What is an Explanation?

A few years ago, the North Central Sociological Association had its annual meeting. As is common for these sociology meetings, it had a theme: “In Defense of Theory.”

If one isn’t familiar with sociology, this might seem bizarre. Why on earth does theory need defending?

In a successful science, theory is the core of accumulated knowledge. As biologists are fond of saying when they debate creationists, calling evolution by natural selection “just” a theory misunderstands the extent to which a scientific theory can be something so strongly supported that it is for practical purposes considered a fact. To learn physics is to learn physical theory – the theory of universal gravitation, theories of motion and optics. What else would you teach your intro students if not this? Theory is inseparable from the field.

In sociology, on the other hand, theory is an odd specialty. The first extensive exposure most of our undergraduates have to it is in their third year in college, when they take a course (or, sometimes, two) in “sociological theory.” Those who go on to graduate school might take another such course, with lengthier readings, in their first year. Most who go on to be sociologists will never teach a theory course, nor will they read the few specialty journals with “theory” in their titles. The content of these journals, like most of the ideas they learned in their theory courses will have little tangible impact on any research they conduct or any of the subjects they teach.

What has led to this curious state of affairs?

Part of the answer is that most sociological theory doesn’t have a clear use. And, as sociologist George Homans argued back in 1967, the reason for this is that most sociological theory doesn’t explain anything.

Explanation is one of the central tasks of any science, and in other fields much of what is called theory is a set of ideas that explain why things are as they are. In sociology, on the other hand, what students encounter in their first undergraduate “theory” course is typically a mishmash of ideas from some illustrious thinkers – philosophies of human nature, elaborate definitions, broad ideas about how sociology ought to work, and so forth — coupled with some history of these people’s lives and times. It’s usually unclear just how one should use or apply this “theory” in either research or practical problem solving, leading some may question the relevance of theory altogether. And because sociologists and our students have so little experience with explanatory theory, they often seem unclear about what even constitutes an explanation or how to distinguish a theory that explains from one that does not.

So what exactly is an explanation?

Explanation in the scientific sense of the word means saying why the facts are the way they are. Why do we have two high tides a day instead of one or zero? Why do some people commit crimes and others do not? Why does the price of a commodity rise and fall over time?

We answer these why questions by positing relationships between things. We state a relationship between the thing we’re explaining and some other aspect of reality. Why two tides a day rather than one or zero? Because there’s a relationship between the tide and the moon: We get a high tide when the moon is directly overhead or directly on the other side of the earth; given the speed the moon orbits, this happens about twice a day. Why do some people commit crime while others do not? Criminologists propose various relationships – for instance, there is evidence that people with lower levels of self-control are more likely to commit various kinds of crime, as well as other risky behaviors. Why do the prices of commodities go up and down? There’s a relationship between price and supply – all else equal, the greater the supply, the lower the price. So if supply goes up, then price goes down.

Statements that specify a relationship between two things are called propositions. They are also called hypotheses, principles, or laws (depending on their level of generality and how confident we are that they are true). Such propositions make up the core of any explanatory theory, and no body of ideas qualifies as an explanation unless it contains at least one proposition (Braithwaite 1953; Homans 1967:7-31). A theory that explains things has propositions, and a single proposition can qualify as a theory.

As sociologist Donald Black puts it, an explanation is the act of ordering facts with propositions (Black 1995:830, n.6). The proposition shows how this fact fits in relation to other parts of reality. It makes the fact predictable, and so answers our “why” question.

We can have propositions that only address as single specific incident: A happened because B happened. Why did the dinosaurs go extinct? Physicist Luis Alvarez and colleagues famously proposed a relationship between the extinction and an asteroid impact. But scientists often seek general propositions that can apply to a whole class of events. Not just why the French Revolution happened, but what in general makes a revolution more likely; not just why Bill Jenkins developed lung cancer, but what in general causes lung cancer.

Let’s look more closely at the logic involved here.

We have a general proposition like “smoking cigarettes increases the risk of lung cancer.” What facts does this explain? Well, if we compare a sample of smokers to a sample of non-smokers, and find the smokers have higher rates of lung cancer, our proposition would explain that. And if we had data on a population showing that rates of smoking were increasing, and that there was a corresponding increase in rates of lung cancer, it would explain that as well.

What, then, is the logical relationship between this proposition and the things it explains? The things being explained are logical implications of the proposition. They can be deduced from it. Logically, if the proposition is true, then the facts we’re explaining must be true as well.

This is why many philosophers of science understand explanation as a process of logical deduction – what a theory logically implies, it explains (see Popper [1934] 2002; Braithewaite 1953; Hempel 1965).

The if-then reasoning of logical deduction is simple in principle, but it can be complicated in practice. We’ll consider the complications in a later post. For now, just note that this simple logic can also be very powerful. It is what gives a general explanatory theory its value. If the theory is accurate, it can be applied to a great variety of particular situations and so explain a great variety of things. Many disparate facts become part of simple patterns. In the words of George Homans, we no longer face “just one damned finding after another” (Homans 1967:27).

