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levy book forum 3: is civil society that bad?

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In the last two installments of the Levy book forum, I reviewed the basic ideas of the book and some of his discussion of states. In this last installment, I will discuss Part III of the book, which goes into how associations can be pretty nasty.

Part III starts with a parade of the horrible things groups can do to members and their types of dysfunctions. Factionalism, interest groups who hijack the state, angry majorities who hunt minorities. The discussion makes me afraid to walk home at night!

I think most sociologists would be comfortable with this overall view. There are many groups that are illiberal in nature and we should be concerned. And this is a permanent feature of the human condition. We ally with others of similar mind to oppose those we find distasteful or dangerous.

A few questions came to mind as I read that section. First, empirically, have civil associations been fairly depicted? I think my answer is no. I think that non-states can be repressive and violent, but since they like access to state violence, the magnitude of the problem is much less. Levy is not an empirical social scientists, so it may be a smidgen unfair to raise this issue. But we can ask – what are the worst atrocities committed by non-states vs. those committed by states? In some order: the European genocide of non-European peoples; the mass murder of people by socialist states like China in the Cultural Revolution or in the Leninist-Stalinist phases of the USSR; genocide and war making by imperialist and fascist states in the mid 20th century.

In contrast, it is hard to find atrocities of this level committed by private groups without the assistance of states. When we look at private atrocities, like Belgian companies killing millions in the Congo in the early 20th century, they are supported and endorsed by the Belgian state. People often look at example like United Fruit massacre, where a private company killed many, many people. The casualty there is much lower (about 2,000 in the worst estimate) and even then, many historians think it had the blessing of the US state.

A second issue is how we can think to limit or mitigate the illiberal tendencies of civic associations. One answer I wish Levy had delved into is to have states strictly enforce the right of exit from any contract or agreement. A hardcore libertarian might say that we have the right to waive that right. But pragmatic concerns point in a different direction. If courts consistently make it possible to exit communities with low or reasonable penalties, then associations would have an incentive to act in ways that treat members well. It doesn’t address all the pathologies that Levy talks about, but an Al Hirshman perspective might help a lot here.

To summarize: Rationalism, Pluralism, and Freedom is a good long read in political theory. I think it raises great questions for sociologists and political scientists alike. Recommended!!

50+ chapters of grad skool advice goodness: Grad Skool Rulz ($4.44 – cheap!!!!)/Theory for the Working Sociologist (discount code: ROJAS – 30% off!!)/From Black Power/Party in the Street / Read Contexts Magazine– It’s Awesome!

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Written by fabiorojas

November 14, 2017 at 5:06 am

levy book forum 2: political theory and the nature of society

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A few weeks ago, I began reviewing Jacob Levy’s new book Rationalism, Pluralism, and Freedom. The main point of the book is that you can’t have it both ways. A political liberalism that restrains the state can’t, at the same time, celebrate the civil sphere without qualification because civic associations themselves can become illiberal. Private groups can behave in fairly repressive ways that resemble what states do.

As I wrote, the book is lengthy and covers a lot of ground. In this part of the review, I want to delve a little into Part II, which examines how political theory has thought about the state. I think sociologists might enjoy this because it provides an alternative to how we think about states. In modern sociology, states, per Weber, are holders of legitimate force, or they are the place where ultimate authority is created and exercised. Perhaps a Bourdieusian might suggest that it is a place for statecraft, while a post-Bourdieusian view, like that espoused by McAdam and Fligstein (2012), would see it as an “ultimate” field that overlaps with other fields.

What does Levy draw from the discussion of states over the course of political theory? Perhaps most interesting to sociologists is the idea that modern states are not so much about violence, but rather the centralization of force and violence. Second is the response to centralization – things outside states are about self governance rather than governance by others. So, as we shifted away from the middle ages to modernity, we built big fat states, which encouraged people to assert independence in various forms (guilds, universities, etc.) There is much more to Levy’s analysis, but this captures a crucial starting point. Third, modern notions of freedoms are about trying to pull together all the concessions made to individual freedom by states during their formation. A lot of political theory is about trying to provide a more integrated account of freedom because in the middle ages freedom was defined in an ad hoc and disconnected way.

What should sociologists draw from this? One obvious lesson is that a crucial dimension of fields, such as states, is vestment in governance. In a particular field, or social domain, who has the authority? Is there a lot of self-governance? Centralized power? Or some sort of collegium model? Second, rights – political rights in Levy’s case – may be scattered or concentrated. Thus, in understanding fields, it is not about inequality or resources, but also about claims over resources and autonomy. As the case of political rights shows, rights can be broken up (e.g., right to trade, right to free speech) and effort (“institutional work” in modern jargon) must be expended to make the right more coherent in its context. The big lesson is that maybe field theory, and the sociology of states, focuses too much on resource inequality and should think more carefully about autonomy and control.

