is a genuinely important contribution to Chinese history. The course is not designed as an up-to-date summary of the history of early modern China, along the lines of Fairbank's China: A New History, Second Enlarged Edition. It is not a survey of Chinese history as traditionally treated.  Instead, it is a clear and logical presentation of a very different way of thinking about China's history: not as a chronology of events, dynasties, revolutions, rebellions, and notable individuals, but rather as an analytical study of the forces underlying pervasive social realities in China over this three-hundred year period. The key topics are privilege, wealth, power, and health, and the methodology is solidly quantitative. The analysis depends on a number of large data sets of sub-populations that James Lee and colleagues have assembled in the past thirty years. And Lee and Lee use advanced statistical and quantitative methods to probe the associations that exist within these datasets that would cast light on topics like political power, social mobility, and the workings of institutions. Most importantly, Lee and Lee are determined to probe the large sociological questions on the basis of demographic and social data about historical individuals.

The Lee-Campbell research group has created eight data sets with millions of unique individuals from specific places and periods in China over the past three centuries. These sets include population registers for over 500,000 distinct individuals. These datasets constitute the empirical core of the course.

The course is organized in three large segments:
  • Part I. Who Gets What? social structure, mobility, distribution
  • Part II. Who Survives? mortality, fertility, marriage
  • Part III. Who Cares? religion, gender, ethnicity, nationalism
Part I is underway now, and later parts will be produced in the near future.

Lee's organizing questions are sociological and demographic. In Part I the key questions are these:
  • Why do some people rise to the top while others do not?
  • Why is wealth more unequally distributed in some societies than in others?
The approach taken here, and pervasively throughout the research of the Lee-Campbell research group, is quantitative.
We present the results from a new scholarship of discovery based largely on the creation and analysis of big social science data from historical and contemporary China…. [This allows us] to construct a new sort of history from below that contributes to a more global understanding of human history and human behavior.
So what are the statistical foundations of their analysis? Here are the datasets that are used in the course:
  1. China Multi-Generational Panel Data-Liaoning (1.2M records for 260K individuals)
  2. China Multi-Generational Panel Data-Shuangcheng (1.5M records for 125K individuals and 19K land plots, 1870-1906)
  3. China Multi-Generational Panel Data-Imperial Lineage (250K individual life histories 1640-1935)
  4. dataset of 350K+ individuals with university academic records or civil service examination results
  5. dataset of 75K successful Imperial Examination Juren and Jinshi, 1371-1904
  6. dataset of 120K Chinese university graduates, 1902-1951
  7. dataset of 175K Peking and Suzhou university students, 1952-2004
  8. dataset from Chinese collectivization, 1947-48, Shuangcheng County
It is plain that there are a large number of individuals included in these datasets. These bodies of data permit a very precise and rigorous level of analysis by the researchers in probing various kinds of causal associations. But it is also plain that they offer very focused and specialized points of observation of the social processes taking place across China and across time. So there is a background premise that seems credible but also seems to require more explicit discussion:
  • there are identifiable and pervasive social processes at work in China, and detailed study of Liaoning or Shuangcheng can identify some of these processes. 
The discoveries about the causal factors involved in Chinese social mobility that can be drawn from dataset #3, for example, are most interesting if we can infer that the contours of causation that we discover here are roughly similar to social mobility processes in other parts of China in the Qing period. On the other hand, it might turn out that mobility in the Lower Yangzi region is based on factors having to do with commerce and wealth to a greater extent than was true in North China's Liaoning.

It is also interesting that Lee and his collaborators take a somewhat structural approach to social causation:
The driving factors of history are not just the ideas or actions of Great Men (or Women), but also from society as a whole, and that socio-economic forces including social stratification and wealth distribution together with politics are important factors that "push and pull" on actors and actions to create historical change.
This description singles out socio-economic forces as objects of study.

Another thing that strikes me is that the work presented here is "comparative historical sociology" rather than traditional historical research. (Lee sometimes refers to his discipline as "historical social science", and he emphasizes that the course is "explicitly comparative".) The approach seeks to evaluate hypotheses about how these large variables are influenced (wealth, power, longevity, health status, education). The opening comments James Lee makes in the introductory lecture about intuitive and anecdotal historical interpretation, and the comments about analytical rather than chronological organization, underline the point: this is not traditional history.
Our class eschews the standard chronological narrative arc for an analytic approach that focuses on specific discoveries and on how these new facts complicate our understanding of comparative societies, human behavior, and the construction of individual and group identities.
Unlike traditional history which focuses largely on the biographies and actions of specific historic figures, A New History for a New China seeks to write a history based on the experiences of all people, elites and non-elites.
This might imply that Lee and his colleagues mean to replace traditional historiography of China with the "big data" approach. But James Lee and others in this research group make it clear (outside this course) that these researchers are in fact pluralistic about historical research; they don't mean to say that historians who are more interested in the specific circumstances leading to change in a largely chronological structure are doing shabby history. There is a great deal of very exciting new historical research on China that has come forward in the past twenty years, and much of that research takes the form of organized narratives. (Peter Perdue's China Marches West: The Qing Conquest of Central Eurasia is a very good example.) These are good pieces of rigorous historical knowledge creation as well, though not based on large quantitative data sets. So this sociological, "big data" approach is one important new contribution, but not a replacement for all other historiographical approaches.

This course is well worth following. It does an excellent job of tying together the diverse and rigorous work that the Lee-Campbell research group has been doing for thirty years, and it provides a coherent framework and scheme of presentation for that work. In this sense I think it illustrates a virtue of the MOOC format that hasn't yet been discussed very much: as a platform for the presentation and dissemination of specialized ongoing research programs for a broader specialist public. The lectures are downloadable, and when completed they will represent a highly valuable "new media" presentation of some very interesting and challenging results in the historical sociology of China.

(James Lee and his colleagues have published quite a number of books relevant to this course. Particularly significant are One Quarter of Humanity: Malthusian Mythology and Chinese Realities, 1700-2000, Fate and Fortune in Rural China: Social Organization and Population Behavior in Liaoning 1774-1873, Life under Pressure: Mortality and Living Standards in Europe and Asia, 1700-1900 (Eurasian Population and Family History), each with co-authors.)

Monday, July 29, 2013

Quine's indeterminacies

W.V.O. Quine's writings were key to the development of American philosophy in the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s. His landmark works ("Two Dogmas of Empiricism," "Ontological Relativity," and Word and Object, for example) provided a very appealing combination of plain speaking, seriousness, and import. Quine's voice certainly stands out among all American philosophers of his period.