Consider a sociological example. We have studies finding that married persons have lower suicide rates than the unmarried, studies finding that suicide victims and attempters have fewer friends than do non-suicidal people, that suicide victims are less likely to be involved in religious congregations, that people with children have lower suicide rates than the childless. Is there any general relationship that implies the results of all these studies? One candidate is the proposition that suicide varies inversely with one’s integration into society – that is, with the nature and number of one’s social ties and involvements.

Furthermore, general propositions can predict facts that we have not yet observed. If we know smoking rates are going up, but haven’t yet done a study to examine lung cancer rates, we can predict what the result of such a study would be. If we know social integration is declining, we can predict a rise in suicide rates.

Prediction in this sense isn’t necessarily a forecast or prophecy of the future. Our predictions might be about something that happened in the past – if it’s true that X causes revolutions, then we expect that X preceded the French Revolution. It’s just a matter of applying the same if-then deductive logic. This logic works the same regardless of whether we’ve already observed the conclusion or not. What a theory explains it predicts, and what it predicts it explains, though as a practical matter we often reserve the term “prediction” specifically for those implications we haven’t yet observed.

The greatest explanatory theories might even predict facts that have never been previously observed, or even dreamed of, but nonetheless turn out to be true. Einstein’s theory of relativity is so amazing because it predicted bizarre things like the bending of space and slowing of time –things that weren’t observed until many years after the theory was published.

It is the predictive nature of general explanatory theory also allows us to gauge the likely consequences of our actions, and so we can apply such theory to find effective interventions and solve practical problems. It is what makes engineering possible.

Accurate explanatory theories should need no defense, because they’re proven so amazingly useful. The problem is that many explanations of human behavior aren’t obviously accurate, and many sociological theories aren’t even explanations – they don’t have propositions that can be used to make predictions.

If they’re not explanations, what are they? We’ll pick up that question in a future post.

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On Teaching Wisdom

As an educator, I’ve become quite interested in the concept of wisdom.

In everyday life, we often label things wise or unwise as a way of evaluating them. But we might still ask if the concept reflects some measurable empirical variation.

After all, the scientific concept of cognitive ability – the sort of information processing, problem-solving capacities measured by IQ tests – roughly corresponds to what we mean in everyday life when we observe that someone is smart or bright (or, conversely, dumb or dim).

But there’s another distinction we make in everyday life that deserves investigation: the difference between someone who is smart, and someone is who is wise.

What do we call wise? Usually it has to do with making good decisions, particularly those that involve foresight about one’s long-term goals. The Oxford English dictionary defines wisdom as “Capacity of judging rightly in matters relating to life and conduct.” Wikipedia says it’s the ability to act using knowledge, experience, insight, and common sense.

Folk knowledge is onto something when it distinguishes bright from dim (for a book-length summary of intelligence research, see here). Maybe there’s also something to the distinction between wise and unwise, and the notion that one can be smart but not wise.

(Bearing in mind the importance of knowing the shape of human knowledge, I did some light googling on the question and see that there are some psychologists already addressing the issue. From my skimming it doesn’t seem a very well-developed area, but odds are part of what I’m saying here is said elsewhere.)

To understand the difference between intelligence and wisdom we might pose the question: Why do smart people do stupid things? By “stupid things” let’s specify actions leading to outcomes that the actor themselves considers undesirable or even opposite of their intent. We might also note that in some cases, part of the reason these things look “stupid” to the observer is that there are less intelligent people who would have been able to foresee such consequences and so avoid them.

One reason otherwise intelligent people shoot themselves in the foot is lack of knowledge, or worse, presence of incorrect knowledge. A medieval doctor with the IQ of Albert Einstein wasn’t going to be able to do much better for his patient than one with an IQ of 100 – without knowledge of germs, disinfection, antibiotics, vaccines, and the like, there wasn’t that much anyone could do. Even worse, they thought that positively harmful things like bloodletting were helpful. Otherwise intelligent people are ineffective when their mental model of the world is inaccurate.

One aspect of wisdom is breadth and accuracy of knowledge. Another, probably overlapping dimension of wisdom is having useful heuristics for making decisions.

There’s literature out there on heuristics (see, for example, this book review), which I haven’t read, though my sense is that a lot of it deals with the sort of innate tricks all human brains have for processing information. What I’m thinking of here is more like teachable heuristics – rules or guidelines that can be learned and applied in a variety of settings.

Heuristics could be as complicated as the kind of meta-rational rules that Eliezer Yudkoswky and the rationalist community talk about. But they can also be as simple as the many little bits of wisdom recorded in folk sayings. “A stitch in time saves nine” is an easily memorable guideline reminding people that its less costly to fix damage before it gets worse. How many people have saved themselves from a future failure because they recalled some folk wisdom like “waste not, want not” or “better to remain silent and be thought a fool than open your mouth and remove all doubt”? I wonder if these sort of simple guidelines, well-adapted to the fat part of the bell-curve, might have had more influence at the margins than us educated types have realized.

