A prevailing regime by which groups, organizations, and institutions attempt to alter the behavior of its members and constituents is through imposing penalties and fines, which seek to deter certain behaviors. Parking tickets intend to prevent people from parking in certain areas, sometimes at certain times. Prison sentences, and the death penalty, are intended to serve as deterrents for serious legal violations.

However, fines often prompt behaviors different from what those trying to mould behavior (e.g., governments or organizations) intend. Many studies have shown that the death penalty/prison is not a deterrent to violent crime (see here). In a study of a daycare where several parents repeatedly picked up their children late from school, researchers found that the imposition of a fine for late pick-ups actually increased the number of parents picking up their children late. Additionally, when the fine was lifted, the behavioral change remained such that more parents still picked up their children late. Gneezy and Rustichini, the authors of the study, argue that parents saw the fine as a cost, which they were willing to pay, when previously there was a moral, not a financial, meaning to picking up children late.

An alternative approach to behavioral change that has received plenty of attention in the last several years is described by the behavioral economist Richard Thaler and the legal scholar Cass Sunstein in their 2008 book, Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness. In it, Thaler and Sunstein argue, using copious evidence from cognitive psychology and behavioral economics, that our cognitive architecture creates systematic biases in decision making that cause problems in certain domains. Because we often rely on heuristics deriving from automatic processing of information (as opposed to deliberative processing, see Daniel Kahneman’s new book for far more details about this), we often err especially in domains of logic and statistics.

Enter: choice architects and their nudging solutions.  Thaler and Sunstein argue that, however informal the policy and at whatever level it is enacted, the individuals who design program or policies—choice architects—can exert a good deal of influence over the kinds of decisions others make through “nudges.” These nudges are supposed to a) recognize common decision making errors and b) alter the decision making context in a way that acknowledges those biases. A nudge, for Thaler and Sunstein, is any aspect of design that “alters people’s behavior in a predictable way without forbidding any options or significantly changing their economic incentives” (p. 6). This caveat, that nudges do not shut off any behavioral options, allows Thaler and Sunstein to call their approach one of libertarian paternalism, whereby freedom of individual choice is preserved (the libertarian part) and  choices are influenced such that the “choosers are better off,” according to their own standards (the paternalism part). So, a woman working in a school cafeteria who recognizes that students’ food choices are determined by the order and arrangement of the types of foods, and who changes the arrangement in a way that promotes more healthy eating behaviors is a choice architect employing a nudge toward a particular goal. And Sunstein, as the current administrator of the White House’s Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs, seeks to build these insights about human cognition into a variety of policies.

In a recent Sociology Compass article, Evan Selinger and Kyle Whyte, both professors of philosophy, raise a number of nudge issues. First, they suggest, many of the examples often cited as nudges do not actually meet the criteria Thaler and Sunstein set for nudges; they call these “mistaken nudges.” One of Thaler and Sunstein’s main points is that that nudges are modifications that do not change people’s financial incentives and do not add new costs to situations. But, Selinger and Whyte argue many of the programs that are touted as nudging behavior fail to meet this criterion. They often change financial incentives and expect individuals’ behavior to fall in line with those incentives (often referred to as “acting rationally”) in much the same paradigm of penalties and fines. As an example, Selinger and Whyte argue that the Toxic Release Inventory, which provides information about how much companies pollute, should not be considered a nudge since it actually increases the costs to companies of polluting. In general, Selinger and Whyte note there is some confusion about what constitutes a genuine nudge as defined by Thaler and Sunstein.

In addition to issues of definition, Selinger and Whyte review the ethical concerns other scholars have raised concerning nudges. Do nudges really preserve individual choice? Might they make use morally lazy by letting us rely on the infrastructure set up by others for our decisions? Will the widespread use of nudges lead to less practical wisdom, a devalued public sphere, and a more simplified public life? Others make a slippery slope argument that introducing behavioral changes through interventions might lead people to accept more definitive control from government in their lives. The philosopher Thomas Nagel has argued that some biases might actually derive from something that is otherwise socially useful, so it is worth figuring out which biases should be “worked with,” and which should be challenged. Some of these concerns seem overstated, perhaps relying on an overly abstracted concept of nudges and an imagined future that seems unlikely to occur.

The most important and significant criticism, from my perspective, is that choice architects get to choose which values and preferences they promote with nudges. Here it seems useful to distinguish between nudges that are intended to alter significant lifestyle behaviors in a way that requires privileging a goal (e.g., getting people to stop smoking), and nudges that intend to make the small-scale behaviors individuals are already compelled to do more efficient (e.g., getting people to pay their fines in a more efficient manner or to complete their tax forms correctly). Some nudges change behavior in some direction or towards some end, while other nudges adjust existing policy to take into account how individuals often behave. In the latter case, few would fault the government for trying to improve compliance on tax forms given that tax collecting is a basic task of the state. Using nudges to improve the efficiency and the rates of compliance for basic governmental tasks seems far less ethically problematic than using nudges towards ends about which people disagree.

