Archive for the ‘what does this have to do w/ org theory?’ Category

ingrid jensen w/trudel trio

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Written by fabiorojas

April 13, 2014 at 12:23 am

orgtheory is back!!!

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George Washington vs. Kim Jong-Un by Aaron Needham

In case you were wondering, George Washington represents American positivist sociology and Jong-un represents critical realists, post-modernists, and the other counter-positivist forces. I’ll let you choose who Lincoln represents. In other words, orgtheory is up an running!

50+ chapters of grad skool advice goodness: From Black Power/Grad Skool Rulz 

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April 6, 2014 at 2:59 am

willie colon

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50+ chapters of grad skool advice goodness: From Black Power/Grad Skool Rulz 

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March 30, 2014 at 12:01 am

rahsaan kirk and john cage – what more could you want?

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March 23, 2014 at 12:01 am

how to die in a shakespeare play


From Flavorwire.

50+ chapters of grad skool advice goodness: From Black Power/Grad Skool Rulz 

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March 22, 2014 at 12:17 am

whitney 2014: crowded shows and the life and death of malachi ritscher


Joeff Davis, Malachi Ritscher, Iraq War Protest, Chicago, 2003. Included in the project Malachi Ritscher by Public Collectors. Image taken from the Whitney 2014 Biennial Website.

Update: I’ve added credits, fixed spelling, and here’s a link to the essay about the Ritscher exhibit, written by Marc Fischer from Public Collectors.

Last week, while I was visiting CUNY, I made some time to get down to the Whitney Museum to see the Biennial. This year was notable because the show was split three ways. Each curator got her own floor and each took a wildly different approach. The fourth floor was given to Michelle Grabner, a professor and artist. That was probably the most jammed part of the show with art on the walls, floors, and ceiling. It was also the most educational. Basically, Grabner found artists who explored all kinds of materials. For example, Sheila Hicks, one of my favorite fabric artists made this huge rope column. There were also some interesting gems, like a few shiny abstract canvasses mottled with salt by Carissa Rodriguez. Each work was an education in what you could do with particular materials. The floors by Stuart Comer and Anthony Elms were about youth and what one might call “intellectual concerns:” ethnography, politics, etc. For example, there was some strong work dealing with gay subculture, such as Tony Green’s work, Paul P. ‘s watercolors and Elijah Burgher’s pencil drawings.

The critics constantly complained about the whole show. I think it is better to admit that art has massively expanded and that there are multiple centers of gravity. Overall, you’ll be overwhelmed, or bored by the spectacle. But if you slow down, you’ll find that there is a lot to be enjoyed depending on what you want from art.

For me, there was one very moving part of the show, an exhibit by the group Public Collectors dedicated to Malachi Ritscher. He was a Chicago resident who was an avid free jazz fan and antiwar activist. He was notable for two things. First, he created an extensive library of recordings from the Chicago creative music scene. Second, he killed himself in 2006. To protest the Iraq War, he lit himself on fire on the Kennedy Expressway. He recorded that as well.

Malachi’s life and my own crossed many times. I am also a free jazz fanatic and sat next to him many times. I would go to the shows that he recorded. I actually recognized some of the shows whose recordings are in the exhibit. I am pretty sure that I am at least in one them and I am certainly an audience member in many other recordings that are part of Malachi’s library. He documented me. A brooding graduate student, I never introduced myself. But still, he was part of my world.

Later, I would dedicate part of my academic career to recording the antiwar movement. I spent quite a bit of time going to major cities, like Chicago, and conducting surveys and long form interviews with activists. Malachi is probably recorded in my materials. Maybe he filled out a survey. Maybe he was interviewed by me or my research partner. Or, more likely, he is part of an audience that I documented with a photo or audio recording.

The Ritscher exhibit deeply moved me. Malachi and I cared about the same things. Malachi and I passed by each other many, many times over a nine year period. Our lives have been stamped by the city of Chicago and its culture. We were even employed by the same organization – the University of Chicago.

But our stories diverge. He chose a path that I find hard to understand. Faced with the brutality of war, he did something brutal to himself. I have not walked in his shoes, so I won’t pass judgment. All I’ll  say is that I remain viscerally shocked by his death. I mourn the loss of him and his knowledge. I responded to the war in a different way. I became the documentarian, the recorder of events.

Ending this post is hard because there simply is no end. I just don’t know what to think of Malachi’s musical contribution, or his suicide, or the crossing of our paths. Perhaps all I can now is dig out my copy of Emancipation Proclamation, which of course, was recorded by Malachi Ritscher.

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March 21, 2014 at 12:08 am

all you need is one note

By Antonio Carlos Jobim & Newton Mendonca

This is just a little samba
Built upon a single note
Other notes are sure to follow
But the root is still that note

Now this new note is the consequence of the one we’ve just been through
As i’m bound to be the unavoidable consequence of you

There’s so many people who can talk and talk and talk
And just say nothing or nearly nothing
I have used up all the scale i know and at the end i’ve come
To nothing i mean nothing

So i come back to my first note as i must come back to you
I will pour into that one note all the love i feel for you
Any one who wants the whole show show do-re-mi-fa-so-la-ci-do
He will find himself with no show better play the note you know

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February 17, 2014 at 12:01 am

ellen gallagher’s wicked afro-futurism

urn-3 HUAM DDC101946_dynmc

From the Harvard Art Museum’s website. This print is titled “Abu Simbel.”