As  someone charged with teaching masses of undergraduates, I’m curious about wisdom as an empirically measurable outcome and about what goes into increasing it. If it’s possible to make people wiser – better able to make the “smart” decision – then that means we can effectively help people become “smarter” even though all available evidence suggests cognitive ability is fixed early in life and there’s not a whole helluva lot we can do about it by the time people get to college.

If wisdom in this sense is teachable, then an effective liberal arts education allows people to use whatever level of intelligence more effectively and efficiently. Sure, the higher IQ students still have the advantage in acquiring and applying these mental models and heuristics. But even if some of what they learn will be stuff they would have figured out on their own eventually, we might be saving them from the time and effort of reinventing the wheel. And throughout the IQ distribution people will be picking up things they would not have picked up so readily on their own. Within the limits set by different IQ levels, there’s room for improvement at the margins

If this is so, it ought to be the main aim of liberal arts fields. Most of our sociology students aren’t being trained to be sociologists. The same is true for history students, psychology students, and so on. Unlike professional programs, we can’t claim to be training people in specific jobs skills like making a functioning circuit or setting up an IV or keeping the books at a business. The liberal arts education ought to increase wisdom, and be judged by how well it does so.

My hunch is that, across many universities, disciplines, and departments, on average we’re doing a pretty lousy job of it. In fact, we might be actively reducing wisdom.

A student in the social sciences and humanities these days might well be educated into having a less accurate mental model of the world than a less intelligent person who was never afflicted with education. Consider the blank slatism that’s currently fashionable in much of social sciences and humanities. Not only is it taboo in some classrooms or even whole departments to talk about sex differences in personality, at the fringes there are people who deny or minimize even physical sex dimorphism. One can imagine a well-educated person of well above-average cognitive ability — enough that they can master the complex webs of jargon that pass for theory in some corners of the academic world — campaigning to end the sex-segregation of sports on the assumption it would raise the status of female athletes rather than eliminate them from competition.

To the extent that education fails to give accurate pictures of reality – and maybe even insulates people from observing everyday life outside the university in ways that would lead them to hit upon an accurate picture on their own – you’re going to get the kinds of bizarre mental models that cause less educated people to raise their eyebrows and ask “Ya’ll don’t get out much, do you?” One can imagine many non-academics having this reaction to Cordelia Fine’s bizarre skepticism of the finding that young men will readily agree to sex with an attractive female stranger – something that’s not remotely surprising to anyone with casual knowledge of humans.

Thus when an apparently competent senior, majoring in criminology, writes in one of my course papers that the “popular stereotype” that blacks are more likely to commit violent crime is wrong, I have to stop and wonder: Did this kid just fail to learn some of the most basic facts criminology has to offer, or did he dutifully learn inaccurate information fed to him in some other class?

As far as the simple heuristics of folk wisdom go, I have no data on how widely they were known in the past versus now, let alone how often they were put into practice. But my hunch is a lot of this old wisdom has fallen by the wayside. My students, among others, often seem unfamiliar with the old folk sayings. Perhaps an education system designed by and for high IQ people had little patience with simple and quaint bits of wisdom — we are not in the business of teaching common sense. Unfortunately, if education and mass media entertainment increasingly supplant other forms of socialization, then no one is in the business of teaching common sense. The transmission chain of untold generations is being broken, and people are missing out on simple lessons that might be of value in their decision making.

Some of what is fashionable in higher education might even run exactly counter to the heuristics of old. Jesus and Buddha both cautioned against finding small faults in others while ignoring faults in ourselves. It’s moral advice, but can also be understood as a practical guide to navigating social relationships and avoiding counterproductive conflict. As Jonathan Haidt and Greg Luckianoff argue, much of contemporary training in spotting “microaggressions” and “triggering” stimuli runs exactly counter to this wisdom, encouraging conflict and distress among those so trained (see also this awesome book).

Becoming wiser is difficult business, and helping another become wiser is doubly so. Having to swim against the currents of academic culture makes it seem positively daunting.

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A Primer on Sociological Explanation

This blog has two main purposes: First, to be a sandbox for me to talk about ideas I might never get around into developing into academic papers, and second, to be a resource for people interested in learning more about scientific sociology in general and social geometry in particular.

In this post, I’m going to begin laying out some basic concepts for those interested in better understanding sociological theory, including the type of theory that gives the blog its name.

The first lesson, for those unfamiliar with sociology, is that it’s a diverse and fragmented discipline. Sociologists disagree about such basic things as whether their field is a science, can be a science, or should be a science, let alone with the details of how to go about doing whatever it is they think we ought to be doing.