A final concern of Selinger and Whyte is practical: They argue that Thaler and Sunstein fail to provide an adequate roadmap for implementing nudges, a process which has the potential to be very complicated. In particular, Selinger and Whyte point out that the meaning individuals attach to different nudges might vary dramatically, which has implications both for perpetuating potentially problematic associations (e.g., including a male voice in German cars to inform drivers when they are speeding, as drivers did not respond to female voices) and for the effect of nudges in different situations and populations. It is certainly important to understand variation in how individuals assign meaning to nudges; the upshot seems to be that policymakers and choice architects must fully understand the social context in which they are applying nudges, which likely requires a good deal of groundwork and pretesting before particular nudges are deployed.

What the critics of policies that are designed to address the cognitive underpinnings of decision making might overlook is that most policies currently “nudge” us in some direction simply by virtue of building in default choices (e.g., in the case of organ donation) and assuming particular models of decision making (and, by consequence, decision makers) in policies. If our behavior is currently being shaped by policies and programs based on long-existing structures independent of the intentional designs of others, is that a violation of democratic principles? We might ask what features of organizational structures and arrangements act as nudges for behavior independent of the intentions of others to guide our behaviors in such ways.

 “Is there a Right Way to Nudge? The Practice and Ethics of Choice Architecture.” Evan Selinger and Kyle Whyte. Sociology Compass, 2011.


In Guy Ritchie’s newest Sherlock Holmes movie, European political intrigue abounds as the 19th century wanes. Politically consequential bombings are regularly blamed on anarchists who seem intent on spreading terror and chaos, and anarchists are used as a cover for an attempt at an even more effective disruption of European politics.

In my last post I reviewed some of these types of images of anarchism, and suggested that anarchism actually provides an interesting opportunity for analysis in terms of its history as a social movement, its trajectory as a political philosophy, and its alternative approach to social order. I use social order to mean the system that governs relations between people and their actions in groups, including how economic exchange takes place, how norms develop, and how conflicts are resolved. The elements of the system may be formal—for example, specific organizations or law— or informal—like patterns of interaction and expectation for interaction. For many anarchists (though again, there is enormous diversity in the philosophy and tactics behind protests labeled as anarchist), anarchism is not about the absence of social order, but about establishing social order that is not founded on coercion and hierarchy; anarchists’ opposition to an authoritative state derives from this principle. An alternative is a social order based on “customs, habits and usages” among all members.

Anarchist protesters have been a part of many of the major social movements in modern European history, from the 1848 French Revolution to the Russian Revolution to the Spanish Civil War. Organizations based on anarcho-syndicalism, which proposes an economic and social system democratically governed by workers, proved influential in Central and South America in the early 20th century. The history of anarchist thought, as distinguished from social movements based on anarchist principles and tactics, is also rich and varied. For example, some have argued that the ancient Chinese school of thought of Taoism is anarchist in nature, in that it argues that there should be no lords or subjects; others saw Greek philosopher Zeno’s work to be anarchist, as he argued that there was no need for states.

In The Sociology of Philosophies (a shorter version of the tome is here), which surveys the social conditions around many of the worlds’ great philosophical traditions, Randall Collins makes a number of points about the when and where schools of philosophy emerge, and the form in which philosophical thought takes. Far from being the product of brilliant, isolated, individual efforts, major philosophical works were clustered in the same time period, within a small number of physical spaces, and around social ties, often arranged as chains of teachers and students. Indeed, Collins argues, the social relations between schools of thought—how contentious or harmonious relations were—influenced the degree to which the philosophy produced was abstract or concrete. Schools of thought relied on the organizational structure—for example, the strength of patronage ties—supporting the people carrying out philosophical work. The history of anarchist thought might be read in light of Collins’ observations as well; a cursory review suggests a great degree of temporal and spatial clustering; from the emergence of Christian anarchism through Europe during the Middle Ages to Enlightenment versions of anarchism as proposed by William Godwin to French anarchist thinkers such as Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, Mikhail Bakunin, Peter Kropotkin, and others who were involved in the revolutions of 1848 and the Paris Commune. (Of course, actually examining whether the schools and strands of anarchist thought developed as Collins’ describes philosophies in general would require a much more in-depth knowledge of the history of anarchism than I have, but Collins’ provides an entry point for thinking about anarchist thought.)

A major criticism of anarchism is that it seems totally unserviceable in light of what we know about how humans create groups and maintain order. Rosabeth Moss Kanter describes one possible result that “Though communes may remove the repressive control of distant, impersonal institutions, they replace it with the control of the intimate, face-to-face group of peers, which is perhaps a more benign kind of coercion, but coercion nonetheless.” However, she argues, though some social order is required, these types of groups attempt to carry out creating and enforcing order in as equitable way as possible.