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Written by fabiorojas

February 15, 2014 at 12:01 am

obama and race: a sober assessment

When people discuss Obama’s contribution to racial inequality, people quickly  sort into a few camps. In the middle, and among Democratic partisans, Obama has done well. He believes in affirmative action and avoids race baiting. On the hard left, he’s slammed for not taking a more direct approach. They suggest that Obama either openly discuss the legacy of slavery and consider more redistribution. On the right … well, let’s just say that they can’t quite accept the fact Obama isn’t an atheist Muslim who hates America. I think these views all miss something important about race and the US presidency. They all say: What do I wish the president could magically do? Instead, you have to start by asking: What are the biggest racial issues in America? Which of these can the president actually solve?

In my view, the biggest drivers of racial inequality are:

  1. The mass incarceration of Blacks for non-violent drug related offenses. This is hugely important because prison massively disrupts the economic and social lives of people in nearly irreversible ways.
  2. The de-facto criminalization of undocumented migration, which is designed to marginalize non-whites on a massive scale.
  3. The college completion gap between Whites and Asians, and everyone else. This hugely important because college completion is the crucial difference between having a middle class life style and not getting one.

Notice that I didn’t say white privilege or white distrust/hatred of other groups. I certainly believe they are important, but honestly, if one had to choose, most rational people probably end mass incarceration before eliminating white privilege.

Let’s talk about Obama specifically. What can he do about #1? No president can magically undo a maze of Federal and state drug law, or single handedly reform the nation’s prosecutors. However, he could do some fairly simple things like simply remain silent on drug issues or down play excessive drug enforcement. I’ve little evidence that the Obama is especially interested in reforming drug laws and the President has scoffed, in the past, at drug legalization. On #2, Obama’s record ranges from marginal improvement (like promoting the DREAM act) to atrocious (overseeing mass deportation). On #3, there is little that the President can do directly to affect education. The power to improve schools lies mainly in the hands of the states and local school boards. My summary judgment on Obama is that he has done little to directly affect mass incarceration of Blacks and what positive he is doing immigration is outweighed by doing nothing to prevent (or actively encourage?) deportation. On schooling, I’ll give a pass.


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February 6, 2014 at 12:21 am

i was blown away the day i saw yungchen lhamo play in bloomington seven years ago

50+ chapters of grad skool advice goodness: From Black Power/Grad Skool Rulz 

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February 2, 2014 at 12:01 am

booker’s lament – by roy campbell (1952-2014)

50+ chapters of grad skool advice goodness: From Black Power/Grad Skool Rulz 

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January 19, 2014 at 12:18 am

deep chill


Due to weather and multiple deadlines on Monday, orgtheory is on break today.

Advice for finishing that dissertation: From Black Power/Grad Skool Rulz 

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January 6, 2014 at 12:11 am

rotholz shreds bach’s flute sonata in G minor, bwv 1020 I allegro

Do it for your mother, she wants you to succeed: From Black Power/Grad Skool Rulz 

Written by fabiorojas

January 5, 2014 at 12:01 am

new year’s eve – the civilized holiday



Fireworks by Laurie Lipton

New Year’s Eve is, I think, the most civilized of our holidays. Consider the following:

  • The whole world celebrates it.
  • No one is excluded based on nation, race, or religion.
  • Expensive gifts aren’t necessary.
  • No one argues with family over holiday dinner.
  • It’s a celebration of the time we spend with each other.
  • We promise to do better.
  • Alcohol is imbibed, but St. Patrick’s style debauchery is not the norm. Apple cider is acceptable. This obviously doesn’t apply to South Philly.

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Written by fabiorojas

January 2, 2014 at 12:01 am

research outside the academy part III: jobs and such

Katherine asked me also to say a little about what the skills, training, etc. we use on the job at DMV R&D. Also, she asked me to write something about the application process (since, as it happens, we have an opening at the moment).

In terms of the skills we use for most of our work, I can’t emphasize enough the importance of having a strong quantitative background.  Being able to create, and interpret the results of, various kinds of statistical modeling (particularly, but not only, regression modeling) is a rare and valuable thing.  In addition to using this basic understanding of statistics, we routinely design and implement original research studies.  This requires practical knowledge of basically all aspects of methodology from start to finish: preparing an analysis plan, understanding sampling procedures, thinking critically about effect sizes and statistical power considerations, developing data collection instruments, recruiting subjects, creating databases from raw inputs, preparing (and revising) statistical analyses, writing up results and preparing a publication.  Of secondary importance – at least in our unit – are qualitative methods.  We do sometimes engage in studies using interviews or focus groups; however, these are only rarely a part of what we do here at DMV R&D.  Finally, I should emphasize that we regularly present our research findings to both technical audiences (i.e., professional conferences) and to non-technical groups (e.g., DMV management and staff).  Being able to translate research findings for different types of audiences is not so easy to do – but we are called upon to do precisely that as part of our work.

Now, in terms of what we look for in strong candidates who are looking to work in government research, I would say that as with an academic posting, we certainly appreciate a publication record of some sort.  We do not necessarily expect that applicants will have published in traffic safety journals.  However, where applicable, peer-reviewed publications serve to demonstrate a candidate’s familiarity with social science research methods and quantitative statistical techniques.  We also look for job experience that involves direct planning, implementation, and/or analysis and write-up of social science research projects.  While it is helpful for candidates to have specific experience with certain statistical packages (e.g., SAS, SPSS), we have also found that candidates with experience using other statistical packages (e.g., STATA) may be prepared to transfer that knowledge without too much trouble.