As I approach it, sociology is a science that explains human behavior. If we can accept that as an initial definition, we can worry later about how much it overlaps with other human sciences like psychology and economics. Indeed, the categories I’m going to introduce cut across these fields.

Accepting that our goals are scientific – to describe and explain variation in behavior – we are left with a myriad of approaches to the problem. There’s a corresponding variety of schemes for classifying the different viewpoints, schools of thought, or whatever you want to call them.

The classification I use was developed by sociologist Donald Black, who taught it in his graduate courses at the University of Virginia. He divides all of social science into eight strategies of explanation. His scheme has several features that make it useful. For one, it’s fairly exhaustive. Second, classifying by strategy of explanation helps focus our attention on the core logic of a theory: what the explanatory variables are and how they relate to one another. Third it sensitizes us to the question of whether the theory actually explains anything at all, which a useful question to ask in a field with so much unscientific work.

Here are Black’s eight strategies for explaining human behavior, in the order I usually teach them to my own graduate students:

1. Phenomenology explains behavior with the subjective experience of the actor. By subjective experience we mean things like a person’s beliefs and preferences, their emotions, their goals, and their understanding of the situation they’re in. It’s common in both sociology and psychology. An example would be saying that people commit suicide when perceive their situation as hopeless, or that people are less likely to act aggressively when they feel high levels of tension and fear. It’s also common in folk sociology: “Sally is mad at me because she thinks I’ve been lying to her.” In their pure form, these explanations tend to lack predictive power (when will someone feel hopeless?), but many find them satisfying.

2. Motivational theories explain behavior with the psychological impact of social forces. While pure phenomenology stops at identifying the psychology behind a behavior, motivational theory takes a step back to posit some external variable responsible for that psychology. For instance, an economic downturn might lead to widespread frustration among the masses, who have become used to higher standards of living and now feel deprived. This frustration in turn leads them to rebel against their rulers. Motivational theories are common in both sociology and social psychology. They include strain theories (external factor produces frustration produces some action), learning theories (a socialization process produces a disposition that leads to some action), compliance theories (social situation produces pressure to conform or obey that leads to some action), and bonding theories (social attachments, or lack thereof, produce feelings that lead to some action). At their best these tend to have more predictive power than pure phenomenology.

3. Opportunity theories explain behavior with the distribution of conditions that make it possible (or impossible). Whereas motivational explanations assume that people are able to act and focus on explaining why they’re motivated to do so, opportunity theories assume people are motivated to act and focus on explaining what allows them to do so. The classic example is Cohen and Felson’s explanation of rising crime rates in the 1960s. Factors like poverty that were thought to motivate crime were declining, and yet crime was increasing. The authors explained that even if there were fewer criminals, it was becoming easier for them to commit more crimes. For instance, an increase in automobiles and lightweight but valuable electronics meant more tempting targets to steal, and an increase in people spending time outside the home meant more opportunities for burglary. Opportunity and motivational explanations seem especially complementary. Theories that explain behavior with the properties of social networks – such as the influence of network structure on the diffusion of information – often have an opportunity logic.

4. Rational choice theories explain behavior as the least costly means to a goal. They assume people are selfish agents seeking to maximize benefits and minimize costs. In their pure form they assume the goal. The idea is to specify the conditions that make one means of achieving it less costly / more beneficial than alternatives. For instance, classical deterrence theory says that as punishment for an action becomes more swift, severe, and certain, the cost of the action goes up, and so the likelihood of committing it goes down. The greater the potential reward of the action, the greater the severity of the punishment needs to be to prevent it. Rational choice theories are found in sociology and political science, and dominant in economics (to the point that economists will call it the economic perspective or economic theory even when applying to things far removed from production and trade of material goods).

5. NeoDarwinian theories explain behavior with selection by the environment. This strategy is dominant in biology as the modern synthesis of classical Darwinism and genetics. Many applications to human behavior are straight-up evolutionary biology. For instance, human males tend to be more violent and risk-prone than human females, a pattern we also see in most other species and that can be explained with sex differences in selection pressures. Others are nonbiological. For instance, we can explain change in the population of businesses over time as the result of conditions that select certain kinds of businesses out of the marketplace. And Richard Dawkins, among others, has argued that culture evolves by a process of selection as some ideas and fashions are better at getting themselves passed on from person to person. Notably, neoDarwinian selection processes often approximate the effects of a rational strategy, such that biologists and economists might use the same game theory models.

6. Functionalism explains behavior with its contribution to the survival of society as a whole. For instance, Emile Durkheim claimed that religion exists in order to provide social solidarity, while Davis and Moore proposed that some occupations are higher paid than others because they are more important to society’s survival, and higher rewards ensure they will always be filled. Functionalism was highly influential in early anthropology and in twentieth century sociology. In its simplest form (“schools exist because society needs educated people”) it lacks testability and explanatory power, but more sophisticated variants of systems analysis are possible. Its influence in US sociology waned in the 1960s with the rise of Marxian-influenced radicals, who labelled it conservative, which is the worst thing one can be in an overwhelmingly leftist field. FYI, Black actually calls this one systems theory, but I tend to default to the name that’s more familiar among sociologists.

