On the problem of normative sociology
Last week I did a post complaining about how journalists tend to use the undifferentiated term “political correctness” to describe a complex group of behaviours that one can find in contemporary academia. I was trying to make the case that “classic” political correctness – such as language policing – has been on the decline, but that there were other worrisome trends that continue. This week I would like to pursue the discussion, by talking about another slightly pernicious habit, which those of us who like to classify these things refer to as the problem of “normative sociology.”
The whole “normative sociology” concept has its origins in a joke that Robert Nozick made, in Anarchy, State and Utopia, where he claimed, in an offhand way, that “Normative sociology, the study of what the causes of problems ought to be, greatly fascinates us all”(247). Despite the casual manner in which he made the remark, the observation is an astute one. Often when we study social problems, there is an almost irresistible temptation to study what we would like the cause of those problems to be (for whatever reason), to the neglect of the actual causes. When this goes uncorrected, you can get the phenomenon of “politically correct” explanations for various social problems – where there’s no hard evidence that A actually causes B, but where people, for one reason or another, think that A ought to be the explanation for B. This can lead to a situation in which denying that A is the cause of B becomes morally stigmatized, and so people affirm the connection primarily because they feel obliged to, not because they’ve been persuaded by any evidence.
Let me give just one example, to get the juices flowing. I routinely hear extraordinary causal powers being ascribed to “racism” — claims that far outstrip available evidence. Some of these claims may well be true, but there is a clear moral stigma associated with questioning the causal connection being posited – which is perverse, since the question of what causes what should be a purely empirical one. Questioning the connection, however, is likely to attract charges of seeking to “minimize racism.” (Indeed, many people, just reading the previous two sentences, will already be thinking to themselves “Oh my God, this guy is seeking to minimize racism.”) There also seems to be a sense that, because racism is an incredibly bad thing, it must also cause a lot of other bad things. But what is at work here is basically an intuition about how the moral order is organized, not one about the causal order. It’s always possible for something to be extremely bad (intrinsically, as it were), or extremely common, and yet causally not all that significant.
I actually think this sort of confusion between the moral and the causal order happens a lot. Furthermore, despite having a lot of sympathy for “qualitative” social science, I think the problem is much worse in these areas. Indeed, one of the major advantages of quantitative approaches to social science is that it makes it pretty much impossible to get away with doing normative sociology.
Incidentally, “normative sociology” doesn’t necessarily have a left-wing bias. There are lots of examples of conservatives doing it as well (e.g. rising divorce rates must be due to tolerance of homosexuality, out-of-wedlock births must be caused by the welfare system etc.) The difference is that people on the left are often more keen on solving various social problems, and so they have a set of pragmatic interests at play that can strongly bias judgement. The latter case is particularly frustrating, because if the plan is to solve some social problem by attacking its causal antecedents, then it is really important to get the causal connections right – otherwise your intervention is going to prove useless, and quite possibly counterproductive.
This is something I had been thinking about a lot when writing about consumerism, in The Rebel Sell. One of the things that Andrew and I tried to show in that book is how the left had latched on a particular theory of what caused consumerism, basically buying into Marx’s old idea that capitalism is subject to crises of overproduction, then seeking to explain the various phenomena associated with consumerism (advertising, planned obsolescence, perpetual dissatisfaction, etc.) as an attempt to manage the problem of overproduction. Over time, an elaborate edifice was constructed on the basis of this one, slender claim, which not only had never been tested empirically, but didn’t even make sense upon closer analysis. People just really wanted to believe that capitalism had this built-in ‘contradiction’. As a consequence, an enormous amount of energy was being wasted by activists, trying to change things that in fact bore no relationship to the problem they were trying to solve – or in the case of consumerism, promoting “solutions” that were in fact exacerbating the problem.