But what about the nitty-gritty of actually finding openings and applying?  California has a very straightforward civil service process.  All job openings are posted on a central website (  In addition to this, many agencies post their job openings in supplementary fora, such as at professional conference (for example, the Transportation Research Board).  We do not use headhunters.  I should state here that the hiring process varies somewhat from agency to agency; different departments may be looking for slightly different skill sets.  Our hiring process involves several steps.  First, we review all applications to ensure that they meet certain minimum qualifications.  These minimum qualifications differ by job title, but are a matter of public record at the California State Personnel Board’s website (  Please note: this website also posts salary scales, which are surely also useful information).  Depending on the results of this review, we may then bring in a candidate for a formal interview (if the candidate is physically located out of state, this may occur by phone).  This interview includes a discussion of the candidate’s knowledge, skills, and abilities in relation to standard statistical techniques and social science research methods.  Depending on the results of this interview, we may then bring in a candidate to give a presentation to all of the staff members of our branch.  This provides the candidate an opportunity to discuss a recent research project of their own; it also provides them the opportunity to meet the staff and find out more about the work that we do here.  If we make an offer to a candidate, it would typically be for a full-time permanent civil service position.  Our branch is currently accepting applications at the Research Program Specialist I and II level.  If you’re interested in finding out more, please e-mail me directly ( with any questions about the application process.

That’s it for my series of posts.  Oh, one more thing: if anyone is interested in hearing about the ethical considerations associated with using administratively-collected data for research purposes, please look for a panel on that subject at next year’s (2014) ASA meetings in San Francisco.

Written by baylisscamp

December 6, 2013 at 5:01 am

research outside the academy part II: some background and reflections on institutional logics.

Since defending my dissertation (in 2003), I’ve worked in both academia and for the DMV.  Prior to moving back to California, I was an assistant professor in the Department of Sociology and Anthropology at Texas Christian University (TCU).  I’ve continued to teach as an adjunct in the Department of Sociology at CSU-Sacramento while working full-time for DMV. 

There are a number of differences between the two types of organization.  Some of these differences are obvious, some not.  Some of these differences tend to be in favor of the academy, and others tend to be in favor of state service.  First, and most obviously, there is the matter of pay and benefits.  The salary range of our research program specialist series (the main job titles that are associated with research work in California state service) are roughly equivalent to the salary range of tenure-track faculty in the CSU system.  In addition, we have a defined-benefit pension in retirement.  On the other hand – and this point will surely hit home for this audience – working for state government involves a non-trivial step down in occupational prestige.  Not a season goes by but what I have to answer some version of the question “you have a PhD and you work where?!?”  Usually these questions come from persons outside the academy, and probably reflect some inherent sense of the disjuncture between having a high-status degree and working for one of the most “common” government departments (as opposed to a more “rarified” shop like the Demographic Research Unit at the state’s Department of Finance – an outfit which, I should note, does truly outstanding work).  Academics may be puzzled by my position, but they are often quickly curious as to the kinds of data we have access to, the kinds of methodologies we use, the publication possibilities, etc.  Those working in government are, if anything, impressed by the fact that California DMV has an R&D unit (most states don’t); they are also respectful of the fact that our agency (and the legislature) takes empirical research into account when setting policy. 

In a less tangible manner, working for a government agency is stressful in different ways than teaching.  While students expect professors to be available 24/7, this is not true of state service.  Once the work day is done, I can go home and not worry about checking my e-mail until the next day.  That said, the implications of a mistake are very different.  In teaching, if we say something that isn’t quite right in lecture we can usually address it in a subsequent class session.  If we make an error in a publication, we can issue an erratum.  It’s embarrassing, but usually not grossly consequential.  In state service, on the other hand, a mistaken statement – or worse, a faulty set of analyses and recommendations – can have real, dramatic, and long-lasting effects on policy and revenues, and ultimately on people’s lives.  For that reason (among others), we have multiple layers of review for our studies and publications. 

Finally, I would note that when considering a career in government service, it is useful to think about the implications of the grand logics of different types of organizations (cf. Weber 1922; Dobbin 1994; Meyer and Rowan 1977; Meyer and Scott 1983; DiMaggio and Powell 1991).  We all know, for instance, that those working in for-profit businesses generally judge a given person’s performance through monetary means.  It is only more rarely that we reflect on the fact that those working in government agencies tend to judge personal performance through metrics of power.  In my experience, it is rarer yet that we admit the truth about academic institutions: that people are judged almost entirely in terms of reputation (and not just one’s own, but more broadly that of one’s advisor as well as one’s institutions, both past and present – see Etzkowitz, Kemelgor and Uzzi 2000).  Switching from one field to another usually necessitates that one be prepared to operate under a different set of institutional rules and expectations.  In the case of moving from the academy to the state, this means (among other things) caring much less about what people think about one’s work, and caring much more about making things happen.

Written by baylisscamp

December 2, 2013 at 1:26 am


Recuerdos de Alhambra performed by Jeff Linsky and Byron Yasui.

The Truth, The Truth: From Black Power/Grad Skool Rulz

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December 1, 2013 at 3:00 am


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November 28, 2013 at 12:12 am

Research outside the academy. Or, “Wait, what? You have a PhD and you work where?!?”

First, I’d like to thank Katherine and Teppo for allowing me to guest-blog on this site.  I’ve put together three pieces: (1) what does doing research for a state agency involve, (2) how does working in the public sector compare to working in the academy, and (3) are we hiring (yes) and what do we look for in candidates?