7. Conflict theories, also called neo-Marxian theories, explain behavior with the struggle for domination. They assume social groups (less often, individuals) have inherently opposed interests and are locked in a zero-sum game where one side’s win is the other side’s loss. Various behaviors are then explained with their relevance to this struggle, often by positing that they serve the interests of the dominant group. Popular among radicals, conflict theories often function as much as a morality tale (here are the oppressors, here are the victims, here’s why the oppressors are bad) as an explanation. Though often juxtaposed with “conservative” functionalism, they both have similar tendencies toward simple collective teleogy (“rape exists in order to increase the dominance of men”) that lowers their testability and explanatory power. But there are more sober, analytical, and scientifically testable conflict explanations. See, for examples, Randall Collins work on competing schools for philosophy or Rae Lesser Blumberg’s theory of gender stratification.

8. Blackian theories, also called pure sociology, explain behavior with its social geometry. Social geometry refers to the location and direction of the behavior in social space and the social distance it spans. This is spatial language for describing the relationships and statuses of all people involved in a given instance of social life. Social distance includes relational distance (degrees of intimacy) and cultural distance (degrees of similarity). Social elevation refers to position in a distribution of status (such as wealth distribution) and vertical direction refers to whether the action is upward (toward a higher status person) or downward (toward a lower status person). The idea is that social behaviors vary predictably with their geometry. For example, social control – the response to deviance – tends to become more one-sided and punitive across longer social distances and in downward directions. In upward directions, it is more likely to be covert. And financial altruism is greater (more likely, frequent, and for larger amounts) among the socially close than the social distant.

Developed by Donald Black, it differs from the other paradigms in being a self-conscious creation that was intended to be a new and distinctly sociological paradigm that ignores psychology and teleology. It also has a situational focus, so rather than explaining behavior with the characteristics of individual people or the entire society or culture in which they live, it explains with the social conditions surrounding the act itself. As illustrated in his theory of law, it also involves reconceptualizing human behavior as the behavior of some form of social life – for instance, a call to the police and a conviction in court are both instances of the behavior of law and can be explained by a proposition about what causes law to increase or decrease.


Note that none of these strategies are mutually exclusive. Often times the different strategies focus on explaining different aspects of behavior rather than proposing competing explanations for the same aspect. And even where they try to explain the same thing, they might both have some validity. Thus we can see theories that combine variables generated by, say, motivational and opportunity approaches. Also note that, while individual explanations can be factually right or factually wrong, strategies as such cannot be. Even if a rational choice theory fails an empirical test, it doesn’t disprove the rational choice paradigm. One could argue, though, that some paradigms are generally more useful than others for a given purpose.

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Insanity is Increasing

In Donald Black’s book Moral Time , there’s a great section called “Insanity as Culture.”

It builds on the insights of those (Erving Goffman Thomas Szasz, Allan V. Horwitz) who challenge the medical model of mental illness. Sociologically speaking, mental disorder is fundamentally an evaluative label. That is, treating someone or something as insane or pathological is a form of social control — a way of defining and responding to deviance. It involves a moral judgment, though one carried out in a non-moralistic language: the therapeutic style of social control, which treats deviance as a symptom to be remedied rather than as, say, a crime to be punished.

Labeling a personality trait as a disorder is a way of judging it undesirable. We call it a disorder when it causes enough of a problem for the person who possesses it or the people who have to interact with them. At what point does attention to detail becomes obsessive compulsive disorder?  When someone takes issue with it, and defines the trait as deviant. And the application of the label will vary across people, cultures, and situations. It varies with the social elevation and direction of the judgment.

The same can be said of delusions. To some extent we all hold inaccurate beliefs about the world — for instance, nearly everyone thinks themselves above average on various metrics when this obviously can’t be so. Such delusions aren’t usually enough to get one judged insane, or even to provoke others to label their beliefs as delusions. Or what about people professing beliefs in unseen powers that violate known physical laws –Gods, spirits, ghosts, and prayer? Do these count as delusions? The occasional militant atheist might say yes, but by and large being religious is not defined as a form of mental illness

Or consider another case: a person with a penis and other male biological characteristics claiming to be a woman. 50 years ago, the response was clear: the person is delusional; suffering from a mental illness that gives them an inaccurate perception of themselves. But nowadays there are many who would vocally object to this characterization. They say that believing you are a woman is all it takes to be a woman. If our woman-with-a-penis has any disorder at all, it is the physical disorder of having the wrong body, which can be cured through surgery.

