Archive for the ‘Social theory’ Category

Knowledge production questions: More lessons from Feminism and Post-co

I often like to say that when reading any text one must always ask: under what conditions did it arrive to me, and under what conditions was it written?

After the overview of the contributions of feminism to scholarship, especially strong objectivity I would add 3 more questions to ask of any text.

Who is this written by? Who is this written for? And who is this written about?

The first is the easiest one, locating the author, his position in society, relations to power structures, his world-view and structures of privilege that he is embedded in. The second one is more difficult, this is not just about the audience of the text, but the body that has commissioned or funded the text. Or even indirectly about the social questions that this text seeks to relate to. Answering the question of why states go to war for example is written for states, for heads of state in particular with a conception of power as domination and security as state boundaries. The second question, who is this for, is the most important one I think. It gives a lot of insight into the choices that a scholar makes to represent the world. Finally who is this about. This question is also more nuanced than simply saying it is about one country or a group of people. This is from post-co, when colonial scholars write about the colonized they are not writing neutrally, they are writing for a certain purpose (based on what they think is important) but also about a certain subject. The terrorist, the native, the savage. This is to say that the subject is not a neutral objective category existing in real life, rather it is the referent to which the author is pointing to which is far less multidimensional than the real thing. The Egyptian peasant for example as a subject is not a person, but a class of actor seen as a particular representation of something the author has in mind, In this case it might be poor, backward, superstitious, stagnant … This is particularly true when we write about the decontextualized subject.

So back to the first two points, Under what conditions did this arrive to me. This is particularly important when reading classics like Hobbes, Thucydides, or lets take Weber in this case. Weber was introduced by Parsons as a counter to Marx, thereby emphasizing the culture/ non-material parts of his work. How did the text I am reading now come to reach my hands, who kept it safe, who translated it, why did they do this. What was the publishing house, what role did the editors play, what language was it in, what format does it come in… This and a whole number of other questions are important to know before starting to read any text. Who is introducing it into the present and for what purpose. What role do they hope that this scholarship has to play. What are the structures and social conditions that allow this scholarship to emerge as it is when it gets to me. This is related to post-colonialism as a label and definition. It should not however be taken as an excuse not to look at the content but rather to supplement our understanding of it.

The second point of under what conditions was this written, I now find has parallels with the Cambridge school of history, a text is never an absolute statement, when it is written it is written for a particular interlocutor, for particular problem spaces, and in relation to existing texts and conditions at the time which it is responding to. Hobbes was writing in the English civil war, Marx under sharp industrialization and the beginning of capitalism. This holds true for contemporary writers as well.  The first part of this point is to look at the context under which the scholar was writing, what political and social issues were important, was the author under duress, in poverty, in wealth … The second part as per the Cambridge school is to focus on the meaning of terms used at the time, who is the author directing his work towards, what questions seem to be important, even pressing a response. Has he been embarrassed by a colleague or is he in heated debate. Is the author in a political party or a government position.

To sum up: Of any piece of produced knowledge we must ask the following: Who is this for, who is this by, who is this about, under what conditions did it reach me, under what conditions was it written.

Between Romantic and Barbarian Orientalism

November 30, 2012 Leave a comment

This post generally deals with the difficulty of making value judgments that are balanced and accurate. Particularly considering communities and groups one does not belong to.

I want to recognize that the situation for women in most of the Arab world is objectively oppressive and is vastly unequal in relation to men. At the same time I want to recognize that descriptions of the region as backwards can be Orientalist and themselves unhelpful and degrading to those who live in it. There is a balance between romanticizing and demonizing the other that is important to trace. So while Arab countries have laws that discriminate against women, to say that Islam or Arab culture is the problem is to go to the end of demonization. On the other hand to ignore that this is the case at present is to go to the romanticization end. It seems that demonization and romanticization both lie in generalization. But not all generalization falls into either end. It is tricky to try to formulate a method by which to avoid both extremes without saying that we should judge on a case by case basis. One good way is to play with scale. To say that Islam is incompatible with democracy simply takes the observation of Muslim groups in democratic countries and democratic groups in Muslim countries to debunk.