We have two units within our branch here at DMV Research and Development (R&D).  I work in the Driver Competency and Safety Projects Unit; there is also the Alcohol and Impaired Driving Unit.  The distinction between the units is not substantial – many projects involve collaboration between researchers, and in many cases we use very similar types of data and methods to conduct our projects.

In general, I’ve worked on projects that involve the screening, testing, and assessment of physical, visual, and mental functions that may affect driving.  If you’ve ever read a newspaper article about some tragic incident where someone pressed on the accelerator instead of the brake, and drove into a fast-food restaurant, you may have wondered “gee, I wonder if anyone’s doing research on this problem?”  The answer is “yes,” and I’m one of the people that works on that type of question (if you’re curious, such incidents often involve some element of cognitive impairment – such as occurs in early-stage dementia).  The kinds of projects that I’ve worked on as a researcher include: (1) evaluating the results of a pilot project that used novel screening and education tools to identify drivers that may be at risk of unsafe driving due to a physical, visual, or cognitive impairment; (2) calculating projections about the number of cases DMV may see in the next few years of drivers who are referred for evaluation due to a medical problem of one type or another; (3) developing a method by which we can determine the reliability and validity of a drive test that we use (rarely) for persons who drive in extremely limited circumstances, on defined routes or in bounded areas.

In terms of publication opportunities, we mainly publish monographs ourselves (after a rigorous process of internal review).  We also submit articles to peer-reviewed journals in the field of traffic safety.  Finally, we present our findings at national and regional conferences (Transportation Research Board, LifeSavers, California Office of Traffic Safety Summit, etc.).

I was recently promoted, and my current duties include overseeing the research of others.  Some of these projects include: (1) assessing the reliability of machines used to screen people for problems with visual acuity, (2) determining at a descriptive level the incidence of distracted driving incidents, particularly those that involve crashes where there is some indication that usage of a cell phone contributed to the crash, (3) calculating the effect of a particular novice driver training and education program on subsequent risk for crashes and violations.  Finally, and perhaps most exciting, I’ve had the opportunity to participate in reviewing research (conducted by others) on automated vehicles; this review has been for the purpose of assisting our policy and legal staff in developing regulations that will govern the testing by manufacturers, and use by the general public, of automated vehicle technology on public roads.

Oh, and since I know at least one person might wonder: my dissertation had absolutely zippo to do with any of these topics.  We will address this area (what do we actually look for in job candidates for our research shop) in post #3.

Written by baylisscamp

November 27, 2013 at 5:07 am

el cachao!!!

Viejo y bueno.

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Written by fabiorojas

October 13, 2013 at 12:01 am

best art installation of the year?

From rAndom International. Amazing.

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October 12, 2013 at 12:01 am

piazolla’s tango jazz

French group “Degaf” playing tango, inspired by Piazolla.

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October 6, 2013 at 12:01 am

where military recruits come from


I found this website, which illustrates where recruits come from.

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October 5, 2013 at 12:01 am

we’re never going back to georgia, ever

Trumpet extravaganza, by Dizzy and master John Faddis. Composition: Manteca.

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September 29, 2013 at 12:05 am

a love supreme, a love supreme, a love supreme


From Wallace Roney.

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September 28, 2013 at 12:01 am

pensativa, by clare fisher

Performed by the Art Blakey group at its height.

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September 15, 2013 at 12:09 am

More words on critical realism: Getting clear on the basics

One thing that I found dissatisfying about our earlier “discussion” on CR is that it ultimately left the task of actually getting clear on what CR “is” unfinished (or bungled).  Chris tried to provide a “bulletpoint” summary in one of the out of control comment threads, but his quick attempt at exposition mixed together two things that I think should be kept separate (what I call high level principles from substantively important derivations from those principles). This post tries to follow Chris Smith’s (sound advice) that ” We’ll all do better by focusing on important matters of intellectual substance, and put the others to rest.”

The task of getting clear on the nature of CR is particularly relevant for people who haven’t already formed strong opinions on CR and who are just curious about what it is. My argument here is that neither proponents nor critics do a good job of just telling people what CR is in its most basic form. The reason for this has to do with precisely the complex nature of CR as an ontology, epistemology, theory of science, and (most importantly) a set of interrelated theses about the natural, social, cultural, mental, world that are derived from applying the high level philosophical commitments to concrete problems. My argument is that CR will continue to draw incoherent reactions and counter-reactions (by both proponents and opponents) unless these aspects are disaggregated, and we get clear on what exactly we are disagreeing about.  One of these incoherent reactions is that CR is both a “giant” package of meta-theoretical commitments and that CR is actually a fairly “minimalist” set of principles the reasonable nature of which would only be denied by the certifiably insane.

In particular it is important to separate the high level “core” commitments from all the substantive derivations, because it is possible to accept the core commitments and disagree with the derivations. In essence, a lot of stuff (actually most of the stuff) that gets called “CR” consists of a particular theorist’s application of the high level principles to a given problem. For instance, one can apply (as did Bhaskar in the “original” contributions) the high level ontology to derive a (general) theory of science. One can (as Bhaskar also did) use the general theory of science to derive a local theory (both descriptive and normative) of social science (via the undemonstrable assumption that social science is just like other sciences).  And the same can be done for pretty much any other topic: I can use CR to derive a general theory of social structures, or human action, or culture, or the person, or whatever. Once again, the cautionary point above stands: I can vehemently disagree with all the special theories, while still agreeing with the high level CR principles. In other words I can disagree with the conclusion while agreeing with the high-level premises because I believe that you can’t get where you want to go from where you start. This may happen because let’s say, I can see the CR theorist engaging in all sorts of reasoning fallacies (begging the question, arguing against straw men, helping him or herself to undemonstrable but substantively important sub-theses, and so on) to get from the high level principles to the particular theory of (fill in the blank: the person, social structure, social mechanisms, human action, culture, and so on).