A number of researchers have pursued studies of social order within anarchists communities—how social order actually occurs. Randall Amster uses examples from utopian experiments, indigenous cultures, and the group, Rainbow Family of the Living Light, and finds evidence that anarchist communities punish members, but are more likely to do so using restorative or restitutive justice. The bottom line seems to be that doing anarchism right is very difficult, and requires a lot of effort and energy from all participants, but there are historical and current examples where it succeeded, including the community in Madagascar that David Graeber, who has been closely involved in the Occupy Wall Street protests, studied for his doctoral dissertation.

For more resources on the history of anarchist social movements and philosophical thought, see Anarchy Archives, which also includes a number of critiques of anarchism, and comparisons between anarchism with socialism.

Photo by Joseph Morris

Anarchism has made fleeting appearances in several media outlets in the last couple of months, and the Occupy Wall Street protests seem largely responsible for those appearances. Before about two weeks ago, I understood anarchism to advocate a lack of any authority (and I incorrectly assumed this meant an absence of social order), and I had some vague association between anarchism, violence, and labor unions in the 1920s. But anarchism and its history is far more complicated, and far more interesting as a series of social movements, as an approach to social order, and as a study in the origins and development of ideas.

Part of the misunderstanding of anarchism may stem from the great diversity of both thought and practice that falls into the category of anarchism. Anarchist thought spans a continuum from extreme individualist versions, which stem from a philosophy of the complete sovereignty of the individual and her property over the state or groups and communities, and resembles what we think of as libertarianism, to social variants. (Individualist anarchism is mainly theoretical in the sense that it has rarely been part of anarchist social movements.) In social versions of anarchy, individual freedom depends on equality, community and mutual aid. Private property, as the source of inequality, is undesirable, and decisions should be made democratically. Versions of (and nomenclature for) anarchism have proliferated: anarcho-syndicalism, anarcho-capitalism, anarcho-communism, anarcha-feminism, anarcho-naturism, Christian anarchism, post-left anarchism. (For explanations of each of these, try here.)

The main principle, however, is an opposition to centrally governed, state-based societies in favor of non-hierarchical voluntary association. In one of its most utopian formulations, Emma Goldman argued in Anarchism and Other Essays that “Anarchism stands for a social order based on the free grouping of individuals for the purpose of producing real social wealth; an order that will guarantee to every human being free access to the earth and full enjoyment of the necessities of life, according to individual desires, tastes, and inclinations.” Different types of anarchists have historically disagree on the tactics that should be employed toward social change: many advocate non-violent forms of resistance, while others support coercion through violence or propaganda. As Drake Bennett writes, a central tenet of modern anarchism is that “revolutionary movements relying on coercion of any kind only result in repressive societies.”

Reporters covering Occupy Wall Street have observed anarchist thought and principles in the protest. In a recent essay in The New York Review of Books, Michael Greenberg related his interactions with some of the organizers he met at Zuccotti Park. Some of the these organizers, he observed, seemed guided toward a kind of faith and optimism, part of which “seemed to derive from the fact that anarchism, as they loosely conceived of it, had hardly been tried. It offered a process of mutual cooperation, not ideologies or even fixed goals.” Occupy Wall Street’s General Assembly structure, which lacks hierarchy among participants and is based on consensus decision making, draws on principles of anarchism.

And media attention to the role of David Graeber, an academic anthropologist and anarchist activist who recently published a expansive history of debt, in the organization of the protests, and in discussions of Occupy Wall Street, have highlighted anarchist thought as well. (For his dissertation, Graeber studied a rural community in Madagascar that the central government abandoned in the aftermath of IMF-imposed spending cuts. Graeber found that the community of 10,000 created an egalitarian social system governed by consensus.)

Regardless of whether you think the philosophical basis of anarchism is valuable, for many people, anarchism necessarily fails in the execution. As Bennett reports in his article on Graeber, economist Tyler Cowen found Graeber’s recent work on the history of debt persuasive. Anarchism however, makes less sense to Cowen, who “sees little alternative to the modern state. ‘Look at Somalia. If there’s a vacuum, something has to fill it.’” Graeber acknowledges such a sentiment: “’Most people don’t think anarchism is a bad idea. They think it’s insane’…Yeah, sure it would be great not to have prisons and police and hierarchical structures of authority, but everybody would just start killing each other. That wouldn’t work, right?’ Graeber’s father, however, had seen it work. ‘So it wasn’t insane. I was never brought up to think it was insane.’”