Because of this, I was really struck by this passage in Robert Frank’s book, Choosing the Right Pond, in which he complains about precisely this tendency on the left:
Critics on the left see the market system through a much less flattering lens. In the marketplace, they see first a system in which the strong exploit the weak. Firms with market power take unfair advantage of workers whose opportunities are limited… Critics from the left also see the market system as promoting, indeed almost depending on, the sale of products that serve no social need. They see manipulative advertisements that cajole people into spending their incomes on gas guzzling cars with retractable headlights, while the environment decays and children lack good books to read. These critics see, finally, that the market system’s rewards are no in proportion to need or even to merit. People whose talents and abilities differ only slightly often earn dramatically different incomes. And reward bears almost no relation to the social value of the work that is done: The lawyer who helps his corporate client exploit tax loopholes takes home several hundred thousand dollars annually, while the person who struggles to teach our eight graders algebra is paid a pittance. (162)
So far so familiar. Then it starts to get more interesting:
Most people, of course, are at neither extreme of the political spectrum. Those in the middle presumably see the real truth about the market system as lying somewhere between the views offered by the extreme camps. In this chapter, I argue that the most fruitful interpretation is not to think of the marketplace as being some convenient middle ground between these two extremes. The marketplace I portray here has both the positive qualities put forth by its defenders as well as the catalogue of ills for which it has been attacked. I will argue, however, that the left has in almost every instance offered the wrong reasons for why market outcomes go awry. (162-3)
He concludes the chapter with a triumph of masterful understatement:
Having identified real problems, but having ascribed them to spurious causes, the left has found it difficult to formulate policy remedies. (177)
I recall marvelling at how seldom I had heard this idea expressed: that the left consistently gets it right when it comes to identifying problems, but then gets the explanations wrong (and often clings to those explanations long after they have proven problematic), and so is practically ineffective.
I think that “normative sociology” has a lot to do with this. From casual observation (by which I mean having spent hundreds of hours listening to people criticize various sorts of social problems), I can see four major variants of normative sociology.
1. Wanting a policy lever. Many of our outstanding social problems remain outstanding because they occur in areas that are outside the immediate jurisdiction of the state: either because they occur in the private sphere (e.g. the gendered division of labour within the family), or because they involve an exercise of individual autonomy, (e.g. students dropping out of high school). As a result, there is no obvious “policy lever” than can be pulled to solve the problem, because the state simply lacks the authority (and sometimes even the power) to intervene directly in these areas.
As a result, when people who would like to see these problems solved analyze them, there can be an enormous temptation to believe that they are causally connected to some other area, in which the state does have an effective policy lever. The case in which I have seen this most clearly is the tendency to overestimate the causal effects of inequality – because the distribution of wealth is something that the state does have the ability to control. So if “intractable social problem A” can be shown to be caused by “poverty of group B,” then that gives the state leverage over the intractable social problem, because it can always redistribute wealth to B.
To take a concrete example, one hears a lot these days about the “social health gradient” — basically, the strong correlation between various health outcomes and SES (“socio-economic status”), which remains surprisingly strong despite the relatively egalitarian distribution of health care resources. Now SES is an explicitly hybrid concept, designed to represent relative inequality of wealth and social status. But of course, while the state can quite easily redistribute wealth, social status is a much trickier thing, and the state’s ability to intervene, much less modify, these status hierarchies is pretty close to zero (except perhaps indirectly, by redistributing wealth, but even then that often backfires, as the recipients of those transfers find themselves losing status precisely for being in receipt of those transfers). So to the extent that the social health gradient is related to inequalities of status, there is practically nothing the state can do about it. As a result, I can’t count the number of presentations on public health I’ve heard that start out talking about SES and then just subtly shift toward talking about wealth inequality, in order then to recommend some form of income redistribution.
2. Worrying about “blaming the victim.” The most common confusion between the moral and the causal order occurs when people start thinking about responsibility. There is an enormous tendency to think that if person X caused A to occur, then X is responsible for A. As a result, when people don’t want to hold X responsible for A, they feel a powerful impulse to resist any suggestion that X’s choices or actions might have caused A. This is, of course, a confusion, since whether or not X caused A is just a factual question, which doesn’t really decide the question of responsibility. And yet I’ve often heard academics being challenged, after having made an entirely empirical claim about the source of a particular social problem, by people saying “aren’t you just blaming the victim?” One can see here a moral concern intruding where it does not belong. If we follow this line of reasoning, we wind up talking about what we would like the cause of problems to be, rather than what they actually are.
Just to explain this a bit: A causal relationship to an outcome is typically a necessary but not sufficient condition for an attribution of responsibility. That is because of the phenomenon of “too many causes.” If I throw a beer bottle out my window, and it strikes a pedestrian below, it is clear that I have caused an injury to this person. But that person also caused the injury, by deciding to take a walk and to pass by my house at that precise moment. And who knows, many others may have contributed as well, by allowing that person to go for the walk, or by selling me the beer, and so on. Thus the question of who is responsible is really a separate question from the question of causation. So it should be possible to have a conversation about what causes what that is completely separate from the question of who is to blame for what – it is perhaps a prelude to the latter conversation, but definitely concerns that arise in the latter should not be allowed to intrude into the former.