But what about value claims. Something like “wearing the veil is wrong”. The referent is Western values in this case and applies to others, that is the forcing of others to take action as directed by external edict. This is true regardless of whether the actor is oppressing another. So to tell Saddam or the Turks to give more freedom to the Kurds is such an imposition regardless of whether the Kurds themselves are oppressed. The question is whether there is a logical way or a rule to distinguish situations in which these statements may be beneficial or acceptable and others when they are not.

The balance seems to necessarily lie with more description and less generalization. Even though generalization and conceptualization are necessary for theory formation and understanding there are some concepts that correspond to a certain reality better than others. I say certain reality because all concepts find their root in a reality of some sort, but reality is vast and continuous and sense making divides it into parts. So conceptualization, generalization, and simplification are necessary.  The reality of female circumcision coexists with one in which not all Muslims practice it, but the focus of simplification and observation differ.

It just seems that there is no real way to make a general argument of how to judge one statement or another and that such statements must always be taken on a case by case basis.

Open ended…

On Consciousness and Western units of analysis

November 28, 2012 Leave a comment

Primer text: Mounira Charrad: States and Women’s Rights.

This text is a springboard for some ideas on the utility of concepts like class (and others) outside of the environment they were developed in. Class based politics makes sense in Western Europe where a lot of politics was modeled on lines of State-Capital-Labor negotiations and movements. Hardcore Marxists would argue that any alternative political consciousness beyond class is false consciousness. Therefore any political activation of sect or group is simply counter-productive because it retards the activation of true class based politics, it is false consciousness. Whether it operates in service of bourgeois interests and capitalism is another relevant question.

I want to reject this and I know many others have and will. Weber provides status group, Bourdieu provides a field of relative hierarchy of groups as well, there are other ways to organize politics and analysis than class. One way is to take the relevant groups that have political consciousness and use them as conceptual foundations for analysis. So in Lebanon the sect or party stops becoming perverse and starts becoming a conceptual framework for sensemaking. The traditional groups of labor, business and state make no sense there. This is a call to extract concepts from the contextualized observation of the case rather than to bring them in preset such as class. This is not to deny that class is important but that it works as a sense-making framework in some situations more than others.

Charrad: “When I considered political developments in Tunisian and Maghribi history, however, the models used for predominantly class-based and capitalist societies did not seem to apply. Although classes certainly developed in the Maghrib, tribal kin groupings appeared to be a key variable differentiating the process of state formation and political outcomes in Maghribi countries. I became convinced that, even after capitalist economic arrangements had developed, kin-based social formations made an enduring imprint on Maghribi history. State-tribe relations and kinship as a key principle of social organization thus had to be brought to center stage in the analysis of state formation and state policy on family law and women’s rights in the Maghrib””

One problem that remains is a normative one, if belief that class based politics is more effective than another political consciousness (for which the case can be made, sectarianism as destructive, tribes as backward). But the point is that we must distinguish this from analysis and understanding.

Democracy as the politics of abundance

September 21, 2012 Leave a comment

The correlation between democracy and wealth may be a signifier of the relation between abundance and democracy. The survival of democracy depends on abundance, and abundance is a theory of economics that cannot go on forever. I wonder if the case can be made that better political forms that are representative can be found within politics of scarcity models.

Social performance, accountability and representation

Inspired by: Readings on democracy and effects on inequality, development, economic performance, famines.

I seem to be developing some sort of idea of a general theory of human social behavior. My own theory of everything if you will. It seems that it doesn’t matter what regime type exists, it is not related to particular performances. When regime type is related to certain performances I tend to think there is a conflation of variables and an unclear causal mechanism. So let me put forth what I have as a possible causal mechanism for efficient social performance by elites and leaders. Taking literature on rentierism and authoritarianism, we can apply the principal of interest and accountability to any social formation. If elites base their power on their acceptance by their people, then a translation of the interests of the clients will be made relatively intact to the elites and they will act in order to meet those interests although not necessarily successfully.

In relation to famine, capitalism, colonialism and authoritarianism. Elites whether local or foreign (though easier if foreign) owe their existence to foreign backers, (Mubarak and US) this is also true of older regimes such as the ottoman empire. The local leader was always a foreigner in order to prevent local uprisings and to maintain allegiance. Similarly the Romans has a system of foreigner judges to adjudicate between them. So a leadership in a position in which those he reigns over are not important in the maintenance of his position is prone to abuse. Ofcourse personality types play a role here but the structural conditions under which power abuse is possible are met when the led have no say in who is leading them. In peasant communities (Scott) they had a final veto in terms of violence (women cooking meals in rich people’s houses in times of famine and beating them up). In democracies there is less violence and direct interaction but institutionalized accountability. Accountability doesn’t mean that those in positions of power should be accountable through moral causes, but that the structural set up means the power of the leading depends on the led.

