Updates from February, 2011 Toggle Comment Threads | Keyboard Shortcuts

  • Mark 2:37 pm on February 9, 2011 Permalink
    Tags: causal power of social structures, , simon williams, sociology of sleep,   

    A couple of new podcasts 

  • Mark 8:25 am on February 7, 2011 Permalink

    Think Tank Watch 

    The government should cut its ties with the “expansionist” European Court of Human Rights, says a report by a right-leaning think tank.

    The Policy Exchange report says the recent row over prisoners’ voting rights highlights the issue.

    The report, written by a former government adviser, Dr Michael Pinto-Duschinsky, says the UK has become “subservient” to the Strasbourg court.

    He says it also ignores the traditional British freedom of the press.

    The report claims the 47 Strasbourg judges have “virtually no democratic legitimacy” and are poorly qualified compared to Britain’s own senior judges.

    Lord Hoffman, a former Law Lord, who wrote the foreword to the report, said Strasbourg has “taken upon itself an extraordinary power to micromanage the legal systems of the member states”.

    The report says the ECHR is a “virtually unaccountable supra-national bureaucracy”.


  • Mark 8:24 am on February 7, 2011 Permalink

    Think Tank Watch 

    Business organisation the Institute of Directors (IoD) has called for collective bargaining to be scrapped for teachers and NHS staff.

    They are among a set of proposals the trades unions have described as a “Thatcherite fantasy world”.

    The IoD put a series of recommendations to government to cut red tape and boost private sector growth.

    It also wants an automatic right to ask for flexible working to be removed, in order to increase productivity.

    The IoD has put forward 24 “freebie” proposals, which it says would cost the government nothing but would benefit growth, particularly in the private sector.

    Among the most controversial would be the call to curb trade union negotiating power in large public sector bodies, said BBC business correspondent Joe Lynam.

    The IoD also suggests that workers should pay a deposit of £500 when taking their employers to industrial tribunals to deter what it describes as “vexatious claims”.


  • Mark 6:41 pm on February 4, 2011 Permalink
    Tags: , individualization and marriage, late modernity and marriage,   


    “And for some there was a sense that they wanted others to witness their vows not simply as a statement of love or of politics, but in order to make real or tangible what had hitherto been private promises. It was as if making public their commitment meant that there would be an external check on impulses to abandon the relationship during the hard times. This felt and expressed need for a degree of community recognition of commitment was not expected. It revealed a need for connectedness with others, as well as with established ways of conducting relationships, which fits uncomfortably with ideas about free-floating, easily abjured modern relationships which last only as along as they are mutually convenient.”

    (Carol Smart – Personal Life pg 76)

  • Mark 8:00 am on February 1, 2011 Permalink
    Tags: , , the causal power of social structure,   

    Dave Elder-Vass on Normativity 

    Although only a single chapter of this book deals explicitly with normativity, it is a credit to Elder-Vass that much of the book either supports or proceeds from his arguments about norms. In this post I will only engage with this one chapter but it’s worth noting that the book as a whole is excellent, articulating and persuasively grounding an account of causally efficacious social structure (with normative institutions being only one such structure) in a rigorously argued meta-theory of relational emergence. Perhaps I’m somewhat biased though, given that Elder-Vass seems to be just as influenced by Margaret Archer’s work as I am.

    Elder-Vass’s account of normativity is directed towards the question of social institutions. Within the literature, these are taken to be social structures (though others, including myself, would see them as cultural) invoked to explain regularised social practices. So, for example, there is an institution of marriage which specifies certain rules and expectations (norms) which those seeking to acquire the status of being married must adhere to in order to achieve recognition. Obviously the content of these norms is contested, in so far as that not everyone agrees about what rules and expectations are attached to marriage and that, furthermore, socio-cultural battles are still being thought over the extension of the norm e.g. gay marriage. In fact this contestation is itself a sign of the norm’s objective existence: if norms surrounding marriage were simply an aggregation of individual views then why would it be such a contentious political issue? People don’t fight over each other’s views of marriage, they fight over shared views of the norms involved in marriage.