This is also I believe the best way to separate the “controversial” from the “uncontroversial” aspects of CR, and to make sense of why CR appears to be both trivial and controversial at the same time. In my view the high level principles are absolutely uncontroversial. It is the deployment of these principles to derive substantively meaningful special theories with strong and substantively important implications that results in controversial (because not necessarily coherent or valid at the level of reasoning) theories.

The High Level Basics.-

One thing that is seldom noted by either proponents or critics of CR is that the fundamental high level theses are actually pretty simple and in fact fairly uncontroversial. These only become “controversial” when counterposed to nutty epistemologies or theories of science that nobody holds or really believes (e.g. so-called “positivism”, radical social constructionism, or whatever). I argued against this way of introducing CR precisely because it confounds the level at which CR actually becomes controversial.

So what are these theses? As repeatedly pointed to by both Phil and Chris in the ridiculously long comment thread, and as ritualistically introduced by most CR writers in social theory (e.g. Dave Elder-Vass), these are simply a non-reductionist “realism” coupled to a non-reductionist, neo-Aristotelian ontology.

The non-reductionist realism part is usually the one that is much ballyhooed by proponents of CR, but in my view, this is actually the least interesting (and least distinctive) part of CR in relation to other options. In fact, if this was all that CR offered, there would be no reason to consider it any further. So the famous empirical/actual/real (EAR) triad is not really a particularly meaningful signature of CR. The only interesting high-level point that CR makes at this level is the “thou shall not reduce the real to the actual, or worse, to the empirical.” Essentially: the world throws surprises at you because it is not reducible to what you know, and is not reducible to what happens (or has happened or will happen). I don’t think that this is particularly interesting because no reasonable person will disagree with these premises. Yes, there are people that seem to say something different, but once you sit them down for 10 minutes and explain things to them, they would agree that the real is not reducible to our conceptions or our experiences of reality. Even the seemingly more controversial point (that reality is not reducible to the actual) is actually (pun intended) not that controversial. In this sense CR is just a vanilla form of realism.

When we consider the CR conception of ontology then things get more interesting. Most CR people propose an essentially neo-Aristotelian conception of the structure of world as composed of entities endowed with inherent causal powers. This conception links to the EAR distinction in the following sense: The real causal powers of an entity endow it with a dispositional set of tendencies or propensities to generate actual events in the world; these actual events may or may not be empirically observable. The causal powers of an entity are real in the sense that these powers and propensities exist even if they are never actualized or observed by anyone. To use the standard trite example, the causal power to break a window is a dispositional property of a rock; this property is real in these that it is there whether it is ever actualized (an actual window breaking with a rock event happens in the world), and whether anybody ever observes this event.

Reality then, is just such a collection of entities endowed with causal powers that come from their inherent nature. The nature of entities is not an unanalyzable monad but is itself the (“emergent” in the sense outlined below) result of the powers and dispositions of the lower level constituents of that entity suitably organized in the right configuration. What in earlier conceptions of science are called “laws of nature” happen to be simply observed events generated by the actualization of a mechanism, whereby a “mechanism” is simply a regular, coherently organized, collection of entities endowed inherent causal powers acting upon one another in a predictable fashion. Scientists isolate the mechanism when they are able to manipulate the organization of the entities in question so that the event is actualized with predictable regularity; these events are then linked to an observational system to generate the so-called phenomenological or empirical regularities (“the laws”) that formed the core of traditional (Hempelian) conceptions of science.

The laws thus result from the regular operation of “nomological machines” (in Cartwright’s sense). The CR point is thus that the phenomenological “laws” are secondary, because they are just the effect produced by hooking together a real mechanism to produce (potentially) observable events in a regular way. So the CR people would say that Hacking’s aphorism “if you can spray them they are real” is made sense of by the unobservable stuff that you can spray is an entity endowed with the causal power capable of generating observable phenomena when isolated as part of an actualized mechanism. The observability thing is secondary, because the powers are there whether you can observe the entity or not. That’s the CR “theory of science.”

The key to the CR ontology is that the nature of entities is understood using a “layered” ontological picture in which entities are understood as essentially wholes made of parts organized according to a given configuration (a system of relations). These “parts” are themselves other entities which may be decomposable into further parts (lower level entities organized in a system of relations and so on). Causal powers emerge at different levels and are not reducible to the causal powers of some “fundamental” level. Thus, CR proposes a non-reductionist, “layered” ontology, with emergent causal powers at each level.

This emergence is “ontological” and not “epistemic” in the sense that the causal powers at each level are “real” in the standard CR sense: they are not reducible to their actual manifestations nor are these “emergent” properties simply an epistemic gloss that we throw into the world because of our cognitive limitations. Thus, CR is an ontological democracy which retains the part-whole mereology of standard realist accounts, but rejects the reductionist implication that the structure of the world bottoms out at some fundamental level of reality where the really real causal powers can be found (and with higher level causal powers simply being a derivative shadow of the fundamental ones).