Next week, I’ll focus on Levy’s claims about the ills of private associations. Thanks for reading.

50+ chapters of grad skool advice goodness: Grad Skool Rulz ($4.44 – cheap!!!!)/Theory for the Working Sociologist (discount code: ROJAS – 30% off!!)/From Black Power/Party in the Street / Read Contexts Magazine– It’s Awesome!

Written by fabiorojas

November 9, 2017 at 5:01 am

balkin critiques mclean

Andrew Koppleman, professor of law at Northwestern, offers a strong critique of Nancy McLean’s Democracy in Chains. The book argues that the economist James M. Buchanan was an enemy of the Brown decision and took Koch funding in an attempt to develop the intellectual tools to fight Brown. The book was discussed briefly on this blog.

On the “Balkinization” blog, Koppelman takes McLean to task, arguing that the book simply got the story completely wrong. He is not alone. There are numerous critics, ranging from personal friends of Buchanan to independent historians, who have argued that the major claims of the book are simply wrong. For example, GMU’s Phil Magness has reported on his blog that, among other things, there is ample documentary evidence that Buchanan and his colleagues did not support segregation.

Koppleman steps back and takes a look at the big picture. The problem isn’t that you can’t criticize economists or libertarian intellectuals with respect to their racial positions. Indeed, as a person who thinks that markets are very important, I think we need to be very critical of libertarians who have openly associated with racists, like Rand Paul, or Murray Rothbard, who actively relied on the political ideas of Southern politicians. However, as far as I can tell, James Buchanan was not like that. To quote Koppelman,

Democracy in Chains has been testing the proposition that there is no such thing as bad publicity.  There has been an explosion of documentation that MacLean gets facts wrong, misunderstands her sources, and invents quotations or pulls them out of context to mean the opposite of what they said.  You can find all this easily if you just google the book’s title.

Koppelman then puts his finger on the real issue: People have dropped their standards because the author has the right politics. You are definitely allowed to criticize Buchanan, the Kochs or anyone else – but you aren’t entitled to twisting the facts:

MacLean states a valid and important complaint against the Kochs. They threaten to impose a new quasi-feudal hierarchy in the guise of liberty.  But a work of history is supposed to be more than a denunciation of bad political actors.

Koppelman then reviews the piles of errors and odd inferences in the book. How can people openly support a book so rife with error? Koppelman again:

The nomination bespeaks a new low in polarization: if you write a readable book denouncing the Kochs, we love you, and we don’t care whether anything you say is true.  The prize is being used to make a political statement, like Obama’s 2009 Nobel Peace Prize, awarded less than nine months after he took office.  Even he found that embarrassing.  Party solidarity now overrides all other considerations.  This is, of course, the kind of thinking that led otherwise thoughtful Republicans to vote for Trump.

Critique is good and I support it. But we should also demand quality.

50+ chapters of grad skool advice goodness: Grad Skool Rulz ($4.44 – cheap!!!!)/Theory for the Working Sociologist (discount code: ROJAS – 30% off!!)/From Black Power/Party in the Street / Read Contexts Magazine– It’s Awesom

Written by fabiorojas

October 30, 2017 at 4:02 am

Posted in books, fabio, uncategorized

book spotlight: the inner lives of markets by ray fisman and tim sullivan

inner lives

The Inner Lives of Markets: How People Shape Them and They Shape Us is a “popular economics” book by Ray Fisman and Tim Sullivan. The book is a lively discussion of what one might call the “greatest” theoretical hits of economics. Starting from the early 20th century, Fisman and Sullivan review a number of the major insights from the field of economics. The goal is to give the average person a sense of the interesting insights that economists have come up with as they have worked through various problems such as auction design, thinking about social welfare, behavioral economics, and allocation in a world without prices.

I’ve taken a bit of economics in my life, and I’m somewhat of a rational choicer, so I am quite familiar with the issues that Fisman and Sullivan talk about. I think the best reader for the book might a smart undergrad or a non-economic social scientist/policy researcher who wants a fun and easy tour of more advanced economics. They’ll get lots of interesting stories, like how baseball teams auction off player contracts and how algorithms are used to manage online dating websites.

What I like a lot about the book is that it doesn’t employ the condescending “economic imperialist” approach to economic communication, nor does it offer a Levitt-esque “cute-o-nomics” approach. Rather, Fisman and Sullivan explain the problems that actually occur in real life and then describe how economists have proposed to analyze or solve such issues. In that way, modern economics comes off in a good light – it’s an important toolbox for thinking about the choices that individuals, firms and policy makers must encounter. Definitely good reading for the orgtheorist. Recommended!