    On this basis there is a whole array of social institutions we can identify, with corresponding norms specifying the rules and expectations surrounding those institutions. However this identification does not, in itself, explain what is going on here: how do social institutions shape behaviour? As Elder-Vass observes, a common strategy in the literature is to  “ascribe the causal roles to norms themselves” and assume that “individuals enact particular practices because of the normative beliefs they hold” (117). So, on such a view, the shared practices observed are explained in terms of shared underlying normative beliefs. In some cases this causal link has been theorised in individualised terms, as a consequence of the particular knowledge(s) or belief(s) of individual agents. However it has been more frequently theorised in collective terms because, as Elder-Vass puts it, “some sort of collective pressure is required if we are to provide an explanation of th.e similarity between the social practices of different people” (119). His own theorisation falls into this latter category but with something of a twist. While recognising the necessity of an external collectivity to causally explain social institutions, Elder-Vass resists the long standing tendency within Sociology to assign this role to the vague and omnipresent entity ‘society’ (with an intriguing nod to Latour & ANT in the process), instead “identifying a different kind of social collectivity as the bearer of structural powers” (121): norm circles.

    Elder-Vass argues that norm circles, a concept derived in part from Simmel’s conception of social circles, have “emergent causal powers to influence their members, by virtue of the ways in which those members interact in them” (122). These powers are founded on the commitment which members of the circle have to endorse and enforce practices which are congruent with the norm in question. Such a circle is centre around the collective intention which members have to support the norm and the individual behaviours which flow from this intention:

    They may support the norm by advocating the practice, by praising or rewarding those who enact it, by criticising or punishing those who fail to enact it, or even just by ostentatiously enacting it themselves. The consequence of such endorsement and enforcement is that the members of the circle know they face a systematic incentive to enact the practice.  (124)

    As members of the norm circle, the individuals involved act differently than they otherwise would.

    These relations, then, when combined with theses sorts of parts, provide a generative mechanism that gives the norm circle an emergent property or causal power: the tendency to increase conformity by its members to the norm. The property is the institution and the causal power is the capability that the group has to affect the behaviour of individuals. That causal power is implement through the members of the group, although it is a power of the group, and when its members act in support of the norm, it is the group (as well as the member concerned) that acts. (124)

  • Mark 1:12 am on February 1, 2011 Permalink

    Domain Analysis (draft #2) 

    This is a second attempt to visually represent the ontology I’m working within in my PhD research.  One of my key aims is to try and offer an emergent account of psychobiography, able to capture the complex multidimensional causality which shapes a particular person’s unfolding biographical trajectory.

    The top half of the diagram represents the interpersonal. The individual always finds themselves enmeshed in a relation web, reproducing and transforming it as they exercise their human agency over time. Structural influences are partially mediated through these webs in so for as that social structures always emerge from specific groups of people.  As Elder-Vass (2010: 86) puts it, ‘to the extent that it refers to something genuinely causally effective, the concept of social structure refers to the causal powers of specific social groups’. Cultural influences are again mediated through the relational without being reproducible to it: the normative influences of specific groups pertinent to our lives (norm circles), the interlocutors we turn to in assisting our internal deliberations and the propositional content of the items we encounter through our participation in propositional culture.

    The bottom half of the diagram represents the intrapersonal. The interplay between habit and deliberation in the exercise of human agency: all our deliberations take place within a psychological context of action (our habitual dispositions, our habitual conceptual frames and our emotional array) which in turns serves to reproduce or transform that context within which future deliberation will occur (personal morphogenesis). Our habits are, in part, the sedimentation of past deliberations. Similarly the parallel interplay between emotion and deliberation: our emotional array serves as the background to our deliberations (and often serves as the prompt to them) but is in turn transformed by them (personal morphogenesis). Our emotional array stands as the precondition for deliberation (without our emotions the options wouldn’t mean anything) but its also a consequence of them.

    This is a very rough sketch of what I’m trying to argue because this is still proving difficult. I’ve used a realist ontology as a starting point (particularly drawing on the work of Archer and Elder-Vass) but, as Elder-Vass himself suggests, ontology should be developed through an iterative engagement with the data. Does isolating these domains and the causal relationships (morphogenesis and morphostasis) pertaining between them help me understand the causal processes represented in my interviews? The filled lines stand as such causal relationships between domains – both upward and downward.

    What makes this so complex is the manner in which causal relationships can be traced among multiple domains: e.g. a stable, well paid and high status job (structural) facilitates the stable reproduction of ongoing family life (relational) which poses few new emotional problems for the child (personal) facilitating a fairly stable and uneventful emotional life (emotional). I intend the diagram above (at least once I’e finished working with it) as a map of the domains within which psychobiography unfolds. It is a heuristic to differentiate the different kinds of things (occupational priviliges, familial relations, emotional experiences) which are causally implicated in the unfolding of individual biography. Exactly what those things are, as well as how they can be understood in emergent terms, is a different question all together.

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