Women of Color and the Pro Choice Framework #KnowYourHistory

By Amanda Grigg

Verónica Bayetti Flores at Feministing has a great piece on the New York Times’ coverage of mainstream white feminists recently “discovering” a more expansive notion of reproductive justice. Essentially, the NYT piece covers the move by mainstream feminists to embrace a more expansive notion of “reproductive justice” in place of the “pro-choice” frame as if Planned Parenthood has just discovered it via a poll and spread the word to the masses. Not true. At all. This is equivalent to the NYT publishing a story on my mom “discovering” this great new tech company called Facebook. Flores’ takedown is worth reading in full but here’s a taste:

An important and interesting topic, the potentially illuminating piece instead served to obscure the history of the move away from choice language, completely erasing women of color’s crucial role in developing the reproductive justice framework that set the stage for this move by the larger and more well-funded (and, ahem, white-lady-led) reproductive health organizations. Since then, women of color in the reproductive justice movement have been hollering a collective WTF.

The brainchild of women of color in the reproductive health and rights movements more than two decades ago, the reproductive justice framework came about due to their frustration with the “choice” framework. These activists were frustrated that most reproductive rights activism focused narrowly on abortion and the desire not to have kids when they knew that Mexican-American and indigenous women, as well as other low-income women of color on Medicaid, were getting coercively sterilized. They felt that the idea of free choices – which felt very American and patriotic to white women – never reflected the realities of women in their communities, didn’t ever feel familiar to women of color whose bodies were the historical sites of so much pain and coercion on this land of colonization and slavery. Decades ago, women of color knew that the realities of post-industrial economic decay, lowering wages, and increasing cost of living all guided and coerced low-income women’s reproductive decisions. In short, women of color have long known that the idea of “choice” is a privileged position, that it has never felt familiar to many of us, and that our liberation required a lot more than lofty Supreme Court decisions that gave us the theoretical choice to terminate our pregnancies.

Since this coverage is as WTF-worthy as Flores suggests, and since I’m up to my ears in quotes from reproductive justice and women’s health reading, I thought I’d provide some primary sources to back her up:

Here’s Angela Davis writing in 1981

From a 1979 issue of the Committee for Abortion Rights and Against Sterilization Abuse (CARASA) News

Over the last decade the struggle against sterilization abuse has been waged primarily by Puerto Rican, black, Chicana, and Native American women. Their cause has not yet been embraced by the women’s movement as a whole.

Historian Jennifer Nelson has an entire book documenting the often forgotten (or obscured) history of women of color in the reproductive rights movement. As Nelson explains,

Black women seldom receive proper credit for the work they have done for reproductive rights. Nor have white feminists often acknowledged the extent to which black women shaped the feminist reproductive rights movement.

In listening to black women, one discovers that they offered a more complicated view of reproductive control than did either Black Nationalists or white women’s liberationists” (emphasis added).

Expanding on research done in her book, Nelson describes the experiences of black women working as community health workers in rural Mississippi in the 1970s. They quickly realized that the traditional view of women’s reproductive health did not address the needs of their community:

a narrow view of women’s health issues did not serve black women or their families as long as basic economic and community development issues were neglected. Problems like sanitation, housing, clothing, transportation, and food were all basic economic necessities that had to be provide to make women’s reproductive health a real possibility.

Here’s yet another statement on the need to expand the reproductive rights movement from the SisterSong Reproductive Health and Sexual Rights National Conference in 2003:

The second motivating forces of SisterSong is our belief that the mainstream reproductive rights movement marginalizes the voices of women of color. The neglect of women of color has weakened the pro-choice movement and, in fact, contributes to the incessant attacks on reproductive rights that largely target the most vulnerable women.

in the United States reproductive rights work among women of color parallels, yet at the same time is distinct from, that done by predominantly white mainstream pro-choice organizations. The primary difference is that many women of color in the movement are moving away from or have never adopted the liberalist “choice” language as a defining framework and instead are embracing a global human rights framework.

url-1April 2004 marked perhaps the first reproductive justice march on Washington that included women of color among its lead organizers (the Black Women’s Health Imperative, and the National Latina Institute for Reproductive Rights) as well as predominantly white organizations (NARAL, Planned Parenthood and NOW). Not coincidentally the march’s name was changed from, “March for Choice” to “The March for Women’s Lives.”