Getting controversial.-

Now you can see things getting interesting, because we have a stronger set of position takings. Note that from our initial vanilla realism, and our seemingly innocuous EAR distinction, along with a meatier conceptualization of entities as organized wholes endowed with powers and propensitities, we are now living in a world composed of a panoply of real entities at different levels of analysis, endowed with (non-reducible) real causal powers at each level. The key proposition that is beginning to generate premises that we can actually have arguments about is of course the premise of ontological emergence. I argue that this premise not a CR requirement. For instance, why can’t I be a reductionist critical realist? (RCR) Essentially, RCR accepts the EAR distinction, but privileges a fundamental level; this fundamental level may ultimately figure in our theoretical conceptions of reality but it is the bedrock upon which all actual and empirical events stand. In other words, the only true “mechanisms” that I accept are the ones composed of entities at the most fundamental level of reality, which may or may not ever be uncovered. I don’t seriously intend to defend this position, but just bring it up as an attempt to show that CR hooks together a lot of things that are logically independent (emergentist ontology, Aristotelian conception of entities, part-whole mereology, with a “causal powers” view of causation, among others).

In any case, my argument is that most of the substantively interesting CR theses do not emerge (pun intended) from the Bhaskarian theory or science, or the account of causation, or the EAR distinction. They emerge from hooking together (ontological) emergentism and an Aristotelian conceptions of entities and dispositional causal powers. For emergentism is what generates the (controversial) explosion of real entities in CR writing. Not only that, emergentism is the only calling card that CR writers have to provide what Dave Elder-Vass has called a “regional ontology” for the social sciences, that does not resolve into just repeating the boring EAR distinction or the (increasingly uncontroversial) “theory of science” that Bhaskar developed in A Realist Theory of Science and The Possibility of Naturalism. 

How to be a (controversial) Critical Realist in two easy steps.-

So now that we have that covered, it is easy to show how to produce a “controversial” CR argument. First, pick a mereology. Meaning, pick some entities to serve as the parts, preferably entities that themselves do not have a controversial status (most people would agree that the entities exist, form coherent wholes, have natures, and so on), and pick a more controversially coherent whole that these parts could conceivably be the parts of. Then argue that the parts do indeed form such a whole via the ontological emergence postulate. Note that the postulate allows you to fudge on this point, because you do not actually have to specify the mechanism via which this ontological emergence relation is actualized (you can argue that that is the job of empirical science and so on). Then hooking the CR notion of causal powers and the EAR distinction and the postulate of ontological democracy of all entities argue that this whole is now a super-addition to the usual vanilla reality. That is, the  new emergent entity is real in the same sense that other things (apples, rocks, leptons, cells) are real. It has a inherent nature, a set of dispositions to generate actual events, and most importantly it has causal powers. The powers of this new emergent entity may be manifested at its own level (by affecting same-level entities), or they may be exhibited by the constraining power of that entity upon the lower level constituent entities (the postulate of “downward causation”). For instance, (to mention one thing that could actually be of interest to readers of this blog), Dave Elder-Vass has provided an account of the reality of “organizations” (and the non-reducibility of organizational action to individual action) using just this CR recipe.

Now we have the materials to make some people (justifiably) discomfited about a substantive CR claim (or at least motivated to write a critical paper). For if you look at most of the contributions of CR to various issues they resolve themselves to  just the steps that I outlined above. So the CR “theory” of social structure, is precisely what you think. Social structure is composed of individuals, organized by a set of relations that form a coherent (configured) whole. This whole (social structure) is now a real entity endowed with its own causal powers, which now (may) exert “downward causation” on the individual’s the constitute it. These causal powers are not reducible to those of the individuals that constitute it. This how CR cashes in what John Levi Martin has referred to as the “substantive hunch” that animates all sociological research. “The social” emerges from the powers and activities of individuals but it never ultimately resolves itself into an aggregation of those powers and activities. Note that CR is opposed to any form of ontological reduction whether it is “downwards” or “upwards.” Thus attempts to reduce social structure to the mental or interactional level are “downward conflationist” and attempts to reduce individuals to social structure (or language or what have you), are “upward conflationist.” Thus, the “first” Archer trilogy can be read in this way. First, on the non-reducibility (and ontological independence between) social structure in relation to the individual or individual activity, then “culture” in relation to the individual or individual interaction, and later (in reverse) personal agency in relation to either social structure or culture.

Essentially, the stratified ontology postulate must be respected. Any attempt to simplify the ontological picture is rejected as so much covert (or overt) reductionism or “conflation.” Note that “conflation” is not technically a formal error of reasoning (as is begging the question) but simply an attempt by a theorist to simplify the ontological picture by abandoning the ontological democracy or ontological emergence postulates. A lot of the times CR theorists (like Archer) reject conflation as if it was such an error in reasoning, when in fact it is a substantive argument that cannot be dismissed in such an easy way. Note that this is weird because both the ontological democracy and the ontological emergence argument are themselves non-demonstrable but substantively important propositions in CR. Thus, most CR attempts to dismiss either reductionist or simplifying ontologies themselves do commit such a formal error of reasoning, namely, begging the question in favor of ontological emergence and ontological democracy.

Another way to make a CR argument is to start with a predetermined high level entity of choice. This kind of CR argument is more “defensive” than constructive. Here the analyst picks an entity the real status of which has (for some reason) become controversial, either because some theorists purport to show that it does not “really” exist (meaning that it is just a shorthand way to talk about some aggregate of actually existing lower level entities), or is not required to generate scientific accounts of some slice of the world (ontological simplification or reduction a la caloric or phlogiston). Here CR arguments essentially use the ontological democracy postulate to simply say that the preferred whole has ontological independence from either the lower constituents or higher level entities to which others seek to reduce the focal entity. Moreover, the CR theorist may argue that this ontological independence is demonstrated by the fact that this entity has (actualized and/or empirically observable) causal powers, once again above and beyond those provided by the lower level (or higher level ) entities or processes usually trotted out to “reduce it away.” This applies in particular to the “humanist” strand of CR that attempts to defend specific causal powers that are seen as inherent properties of persons (e.g. reflexivity in Archer’s case) or even the very notion of person (in Chris Smith’s What is a Person?) as an emergent whole endowed with specific causal powers, properties and propensities.