50+ chapters of grad skool advice goodness: Grad Skool Rulz ($4.44 – cheap!!!!)/Theory for the Working Sociologist (discount code: ROJAS – 30% off!!)/From Black Power/Party in the Street / Read Contexts Magazine– It’s Awesome

Written by fabiorojas

October 19, 2017 at 4:08 am

october book forum and blogcation

I will be dealing with deadlines and I am in the field, so I will be on vacation till next week. But I did want to list the books that I intend to review in October. First, I will do a book forum on Jacob Levy’s Rationalism, Pluralism, and Freedom. Then, I plan on covering in October and November the following books:

Want something else on the menu? Send  me a copy!

50+ chapters of grad skool advice goodness: Grad Skool Rulz ($4.44 – cheap!!!!)/Theory for the Working Sociologist (discount code: ROJAS – 30% off!!)/From Black Power/Party in the Street / Read Contexts Magazine– It’s Awesome 

Written by fabiorojas

September 12, 2017 at 4:29 am

Posted in books, fabio, uncategorized

democracy in chains symposium

Over at Policy Trajectories Josh McCabe has organized a great symposium on Nancy MacLean’s Democracy in Chains, the most dramatic book on public choice theory you are ever likely to read.

Featuring economist Sandy Darity, political scientist Phil Rocco, and your truly, the essays try to get beyond some of the sturm und drang associated with the book’s initially glowing critical reception and intense subsequent backlash. Instead, they ask: How is political orthodoxy produced and challenged? What responsibility do individuals bear when their actions reinforce institutionalized racism? And what explains increasing efforts to put limits on democracy itself?

MacLean’s book may itself be highly polarizing. But the conversations she has opened up will be with us for a long time to come. Check it out.

Written by epopp

August 24, 2017 at 12:15 pm

we should thank malcolm gladwell and send him flowers

What if I told you that a popular writer recently published a book that neatly summarizes modern inequality research for the masses and depicts sociology in a very positive light? You’d be happy, right? And you might want to know who that person is, right?

Well, I just spent some time rereading Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers, his summary of the social science research on high achievement. The public discussion of the book focused way too much on one chapter that discusses the “10,000 hour rule” (experts usually need about four years of full time immersion in a topic to get really good at it). But if you read the book, the message is much more expansive than that and it completely draws on a lot of standard sociology.

For example, Gladwell has a chapter dedicated to Lareau’s theory of class and culture as a factor in status attainment. He talks about how working class people often have an oppositional view of institutions and he directly talks about Lareau. In multiple chapters on family and achievement, he cites sociological studies that trace how families transmit specific knowledge and skills to their children, which allow for social mobility. He is also a fan of ecological theories of success (being in a city where business is booming – New York in the 1910s) and cohort theories of success (being part of the computer revolution in the 1980s). In discussing cultural differences, he offers a fairly conventional Swidler/Weber approach. He argues that work skills that are advantageous in Asian agriculture are also advantageous in Western industrial economies.

So why don’t we pay more attention to Outliers as a great “public sociology” book? The ASA did give Gladwell an outreach award, but the profession seems to have moved on. I think it may have to do with the 10,000 hours chapter. The chapter is a little bit sloppy and slides into exuberant rhetoric. A lot of people focused on it and tried to tear it down. For example, he does actually write that “10,000 hours is the magic number,” which mistakenly gives the impression that anyone can win an Olympic medal if they just practice enough.

This is a false impression if you actually read the entire chapter (and book) and approach the claim with a charitable mind. For example, at multiple points, he openly admits that people have “talent” and that you need that for the coaching and practice to get you to a world class level. The other chapters all suggest that contextual factors matter a great deal as well. Also, many of the critics committed their own errors. For example, they would often point to studies of elite athletes that show that extra practice doesn’t explain success. Yes, but by selecting only elite athletes, you are looking at a group where everyone has already done their “10,000” hours. That is selection bias!

In regards to sloppy writing, what I think Gladwell was trying to say was that yes, people have talent, but you also need to add in other structural factors, such as deep immersion in the field. No one is “born” a genius. High achievement is the result of social structure and individual gifts. If I were Gladwell, I would also add that deep practice would improve almost anyone in absolute terms and make you an “expert” but it wouldn’t erase relative differences between people who have invested the time in practice. For example, if I studied basketball for 10,000 with a pro-level coach, I bet my lay-ups would be amazing – if I did them by myself!! If I had to plow through other taller players on defense, I probably wouldn’t do as well. My innate traits don’t disappear completely and neither do relative difference. But I would still be massively better compared to a person with no training and I would still possess “expert level” knowledge and execution of skills. In my view, Gladwell should have focused a little more on the difference between absolute improvements and relative performance.

Is Outliers perfect? No, but it is a very fair summary of how sociologists think about status attainment and I think it would be a great way to teach undergrads. If you need a nice popular book for an intro course or stratification, this is a good one.

50+ chapters of grad skool advice goodness: Grad Skool Rulz ($4.44 – cheap!!!!)/Theory for the Working Sociologist (discount code: ROJAS – 30% off!!)/From Black Power/Party in the Street

Written by fabiorojas

August 3, 2017 at 4:39 am