As Dorothy Roberts explains, “the involvement of women of color in the March for Women’s Lives marked the culmination of decades of struggle to forge a more inclusive reproductive rights movement in the United States that would challenge constraints on childbearing as well as barriers to abortion.” Her own work, Killing the Black Body demonstrates how black women’s reproductive decision making has been devalued by the dominant understanding of reproductive freedom.

Andrea Smith has argued that the pro-choice framework for reproductive justice further marginalizes already marginalized women (notably women of color, poor women, and women with disabilities) because it doesn’t question the context in which reproductive decisions are made. Which means that the pro-choice frame ignores “the economic, political, and social conditions that put women in this position [seeking an abortion] in the first place” (from a work published in 2005).

Unfortunately none of this is history in the sense we’d like it to be – women of color, poor women, immigrant women, and disabled women continue to face these same challenges to reproductive freedom. For example, California was illegally sterilizing its prisoners as recently as 2010. Oh, and the Hyde Amendment is still a thing, and a thing we don’t talk about nearly as much as we should. As if that weren’t enough, these same groups are also facing new challenges to their reproductive freedom as new personhood laws and laws created in the 1980s to address a now debunked “crack baby” epidemic are used to imprison both women who refuse certain forms of medical care during pregnancy and those who want it. And you’ll never guess which women they’re targeting.

For further reading check out Jennifer Nelson’s Women of Color and the Reproductive Rights Movement and Jael Silliman, Marlene Gerber-Fried, Loretta Ross and Elena Guiérrez’s Undivided Rights: Women of Color Organizing for Reproductive Justice

Strategy and the Israel-Palestine Conflict

By Kindred Winecoff

Tom Pepinsky cites some political science research on this and other conflicts, and concludes:

The most topical recent work on this is Anna Getmansky and Thomas Zeitzof’s forthcoming APSR piece, which finds that exposure to rocket attacks in Israel is associated with greater support for right-wing parties among Israelis. The core feature of the rockets fired from Gaza is that they cannot effectively target people or installations. They fall almost randomly. Looking back in history to an earlier insurgent war, Matthew Kocher, Stathis Kalyvas, and I findthat South Vietnamese villages exposed to aerial bombing from the United States and Republic of Vietnam forces were more likely to shift towards NLF (Viet Cong) control. Our argument also relies on the indiscriminate nature of this violence, which was simply incapable of separating true NLF supporters from neutrals or even RVN partisans within Vietnamese villages. …

If the goal is to compel civilians and non-combatants to change their minds about the conflict, to create a new kind of politics, then it will not. Most worryingly, if our findings are true, then this dynamic creates incentives for each side to make it harder for its opponent to discriminate between its own combatants and non-combatants. This is sad, and frightening.

We can actually say more about this. In a significant article in International Organization from 2002, Andrew Kydd and Barbara Walter (singular) notes that terrorist and insurgent violence is often a tactic used in order to mobilize support for extremist groups. In this case, in light of the quotes Brooks provides that I recount in my previous post, we could perhaps say that Hamas is hoping to provoke Israel into indiscriminate violence so that it will garner sufficient domestic and international support to force Egypt into ending its blockade.

Israel appears more than willing to play its part, and that’s more than a shame. But if this is an accurate assessment then Hamas’ actions are incredibly cynical. It would mean that if Gaza was not under an Israeli assault then Hamas’ international position would be undermined by Egypt’s (effective) economic sanction. Its domestic credibility might be negatively impacted over time as well. In other words, Israel is not the only thing standing in the way of Palestine being truly free.

La Guerre n’est Pas Finie

By Kindred Winecoff

I’ve been thinking about why the most recent flare-up of the Israel-Palestine conflict is happening now. Most off-the-shelf explanations of the relationship — ethno-religious animosities, long-standing rivalry, Western imperialism, etc. — only describe baseline characteristics even if they were fully acceptable as explanations (which they are not). There is a big gap between the long-running fundamentals and what is happening now.