When I first visited Occupy Wall Street in September, I was struck by how much energy went into sustaining the community itself as opposed to developing strategic plans, or formulating policy recommendations. But understanding the threads of anarchism present in the OWS protests (though, of course, not everyone in the core of the protests are anarchists), helped me understand that at least for some participants in OWS, the entire goal was to create an egalitarian community governed by consensus in part as a demonstration that such a thing was possible and preferable. Formulating policy recommendations for the state to act on does not make sense in an anarchist framework: policies are state tools for action. If you do not believe the state should organize social life, then proposing tools for the state are not even in the realm of consideration.

In my next post, I’ll discuss more of the history of anarchism in social movements, the forms of social organization advocated by anarchism as a replacement for the state, and what a sociological account of ideas can tell us about the philosophy behind anarchism.

More about anarchism and individualist anarchism.


Image by arimoore.


New scientific evidence, prompted by the invention and diffusion of new technologies, often stimulates a period of social reckoning: what does this new evidence mean for our existing beliefs and practices? Can they be reconciled or must something be profoundly rethought? The explosion of neuroscience research, much of which uses functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), is no exception. Findings in the early 1990s led to the development of fMRI, which measures change in blood flow in the brain based on neural activity, and which has transformed the fields of neuroscience, as well as the study of cognitive and social psychology. Recently, there has been a new round of inquiry by scientists and writers into the philosophical and legal implications of the biological basis of behavior: is there free will? What can individuals be held responsible for? How should our legal system deal with this evidence? Much of the buzz, both by writers and scientists, about new findings from neuroscience has more than a whiff of determinism; the physical brain seems to drive much of behavior, an immutable device in control of our bodies and decisions. (A more nuanced discussion of the meaning of free will and its connection to neuroscience is here.)

Sociologists Will Kalkhoff, Joseph Dippong, and Stanford Gregory, Jr. in their Sociology Compass article “The Biosociology of Solidarity,” make two interventions regarding the role of neuroscience in the social sciences: first, social scientists should take findings from neuroscience seriously (as others including Freese et al. 2003 and Massey 2002, have argued about biological evidence in general) in order to understand the mechanisms underpinning large social processes such as social solidarity. Second, the brain should be seen as a “dependent variable whose structure and function is strongly influenced by sociocultural factors throughout adulthood” (942); the goal of “biosociology” (not to be confused with sociobiology) is to understand how the interaction of biological factors and other types of factors produces behavior.

In order to understand solidarity—feelings of interpersonal connectedness or membership—we need to understand what happens physically when individuals interact with one another, the authors argue. Small-scale processes involving the brain within interactions affect the feelings we have about the interaction, and the other person or people involved. The authors take Simmel’s proposition that “society is the result of ‘countless minor syntheses'”(945) as a starting point, and marshal evidence, for example, that we adjust the rhythm and tone of our voice in conversation to match the other person. When these nonverbal vocal cues are eliminated, the quality of the interaction declines (Gregory 1983; Gregory et al. 1997). Electroencephalogram (EEG) recordings indicate that during interactions, skeletal muscular electrical activity between individuals becomes synchronized (Condon and Ogston 1967). (Recent work using fMRI by neuroscientist Uri Hasson suggests a parallel finding: the pattern of neural response of an individual listening to another person tell a story becomes similar to that of the storyteller. The more neural coupling there is between the listener and the storyteller, the greater the reported comprehension of the story.) I would also throw in the large literature on the role of mimicry in interactions, an excellent of review of which is here.

Importantly, when we treat synchronized brain activity as a mechanism by which interactions might improve or deteriorate, the role of the brain becomes non-deterministic. The question becomes whether or not synchronicity is achieved, and if so, how it changes the interaction. The implication is that when quality of the interaction is improved, the possibility of feelings of solidarity increases. (This line of inquiry parallels that of Randall Collins, who calls the feelings and motivation generated in interaction “emotional energy,” and theorizes that the affect and emotional energy produced in interactions scales to larger phenomena because social life is a concatenation of “interaction ritual chains.”)

The authors discuss three areas of brain research they find particularly intriguing for sociologists in general, but especially for sociologists interested in coordination and cohesion, or failures thereof: mirror neurons, nonconscious cognitive processes, and neural plasticity. Mirror neurons fire both when an individual performs an action, and when the individual sees others perform that action. As such, they facilitate understanding of joint action as occurs in interactions, and may be implicated in what we call empathy. Cognitive processes that proceed below our conscious awareness, often referred to as automatic processes, are a much larger part of our psychological life than we may realize. These nonconscious processes may be particularly relevant to how we perceive and adapt to others in interactions. And finally, scientists have known that the brain adapts to its environment at many levels, from neurons and synapses to entire cortical regions, but recent findings have demonstrated neural change and growth well into adulthood.