To recap, CR is a complex object composed of many parts. But not all parts are of the same nature. I have distinguished between roughly three parts, organized according to the generality of the claim and the specificity of the substantive points made. In this respect, I would distinguish between:

1) The parts that CR shares with all “vanilla” realisms. This includes the postulate of ontological realism (mind-independence of the existence of reality), the transitive/intransitive distinction, the EAR distinction, and so on. In itself, none of these theses make CR particularly distinctive, unique or useful. If you disagree with CR at this level, based on irrealist premises, congratulations. You are insane.

2) The Aristotelian ontology.- This specifies the kind of realism that CR proposes. Here things get more interesting, because there is actual philosophical debate about this (nobody seriously defends irrealist positions in Philosophy any more and most sociologists just like to pretend to be irrealists to show off at parties). Here CR could play a role in philosophical debates insofar as a neo-Aristotelian approach to realism and explanation is a coherent position in Philosophy of Science (although it is not without its challengers). Here belongs (among other things) the specific CR conceptualizations of objects and entities, the causal (dispositional) powers ontology (when hooked to the EAR distinction) and the specific “Theory of Science” and the “Theory of Explanation” that follows from these (essentially endorsing mechanismic and systems explanation over reductive, covering law stories). This is what I believe is the best ontological move and CR should be commended in this respect.

3) The stratified ontology.- This comes from yoking (1) and (2) to the ontological emergence and ontological democracy postulate. This is where you can find a lot of “controversial” (where by controversial I mean worth arguing about, worth specifying, worth clarifying, and in some cases worth rejecting) arguments in CR. These are of three types: ontological emergence arguments, augment the standard common-sense ontology of material entities to argue for the existence of higher level non-material entities; thus “social structures” are as real as the couch that you are lying on; the danger here is a world that comes to populated with a host of emergent “entities” with no principled way of deciding which ones are in fact real (beyond the theorist’s taste). This is the problem of ontological inflation, (2) “Downward causation” arguments add this postulate to suggest that the emergent (non-material or material) entities not only “exist” in a passive sense, but actually exert causal effect on lower level components or other higher-level entities, (3) “ontological independence” arguments attempt to show that a particular sort of entity that is usually done violence to in standard (reductionist) accounts has a level of ontological integrity that cannot be impugned and has a set of causal powers that cannot be dismissed. In humanist and personalist accounts, this entity is “the person” along with a host of powers and capacities that are usually blunted in “social-scientific” accounts (e.g. persons as centers of moral purpose) and the enemies are the positions that attempt to explain away these powers or capacities or that attempt to show that the don’t matter as much as other entities (e.g. “social structure”).

4) Continuing extensions of the stratified ontology argument.- This is the part of CR that has drawn (an unfair) amount of attention, because it extends the same set of arguments to defend both the reality but also the causal powers of a set of entities that (a) a lot of people are diffident about according the same level of reality to as the standard material entities, and (b) things that most people would have difficulty even calling entities. These may be “norms,” “the mental,” “the cultural,” “the discursive,” and “levels of reality” above and beyond the plain old material/empirical world that we all know and love (e.g. super-empirical domains of reality). You can see how CR can get controversial here.

5) Additional stuff.- A lot of other CR arguments do not directly follow from any of these, but are added as supplementary premises to round out CR as a holistic perspective. For instance, the rejection of the fact-value distinction in science is not really a logical derivation from the theory of science or the neo-Aristotelian ontology, and neither is the “judgmental rationality” postulate (that science progresses, gradually gets at the truth, etc.). I mean all realisms presuppose that we get better at science, but this is not really a logical derivation from realist premises (as argued by Arthur Fine). The fact/value thing is in the same boat, because it requires a detour through a lot of controversial group (3) and group (4) territory to be made to stick. For instance, given that persons are emergent entities, endowed with non-arbitrary properties and powers, then the “relativist” arguments that any social arrangement is as good as any other for the flourishing of personhood is clearly not valid. This means that social scientists have to take a strong stance on the value question (hence sociological inquiry cannot be value neutral). Because a mixture of Aristotelian ontology and ontological emergentism applied to human nature is incompatible with moral (and social-institutional) relativism, the the fact value distinction in social science is untenable. However, note that to get there  a lot of other premises, sub-premises, and substantive arguments for the reality of persons as emergent, neo-Aristotelian entities have to be accepted as valid. In this sense the fact/value thing is only a derivation from certain extensions of CR into controversial territory. As already intimated, What is a Person? is a (well-argued!) piece of controversial CR precisely in this sense.