I’ve had a nagging sense that all of this was somehow related to the revolutions, invasions, and civil conflicts that have been occurring in the Middle East for several years* but was having trouble filling in the picture. So I was happy to see David Brooks, who is not one of my favorite people, providing appropriate context:

Look at how the current fighting in Gaza got stoked. Authoritarians and Islamists have been waging a fight for control of Egypt. After the Arab Spring, the Islamists briefly gained the upper hand. But when the Muslim Brotherhood government fell, the military leaders cracked down. They sentenced hundreds of the Brotherhood’s leadership class to death. They also closed roughly 95 percent of the tunnels that connected Egypt to Gaza, where the Brotherhood’s offshoot, Hamas, had gained power.

As intended, the Egyptian move was economically devastating to Hamas. Hamas derived 40 percent of its tax revenue from tariffs on goods that flowed through those tunnels. One economist estimated the economic losses at $460 million a year, nearly a fifth of the Gazan G.D.P.

Hamas needed to end that blockade, but it couldn’t strike Egypt, so it struck Israel. If Hamas could emerge as the heroic fighter in a death match against the Jewish state, if Arab TV screens were filled with dead Palestinian civilians, then public outrage would force Egypt to lift the blockade. Civilian casualties were part of the point. When Mousa Abu Marzook, the deputy chief of the Hamas political bureau, dismissed a plea for a cease-fire, he asked a rhetorical question, “What are 200 martyrs compared with lifting the siege?”

The eminent Israeli journalist Avi Issacharoff summarized the strategy in The Times of Israel, “Make no mistake, Hamas remains committed to the destruction of Israel. But Hamas is firing rockets at Tel Aviv and sending terrorists through tunnels into southern Israel while aiming, in essence, at Cairo.”

Emphases added. This means, among other things, that John Kerry will be completely wasting his time in Cairo unless his trip is an attempt to reconcile the Muslim Brotherhood and its supporters with the Egyptian military. (Hamas’ rejection of the ceasefire negotiated by Egypt and Israel makes additional sense in this light.) That is so unlikely as to be hardly worth hoping for, and it isn’t even clear what such hope would mean, but that is the only mission with a chance for success. Of course it’s not even that simple: all of this is occurring within a broader regional conflict environment, as Brooks also notes:

This whole conflict has the feel of a proxy war. Turkey and Qatar are backing Hamas in the hopes of getting the upper hand in their regional rivalry with Egypt and Saudi Arabia. The Egyptians and even the Saudis are surreptitiously backing or rooting for the Israelis, in hopes that the Israeli force will weaken Hamas.

It no longer makes sense to look at the Israeli-Palestinian contest as an independent struggle. It, like every conflict in the region, has to be seen as a piece of the larger 30 Years’ War. It would be nice if Israel could withdraw from Gaza and the West Bank and wall itself off from this war, but that’s not possible. No outsider can run or understand this complex historical process, but Israel, like the U.S., will be called upon to at least weaken some of the more radical players, like the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria and Hamas.

It should be reiterated at this point that this is fundamentally a conflict over economics, not ideology. It is about control over the region’s resources at a time when those resources are dwindling and demographic pressures are mounting. Which is all to say that it isn’t 1967 anymore. Nor 1979 nor 1987 nor 2000.

None of this means that Israel’s response has not been disproportionate. It has been, and frankly it’s hard for me to believe that anyone could sincerely believe the opposite. Regardless of the tactics of Hamas, the Netanyahu government has shown a characteristic lack of maturity by lashing out with far less discrimination than it is capable of. It is, as the late Tony Judt put it, a sign of Israel’s inability to yet achieve its full height. Israel’s own blockade of Palestine only increased Egypt’s importance, it must be remembered. Still, Israel’s immaturity has a different flavor when half of Israel’s neighbors in the Middle East are supportive or indifferent, while much of the other half are engaged in their own domestic conflicts that are (in some cases) as severe as that in Palestine, or even much worse. It has a different feeling when ISIS is brutalizing Iraq while preparing to materially support Hamas.

The United States used to forestall Egyptian meddling in Palestine through military aid. It had a pacifying effect (pdf). Such aid had been frozen several times since the Arab Spring. Now the taps are open again, but it is much less clear if money will be able to soothe tensions if Egypt’s enemy is Hamas rather than Israel.

I am interested in this question in part because I cannot understand why Palestine remains cause célèbre for the left while support for Israel is de rigueur on the (American) right. This appears as a vestige of a Cold War mentality where imperialism was the primary concern of capitalists and socialists alike. Perhaps I’m thinking too much like a political scientist, but aren’t the stakes much lower today? Other than habit, why is Palestine’s struggle with Israel given so much more concern even than Iraq? Or this (h/t Dan Nexon)?