Quine's insistence on naturalism as a view of philosophy's place in the world is one of his key contributions. Philosophy is not a separate kind of theorizing and reasoning about the world, according to Quine; it is continuous with the empirical sciences through which we study the natural world (of which humanity and the social world are part). Also fundamental is his coherence theory of the justification of beliefs, both theoretical and philosophical. This theory was the source of John Rawls's method of reasoning for a theory of justice based the idea of "reflective equilibrium." This approach depended on careful weighing of our "considered judgments" and the adjustments of ethical beliefs needed to create the most coherent overall system of ethical beliefs.

There is another feature of Quine's work that is particularly appealing: the fundamental desire that Quine had to make sense of obscure issues and to work through to plausible solutions. There is sometimes a premium on obscurity and elliptical thinking in some corners of the intellectual world. Quine was a strong antidote to this tendency. (John Searle makes similar points about the value of clarity in philosophical argument in his comments on Foucault here.)

Take "Ontological Relativity" (OR), the first of the Dewey Lectures in 1968 (link). The essay articulates some of Quine's core themes -- the behaviorist perspective on language and meaning, the crucial status of naturalism, and the indeterminacy of meaning and reference. But the essay also demonstrates a sensitive and careful reading of Dewey. Quine shows himself to be a philosopher who was able to give a respectful and insightful account of the ideas of other great philosophers.
Philosophically I am bound to Dewey by the naturalism that dominated his last three decades. With Dewey I hold that knowledge, mind, and meaning are part of the same world that they have to do with, and that they are to be studied in the same empirical spirit that animates natural science. There is no place for a prior philosophy. (185).
In OR Quine refers to a key metaphor in his own understanding of language and meaning, the "museum myth" theory of meaning. "Uncritical semantics is the myth of a museum in which the exhibits are meanings and the words are labels. To switch languages is to change the labels" (186). Against the museum myth, Quine argues here (as he does in Word and Object as well) for the indeterminacy of "meaning" and translation. The basic idea of indeterminacy of translation, as expressed in WO, comes down to this: there are generally alternative translation manuals that are possible between two languages (or within one's own) which are equally compatible with all observed verbal behavior, and yet which map expressions onto significantly different alternative sentences. Sentence A can be mapped onto B1 or B2; B1 and B2 are apparently not equivalent; and therefore Sentence A does not have a fixed and determinate meaning either in the language or in the heads of the speakers. As Quine observes in his commentary on his example from Japanese concerning the translation of "five oxen", "between the two accounts of Japanese classifiers there is no question of right and wrong" (193).
For naturalism the question whether two expressions are alike or unlike in meaning has no determinate answer, known or unknown, except insofar as the answer is settled in principle by people's speech dispositions, known or unknown. If by these standards there are indeterminate cases, so much the worse for the terminology of meaning and likeness of meaning. (187)
Returning to the extended example he develops of indeterminacy of translation around the word "gavagai" that he introduced in Word and Object, Quine notes that the practical linguist will equate gavagai with "rabbit", not "undetached rabbit part". But he insists that there is no objective basis for this choice.
The implicit maxim guiding his choice of 'rabbit', and similar choices for other native words, is that an enduring and relatively homogeneous object, moving as a whole against a constrasting background, is a likely reference for a short expression. If he were to become conscious of this maxim, he might celebrate it as one of the linguistic universals, or traits of all languages, and he would have no trouble pointing out its psychological plausibility. But he would be wrong; the maxim is his own imposition, toward settling what is objectively indeterminate. It is a very sensible imposition, and I would recommend no other. But I am making philosophical point. (191)
In "Ontological Relativity" Quine takes the argument of the indeterminacy of meaning an important step forward, to argue for the "inscrutability of reference." That is: there is no behavioral basis for concluding that a given language system involves reference to this set of fundamental entities rather than that set of fundamental entities. So not only can we not say that there are unique meanings associated with linguistic expressions; we cannot even say that expressions refer uniquely to a set of non-linguistic entities. This is what the title implies: there is no fixed ontology for a language or a scientific or mathematical theory.

These are radical and counter-intuitive conclusions -- in some ways as radical as the "incommensurability of paradigms" notion associated with Thomas Kuhn and the critique of objectivity associated with Richard Rorty. What is most striking, though, is the fact that Quine comes to these conclusions through reasoning that rests upon very simple and clear assumptions. Fundamentally, it is his view that the only kinds of evidence and the only constraints that are available to users and listeners of language are the evidences of observable behavior; and the full body of this system of observations is insufficient to uniquely identify a single semantic map and a single ontology.

(Peter Hylton's article in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy does a good job of capturing the logic of Quine's philosophy; link.)

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Marx and the physiocrats

An earlier post highlighted an interesting piece of Marx scholarship by Regina Roth, included in a Routledge collection of important articles on the history of political economy (link). Another article that is of special interest in the Routledge collection is "Karl Marx on physiocracy" by Christian Gehrke and Heinz Kurz (link). The illustrations reproduced above are taken from this article. The first is a diagram, in Marx's own hand, of the process of simple reproduction developed in detail in Capital. The second is Marx's pairing of this same diagram with Quesnay's Tableau economique, suggesting Marx's indebtedness to Quesnay and the physiocrats.

Gehrke and Kurz provide a highly detailed survey of the times and sources through which Marx studied the physiocrats, and the comments and questions that he raised in his working notebooks. They present the results of this analysis in two useful appendices to the article. In the primary text they focus on the most important question: to what extent, and in what specific ways, was Marx influenced by the physiocrats' system?