Note that this clarifies the “giant package” versus “minimalist” CR debate. Let’s go back to the cable analogy. So you are considering signing  up for CR? Here’s the deal: The “basic” CR package would (in my view) be any acceptance of (1) and (2) (with some but not all elements of (3)). In this sense, I am a Critical Realist (and so should you). The “standard” CR package includes in addition to (1), (2) and all of (3), some elements of (4). Here we enter controversial territory, because a lot of CR arguments for the “reality” of this or that are not as tight or well-argued as their proponents suppose. In their worst forms, they resolve themselves into picking your favorite thing (e.g. self-reflexivity), and then calling it “real” and “causally powerful” because “emergent.” It is no surprise that Archer’s weakest work is of this (most recent) ilk. Here the obsession with ontological democracy prevents any consideration of ontological simplification or actual ontological stratification (meaning getting clear on which causal powers matter most rather than assigning each one their preferred, isolated level). Finally, the “turbo” package requires that you sign up for (1) through (5), this of course is undeniably controversial, because here CR goes from being a philosophy of scientific practice to being a philosophy of life, the universe and everything. Sometimes CR people seem to act surprised that people may be reluctant to adopt a philosophy of life, but I believe that this has to do with their penchant to suppose that once you accept the basic, then the chain or reasoning that will lead you to the standard and the turbo follows inexorably and unproblematically.

This is absolutely not the case, and this where CR folk would benefit most from talking to people who are not fully committed to the turbo, but who (like other sane people) are already 80% into the basic (and maybe even the standard). My sense is that we should certainly be arguing about the right things, and in my view the right things are at the central node (3), because this is the where the key set of argumentative devices that allows CR people to derive substantively meaningful (“controversial”) conclusions (both at that level—arguments for the reality of “social structure”—and about type (4) and (5) matters), and where most attempts to provide a workable ontology for the social sciences are either going to be cashed in, or be rejected as aesthetically pleasing formulations of dubious practical utility.

Written by Omar

September 14, 2013 at 7:48 pm

piping hot unicorn meat


The Medieval Manuscripts blog reports that an old cookbook has been rediscovered and it has that unicorn recipe I’ve been looking for:

After recipes for herring, tripe and codswallop (fish stew, a popular dish in the Middle Ages) comes that beginning “Taketh one unicorne”. The recipe calls for the beast to be marinaded in cloves and garlic, and then roasted on a griddle. The cookbook’s compiler, doubtless Geoffrey Fule himself, added pictures in its margins, depicting the unicorn being prepared and then served. Sarah J Biggs, a British Library expert on medieval decoration, commented that “the images are extraordinary, almost exactly as we’d expect them to be, if not better”.

Finger lickin’ good.

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Written by fabiorojas

September 14, 2013 at 12:03 am

Three thousand more words on critical realism

The continuing brouhaha over Fabio’s (fallaciously premised) post*, and Kieran’s clarification and response has actually been much more informative than I thought it would be. While I agree that this forum is not the most adequate to seriously explore intellectual issues, it does have a (latent?) function that I consider equally as valuable in all intellectual endeavors, which is the creation of a modicum of common knowledge about certain stances, premises and even valuational judgments. CR is a great intellectual object in the contemporary intellectual marketplace precisely because of the fact that it seems to demand an intellectual response (whether by critics or proponents) thus forcing people (who otherwise wouldn’t) to take a stance.  The response may range from (seemingly facile) dismissal (maybe involving dairy products), to curiosity (what the heck is it?), to considered criticism, to ho hum neutralism, to critical acceptance, or to (sock-puppet aided) uncritical acceptance.  But the point is that it is actually fun to see people align themselves vis a vis CR because it provides an opportunity for those people to actually lay their cards on the table in way that seldom happens in their more considered academic work.

My own stance vis a vis CR is mostly positive. When reading CR or CR-inflected work, I seldom find myself vehemently disagreeing or shaking my head vigorously (this in itself I find a bit suspicious, but more on that below). I find most of the epistemological, and meta-methodological recommendations of people who have been influenced by CR (like my colleague Chris Smith, Phil Gorski, or George Steinmetz, or Margaret Archer) fruitful and useful, and in some sense believe that some of the most important of these are already part of sociological best practice. I think some of the work on “social structure” that has been written by CR-oriented folk (Doug Porpora and Margaret Archer early on and more recently Dave Elder-Vass) important reading, especially if you want to think straight about that hornet’s nest of issues. So I don’t think that CR is “lame.” Although like any multi-author, somewhat loose cluster of writings, I have indeed come across some work that claims to be CR which is indeed lame. But that would apply to anything (there are examples of lame pragmatism, lame field theory, lame network analysis, lame symbolic interactionism, etc. without making any of these lines of thought “lame” in their entirety).

That said, I agree with the basic descriptive premises of Kieran’s post. So this post is structured as a way to try to unhook the fruitful observations that Kieran made from the vociferous name-calling and defensive over-reactions to which these sort of things can lead. So think of this as my own reflections of what this implies for CR’s attempt to provide a unifying philosophical picture for sociology.

Read the rest of this entry »

celia cruz/guantanamera

Written by fabiorojas

September 8, 2013 at 12:09 am

lovecraft’s doodles


The Blouin Art info blog has a short report on HP Lovecraft’s drawings of monsters. Of note to nerds, creeps, and elder gods who don’t have a mirror at hand.

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Written by fabiorojas

September 7, 2013 at 12:06 am

so danco samba, by the amazing eliane elias

What can I say? Amazing piano player, great bossa nova approach, and real swing to her playing.

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Written by fabiorojas

September 1, 2013 at 12:02 am

alright, we’ll do a cal tjader post

Written by fabiorojas

August 25, 2013 at 3:10 am

excellent librarian video

Written by fabiorojas

August 24, 2013 at 12:01 am

the art of martin wattenberg


A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away Berkeley, I got to know a guy by the name of Martin Wattenberg. He’s a mathematician who now focuses on data visualization and converting it into fine art. Above is an example of a map of wind in the United States, created with Fernanda Viégas. Good stuff.

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Written by fabiorojas

August 20, 2013 at 12:03 am


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