*On that point, briefly: neoconservative “domino” theories look a lot better today than they did in 2006, don’t they? But it’s more of a “be-careful-what-you-wish-for” situation than neoconservatives would’ve expected, and the much-maligned Cold War policy of maintaining relationships with authoritarians for the sake of stability is more understandable all the time.

The Cult of Kumbaya

By Graham Peterson

Thesis Whisperer has a nice post up on how the culture of assholery gets reproduced in the academy, and that it drives out people who are clever and nice.  The crowd-out leaves people who are high clever but assholes.  Worse, it also leaves people who are just assholes, and only look smart.

Assholery can be a superficial signal that economizes on the time and attention necessary to make a substantive point.  But at the same time, genuinely smart people don’t have time to dally around social graces — they trim the fat and get right to the point.  Smart people ruthlessly subject their own opinions (or at least other people’s opinions) to eviscerating criticism.  Smart people have a love affair with ideas, not with people.

More or less, those things are all true.  And more or less, there are a lot of people who get very good at performing those qualities externally — yet are not very bright.  Many of these people in fact compensate for their lack of intellectual creativity by imposing the haught performance on their peers.

And still, what looks like assholery is an inevitable product of the culture we’ve created in the academy.  The whole reason we exist is to challenge one another.  In the street, it is impolite to challenge people’s beliefs constantly — especially the core of those beliefs.  “John, I thought Suzie was just fantastic at the recital the other night.”

“Hey thanks, Judy!”

“But your idea that the 90 is the fastest way to the studio is ridiculous; let’s start with the driving assumption buried in your logic here.”

“Go away, Judy.”

Groups generally stay glued together because of their commonly held beliefs.  This is not a small point.  It’s fundamental in Durkheim (mechanical solidarity). Aristotle (commonplaces).  That’s common sense.  So you see, academics, by making the one belief that glues us together, that we ought to constantly undermine each other’s beliefs, we make ourselves look inherently anti-social.  We have a radical departure from the informal ethics that make most of society tick.

It’s good that we’re self critical in the academy, of our assholery.  It can go too far.  It can become a posture.  And it can become needlessly abusive.  But the criticism of the assholery can go — and has gone — way too far.  In sociology, a discipline that’s been obsessed with hierarchy and assholery for a great many decades, we have the opposite of asshole culture, and it’s just as invective — we have mamby pamby culture.  Mamby pamby culture, the Cult of Kumbaya, means that any idea which would appear to offend someone’s beliefs too deeply ought to just not come up.

Interestingly, this has the effect of appearing to solve the problem of hurt feelings and anti-sociality in the academy — it even appears to ensure a “safe place” for conversational liberality — but it actually creates an environment that is even more toxic to feelings (to those who don’t make it into the club of protected ideas).  And it ensures that the level of debate over precisely our messiest and often most important ideas stays at the level of basal ethical offense, rather than evolving to a more sophisticated exercise of the evaluation of warranted arguments.

Ad hominem gets legitimated by an elaborate, and frightening body of standpoint theory.   The idea in standpoint theory, bald faced, is that who you are has more to do with what you can know than anything else.  Criticism of, say, someone’s substantive point on gender is open to conjecture about that person’s marriage.   Now, that probably sounds ridiculous: “how could people get away with that type of thing?”  Well, because nobody in sociology says, “you wrote this article because your wife divorced you for being a domineering pig.”

Sociologists only insinuate such personal details, couched in an elaborate and therapeutic sounding social justice language.  The rhetoric, you see, says, “I am a compassionate advocate.”  The substance of the point is often, “you’re a stupid dirt bag and should shut up.”  That is not a safe place for anyone who does not agree with the Academic Safety Committee.

Criticism hurts.  Being wrong is humiliating, often.  And sacrificing ourselves at the altar of those indignities is exactly where we get scholastic honor and integrity from.*  There are greater and lesser things we can do to ease one another along as we go through our debates in the academy, but the Cult of Kumbaya is even more toxic to learning than the assholery so many people are worried about.