To those with the more traditional view on the matter, these people probably sound insane — perhaps more delusional than the male who thinks he’s a woman. Those who accept the claim of womanhood would likely respond by denouncing the traditional view as deviant: as a kind of evil bigotry known as transphobia. At present this form of deviance tends to attract more explicit moralism — condemnation and criticism — than therapeutic social control. But there are those who would argue that such bigoted beliefs can be cured through education or other forms of intervention designed to bring the deviant back to normality. So perhaps one day transphobia will be fully recognized as a treatable mental disorder.

In Moral Time, Black says that the insanity label is a result of changing cultural distance.  We judge someone  “crazy” when their ideas, speech, dress, and so forth diverge too much from the rest of us. Insanity comes from possessing beliefs and other cultural characteristics that are too distant from everyone else.

We can see this when highly creative artists and scientists get called crazy for producing extremely new kinds of art and science. For instance, Pablo Picasso’s art led some to speculate that he had “gone mad,” and caused psychologist Carl Jung to diagnose him as “schizophrenic.” Revolutionary scientific theories are also dismissed as insane.

Of course, most people who get called crazy are not great artists or scientists. As Black explains:

But whereas innovations in art or science deviate from normal art or science, insanity deviates from common sense: how we understand reality in everyday life. Insanity makes no sense at all. Psychiatrist R.D. Laing similarly suggests that the primary test of insanity is ‘the degree of conjunction or disjunction between two persons, where one is sane by common consent.’

But note that common sense varies quite a bit across societies: “In some societies common sense says that witches cause disease and death, for instance, whereas elsewhere common sense says that witches do not exist.” The same could be said for belief in gods or Almighty God, or for that matter belief in the germ theory of disease. Say your neighbor put a hex on you in one society, and you’re saying something perfectly normal; say it in an other and you’re suffering from paranoid delusions.

A few posts ago, I discussed the process of accelerating differentiation in modern societies, arguing that population growth and social media connectivity were fueling an ever-greater proliferation of subcultures. To that we might add that rapid social change itself breeds large cultural gaps between the generations, while the growing class segregation that Charles Murray talks about in Coming Apart leads larger cultural gaps between educated and non-educated, urban and rural, rich and poor. Culture fragments at even finer levels — your favorite Youtube personality might have three million viewers and be a celebrity to you, but be completely unknown to your family, friends, and coworkers. You pick up phrases,  terms, ideas not shared by anyone in your daily circle, and they likewise have bits of culture cobbled together from sources unknown to you.

The combination of cultural fragmentation and high connectivity ensures that all of us will increasingly see ideas and practices that strike us as completely and self-evidently insane. To some it is common sense that thinking you are a woman doesn’t make you one; to others it is common sense that it does. To some it is common sense that vaccines are life-saving, to others it is common sense that they are dangerous.

Expect to see insanity increasing in the coming years, and expect to be called crazy yourself.





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The Parable of the Shower Knobs

Simple Jesse stayed at a hotel. It was a nice hotel, but Simple Jesse always had trouble adjusting to a new environment. A particular source of confusion was how to work the shower.

There were two knobs: one on the right side of the faucet was labelled “cold,” the one on the left was labeled “hot.” Yet they appeared to work according to completely different principles. To increase the volume of cold water, you needed to turn the cold knob to the right. But to increase the volume of hot water, you needed to turn the hot knob to the left.

It was hard to keep track of which one increased by going to the right and which increased by going to the left. Why couldn’t they both work the same?

By this third day in the room he had accidentally scalded or chilled himself a couple times. Then he had a revelation: Both knobs actually did obey the same principle. Instead of remembering which one turned to the left and which one turned to the right, all he had to remember was “Turn away from the center.”

* * *

“You can’t really have a general theory in sociology” the student assured me. “Things work differently in different places.” She was a good student, intelligent and hard-working. But either lacking in imagination or facility when it came to abstraction. Then again, so are many of her seniors in the field who make the same argument.

I’ve sometimes tried to demonstrate that it is possible to find deeper regularities governing variation. I describe the origin of the word “planet,” which means “wanderer” —  to the ancients, planets were bright spots in the sky that moved in a weird, unpredictable way against the background of stars.  The solar system only seems orderly and predictable in hindsight, after centuries of theorizing have made it that way. I’m not sure how much sociologists appreciate that example, though.  Maybe the tale of Simple Jesse will work better.

Perhaps the key to grasping that there can be a level of abstraction above our current understanding is to consider what the world would look like if we had a level of abstraction far below our current understanding. Then again, that too requires more imagination than some folk have.

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An Opportunity Theory of Differentiation

You can read a lot about how the interlinking of the modern world erases cultural differences, blending peoples and causing the extinction of languages, dialects, and local traditions.

But there’s a countervailing trend: the information age seems prone to spawning new subcultures at a high rate. How long ago did we first hear of furries? Or bronies? Name an interest, identity, or sexual kink, there’s a community of people dedicated to it.