They find two crucial parallels between Marx and the physiocrats: first, both present a view of a capitalist economy that originates in a theory of surplus value; and second, each presents a view of the economy in terms of a flow of value through various sets of hands. The tableau represent this flow visually and arithmetically, and Marx's schemes of simple reproduction do so algebraically.
The foundation of modern political economy, whose business is the analysis of capitalist production, is the conception of the value of labour-power as something fixed, as a given magnitude -- as indeed it is in practice in each particular case. The minimum of wages therefore correctly forms the pivotal point of Physiocratic theory. They were able to establish this although they had not yet recognised the nature of value itself, because this value of labour-power is manifested in the price of the necessary means of subsistence, hence in a sum of definite use-values. (TSV 1:45)
And in fact, the authors think this is fundamental for Marx's advocacy for the labor theory of value:
To Marx the labour theory of value was not fundamental in the sense that it was considered 'true' independently of whether it served the purpose of providing a logically coherent foundation of the theory of income distribution. Marx endorsed the labour theory of value precisely because be was convinced that it would offer that foundation, that is, allow one to elaborate a logically unassailable theory of the general rate of profit. He held the physiocrats in high esteem also because it was another achievement of theirs which he thought had paved the way to the development of such a theory. The achievement under consideration is the Tableau economique. (62)
What defines the physiocrats for most of us -- their view that the land is the ultimate source of all value -- is for Marx just a minor error of analysis on their part, not a fundamental misconception. Gehrke and Kurz write in paraphrasing Marx:
Scrutinizing carefully the texts of Quesnay, Mirabeau and especially Turgot shows that any surplus product is finally to be traced back to agricultural surplus labour, that is, it has its origin not in the productivity of land, or nature, but in the 'productivity' of the agricultural labourer who produces more than he gets in the form of wages. (60)
Here is the thrust of the second point, the fundamental similarity of the tableau economique and Marx's schemes of reproduction:
Quesnay's Tableau economique shows in a few broad outlines how the annual result of the nation production, representing a definite value, is distributed by means of circulation in such a way that, other things being equal, simple reproduction, i.e., reproduction on the same scale, can take place' (C 11: 363). Marx credits Quesnay with developing the Tableau in terms of 'great functionally determined economic classes of society' and with striking upon 'the main thing, thanks to the limitation of his horizon, within which agriculture is the only sphere of investment of human labour producing surplus-value, hence the only really productive one from the capitalist point of view.' (63)
What isn't entirely clear is the authors' analysis of influence and lineage of ideas. Did Marx's own thinking about surplus value and reproduction derive in some way from the doctrines of the physiocrats? Or did he simply note a pleasing convergence between his own thinking and that of the earliest tradition of classical PE? The authors suggest that the former is the case:
We have seen how much Marx owed the physiocrats for the development of his own views on the laws of production, distribution and circulation governing a capitalist economy. This is the deeper reason why Marx spoke so respectfully of Dr Quesnay and the physiocrats. After all, les economistes were amongst the true forerunners of his own analysis which was in important respects but a metamorphosis and development of theirs. He appears to have been particularly fascinated by the fact that in the physiocratic system, as he saw it, the theory of quantities and growth and the theory of prices and distribution do have a common origin in the concepts of social surplus and production as a circular flow. Marx can indeed be said to have seen through the lens of the physiocratic writings the essence of the duality relationship between the two sets of variables emphasized by later theorists and particularly by John von Neumann . Hence it may be argued that there exists a direct lineage from physiocracy to modern formulations of the classical theory. (73)
But their own chronology suggests Marx had arrived at many of his key economic ideas before he carefully analyzed the physiocrats.

It is worth noting that the availability of digital versions of Marx's manuscripts makes research on questions like this one immensely more efficient than it was in the 1990s when Gehrke and Kurz did their work. The online Archive of Marx and Engels provides digital access to many of Marx's most important works (though not unpublished manuscripts), and it is possible for anyone interested in the role that a certain author or issue played in Marx's thought to trace it quickly using the search functions available. For example, a quick search shows that there are ten mentions of "physiocrat" or derivatives in the Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts (1844). And there are hundreds of such mentions in Theories of Surplus Value.

Monday, July 15, 2013

Adelman on Albert Hirschman

Jeremy Adelman's detailed and illuminating biography of Albert Hirschman in Worldly Philosopher: The Odyssey of Albert O. Hirschman is an excellent example of intellectual biography. Even more, it is a valuable contribution to our understanding of the development of social science theories and frameworks.

Born to a professional Jewish family in Berlin in 1915, Hirschman's life bracketed the most searing nightmares of the twentieth century. Hirschman was an anti-fascist activist as a teenager, leaving Berlin for France in 1933. He was an intellectual from the start, with curiosity and originality driving his quest for ideas and knowledge. But equally early he was an activist, with political convictions and allegiances that gave him the courage to resist fascism in every way he was able to. In France he pursued a doctorate in business (as the only French program he could enter), while continuing his anti-fascist activism.

One part of the interest of this biography is the engagement in war and revolution into which his historical situation and political sympathies led Hirschman. He fought as a volunteer in Barcelona during the Spanish Civil War in 1936. Returning to France he found himself as a volunteer in the French army, but was quickly demobilized following the defeat of France by Germany in 1940. He then had an intense half year of clandestine work in Marseille helping arrange escape from France for leftist intellectuals, refugees, and the occasional stranded American. He himself managed to emigrate to America in 1940 by landing a Rockefeller fellowship at Berkeley; but he then enlisted in the American army within weeks after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. So in a brief few years Hirschman served in three armies fighting fascism. He spent months in Algiers as an enlisted man, was assigned duties as a translator behind the American lines in Italy, and wound up serving as translator in Rome for the German general who was the first to be charged for war crimes by the American army. (The general was found guilty of these crimes and sentenced to death.) And on Hirschman's return to America his career was mysteriously blocked at various points by suspicions and innuendos that came to play a role in his confidential security dossier in Washington.

While living in France (and later in fascist Italy as an American soldier) he became closely acquainted with some of the most interesting activists and political thinkers of Europe. Among the intellectuals who passed through the escape channels Hirschman helped to maintain included "Hannah Arendt, André Breton, Marc Chagall, Marcel Duchamp, Max Ernst, Siegfried Kracauer, Wifredo Lam, Jacques Lipchitz, Alma Mahler Gropius Werfel (the serial wife of composer Gustav Mahler, architect Walter Gropius, and novelist Franz Werfel), Heinrich Mann, Walter Mehring" (171).

So Hirschman's life is inherently interesting. Hirschman combined reflection and activism in ways that were much deeper than most intellectual figures were called upon to do.  (Arthur Koestler's life has quite a few parallels; link.)

But I find Adelman's biography interesting for another reason as well. Adelman does a remarkable job of explicating the originality and edginess of Hirschman's thought, from his service in the Federal Reserve Bank in Washington and efforts at European reconstruction, to his advising role in Columbia, to his mid-life success in gaining entree to elite American universities (Berkeley, Yale, Columbia, Princeton) and the emerging field of the theory of development. Adelman works through the combinations of personal, contextual, and intellectual influences that helped to shape Hirschman's imagination as a social scientist, and this makes for very interesting reading.

