Ronald Reagan, individuals, agency, structure…and intertextuality


In a classic SNL skit, “Ronald Reagan” (the late Phil Hartman) is shown performing various White House PR functions (such as taking pictures with girl scouts and signing autographs for old ladies ) in his usual absent minded way and wearing an imbecilic smile. After the last civilian is out of sight however, Reagan and his aides enter a war room where he proceeds to pull down a map of the world taking an ominous “master of the world” demeanor. Reagan then begin to bark orders dealing with the toppling of various goverments, moving cocaine out of Colombia in order to fund various secret wars, selling weapons to the Nicaraguans to fund prisoner exchanges elsewhere, assassinating various international political enemies, etc. The skit if funny precisely because it plays on this unlikely presumption that behind close doors, this really clueless and rather dull guy is really a mastermind of American global domination and political control.

Allow me to offer the following “intertextual” network for your perusal: a review article on various revisionary histories on the presidency of Ronald Reagan from the New York Review of Books, Political Scientist Margaret Levi’s 1985 review of Charles Tilly’s Big Structures, Large Processes and Huge Comparisons, James Coleman’s brief comments on a couple of articles by Tim Kuran and Randall Collins on the surprising (to social scientists) “revolutions of 1989” in Eastern Europe published in 1995 in a special symposium on the subject at AJS.

What the heck does all of this have to do with anything?

According to the NYRB article, Ronald Reagan’s reputation has undergone the most rapid improvement of any President in American History. What is interesting about this is the emerging consensus that it is precisely those qualities that made Reagan appear clueless, too amicable for power politics, naive, etc., that may be responsible for him going down in the pantheon of the great Presidents of the United States. The quick end of the Cold War during the 1980s is in historical retrospect even more astonishing, having surprised everybody from academic and nonacademic experts to the lay public. Most of the foreign policy experts thought of the Cold War (following the seminal contributions of Schelling) as a stable equilibrium maintained by the credible threat of mutually assured destruction with no real end in sight. There was no Fukayaman-Hegelian necessity for the Cold War to end when it did; in a very plausible counterfactual timeline, there is still an evil empire, and Hollywood is still making movies about nuclear chicken-fried-humans rather than environmental disasters. Thus, it is very likely that it was the contingent circumstance of having Reagan and no other person in the White House and Gorbachev and no other person in the Kremlin that ended the Cold War. Certain biographical and psychological qualities of Reagan may have been responsible for his strong belief that the Cold War could be ended that the Russians could be negotiated with, etc. In spite of vociferous opposition to these opinions from within his own cabinet.

Sociologists are not very good at processing anything like this, since we are viscerally opposed to any suggestion that individuals, with their idiosyncractic quirks and mostly accidental personal qualities could possibly have large-scale effects on major historical events. The Durkheim of Suicide set the ball rolling, by relegating all types of personal or psychological idiosyncrasies to the realm of “randomness.” This practice continues to be alive and well in contemporary quantitative research. While Durkheim relied on the early statistical revolution of the Quetelet group (with their quasi-metaphysical concept of the “average man” [le homme moyen]), American sociologists ironically have kept this tradition alive using econometric methods. The standard model of “explaining” a given outcome, Y=a+bX+e, usually implies (for sociologists) that X is a matrix of sociological factors and that everything else (which includes mostly “unpredictable” individuals qualities) is a stochastic “random effect” (e) normally distributed with a constant variance across individuals (sigma[e]) to be estimated from the data.

Within the sociological intellectual field, the inability to “predict” the end of the Soviet Empire, was interpreted as a theoretical and intellectual failure. In his contribution to the afore-linked to symposium, Kuran develops a “methodological individualist” explanation based on preference-falsification (revolutions fail to occur even if everyone wants them to happen because people don’t know that others feel the same way; when that spell is broken, and people are able to realize that everybody wants the regime to go, you get one), while Collins opts for a purely macro-sociological explanation based on his geopolitical theory (guess which one Coleman likes better). Coleman notes that “[a]ll of the variables that Collins uses in his geopolitical model character the state or the society as a whole…There is not atttempt to characterize, predict or explain the actions of those who initiate a revol or those who support revolutionaries, despite the fact that it is their actions that constitute revolution” (1618-1619).

In her review, entitled “Bringing Pinocchio to Life” Levi complains that in spite of all of its brilliance, Tilly’s book remains committed to a pre-formationist, anti-genetic structuralism, where relations do all of the analytical work but nobody tells us where these come from. This is in spite of the fact that for Tilly, the true villain of the sociological story is Durkheim. Levi complains that “…it is structures that cause structures for Tilly. The actors are everpresent yet have little theoretical role on Tilly’s historical stage. They are part of social change, and they are affected by social change. But their contribution remains veiled and indistinct” (694).

Yet, notice that even though sociologists kind of got caught with their pants down when it came to the events of 1989, the usual rational action approach (dominated by thinly conceived representative agents, and focused on external incentives that produce similar responses across contexts and which conceives of psychological quirks as exogenously given parameters) fared no better in “predicting” the end of the Cold War, which instead seemed to have a lot to do with the contingencies of history. It seems that this is certainly where most of our theories in the social sciences, designed to track and account for systematic patterns of behavior across the contingencies of individuals (either by exogenizing them or treating them as random), may be at a disadvantage when dealing with events that are produced by complex interactions of unique individuals with complex organized systems (i.e. the interstate system or the American foreign policy establishment). So that the system would produce a different outcome if we were to take a strategically placed individual and substitute her for another one.

Written by Omar

March 30, 2007 at 1:19 pm

Posted in books, omar, sociology

2 Responses

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  1. I’ve always thought that leadership is a massively underdeveloped area, except for psychology. Our emphasis on “big processes” makes us blind that big processes can create opportunities for individuals to make massive changes. However, I am optimistic about Neil Fligstein’s recent work, which puts a big emphasis on social skill, and shows how you can take structure seriously but still admit that individuals can have a big impact.

    WRT Reagan, I have found him to be much more enigmatic than most people. He actually appears in my book because, amazingly, he was a key actor early in the history of Black Studies because he was governor when Bl St was starting out in California. In my account, he appears as a very savvy actor. He always knew how to play both sides of the game, which leads me to the conclusion that political leaders seem very good at manipulating the complexity and ambiguity of their environment a la Padgett and Ansell 1993.


    Fabio Rojas

    March 30, 2007 at 2:39 pm

  2. I’m glad Fabio mentioned Padgett and Ansell in connection with Reagan because as I read the first part of your post I thought the same thing. It’s all about “robust action”! Reagan, depending on which side of the political divide you’re listening to, is commonly conceived as both an imbecile and the great communicator. For some people he is the only person who could clearly carry out an ideologically-driven conservative plan and for others he was a puppet president. They’re probably all correct, to an extent. Reagan’s personality was so enigmatic (even his biographer Edmund Morris couldn’t get a handle on what drove him) that it allowed people to read various intentions, motivations, and power dynamics into their relationships with him.

    I think what his powerful about the Padgett and Ansell approach to strategy is that it actually does place quite a bit of agency in the hands of actors. Individuals are conceived of as capable of manipulating images and relationships in the pursuit of their own gain, although their structural position facilitates/constrains their ability to succeed. It’s not entirely one or the other. Agency is always exerted in a structural context. But structure is also shaped out of strategic action. Leifer is also very good at this I think.

    The problem with this view is that it’s hard to model empirically. Until sociologists can come up with quantitative methods that rival the subtlety of qualitative methods in their ability to tease out the coevolution of structure and agency, structure will likely be preferred in our theoretical arguments.



    March 30, 2007 at 3:48 pm

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