In the places where The Cult has taken over, there is no more public trouncing and bullying.  Advocates for academic niceness consider this a success.  But there are more dangerous developments: passive aggressive and disingenuous padding built around criticism — and a whirlwind of invective gossip that results from criticism being driven underground.  People will not allow themselves as much direct and public confrontation of ideas any longer, but they need the catharsis, so to the back office and cocktail party all of the actual criticism and honest evaluation goes.

Call me old fashioned, but I think there is dignity and generosity in criticism, even sharp criticism.  At the very least there is honesty and transparency in it.  And those are all qualities I see diminishing at the hands of a crowd who are convinced that they can improve the rigor of scientific criticism by introducing the ethics of a kindergarten reading circle.

*And no, honor and integrity are not guy things.   I am not here “reproducing” the masculinity of the academy.  Childbirth is an honorable sacrifice; the examples of feminine honor and integrity multiply.

Private Money Is Better Than Public Money

By Graham Peterson

Elizabeth Popp Berman has a great rhetorical style, both because of her no bullshit confrontation with important things, and because she is extremely fair.  Berman generously provides a list of the assaults of academic freedom the state has perpetrated, supporting my argument that the state is not superior to private funding for Universities.

This time I’ll take it further.  But first, I’ll concede like Berman that a lot of people were justifiably upset by the Koch Foundation’s apparent attempt to politically influence hiring.  Lots of outrage.  One chair.

Consider that left intellectuals have a near monopoly on hiring decisions across the humanities and social sciences nation wide, and use that monopoly to further their politics.  It appears that political hiring isn’t what people have a problem with so much as whose politics are getting mixed up in the hiring.

Private funding is superior to state funding of academic activity because it is transparently political, not in spite of the fact that it is.  Like I said in a different post recently,

The only thing that can guarantee that objectivity, scientific dispassion, and reason do their magic, is if we subject ourselves to vigorous argument, both within ourselves, and with one another . . . . Positivism, reason, and objectivity are merely the guarantees of illiberal and intolerant dogma without the commitment to internal and external debate that they were designed to ensure.

People have the sense that the state’s funding of academic research is non-partisan, which feels like it lines up with scientific objectivity.  Nay.  And that intuition actually puts the state, or rather its academic bureaucrats, in charge of deciding what is true.

Berman says, “universities respond to public preferences,” but no.  Funding of academic research is almost totally removed from voter preferences.  It has been captured by the professorate, which is a bureau of appointees that experiences no political competition.  The greatest evidence of that fact is how unrepresentative academic research is of the views of the polity.  Only about 1/3 of the national electorate is left of center.  Sociological research is about 16:1 left to right.

The National Science Foundation is not just interested in primary research.  NSF grant proposals include Broader Impact statements, which are (if you’ll allow me some polemics) basically the BUT WHAT ABOUT THE CHILDREN!?!? statements.  Grants are refereed by a peerage of leading scientists . . . who are strongly left.

What seems to have happened here, is that sometime around the 1950s and 60s, because of the combination of the G.I. bill hiring boom and the social movements of the period, left advocates recognized a prime opportunity to capture an institution, through which they would be able to influence future leaders.  It is no dark conspiracy — we all want to influence the children.

Universities, because they were trying to entice a growing professorate, were offering tenure as a job perk.  This economic development was legitimated with the horror stories of intellectuals who fled to the United States to set up places like The New School for Social Research.  The combination of an influx of well meaning left intellectuals and well meaning Deans created a system in which scholarship was moving (sometimes violently, see WUSTL Sociology), to the left.

I think the mechanism is rather clear.  Unions have a history of providing opportunities for ethnic, family, and political capture.  Tenure has a history of providing the same for academic politics.  Now, academics are extremely sensitive about being accused of institutional discrimination and bias.  It is, admittedly, an affront to our core ethics of intellectual honesty and meritocracy.  Nevertheless, here we are.  The distributions don’t lie.

The response to this discrimination seems to have been for many right leaning interests to develop private research institutes in the late 20th century.  Enter a long campaign by left, publicly funded intellectuals, to paint people at Cato, Heritage, AEI, RAND, Hoover, Mercatus, Liberty Fund, IHS, etc. as a bunch of dangerous ideologues.

Berman deserves an enormous applause for muting that dialogue to talk about the underlying principles here, but I wanted to propose my read of the history.