There are many insights in Hirschman's work. But particularly fundamental is a point that Adelman underlines again and again: Hirschman's inherent skepticism about the claims of grand theory in social science and public policy. It was a skepticism about the idea of a social science aspiring to the exactness of the natural sciences; about the idea of comprehensive predictive theories about complex social processes; and about the hope of having a unified social scientific theory that could drive policy towards an optimal solution. Against these hopes, Hirschman emphasized the importance of hands-on experience of the complex processes we care about (economic development, for example); he emphasized the value of small and partial theories for limited aspects of the social world; and he celebrated the value of examining the particular rather than seeking always for the generalizable. In Adelman's words,
This eye for particulars and their meanings imprinted itself on Hirschman, who was already questioning History's "laws" and searching for a spirit that was more epic because it was open to chance and to choice. (111)
Adelman traces this crucial intellectual disposition to a number of different influences: Hirschman's brother-in-law, the Italian physicist and activist Eugenio Colorni (murdered by fascist thugs in Rome in 1944); the writings of Hayek; and his own experience as an observer and practitioner of economic change in Colombia (in international trade and in economic development).
To Otto Albert, the conversations with Eugenio drew his attention “to what we call the small ideas, small pieces of knowledge. They do not stand in connection with any ideologies or worldviews, they do not claim to provide total knowledge of the world, they probably undermine the claims of all previous ideologies". (114)
The Big Idea, which Hirschman associated with the “claim to complete cognition of the world,” claimed “to explain multi-causal social processes from a single principle.” The alternative was “the attempt to come to an understanding of reality in portions, admitting that the angle may be subjective.” (116)
Here is Adelman on the influence of Hayek:
Hayek got at something Hirschman felt strongly: the need to acknowledge the basic limits to the “intelligibility” of our complex world. Leaders were wont to claim complete knowledge when they did not have it and thus to squash the individual’s ability to make adjustments “to changes whose cause and nature he cannot understand.” Hayek’s vision of spontaneous, unguided, and hidden forces at work presumed an inscrutability about life that Hirschman shared, in which its ironies, paradoxes, and the possibilities of unintended consequences provided the underlying engines of change. (238)
Perhaps most important, Hirschman was persuaded by the bad experience of the dogmatic, ideological theories of both right and left in the 1930s of the importance of modesty and open-mindedness in one's convictions about how the social world works. This becomes one of the key elements in Hirschman's main academic work, his critique of modernization theory and unified central planning as foundations for the policies of agencies like the World Bank and the IMF.

What comes out of this skepticism about the grand theories of the economists or political scientists is a more pragmatic and experimental approach to policy. Rather than building complex plans that presuppose a detailed knowledge of causation and inter-connection of causes, we should instead take pragmatic steps that seem to be pushing the system in the right direction. In the case of Colombia, this meant favoring the developments of entrepreneurs and businessmen in their individual efforts rather than supporting grand schemes of reconstruction and capital investment. He favored multiple strategies, "not a single road to change" (274).
Instead of a “propensity to plan,” Hirschman advocated a “propensity to experiment and to improvise”— a spirit missing from the council and whose absence deprived all sides from actually learning from experience precisely because the planners were so convinced that it was not they who had to be converted. After all, they were “experts.” (323)
The result, in contrast to expensive, expansive, intellectually seductive general plans and combined assaults, was a piecemeal approach targeting the scarcest of all variables. This was the premise of “unbalanced growth,” a term he eventually abandoned because he did not want his work positioned only as an alternative to a mainstream. (347)
Also interesting is the fine interpretation that Adelman offers of Hirschman's first two books, National Power and the Structure of Foreign Trade and The Strategy of Economic Development. The first was a great disappointment to Hirschman, since he had hoped that it would launch his academic career and reputation in the United States; while the second achieved exactly the kind of success he had hoped for with the first. But in hindsight, the first book seems to have as much importance as the second. It lays out a powerful and rigorous argument for the ways in which nationalist and fascist regimes were able to use the "soft power" of trade alliances to achieve their goals. The inequalities of bargaining position that exist between bilateral trading partners create the opportunities for highly coercive actions by the more powerful. This argument still seems relevant in the global trade environment in which we now live. It also propelled the argument towards a de-nationalization of world affairs -- a historical development that came to life to some extent in the establishment of the European Union.

Adelman, a professor of history at Princeton, has also edited a forthcoming collection of some of Hirschman's work, The Essential Hirschman. Both these works are truly valuable, and particularly so for social scientists who have realized that their disciplines need the kinds of independent and cross-sectional thinking that Hirschman was so good at.

(I have a happy memory of meeting Albert Hirschman at a conference on poverty and development at the Woodrow Wilson School in 1990. He was very generous with his ideas, his critical suggestions, and his encouragement.)

Friday, July 12, 2013

Life-course histories and methods

source: G. Alter, "Completing Life Histories with Imputed Exit Dates" (link)

I talked recently with George Alter, a leading historical demographer at the University of Michigan and author of Family and the Female Life Course: The Women of Verviers, Belgium, 1849-1880. (Here is George's presidential address to the Social Science History Association in 2010; link.) Alter has been a long-standing partner in the Eurasian Population and Family History Project, a genuinely innovative "large science" effort to bring together demographic studies of locations from Sweden to Japan.

George and I talked about something that is of interest to philosophers of the social sciences, but is rarely discussed -- the comings and goings of methodological innovations in some areas of the social sciences. There are a handful of "big picture" questions that define the philosophy of social science, and these don't change very rapidly over time and discipline. For example: What is a good explanation? What is the logic of causal inference? How do facts about individuals relate to facts about structures? These are questions that are broadly applicable across many social-science disciplines, and often the answers are fairly similar in different disciplines as well. But it turns out that specific disciplines are sometimes confronted with problems of data analysis and inference that require new methods and new analytical tools, and there may be moments in which significant methodological change occurs in a relatively short period of time.

George's field is historical demography -- the effort to reconstruct the population history of regions and countries through the registers and censuses that still exist for our study. This means examination of marriage behavior, fertility, mortality, emigration, and other key demographic trends. But it also means searching out the causes that can be traced of changes in these variables. So the field of historical demography is descriptive, but it is also analytical and causal; historical demographers are interested in identifying large social factors that influenced population behavior in centuries past.

The problem that Alter and some of his colleagues confronted in their research was a technical and logical one: how to extract the most useful information from population registers. And it turns out that answering this question requires developing radically new tools of analysis.
Most readers will find the methods used in some parts of this study unfamiliar. Some of these methods, like hazard models, have only recently become common in the social sciences, and there have been few previous applications in family history. The development of a new methodology, which is presented below in Chapter 2, was dictated by the characteristics of the Belgian population registers, from which data on nineteenth-century Verviers have been drawn. (13)
A population register differs from a census in a crucial respect: it provides an exhaustive chronological list of the births, deaths, entries, exits, and marital changes of the population present in the region over a specific period of time. This turns out to be a very tricky problem, and one that was not easily handled by traditional techniques of demographic analysis. Traditionally demographers made use of "snapshots" of a population at a time: the size of the population, the percent employed in a given industry, the percent married, etc. But demographic processes are temporal processes; so looking at snapshots frozen in time tends to lose an important dimension of the phenomena. And the method that will work well for population registers needs to be custom-designed to do a good job of representing temporality.

Alter describes the alternative methodology he and other demographers have developed to handle this particular set of problems in chapter two of Family and the Female Life Course. It is a complicated story, but fundamentally it comes down to a shift of perspective on demographic process -- a shift from persons and events to intervals of time. This means moving away from counting individuals to counting "person years". Alter characterizes this shift with the following tables:


And here is another take on the same data, this time arranged by age of the person rather than absolute date:

Each of these ways of looking at the data highlights different aspects of the demographic history of this small group.