One reason for this is the growth in the size of the population. People vary in proclivities. Some proclivities are rare. All else equal, the more people, the more who will share the same interests, kinks, or whatever. Thus, the more people, the more likely it is that there’s enough people with X trait to form some distinct subculture or identity around it.

Perhaps 2 percent of Colonial Americans had a strong same-sex preference, but 2 percent of a village of 500 is 10 people. That’s not enough to sustain gay bars, gay cubs, gay publications, and a distinct gay identity and subculture. Twentieth century cities, on the other hand . . .

In a 1972 paper, Donald Black and Maureen Mileski make a similar point, arguing that the diversity of social “territories” in urban areas increase the odds that “any given individual can and does deal with others who have like involvements.”

But it’s not just a matter of the size of the population in any geographic unit. It’s also their density and fluidity. There needs to be enough proximity and enough mixing for people with X rare trait to come into contact.

Large cities were enough to generate an active gay scene. But modern technology allows for the formation of lifestyles and identities around rarer traits.

Modern communication technology bridges social space, making the creation of new relationships extremely easy. It increases social proximity, even without increase in physical proximity. It allows easy mixing and sorting. It allows people with rare interests and kinks to come across their own kind.

The confluence of growing population and technology fueled social proximity and fluidity allows for rarer and rarer traits to reach a critical mass where there are enough individuals to form interest groups, subcultures, etc.

This is an opportunity explanation. Black defines opportunity theories as those that explain behavior with the distribution of conditions that make it possible (in contrast with theories that focus on explaining the motivations for conduct).

We can also compare to another theory with similar conclusions: the Spencer-Durkheim theory of differentiation.

Early English sociologist Herbert Spencer had a theory of differentiation meant to explain how societies become more internally diverse (more different occupations, social classes, etc.) over time. It was more or less Darwin’s principle of divergence applied to the human economy: competition is fiercest between those that make their living in the same way, survival requires either avoiding or succeeding in competition, those that survive will therefore specialize in what they’re best at, avoiding competition with most and standing a better chance of succeeding against few. As populations grow in size and density, the greater number of individuals in proximity leads to more competition, which in turn results in more pressure to specialize, which in turn leads to more differentiation. Hence differentiation is, all else equal, a direct function of population size and density.

Emile Durkheim elaborated on this in his book The Division of Labor in Society. It seems to me he gives Spencer short shrift, overemphasizing the degree to which his own theory is distinct rather than an elaboration of Spencer’s ideas. Durkheim’s main innovation was specifying that competition varied with the rate of interaction in a society – what he called “dynamic density” – which is affected by things other than the sheer number or physical proximity of people. For instance, connect two villages with a train and you’ve given the local blacksmith of each village more competition than he had before; technology that allows ease of travel and communication increases interactive density. Or, in terms above, greater social proximity.

We might elaborate this further still and point out that competition involves much more than making a living in the material sense. People compete over prestige and recognition, over mates, over other people’s time. Competition leading to specialization can drive everything from the creation of new fashions to the birth of new schools of philosophy. As people seek to distinguish themselves and create new social niches, it can also lead to new interest groups, identities, and subcultures.

We can thus explain the same relations as arising from selection pressure (a Darwinian explanation), from providing incentives to specialize (a rational choice explanation), and from creating conditions that make differentiation possible (an opportunity explanation).

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There’s a Name for That

After a rampage killer shot a few dozen churchgoers in Texas, one could see people on Twitter and elsewhere making comments along the lines of: “If prayers worked, a bunch of people praying in a church would still be alive” or “This just shows that their God doesn’t exist.”

And I wondered: Do these people think they’re clever for noticing the problem of theodicy?

Do they not realize that Christianity has been around for two millennia, a time that included a host of wars, plagues, famines, earthquakes, fires, tornadoes, hurricanes, tsunamis, slavery, serfdom, murder, and genocide?

Do realize that a rampage killing in modern America isn’t the first really bad thing to happen to practicing Christians, including those at prayer — that in the great span of history, churches have been burned and bombed and plundered, nuns have been raped, monks and missionaries dismembered and crucified?

Do they know the Viking Age began with the sack of a monastery?

And if they are aware that most of human history is filled with blood and misery, and that in the West this means a great many Christians have suffered despite devotion: do they think no one ever asked or answered the question of how God could let it happen?

There’s even a word for it: theodicy, the vindication of God in view of the existence of evil. Theologians and philosophers have debated answers to the problem for centuries. Do you think you’re clever for pointing the problem out anew?

. . .

I mentioned all this to a friend and his response was: Yes, they think they’re being clever. No, they don’t realize there are already major schools of thought on the topic. This happens all the time, on various sides of various issues.

Some time later, we were discussing my previous post on free will.  We found ourselves talking about different meanings of free will and determinism, how much sense it made to say free will was a matter of degree , or whether it was necessarily a metaphysical concept. Suddenly I recalled our earlier conversation, and realized that whatever positions we were trying to articulate, odds are they had already been thought out and named.