I don’t know exactly what happened at FSU’s economics department, but the debacle has been cherry picked and hammered to death.  Moreover, Berman compares this, the worst of right funding, with DARPA’s funding of the internet, the best of left . . . interventionist . . . public funding.  That’s not an instructive comparison.

The majority of the research the Department of Defense has done has gone towards attacking Iraqi civilians with degraded nuclear material and blowing up Afghanis.  One of their big streams of money funds number theorists.  Number theory has exactly zero scientific or practical applications — except for code making and breaking.

State funded interventionist intellectuals have promoted social programs that have corralled blacks into ghettos, blocked the measurement of sexuality and public health, legitimated the denial of reproductive rights to women, and manufactured statistics on drug addiction out of whole cloth.  Academics discriminate against their political opponents, even consciously admitting to it on anonymous surveys.  Moreover, state funded university education is an astonishing case of regressive redistribution.

Non-partisan, apolitical research and teaching.

Here’s what we do at our wingnut colloquia.  We all get a packet of fringe conspiracy material like Wealth of Nations and On Liberty, with a letter attached talking about the goals of open inquiry.  We show up to a room of people who come from a variety of disciplinary and political persuasions, ethnic backgrounds, nationalities, and genders.  We workshop papers and get CV tips.  There’s cake.

I think the only way to remedy this situation is to get rid of tenure, separate research from teaching and send tuition dollars to the pockets of instructors, and make research professionals go find their own patrons to fund their research.  Obama out spent Romney, and left academics will not lose their funding stream if they can’t take it from people with taxes.  Libertarian mega-billionaires will not reproduce ideological hegemony with funded university chairs.

Arguing for more state funding is not going to improve science, nor especially outcomes for the people we all want to persuade and save, who need the proposal and exercise of as many competing alternative hypotheses about their world as possible.  That requires taking money from all kinds of people, without using funding sources as an excuse to not listen to an argument.


Ideals and Norms Probably Aren’t Bad Bad Bad

By Graham Peterson

A theme comes up in gender literature often that I think is common elsewhere.  On small reflection, gender roles and ideals seem silly — because shockingly few people actually fit them.  Thinking about a category of behavior (like pretty white girl skinniness) or any outcome, in terms of its distributional tails seems thusly ridiculous.     1-barbie-vs-real-women-Nickolay-Lamm

Most Gender advocates don’t use the language of means and modes of distributions — and certainly not many of the 1970s and 1980s gender theorists who were smashing positive social science for its reification of gender stories.*  But a statistical mode is precisely what R.W. Connel is talking about, for instance, when she says, “normative definitions of masculinity . . . face the problem that not many men actually meet the normative standards.”

The Barbie critics, the critics of hegemonic masculinity, and so forth are absolutely correct.  Vanishingly few people meet the norms of gender performance and interaction that have been lain out.  But that is true of all norms.  Gender scholars claim that gender norms function primarily to reenforce dominance.  But certainly that can’t be true of all norms (unless you’re a particularly dedicated cynic).  So I think we need to think, before declaring that the system of establishing and communicating behavioral norms is everywhere oppressing with impossible-to-meet standards, a lot harder about why people establish norms.

Before we do, let’s not forget what an important contribution the social scientific politics of the late 20th century was.  It is everywhere colloquial by now that “not all black people _______.”  It is not difficult to teach undergraduates that one dramatic anecdote does not represent a social average.  They already know to take categorical representatives, especially dramatic ones on the tails of a distribution, with a grain of salt.

But it does not follow that because we have been able to assemble a mighty list of harmful stereotypes, that the entire enterprise of establishing stereotypes is hegemonic.

How about the stereotype of the loyal boyfriend, or the honest taxpayer?  Shockingly few people actually meet the standards these norms have set up, but there is a curious lack of literature discussing how they hence acculturate shame in people, or paradoxically work to ensure their subordination.  Nor does the statistical literature claim it is lunatic to think about boyfriend fidelity in terms of tail behavior — in terms of inspiring romantic comedies.

We all accept that myriad statistically fallacious normative roles are unproblematic.

And that’s, I think, because we are neither dumber for our tendency to think in terms of exemplars of categories, nor are we ethically or politically weaker.  It seems to me that these archetypes, stereotypes, ideal types, exemplars — whatever you want to call them — are part of a (dare I say) a natural and absolutely functional and necessary negotiation of the virtues that we strive towards as a culture, and the vices that we tear away from.