The information contained in the population register can be transformed into a data set representing person-years and status during that interval. And it is then possible to use these data elements to compute age-specific rates of various demographically important states. Alter emphasizes that these methods permit a much more fine-grained use of the information presented by a population register.
There is much more information in the population registers than in the censuses and vital registers considered separately. The additional information comes from the linkage of information from the census to the demographic events and the linkage of events occurring in the life of each individual in the population register. (32) 
Alter then undertakes to adapt statistical methods to the problem of assessing the causal importance of various sets of factors for the occurrence of other factors; for example, the effect of "living with parents between 25 and 30" on "lifetime fertility". The tool that Alter turns to is the statistics of hazard models. Here is a brief description of hazards models from Wikipedia:
Proportional hazards models are a class of survival models in statistics. Survival models relate the time that passes before some event occurs to one or morecovariates that may be associated with that quantity of time. In a proportional hazards model, the unique effect of a unit increase in a covariate is multiplicative with respect to the hazard rate. For example, taking a drug may halve one's hazard rate for a stroke occurring, or, changing the material from which a manufactured component is constructed may double its hazard rate for failure. Other types of survival models such as accelerated failure time models do not exhibit proportional hazards. These models could describe a situation such as a drug that reduces a subject's immediate risk of having a stroke, but where there is no reduction in the hazard rate after one year for subjects who do not have a stroke in the first year of analysis. (link)
There is an unexpected difficulty that this method must confront -- the problem of what demographers call censoring. Essentially this comes down to the simple fact that a given population register leaves parts of an individual's life undocumented before and after the period covered by the register. So a woman who has not yet given birth at the age of 31 in 1835 (the end of the population register period) will be classified as childless; whereas she may well have a child in the next five years. But to add this woman into a raw count of women with and without children has the effect of under-estimating fertility. Alter shows how "life tables" can be used to address this problem. Essentially it is possible to use the data included in the population register itself to compute age-specific estimates of relevant variables (first marriage, first child, etc.) and then compute the average age of marriage from the life table. Here is an illustration:

This post doesn't suffice to explain the methodology that Alter develops. Interested readers will need to work through Alter's analysis with the same rigor they would apply to learning a new piece of physics. But this brief description does serve to highlight a key fact about research in the social sciences: social science methodology is not finished. Different fields of research encounter new problems with new sources of data; but they also sometimes raise issues about better ways of handling data that has long been available. This means that there will often be times of lively activity and change in the methods of a social science. It also means that it is very interesting to follow the details of the development of a discipline during these periods of change.

(It is interesting to re-read William Sewell's essay, "Three Temporalities: Towards an Eventful Sociology" (in Logics of History: Social Theory and Social Transformation) in light of Alter's remarks about the temporality associated with demographic change.)

Sunday, July 7, 2013

Graphing metadata

One element of the NSA revelations of the past month is the apparent fact that the NSA's PRISM program enables the agency to collect wholesale the transactions that occur on the Internet, including email header information. This follows the revelation that all metadata for phone calls made on the Verizon network (and presumably others) have been collected for a period of time -- perhaps as long as seven years. A story by John Naughton in the Guardian (7 July 2013) highlights the intrusiveness that wholesale exposure of communications metadata creates for each individual's privacy -- without ever looking into the contents of the communications.

An MIT research group has created a tool called Immersion to allow anyone to graph his or her own email communications network (link). This is a very powerful tool, and it is accessible to all of us. So it is an experiment well worth undertaking.

Here are the results for my own case. In the past three years I've transacted something like 60,000 email exchanges. The Immersion tool is able to analyze the metadata of this set of exchanges in a few minutes, and the resulting graphs are stunning. The vast and apparently disorderly library of messages turns out to have a very simple and revealing order. (I've removed the individual names from the graph, but these names are provided by the Immersion tool. An "analyst" would be able to focus in on any point of interest by name.) Here is the graph for the past three years of my communications:

It is important to understand the inputs to this analysis. Only the data from my own email library has been used. Lots of connections are represented in the graph between other people. But these connections all come from my own email cache -- as cc's on messages to or from me. Second, I am not represented on the graph. Rather, each circle is one of the 250 or so people with whom I have had email contact in the past three years. Each circle's diameter represents the volume of flow between that person and me; and the breadth of the links between individuals represents the volume of flow between them as registered in my email cache. (The program apparently has a smart way of excluding messages from organizations like newsletters.)

It is evident that the graph simplifies my social network substantially (as captured by my email traffic).  In fact, it is possible to dissect the graph into several key core groups: the local administrators at the campus where I work, the administrators at the system level of the university, a group of family members, a small group of researchers with whom I communicate and who communicate with each other, a journal editorial group, and a non-profit organization I'm involved in. (There are also students on the graph, but they are single dots, since my email does not provide evidence of email connections among them. Likewise, there are other single-point researchers with whom I communicate (the blue dots lower right), but my cache doesn't indicate communications among them.) So here is the same graph with labels for the distinct groups:

It is interesting to observe that there are lots of inter-group communications between members of the two administrative groups, but the two groups are clearly distinguished nonetheless on the graph. The intra-group communication for each is dense enough to pull the two systems apart. This algorithmic network analysis, based on a very limited set of data, accurately uncovers the organizational structure and hierarchy of the university and the campus administrative groups. Also of interest is the fact that the graph does a decent job of analyzing other people's relationships -- without any data from them!

In other words -- 60,000 messages boil down to a pretty simple and accurate picture of one person's activities over the past three years. 

Another facility that the Immersion tool provides is the ability to graph the recorded connections from any single person to everyone with whom he/she has communicated (out of my list of persons). The large purple circle in the first graph is the chief academic officer on my campus, who reports to me. This is the person with whom I communicate most frequently within the university. (By looking at the month-to-month frequency of communication, also provided by Immersion, it is also possible to single out the months where crises arose.) It is possible to blow up the circle of this individual's network as well, and see which individuals are most frequent connections (again, as recorded by cc's and forwards of messages from other people included in my own in-box). Here is the graph of the CAO's network:

Now think how much more informative these graphs would be if an agency also had access to the email caches of the two hundred or so people represented here. Communications between X and Y that are minor or non-existent on my graph, may turn out to have broad links when this larger set of data is incorporated. And this is exactly the capability that most observers are now attributing to the PRISM and telephone capture programs of the NSA.

What this implies to me is that the people who are most worried about the NSA's wholesale data collection programs are probably right. The data that is being collected -- phone and email metadata, perhaps auto license readers, credit card transactions, and electronic toll and transportation cards as well -- this fund of data suffices to map out our personal lives in much, much greater detail than we would ever have imagined possible in a democratic society. We no longer have the luxury of "privacy through anonymity" or "haystack privacy". Once there is full information recorded over time of our electronic transactions (including, remember, locational data from our phones), our lives can be played back in detail at any point. And the Immersion tool shows that the software exists to make sense of such vast databases, enabling agencies to produce customized and individually tailored "dossiers" for all of us.