In any case we would expect colonial and other regime types to conduct policies that are not intended to benefit the constituents they rule over, in a sense monarchies were better.

Technology also plays a role here in making the suppression of dissent easier. So even a domestic government that fills its ranks from its own people can ignore popular protest. This requires a disproportionate representation in government or a proportional representation of society in government but once in government socialization imbues them with a specific sense of normative ideals and interests that makes them act as a class or group of their own. This could also lead to unrepresentative policy.

The question of whether unrepresentative policy is bad policy is irrelevant here, but I can see how the case can be made that it is better for society than simple representative pursuit of policies by voting through expertise and such.

Now the elite side of the equation is done (assuming stratification is present), the masses or constituent side also provides interesting insights. in regimes where channels to voice concern are available there is less protest, that is the mechanisms through which constituents can voice demands to elites matter. If they are available and are peaceful then there will be no energy spent on protests, though there will be frequent complaints. Now the french have a lot of protests, but this does not mean there is something about french culture. There is an infrequent feedback between elites and constituents and protests are the final step in times of dissatisfaction to voice their opinion  to their leaders. Actual violence and impeachment is another last resort mechanism of feedback to elites. What emerges is a gradation of resorts to interact with elites that become progressively more violent and infrequent as mechanisms to voice opinions and protests decline and become less frequent in the windows of opportunity allowed to voice opinions. So the Egyptian regime ended with mass demonstrations because of the dissonance between the power relations in society and the approach taken by their leaders.

I should clarify here that one of the assumptions is a model for election i read in Perzeworsky’s article on do institutions matter? The  theory behind why losers go home when they lose an election. According to herodotus Initially all men were equal, if a community disagreed they would fight it out and those larger in number would win. Elections were instituted to determine the results of the battle without actually battling. Men would go on different hills, yell, and the louder yell would win the vote. Thus the losers go home because they know they would lose anyway. This is a nice myth behind elections but it proves a point, if those greater in number are not represented in the institutions of governance, they could under primitive conditions simply kill the minority at the top. Now there are problems of collective action and Montesquieu comes in here and technology can give an advantage and external economic support can insulate leaders, but this can only work for so long. The greater the suppression the larger the explosion that normalizes the relation between social distribution and institutional elite distribution (again egypt, also black swan Taleb hypothesis). I would argue this is inevitable, though the more complicated the suppression the longer the time before dissonance between rulers and ruled explodes.

Now with the assumption that power relation in society eventually filter into rulers in some form we can continue with the elaboration of the masses side of the equation/. This brings us to violent revolution and social unrest and perhaps even suicide bombing. If every venue of social feedback is shut down (ofcourse rulers will try to socialize society in their image, perhaps in north korea this has been successful) if every venue for social feedback is shut down and the leaders behave in ways that are dissonant to the desires of the power relations in society, eventually more violent recourse will be pursued. In terms of suicide bombing the disparity is so great, the rulers so different from society that the structural conditions are met that would encourage certain individuals to kill themselves to send a message to the leaders. That is the language that the rulers speak to the ruled in becomes one of violence, so the ruled can only speak back through violence, that is the only discourse understood between the two partners. Continuous dissonance of the extreme sort as in palestine or in Pakistan, or in Tamil, is so extreme that the only mechanism left for feedback to the ruled is violence of self sacrifice. Ofcourse this is only one aspect i would not discount the role of ideology, interests, and institutions in structurally allowing such outcomes, but a regime in which mechanisms exist for voicing objections and allowing elites to react to them would not allow such violence. Perhaps the extreme oppression would also mean that the electoral function loses its logic, we no longer know which group of men have the loudest voice, so minorities may think they are majorities. That is perhaps what is happening in Iraq. This also does not bode well for the powerless feelings and reality caused by globalization.

So in brief I guess this is my general theory that I think operates in all human societies regardless of time and place. At base are economic interest driven assumptions about human behavior through institutions. THis ignores the role of ideas and socialization to some extent and that is unfortunate but it can take those as assumed without looking into them.