To pick just one obvious example of this, there is an enormous reluctance to believe that underdevelopment could be largely due to domestic conditions within poor countries. There is a pressing need to treat this poverty as some kind of harm inflicted upon the poor by rich countries, or else a consequence of past harms (e.g. a “legacy of colonialism”) — not so much because any of the mechanisms being posited seem all that persuasive, but rather that doing anything other involves “blaming the victim,” or treating the poor as somehow responsible for their condition.
3. Picking one side of a correlation. This is a more subtle one. Statistical analysis often reveals a correlation between two things, but as we all know, correlation does not imply causation. If A tends to go hand-in-hand with B, it could be that 1) A causes B, or 2) B causes A, or 3) A and B are mutually reinforcing, or 4) there is some third thing, C, that causes both A and B. It is, however, very very common for statistical correlations to be reported as causal ones. (This is, for instance, a huge problem in health care reporting. Growing up, my mother was afraid to cook with aluminium pots or use anti-perspirant, because of studies reporting the presence of aluminium in the brains of Alzheimer’s patients. But even if true, there was no reason to think that exposure to aluminium was causing the disease, could be that the disease caused the accumulation of aluminium, or that some other thing caused both.) Because this sort of sloppy thinking happens all the time, it’s not so difficult for people who would like to believe that A causes B to respond to evidence of correlation between the two as confirmation of their view.
The debate over the so-called “culture of poverty” provides some great examples of all three of these tendencies. It has certainly not escaped anyone’s notice that poverty is (statistically) associated with a large number of behaviour patterns that are, shall we say, self-undermining (petty crime, teenage pregnancy, broken families, drug addiction, domestic violence, etc.) The stereotypical conservative looks at this and says “see, no wonder they’re poor, it’s because of all the bad choices they are making.” The stereotypical liberal looks at it and says, “no wonder they’re making such bad choices, it’s because they’re so poor.” In many of these cases, some kind of mutual reinforcement story seems like the most likely account, but the more common ideological response is to pick out one direction of causation and to focus on that.
(One can see as well in the liberal response the desire to have a policy lever. The thing about “culture of poverty” explanations is that no one has any idea how to change this culture – the idea that listening to Christians moralize about it is going to change anything being not very persuasive. Money, however, can be redistributed. And finally, there is an obvious desire to avoid “blaming the victim” — for some reason positing a pernicious cultural trend is somehow seen as compatible with individual blame, in a way that the actions of anonymous economic forces is not.)
4. Metaphysical views. I mentioned this above, but often there is a sense that the moral awfulness of some action or episode requires that it have enormous consequences. This can easily lead to the view that anyone who denies the causal effects is in some way minimizing or downplaying the moral awfulness. (Now if everyone were a moral consequentialist, then this would all make sense, since the awfulness of an action would be determined entirely by its effects, and so minimizing the effects would be minimizing the awfulness. But most people are not consequentialists.)
A good example of this in contemporary debates involves attitudes towards rising inequality. Many people think this is very bad. And yet, there is also a desire to believe that, if it is very bad, then it must also cause a lot of other bad things. (Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett’s book The Spirit Level is an example of this tendency, as is Joseph Stiglitz’s The Price of Inequality.) There is also a common desire to think that political unrest and revolutions are caused by poverty and inequality, whereas the preponderance of evidence suggests that they are not (rising expectations are more important). And yet, anyone who denies that inequality has these effects is liable to stand accused of seeking to makes excuses for it (notice, for example, how Paul Krugman, in this interesting comment on Stiglitz, goes out of his way to emphasize that he is still condemning inequality).
Edit: Thanks for all the eyeballs, Alex. Two things: First, some sociologists have been getting all tetchy about this. Just to clarify — this has nothing to do with how actual sociology is practiced. The “sociology” thing is just part of the joke: “Sociologists are people who study the causes of social problems [i.e. funny stereotype], so normative sociologists are people who study what the causes should be [even funnier].” When I use the term, it’s primarily applied to people in philosophy and political theory, not to actual social scientists. Second, for all those who are saying “he doesn’t provide any evidence to support his claims,” all I can say is “dude, it’s a blog post.” If you’ve never seen anyone doing normative sociology, then congratulations — you must attend better conferences than I do.