The revelations about the FISA court in today's New York Times certainly support skepticism about the notion that these capabilities are carefully and properly controlled by the FISA process (link). Here is a particularly worrisome finding in the NYT article:
The officials said one central concept connects a number of the court’s opinions. The judges have concluded that the mere collection of enormous volumes of “metadata” — facts like the time of phone calls and the numbers dialed, but not the content of conversations — does not violate the Fourth Amendment, as long as the government establishes a valid reason under national security regulations before taking the next step of actually examining the contents of an American’s communications.
This legal theory specifically permits the kind of wholesale collection of metadata that can be used in the ways described here. And that is surely a profound threat to our privacy.

Friday, July 5, 2013

Marx's thinking about technology

It sometimes seems as though there isn't much new to say about Marx and his theories. But, like any rich and prolific thinker, that's not actually true. Two articles featured in the Routledge Great Economists series (link) are genuinely interesting. Both are deeply scholarly treatments of interesting aspects of the development of Marx's thinking, and each sheds new light on the influences and thought processes through which some of Marx's key ideas took shape. I will consider one of those articles here and leave the second, a consideration of Marx's relationship to the physiocrats, for a future post.

Regina Roth's "Marx on technical change in the critical edition" (link) is a tour-de-force in Marx scholarship. There are two aspects of this work that I found particularly worthwhile. The first is a detailed "map" of the work that has been done since the early twentieth century to curate and collate Marx's documents and notes. This was an especially important effort because Marx himself rarely brought his work to publishable form; he wrote thousands of pages of notes and documents in preparation for many related lines of thought, and not all of those problem areas have been developed in the published corpus of Marx's writings. Roth demonstrates a truly impressive grasp of the thousands of pages of materials included in the Marx-Engels Gesamtaushgabe (MEGA) and Marx-Engels Collected Works (MECW) collections, and she does an outstanding job of tracing several important lines of thought through published and unpublished materials. She notes that the MEGA collection is remarkably rich:
A second point I want to stress is that the MEGA offers more material than other editions, not only regarding the manuscripts mentioned above but also with other types of written material. If we look at the material gathered in the MEGA we find examples of several different levels of communication. We may think of manuscripts on a first level as witnessing the communication between the author with himself and with his potential readers. On a second level, his letters give us notice of what he talked about to the people around him. And, on a third level, there is the vast part of his legacy that documents Marx's discourse with authors of his time: his excerpts, the books he read and his collections of newspaper cuttings. (1231)
Here is a table in which Roth correlates several important economic manuscripts in the two collections.

Careful study of these thousands of pages of manuscripts and notes is crucial, Roth implies, if we are to have a nuanced view of the evolution and logic of Marx's thought.
They show, first of all, that Marx was never content with what he had written: he started five drafts of his first chapter, and added four fragments to the same subject, each of them with numerous changes within each text. (1228)
And study of these many versions, notes, and emendations shows something else as well: a very serious effort on Marx's part to get his thinking right. He was not searching out the most persuasive or the simplest versions of some of his critical thoughts about capitalism; instead, he was trying to piece together the economic logic of this social-economic system in a way that made sense given the analytical tools at his disposal. Marx was not the dogmatic figure that he is sometimes portrayed to be.

There are many surprises in Roth's study. The falling rate of profit? That's Engels' editorial summation rather than Marx's finished conclusion! By comparing Marx's original manuscripts with the posthumous published version of volume 3 of Capital, she finds that "Engels inserted the following sentence in the printed version [of Capital vol. 3]: 'But in reality [...] the rate of profit will fall in the long run' " (1233). In several important aspects she finds that Engels the editor was more definitive about the long-term tendencies of capitalism than Marx the author was willing to be. For example:
Therefore, Engels continued, this capitalist mode of production 'is becoming senile and has further and further outlived its epoch.' Marx did not give such a clear opinion with a view to the future of capitalism, at least not in Capital. (1233)
She notes also that Engels was anxious about Marx's unwillingness to bring his rewriting and reconsideration of key theses to a close:
Shortly before the publication of Volume I of Capital, Engels worried: 'I had really begun to suspect from one or two phrases in your last letter that you had again reached an unexpected turning-point which might prolong everything indefinitely.' (1247)
The other important aspect of this article -- the substantive goal of the piece -- is Roth's effort to reconstruct the development of Marx's thinking about technology and technology change, the ways that capitalism interacts with technology, and the effects that Marx expected to emerge out of this complicated set of processes. But this requires careful study of the full corpus, not simply the contents of the published works.
To understand Marx's views on technical change, his whole legacy, which is also comprised of numerous drafts, excerpts, letters, and so forth, must be considered. (1224)
In fact, the unpublished corpus has much more substantial commentary on technology and technical change than do the published works. "In Capital terms such as technical progress, technical change or simply technology turn up rarely" (1241).

Roth finds that Marx had a sustained interest in "the machinery question" -- essentially, the history of mechanical invention and the role that machines play in the economic system of capitalism. He studied and annotated the writings of Peter Gaskell, Andrew Ure, and Charles Babbage, as well as many other writers on the technical details of industrial and mining practices; Roth mentions Robert Willis and James Nasmyth in particular.

The economic importance of technical change for Marx's system is the fact that it presents the capitalist with the possibility of increasing "relative surplus value" by raising the productivity of labor (1241). But because technical innovation is generally capital-intensive (increasing the proportion of constant capital to variable capital, or labor), technical innovation tends to bring about a falling rate of profit (offset, as Roth demonstrates, by specific counteracting forces). So the capitalist is always under pressure to prop up the rate of profit, and more intensive exploitation of labor is one of the means available.
In the discussion in the General Council [of the IWMA], Marx argued that machines had effects that turned out to be the opposite of what was expected: they prolonged the working day instead of shortening it; the proportion of women and children working in mechanized industries increased; labourers suffered from a growing intensity of labour and became more dependent on capitalists because they did not own the means of production any more .... (1246)
So technology change and capitalism are deeply intertwined; and there is nothing emancipatory about technology change in itself.

Thursday, July 4, 2013

Causal concepts

source: D. Little, “Causal Explanation in the Social Sciences,” Southern Journal of Philosophy (1995) (link)

It may be useful to provide a brief account of some of the key ideas that are often invoked in causal explanations in the social sciences. (Here is an earlier post that summarized some current issues in causation research; link. And here are several earlier articles on causal explanation; link, linklink.)

The general idea of a social cause (X causes Y) goes along these lines: X is a structure or feature of social life that varies across social settings and whose presence increases the likelihood of occurrence of Y. The presence of X (perhaps in the presence of Y and Z as well) contributes to processes leading to Y.

This simple formulation contains several hidden assumptions -- most importantly, that outcomes have causes, that causes retain their characteristics over time and across instances, and that there are processes or dynamics within the domain of things and processes that convey with some form of necessity one set of circumstances and events onto another.