At least part of the “biophobia” around incorporating biology into social science is due to the lingering scars from historical claims with political implications: social Darwinism, eugenics, intelligence testing. New evidence regarding the plasticity of the brain in adulthood provides fertile ground for exploring the feedback mechanisms between the brain and social context that avoids these older, deterministic approaches.

Will Kalkhoff, Joseph Dippong, and Stanford Gregory, Jr. 2011. “The Biosociology of Solidarity.” Sociology Compass 5: 936-948.

(Image from Art off the grid)


When Indian anti-corruption activist Anna Hazare went on an indefinite hunger strike last April in Delhi, his main demand was the passage of legislation (the Jan Lokpal bill) creating an independent body to address public corruption. The hunger strike lasted only four days, as the Indian government agreed to re-introduce the bill in Parliament. (The bill has yet to be passed.)

Hazare is the most public face of an active social movement regarding government corruption in India that has included conferences, investigations and judicial action, formal complaints, and protests. Many middle class Indians, who are often considered politically apathetic (I don’t know whether or not this actually the case), have participated in the protests; their participation is seen as representing serious public will behind anti-corruption measures. (The organization behind many of the events over the last couple of years, India Against Corruption, has U.S. branches in many states, including New Jersey and New York.)

But, despite the ostensibly pro-social goal of reducing and eventually eliminating corruption, there is skepticism regarding both the bill and the movement around it. Novelist and activist Arundhati Roy has argued that because the anti-corruption movement is funded by the World Bank and private foundations (e.g. the Ford Foundation) presumably in the interest of promoting international commerce, the motivations behind the movement are suspect. (Hazare has also received money from right-wing Hindu nationalist groups.) Additionally, she argues, the bill creates a “panel oligarchy” of ten non-democratically chosen elites. Others have questioned the exact nature of the body created by the legislation, to whom it is accountable, the extent of its judicial powers and its relationship with the courts, and whether it is extra-constitutional.

Both the public demonstrations in support of anti-corruption measures and the criticism of the Jan Lokpal bill illustrate just how serious, and how slippery, a problem corruption is. It is slippery on many fronts: hard to define, hard to measure, hard to change.

Take the recent example of ticket fixing in the New York Police Department. Police officers routinely changed the parking tickets of their friends and family members so that they did not have to pay the fines. In the aftermath of the charges, several former police officers have discussed how widespread, common, and accepted this practice was for several decades. They discussed how their superior officers demanded that they fix tickets for individuals from powerful constituencies, or the City Council staff members. Not only were police officers not charged for doing this, but they were occasionally punished if they did not participate. Of course, what the officers were doing was explicitly illegal; some might see their actions as violating moral codes of conduct, while others might argue that it was a simple perk of the job to which they were entitled. (One might debate why these officers are being prosecuted for ticket fixing at this point in time, given that ticket fixing was a common practice for so long; perhaps because so many officers were involved and the evidence was particularly strong, perhaps because some officers were involved in other criminal activities (the initial investigation was launched in response to a report that an officer was protecting a drug dealer), or perhaps because the revenue source provided by parking tickets is now more important to the city than previously because of the recession.)

The ambiguity around the example of ticket fixing (if indeed you see any ambiguity) illustrates sociologist Mark Granovetter’s argument in his paper, “The Social Construction of Corruption,” that the local meanings and norms attached to transactions are very important in understanding and defining corruption. A good deal of social scientific writing on corruption focuses on how individual incentives make corruption more or less likely, Granovetter notes. In these accounts, the creation of such incentives and the social and cultural apparatus supporting such incentives is often neglected. Plenty of types of transactions can be codified as illegal, but if the individuals involved in the transactions see them as legitimate, as part of the rights and rewards of an organizational position or role, then they will be very difficult to change.

For example, few people would consider bringing sweets and other gifts to employees of an archive in Egypt in order to facilitate access to documents to be bribery. Instead, they understand these behaviors as part of the local context in which gifts to officials are basic norms. Local context, and individuals’ perceptions of the prevalence and social acceptability of transactions, are essential to both understanding what is locally considered corruption, what effect certain forms of corruption may have, and how to change corrupt practices. We call transactions we consider illegitimate corruption; but determinations of legitimacy and illegitimacy depend on a good deal more than general moral standards. This is not to argue for extreme relativism regarding corruption, but to point out that there is a lot of ambiguity in practice in the transactions that take place between officials and non-officials. (See Granovetter’s paper for a number of great examples and a nuanced discussion of how the relationship between transaction partners (the status differences between the individuals involved) and the social context of transactions (market vs. network-based), in addition to different standards for embezzlement and bribery, contribute to the sense of transactions as legitimate or illegitimate.)