I don’t think that recognizing these broader mechanics of ideals — and arguing for different ideals — is at all at odds with discouraging young girls from developing eating disorders, or encouraging people to relax about the sexual and fashion preferences of others.

*Notable exceptions are Irving Goffman and Nancy Chodorow talking about the overlap of the normal distributions of height in men and women, and how random pairing would defy the regularity of taller man shorter women dimorphism in American couples. 

Computational Constraints Mean Sociology Is Bullshit Too

By Graham Peterson

As a undergraduate I wast thrilled by Gerd Gigerenzer’s criticisms of economics in Rationality for Mortals.  Gigerenzer is Herb Simon’s old buddy, and at least as smart.  You should buy his book.  The takeaway is an old criticism of economics: humans are so computationally constrained in terms of the CPU evolution has given us, that it is impossible to imagine people actually rank their preferences, transform them on a monotone map to some function, and then maximize that function relative to a battery of cost vector information.

The criticism is extremely appealing for a few reasons.  First: it nips at the heels of economics while staying within the technological metaphors of computers.  Criticisms torn from the pages of the humanities never fare well.  Second: it’s intuitively plausible to anyone who’s solved even a rudimentary constrained optimization problem.  The idea that we’re doing so subconsciously bajillions of times a day, when it takes days of instruction for a 19 year old to find the top of a parabola, is silly.

Moreover, there are some great anecdotes suggesting another mechanism: fast and frugal heuristics.  It turns out that baseball players do not observe the parabola a ball flies in, calculate its first and second derivatives, and then run to the spot they’ve predicted the ball will land — they just run around and keep the angle between their eye and the ball constant — eventually the ball lands where they are.  Generalize from anecdote to a big toolkit of heuristics, and you’ve got a plausible decision mechanism.

But how many heuristics does one need to really get through the day, or an argument with one’s lover, say?  The list is potentially infinite.  And then we’re right back in the snare of the computational problem.

In sociology (and originally in the separate study of Organizations, which economists have forgotten that Simon embarked on with sociologists, and that people like Ken Arrow were enthusiastic about), we call such collections of heuristics institutions.  Institutions are made up of embedded routines, scripts, sets of rules, that are used for decision making.

This kind of thinking got lapped up by sociologists in mid century and into the 70s and 80s.  They called it Role Theory.  The language is absolutely colloquial by now: who were your “role models” growing up?  Our first theories of organizations, going back to our very special Max Weber, included some version of the Occupational Role — a social construct that exists independent of the people occupying it, accruing its own rights and duties (or expectations).*

The problem with Role Theory is that it’s equally as implausible as Rational Choice is, for the exact same reason.

How many roles do you imagine there are that anyone fills in one day?  On a lazy day, I visit three social media websites, go to the laundromat and do my sheets, stop and buy a cup of coffee, read for school, and write a cocky blog post.  In the intuition of role theory, all of these activities constitute a social stage for which I read off a script of lines and stage direction (how long to make eye contact with the Mexican ladies watching telenovelas at the laundromat; which version of thank you to use for the 22 year-old hipster girls at the coffee shop; which tone to use while I respond to an argument I haven’t heard on the internet before).

This theory of behavior seems to put even greater demands on the computational resources of the agent than rational choice.  If you thought solving calculus problems was tough; hark back to your experience in a school play, trying to learn all of your lines, stage blocking, and then of course making it all come off naturally.

I think the problem we have here is that in conjuring both theories we are starting from the various intuitions that modern people have come up with in the street to talk about their behaviors–that military people have been called corporals and that traders have traded right up until they made a loss–and tried to generalize these ex post rationalizations, or stories about our behaviors, into scientific ex ante predictions, about how social systems, or individual psychology, compel behavior in the first place.

The problem may not be the evidence supporting or refuting either of these theories (or others), but rather that we are so whipped up in a game of telling one another stories about ourselves after the story has already been written by our actions, that we are relatively helpless to do anything but turn these ex post rationalizations into theories of the determinants, causes, antecedents, motivations, etc. of action.

*This theory of occupational roles is I think one of the major reasons that such a fantastic misunderstanding of labor markets and wages remains — people literally think of jobs as slots.  Jobs are not slots.  Jobs come and go as a function of the exigencies of technological innovation.