An example

For example, consider this hypothetical narrative describing a riot in a European city with a large community of impoverished immigrant people:
  • (C1) simmering resentment by immigrant youth of joblessness and low social esteem
  • (C2) heat wave creating discomfort and misery in crowded neighborhoods
  • (C3) chronic disrespectful and rough police treatment of immigrant youth
  • (I) forceful arrest of mis-identified young person in a city park, leading to serious injury of the youth
  • (O) several days of rioting occur
The associated causal hypothesis goes along these lines: In the context of simmering resentment by immigrant youth and a pattern of mistreatment by police, feelings in the community were unusually elevated by the heat wave. When the arrest occurred a small protest began in the park, which spread to other blocks in the city and eventuated in the burning of cars, smashing of shop windows, and multiple further arrests.

Conditions Ci are standing conditions that played a causal role in the occurrence of the riot. The arrest incident was the instigating event, the match that ignited the social "gasoline". If any of C1, C2, C3 had been changed six months earlier, it is unlikely that O would have occurred. Each was necessary for I leading to O in the circumstances of the day.  If C1, C2, C3 are present, it is likely that some instigating event will occur in the normal hustle-bustle of urban life. I was the instigating condition. For researchers seeking general explanations of urban unrest, C1 and C3 appear to be strong candidates for common causes across many examples of urban riots. Two mechanisms are invoked here: a mechanism having to do with the individual's propensity to engage in protest ("resentment and mistreatment elevates propensity to protest") and a mechanism having to do with the spread of protest ("a small disturbance between a few teenagers and the police escalates through direct contact with other disaffected individuals through the neighborhood").

Here are brief discussions of many of the concepts that are commonly invoked in discussions of social causation.

Causal narrative

An organized and temporally directed account of the occurrence of an event or change, identifying the conditions, circumstances, and events that were causally relevant to its occurrence. A narrative needs to provide empirical evidence for its empirical claims and theoretical justification for the causal mechanisms and processes it postulates.

Standing condition

A condition or circumstance that persists through an extended period of time and that serves as part of the necessary causal background of a given causal process or mechanism. Persistent racial isolation is a standing condition in many explanations of the effects of inner city poverty.

Instigating event

An instigating event is an occurrence, including change of state of some background property, that triggers a change in some other property or process. The early-morning arrest by patrons of a blind pig (unlicensed tavern) in Detroit was the instigating event of the 1967 Detroit riot/uprising.

Necessary condition

A condition that must be present in order for a given causal interaction to occur. "If X had not been present, the outcome O would not have occurred."

Sufficient condition (conjunction of conditions)

A condition (or conjunction of conditions) whose presence suffices to bring about the outcome. "If X&Y&Z were present, then O would have occurred."

Counterfactual statements

It is worth underlining the point that necessary and sufficient conditions invoke counterfactual statements: If X had not occurred, Y would not have occurred. The logic of counterfactuals (modal logic) has a controversial and unresolved history. But given that causal language always implies some kind of necessity, we cannot dispense with counterfactuals and still have an adequate causal vocabulary.

INUS condition (J. L. Mackie)

J.L. Mackie's work on causation in The Cement of the Universe: A Study of Causation brought to closure a long line of thought about the logic of causal relations, culminating in his concept of INUS conditions. Consider this complex causal statement about the circumstances causing P:
'All (ABC or DGH or JKL) are followed by P' and 'All P are preceded by (ABC or DGH or JKL)' (Mackie, 62)
Mackie then defines an INUS condition:
Then in the case described above the complex formula '(ABC or DGH or JKL)' represents a condition which is both necessary and sufficient for P: each conjunction, such as 'ABC', represents a condition which is sufficient but not necessary for P. Besides, ABC is a minimal sufficient condition:  none of its conjuncts is redundant: no part of it, such as AB, is itself sufficient for P. But each single factor, such as A, is neither a necessary nor a sufficient condition for P. Yet it is clearly related to P in an important way: it is an insufficient but non-redundant part of an unnecessary but sufficient condition: it will be convenient to call this … an inus condition. (62)
To simplify:
A is an INUS condition for P if for some X and Y, (AX v Y) is a necessary and sufficient condition for P, but A is not sufficient for P and X is not sufficient for P.
Causal mechanism

An interlocked series of events and processes that, once initiated by some set of conditions, [usually] brings about a given outcome O. The idea that there are real mechanisms embodied in the "stuff" of a given domain of phenomena provides a way of presenting causal relations that serves as a powerful alternative to the "regularity" view associated with Hume. "Poor performance on standardized tests by specific groups is caused by the mechanism of stereotype threat" (Claude Steele, Whistling Vivaldi: How Stereotypes Affect Us and What We Can Do (Issues of Our Time)). This mechanism is a hypothesized process within the cognitive-emotional system of the subjects of the test. (James Mahoney's survey article on the mechanisms literature is a good introduction to the debate; link.)

Causal powers

The idea that certain kinds of things (metals, gases, military bureaucracies) have internal characteristics that lead them to interact causally with the world in specific and knowable ways. This means that we can sometimes identify dispositional properties that attach to kinds of things. Metals conduct electricity; gases expand when heated; military bureaucracies centralize command functions. (Harre and Madden, Causal Powers: Theory of Natural Necessity)

Probabilistic causal relation

A relationship between A and O such that the occurrence of A increases/decreases the likelihood of the occurrence of O. This can be stated in terms of conditional probabilities: P(O|A) ≠ P(O) [the probability of O given A is not equal to the probability of O]. For a causal realist, the definition is extended by a hypothesis about an underlying causal mechanism. [Smoking is a probabilistic cause of lung cancer [working through physiological mechanisms X,Y,Z]. This is equivalent to Wesley Salmon's criterion of causal relevance (Scientific Explanation and the Causal Structure of the World).

Causal explanation of a singular event

When we are interested in the explanation of a single event, a causal narrative leading up to that event is generally what we are looking for. What led to the outbreak of World War I? Why did Khomeini come to power in Iran in 1979? There are generally two difficult problems facing a proposed causal-narrative explanation of a singular event. First, we need to somehow empirically validate the claims about causal mechanisms and processes that are invoked in the narrative. But since this is a singular event, we do not have the option of using experimental methods to empirically test the claim "X leads by mechanism M to Y" that the narrative proposes. This is one important reason why mechanism theorists have generally required that specified mechanisms have roughly similar causal properties in a range of circumstances. Circumstances embodying the core features of a public goods problem usually lead to elevated levels of free riding -- whether in public radio fundraising, strikes, classroom discussions, or rebellions. Second, there is the problem of alternative realizability and multiple causal pathways leading to the same outcome. If the conditions leading to World War I were sufficiently ominous, then whether the assassination of the Archduke or some other event brought it about is of less explanatory importance. Given that potential instigating events occur with a certain probability, some event would have occurred within those few months that led to war. So it is better to identify the standing conditions that made war likely as the causes, rather than the assassination of the Archduke.