Each year, Transparency International puts together a “Corruption Perceptions Index,” a country-level measure of perceptions of the “misuse of public power for private benefit” using a variety of surveys of the opinions of individuals involved in business or performance assessments from analysts. In 2010, India received a score of 3.3 on a scale of 10, similar to China, Greece, and Peru (all with scores of 3.5), above countries like Iraq (1.5), Sudan (1.6), Russian (2.1) and Paraguay (2.2), and below countries like Turkey (4.4), Malaysia (4.4), Poland (5.3), and South Korea (5.4). But the measure is subject to a good deal of criticism for a lack of standardization, incomplete data collection across countries, and changing methodology between years which makes it hard to compare across years. Two critiques are more fundamentally damaging, however. One argues that by virtue of whose opinions and analyses are included in the index, the perceptions index captures mainly the perceptions of (often Western European and American) business elites. Not only might these individuals use particular definitions of corruption, but presumably they are focused on corruption in areas related to conducting business; they are likely unaware of corruption in other areas of life. Another critique points out that there is evidence that perceptions of corruption and the actual experience of corruption are very different—this measure does not take into account the impact of corruption on everyday lives and without that, it is difficult to understand exactly what consequences corruption has. The experience of corruption of the type where telephone company workers demanding additional payment for installing a telephone line might be very different, and have different political consequences, than governors offering senate seats for a fee, to take a not-so-hypothetical example, or when local officials require international corporations to use a particular local construction company.

In addition to these problems of definition and measurement, there the additional issue of the political use of corruption charges. As historian William Gould reminds us, charges of corruption have been utilized strategically for political purposes in India, in particular during periods of rapid political transition as during the first General Election of 1951-52. Corruption charges have been wielded in the service of questioning the role of government and current leaders. (Gould also has an interesting discussion of the legacy of the British colonial bureaucracy in shaping corrupt transactions in India. Gould writes, “conditions of colonial rule by a western power in India largely exacerbated certain forms of corruption, by basing power on particular kinds of authoritarian administrative structures. These structures allowed a whole range of public servants to effectively allow corrupt transactions to continue, since government was not accountable.”)

These issues drastically complicate understanding corruption as people experience it, and tackling those transactions between officials and citizens that are most harmful to individuals’ lives.

For more corruption-related readings, see:

Globalization and Corruption.” WARNER, CAROLYN. The Blackwell Companion to Globalization. Ritzer, George (ed). Blackwell Publishing, 2007  OR Corrupt Exchanges: Empirical Themes in the Politics and Political Economy of Corruption. Della Porta, D. and Rose-Ackerman, S. (eds), 2002.

(Photo by Pushkar V)

In January of 2010, the New York Civil Liberties Union, along with the national ACLU and law firm Dorsey & Whitney, filed a class action lawsuit against the City of New York, for NYPD School Safety division practices of seizing and arresting middle and high school children. In particular, the NYPD officers allegedly arrested students for minor, non-criminal activities, handcuffed students and locked them in seclusion rooms without teacher or parental consent, and took students to hospitals for psychiatric evaluations, again without teacher or parental consent.

The ongoing case epitomizes a phenomenon that has proliferated in the last two decades, according to professors Paul Hirschfield and Katarzyna Celinska in their January 2011 review in Sociology Compass: the criminalization of school discipline. In the late 1970s, there were reportedly fewer than 100 police officers in schools; by 2007, almost 70 percent of schools had security guards and/or police officers (Dinkes et al. 2009), despite the fact that rates of school violence have been declining since the early 1990s (see, for example, graphs here). There is no consensus among scholars about what, exactly, constitutes the criminalization of discipline in schools; studies examine the use of “zero tolerance” policies, school police or resource officers, metal detectors, drug sweeps and surveillance cameras.

Hirschfield and Celinska focus in particular on evidence regarding the social distribution of such practices, the causes underlying such a transformation in disciplining students at school, and the effects of the transformation. (Throughout, they note that the empirical evidence regarding the criminalization of discipline is far behind theoretical formulations of the issue.) There is mixed evidence regarding which types of schools are more likely to use criminalized discipline. Urban, suburban and rural schools all use police and surveillance cameras, and suburban school police are more likely to be armed, and to conduct lockdowns and drug sweeps. One qualitative study of four schools found that arrests were standard only at the most privileged of the schools. Regardless of the percentage of non-white students across the four schools, black students within those schools were more likely to be suspected and monitored, in part because they did not have powerful parents to protect them.

Other evidence, however, suggests that urban schools with large non-white populations have greater rates of criminalized disciplinary practices. For example, urban schools constitute only 15 percent of middle and high schools nationwide, but comprise 75 percent of schools that carry out daily metal detector scans of students. Another study found that the percentage of black students in a school was the only predictor of the use of “extreme disciplinary measures” (Welch and Payne 2010). In a parallel finding, Torres and Stefkovich (2009) observe that schools with small minority student populations have lower rates of criminalization of discipline.