Sure enough, Wiki listed a dozen schools of thought just in Western philosophy. You have different sort of determinism (causal, logical, and theological), different conceptions of free will, something called metaphysical libertarianism, various stripes of compatibilism and incompatibilism, pragmatism, and so forth.  And then it goes on to talk about Buddhist philosophy, Hindu philosophy, Christian theology, and so forth.

From a brief skim, it seems like I’m close to the pragmatic view of William James.

. . .

There’s something to be said for knowing the rough shape of human knowledge, even if none of us can never be familiar with more than a tiny slice of it.


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Sightings in the wild related to topics I’ve been teaching about this semester:

Scientists use magical rituals in the lab
Compare to anthropologist Bronislaw Malinowski’s theory of magic among the Trobriand islanders, which I cover as a kind of individualistic functionalism.  Malinowski noted that the Trobrianders had many rituals associated with open-ocean fishing — magical rites meant to guarantee safety and a good catch. Yet they did not use these rituals for the much safer and more predictable fishing in the lagoon. His explanation was that magical beliefs arise to give people the illusion of greater control over uncertain outcomes, and that without this belief in control they would be too anxious to engage in certain tasks.

“The Strength of Absent Ties”
The title is an obvious play on Grannovetter’s “Strength of Weak Ties,” though it’s not really accurate. They are talking about the creation of new ties on dating websites; once someone meets a stranger it’s not an absent tie anymore. In network terms, dating sites and social media platforms (or the companies that create and maintain them) are each a node bridging many structural holes. And these bridging ties are weak.

Venezuela’s president eats as nation starves
Robert Michels: “Who says organization, says oligarchy.”  State ownership of property does not produce a classless society, for the state is an organization and every organization has a leadership class. The leadership class who run this socialist paradise will be the last to starve.

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Understanding What They Don’t Understand

A massive amount of teaching (and debating)  is figuring out what exactly your audience doesn’t understand.  It can be difficult, since everyone’s brains work in somewhat different ways (including but not limited to variation in raw cognitive ability) and other people’s misunderstandings might seem very counterintuitive to you and difficult to grasp on a phenomenological level.

To give a relatively simple example, I once had the revelation that most of the students in my sociology courses don’t understand what “free will” means as a philosophical concept. It comes up in my sociology of law course, where I lay out the Enlightment views on human and social nature as background to describing modern Western jurisprudence (itself a foil for sociological theories and findings about law). It also sometimes crops ups in my theory and methods courses, when I talk about the difference between testable proposition and metaphysical or moral ideas. Students might answer a question about how some research program calls into question core ideas of liberal jurisprudence, and say that it disproves the existence of free will. Or, asked to give an example of a falsifiable idea, they might say the idea of free will because we know that sometimes people are forced to do things.

Eventually I realized that the misunderstanding was opposing “free will” to “coercion” (“I do this of my own free will” in the sense of not having a gun to one’s head) rather than to “determinism” (“Free will” in the sense of not being able to put off responsibility on God or destiny or whatever; no matter how constrained or influenced, one could in principle have chosen differently).  It took  me a surprisingly long time to make that simple observation, though, because it seems so astoundingly obvious to me that of course Enlightenment philosophers knew that coercion was a thing that existed in the world and that’s clearly not what we’re talking about when we talk about the fundamental nature of man.  Also because I just naturally have an easier time thinking in terms of abstract concepts thana lot of other people, and am continually surprised that normal folk find it hard.

But having seen now that they don’t get the more abstract conception of free will, and instead think of the more concrete one, I can appreciate how statements like “people are either totally free or they aren’t” or “free will is a point of view” or “no, you can’t prove or disprove free will” must seem completely incomprehensible if not fundamentally wrong.

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Teleology is Easy

As I close in on another semester of teaching “Sociological Explanation” to graduate students, as well as an undergraduate theory course that touches on similar points, I’m once again struck by variation in how readily students take to different theories and paradigms.

There seem to be multiple patterns involved. I suspect one of them is that people do better with more teleological theories — better with strain theory (in which motivation is central) than with network-opportunity theories (in which motive is assumed); better with rational choice theories or functionalism than with neoDarwinian theories (though the latter overlaps with the first two in various ways). The two least teleological paradigms, neoDarwinism and Blackian “pure” sociology, seem to meet with the most confusion.

But it’s hard for me to tell how much of this is due to less teleological approaches tending to be more complex: Structural Holes is a harder read than “Social Structure and Anomie,” and simple “lazy” functionalism (e.g., “religion exists in order to provide solidarity. There, we’ve explained religion”) is easier to grasp than systems analysis (e.g., the effects of tight coupling and interactive complexity). Blackian propositions are simpler than a lot of this stuff, but there’s a new conceptual language to learn that might require some extra cognitive effort.

NeoDarwinian theories are so frequently misunderstood I feel like I’m trying to teach an alien language, and don’t even know where to begin.

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