Generalizations about the causes of a kind of social entity or event

We are often interested in answering causal questions about classes of events: Why do peasant rebellions occur? Why does corruption rise to such high levels in many cities? Why do democracies not wage war against each other? Here we are looking for common conjunctions of causal factors that can be shown to be causally relevant in many such events. It is possible that we will discover that peasant rebellions do not have a single set of causal antecedents; rather there are multiple profiles of peasant rebellions, each with a set of causal conditions significantly different from the other profiles.

Methods of causal inquiry

How can social researchers identify causal relations among social events and structures? There are several groups of methods that social scientists and historians have employed: statistical-causal models, small-N models based on Mill's methods of similarity and difference (link, link), and case studies and process-tracing methods through which researchers seek to identify and confirm causal relations in individual cases. In each case the method derives from fundamental ideas about the nature of causation: the idea that causal relations between several factors give rise to statistical regularities when we have a large number of cases; the idea that we can use the features of necessary and sufficient conditions to select cases in order to include or exclude certain factors as causally related to the outcome; and the idea that causal mechanisms and processes can often be observed fairly directly in the historical record (Alexander George and Andrew Bennett, Case Studies and Theory Development in the Social Sciences).

Monday, July 1, 2013

Social causation

The idea of social causation is a difficult one, as we dig more deeply into it. What does it mean to say that "poor education causes increased risk of delinquency" or "population growth causes technology change" or "the existence of paramilitary organizations contributed to the rise of German fascism"? What sorts of things can function as "social causes" -- events, structures, actions, forces, other? What social interactions extend over time in the social world to establish the links between cause and effect? What kinds of evidence are available to support the claim that "social factor X causes a change in social factor Y"?

Helen Beebee, Christopher Hitchcock, and Peter Menzies' The Oxford Handbook of Causation is a valuable resource on topics involving the philosophy of causation, and several of the contributions are immediately relevant to current debates within the philosophy of social science.

Harold Kincaid considers a number of the hard questions about social causation in his contribution to the Handbook, "Causation in the Social Sciences". Perhaps most relevant to my ongoing concerns is his defense of non-reductionist claims about social causation. It is often maintained (by methodological individualists) that causal relations exist only among individuals, not among higher-level social entities or structures. (Elster and Hedstrom make claims along these lines in multiple places.) Kincaid rejects this view and affirms the legitimacy of macro- or meso-level causal assertions.
When a particular corporation acts in a market, it has causal influence. The influence of that specific entity is realized by the actions of the individuals composing it just as the influence of the baseball on the breaking window is realized by the sum of particles composing it. The social level causal claims pick out real causal patterns as types that may not be captured by individual kinds because multiple realizability is real. (kl 16102)
These arguments are a valuable antidote to the tendency towards reductionism to the level of individual activity that has often guided philosophers when they have considered the nature of social causation.

Phil Dowe's discussion of causal process theories is useful for the social sciences ("Causal Process Theories"). It is hard to think of the social world as an amalgam of discrete events; it is easier to think of a variety of processes unfolding, subject to a range of forces and obstacles.  Dowe gives much of the credit for current interest in causal process language to Wesley Salmon (along with resurrection of the idea of a "rope of causation" to replace that of a "chain of causation").
For Salmon the causal structure of the world consists in the nexus of causal processes and interactions. A process is anything with constancy of structure over time. (kl 4924)
The language of causal processes seems to fit the nature of social causation better than that of events and systems of billiard balls. And we have the makings of a metaphysics of process available in the social sciences, in the form of a stream of actions and reactions of individuals aggregating to recognizable social patterns. So when we say that "population increase stimulates technology innovation", we can picture the swarming series of interactions, demands, and opportunities that flows from greater population density, to rewards for innovation, to a more rapid rate of innovation.

Another useful contribution in the Handbook with special relevance to the social world is Stephen Mumford's contribution, "Causal Powers and Capacities."
The powers ontology accepts necessary connections in nature, in which the causal interactions of a thing, in virtue of its properties, can be essential to it. Instead of contingently related cause and effect, we have power and its manifestation, which remain distinct existences but with a necessary connection between. (kl 5971)
The language of causal powers allows us to incorporate a number of typical causal assertions in the social sciences: "Organizations of type X produce lower rates of industrial accidents," "paramilitary organizations promote fascist mobilization," "tenure systems in research universities promote higher levels of faculty research productivity." In each case we are asserting that a certain kind of social organization possesses, in light of the specifics of its rules and functioning, a disposition to stimulate certain kinds of participant behavior and certain kinds of aggregate outcomes. This is to attribute a specific causal power to species of organizations and institutions.

Stuart Glennan's "Mechanisms" is also highly relevant to causation in the social realm. Here is how Glennan puts the mechanisms theory (quoting his own earlier formulations):
Glennan ... characterizes mechanisms in this way: 'A mechanism underlying a behavior is a complex system which produces that behavior by the interaction of a number of parts according to direct causal laws (Glennan 1996: 52). Glennan then suggests that two events are causally related when and only when they are connected by an intervening mechanism. (kl 7069)
This definition works pretty well with typical examples of social mechanisms, with one important exception -- the reference to "direct causal laws". When we say that Organization X works to minimize accidents, the sub-transactions that are involved in the workings of the overall process are not typically "direct causal laws," but rather the intelligible results of individual actors performing their actions within the rules, incentives, and sanctions of the organization. We can tell a mechanism story along these lines: "Organization X embodies a set of protocols of operation, a training regime, a supervisory regime, and and enforcement regime. The protocols have the result that, when followed consistently, accidents are rare. Employees are 'programmed' to perform their tasks according to this set of protocols. Supervisors are trained to observe and measure employee performance against the protocols. Enforcement provides sanctions and incentives for bad and good performance." The complex mechanism of the organization works to implement and maintain the smooth functioning of the guiding protocols. So the organization embodies just the kind of complex system that Glennan describes as a mechanism.

So the Handbook is a good resource for all of us who are interested in working through a more satisfactory account of what it means to look at social phenomena as embodying causal relations in ways that support explanations.

(The photo of ice forming on glass included above is a metaphorical reference to social causation. Intricate patterns have emerged from a causal process; but it is a process that reflects a high degree of contingency and path-dependency across the expanse of the scene. And there is no overall order to the multiple patterns that emerge; each location is independent of other locations, and there is no answer to questions like this: "Why is Structure A located in the particular position and orientation that it is found to be?" Patterns coalesce and they do so as a result of locally operative causal processes, but there is no overall guiding hand or teleology to the process. The greatest disanalogy I can see here is the fact that the ice-formation process is much simpler than typical social-causal systems. Instead of a single causal mechanism at work in the ice case, there are dozens of overlapping and interactive causal mechanisms at work in most social processes.)