The authors point to two theoretical traditions to explain the origins of such practices in schools: a social fear account—that criminalization of schools is a social and political response to fears about school crime, and a social and political structure account—that changing macro-structural features have contributed to the growth of such practices. This latter account argues that industrial decline and its associated population movement to the suburbs left certain areas with concentrated poverty and greater youth violence. At the same time, the explosion of mass incarceration (see Bruce Western’s Punishment and Inequality in America– a selection of which is here— or Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow) changed the political calculus around the distribution of resources. Hirschfield (2008) argues that it was advantageous for legislators to funnel money into the penal industry, mostly located in rural areas, which left urban schools with fewer resources. This left less money for non-criminalized types of behavioral control, including more teachers and better facilities. Hirschfield (2008) also notes that the growth of the criminal justice profession around mass incarceration promoted school criminalization, as these professionals peddled their wares—both advice and technology—to schools.

While the empirical evidence regarding the effect of criminalization on school climate is rather sparse, there are plenty of reasons to think that these practices weaken community at a school by placing authority in the hands of police who often do not understand nor care about students’ problems, eroding student trust. One study finds that schools with criminalized disciplinary measures have lower attendance rates than similar schools without those measures (Brady et al. 2007). Students often see zero tolerance policies as unfair, as they fail to provide due process or they are unevenly enforced, which may highlight social divisions within a school. Zero tolerance policies may have the effect of teaching students that they have few rights, and they have little recourse if those rights are violated. On the other hand, a number of studies find that student often welcome more policing, as some students are so disruptive that they significantly impede learning.

Paradoxically, the trend of state anti-bullying legislation may not help the situation. Many of these laws include extremely punitive measures against both students who harass other students (heavy on the use of suspensions and expulsions) and against schools who fail to adequately curb bullying (the New Jersey law is an especially punitive one). There are exceptions; the New York anti-bullying law, the Dignity for All Students Act, attempts to limit the amount of police involvement in punishment, and acknowledges the importance of emotional and psychological help for both the subjects of harassment and the perpetrators. (And, as more and more studies are pointing out, the line between these two is often not clear; an example.) The lawsuit and this legislation is part of the ACLU’s program challenging what they call the “School-to-Prison Pipeline.” The criminalization of discipline may not only participate in this pipeline, but it may obscure the boundaries between these two institutions.

Beyond Fear: Sociological Perspectives on the Criminalization of School Discipline

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Last week, the Supreme Court heard arguments in the case of Wal-mart v. Dukes, in which the key issue is whether hundreds of thousands (or even up to 1.6 million, depending on what you read) female employees of Walmart should be certified as a class and therefore pursue a class action lawsuit. Here I review some details relevant to class certification, including the two types of sociological claims made their way to the heart of the case: empirical claims regarding the effect of organizational culture on discrimination, and disciplinary claims about the validity of arguments based on social scientific evidence. (The legal claim of this case is not that Walmart did or did not practice discrimination—that is the issue in Dukes v. Wal-mart, which alleges systematic discrimination against women in hiring for managerial positions at the mega-corporation. For more information about Wal-mart (including the hardly essential, yet oft recurring Wal-mart/Walmart distinction), check here.)

In order to establish class certification, precedent requires the plaintiffs in the Dukes case to identify a common policy at Wal-mart leading to discrimination or the possibility of discrimination against all members of the class. Thus, a crucial question of the case is whether a centralized organizational culture permeated hiring decisions at Walmarts across the country, subjecting all female employees to the same wrong, and thus justifying treating them as a class. Sociologist William Bielby, a noted scholar of employment discrimination, provided expert testimony in the case, and drew on the vast sociological literature on employment discrimination to suggest that both Walmart’s centralized personnel policy and the discretion afforded to local managers contributed to the disparate hiring outcomes observed in the aggregate data. Opposition to this claim has followed two paths. First, in court questioning on Tuesday, several Supreme Court justices seemed skeptical about the logic of the claim that an organizational culture of uniformity could be consistent with high levels of discretion afforded to local store managers. Second, as a New York Times article described, Professors Laurens Walker and John Monahan of the University of Virginia, who coined the term “social framework analysis” to describe a method by which social scientific evidence can inform litigation, criticized Bielby for drawing conclusions about the specific case with Walmart based on general information. Thus, the validity of conclusions based on social scientific evidence itself became a factor in the case. (There is much debate over social framework analysis so I will leave you to read about it from other sources.)

Richard Thompson Ford, in an article on Slate, argues for the value of class action lawsuits as a general strategy for challenging discrimination. And, the type of evidence the plaintiffs in the Dukes case are employing is especially suited to a class action lawsuit: their argument demonstrating discrimination relies on statistical models demonstrating patterns consistent with evidence of discrimination. The discrepancy between the gender composition of the work force– about 75% of Walmart hourly wage sales employees are women– and the composition of managerial positions at Walmart– about 33% of which are occupied by women– provides the starting point for this analysis.

The plaintiffs use aggregated data to demonstrate a “pattern and practice” of employment discrimination. The evidence also includes about 120 claims of individual discrimination, though proving discrimination against any one individual is often extremely difficult. And, Ford argues, if class certification is denied, it is likely that very few women would pursue individual suits. There is, however, no consensus that class action lawsuits are the best way to pursue discrimination cases. As the New York Times‘ Supreme Court correspondent, Adam Lipnak writes, some legal scholars and judges question whether class action lawsuits this large can feasibly honor rights to due process given that plaintiffs would be bound by the results of the class action and thus forfeit their right to sue individually.

One of Walmart’s main strategies in the case is to question the statistical models demonstrating a pattern of discrimination, “saying that it relieves the suing women of actually proving they suffered biased treatment, and it takes away the company’s legal right to defend itself against the claim of bias.” In a sense, Walmart’s lawyers and Professors Walker and Monahan are declaring foul by way of ecological fallacy (a bias in reasoning where one infers something about a specific case from data about the group), though for two different reasons. Walmart lawyers opposes the use of aggregate data to make claims about discrimination against specific individuals in the absence of other evidence. Professors Walker and Monahan oppose the use of a body of work about discrimination to make particular, specific conclusions in one case, as they argue Bielby has done.

The American Sociological Association’s amicus brief in support of the 9th Circuit Court’s certification of class addresses the criticisms of Professor Bielby’s application of general findings to a particular case:

The current debate about social framework analysis largely ignores that principled social science methods already dictate when and how general findings inform specific cases… Proper social scientific research does not draw unsupported conclusions about specific cases based on general patterns in aggregate data, but rather formulates testable hypotheses based on existing research. The probability that a given case will conform to predicted patterns varies with the strength of past findings as well as available data on the specific case. Social scientists thus necessarily consider both “general” and “specific” information within a rigorous structure that acknowledges variable certainty.

It is not true that social scientists cannot rigorously use general data to understand specific cases. The court should look beyond petitioner’s opposition to legally defined “social framework analysis” and to the actual social science methods that inform research.

(The brief’s review of specific findings on the relationship between corporate culture and discrimination deserves its own post.)

Read Bielby and Coukos on the use of statistics in legal cases, and a review of the sociological literature on gender and glass ceilings.

The threat of a nuclear crisis in Japan has summoned pro- and anti-nuclear power debaters to the streets (over 200,000 Germans across the country participated in anti-nuclear protests last week), and to online outlets (“nuclear power” showed up in over 76 millions websites last week, compared to 1.87 million websites during the same period last year). Several countries, including Germany and China, have suspended plans for nuclear power expansion.

There is a striking amount of variation among countries in the use of nuclear power for electricity, and this variation does not simply map onto differences in resources and technological training: for example, France has 58 nuclear power plants while Germany has 17.

Status of Commercial Nuclear Power Plants Globally, data updated May 2009

The factors accounting for this variation are abundant, and enough to fill several volumes. One interesting variable, the indications of which have seen in Germany, is the presence and relative success of anti-nuclear social movements across countries. Various scholars (e.g. Samuel Walker in his book on the Three Mile Island crisis) have suggested that these movements have been important in shaping nuclear policy (for a more comprehensive account of how social movements effect policy across issues and countries, see Marco Giugni’s book, Social Protest and Policy Change; he argues that political opportunity structures, public opinion, and issue type shape the impact of a social movement on policy outcomes). So, why are Germans particularly organized against nuclear power at this moment? Why do we not see similar protests in the U.S., where there are over five times as many nuclear power plants?

First, some background on the use of nuclear power globally. As of January 2011, there were 442 nuclear power reactors in the world, almost one fourth of them in the United States, the largest consumer of nuclear energy in the world. Based on 2005 data, the U.S., Japan, and France accounted for 56.5% of all nuclear power used internationally (measured in terawatt hours). Nuclear power provides about 75% of electricity in France (a figure topped only by Lithuania, which derives over 76% of its electricity from nuclear, according to I.A.E.A. figures in 2010), and about 20% of electricity in the U.S. in 2009 . In contrast, there are only 6 nuclear power plants across all of Africa, South America, and the Middle East.

The anti-nuclear movement, unlike other types of social movements, has the feature of being periodically reinvigorated around extreme, potentially cataclysmic disasters such as at Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, and the Fukushima Daiichi plant. In explaining the presence and success of anti-nuclear movements, a number of analysts have pointed to the importance of political opportunity in shaping the nature and success of those movements. Political opportunity (or political opportunity structure) theory has provided a central framework for understanding social movements broadly. This approach argues that the nature of social movements (e.g. what kinds of claims are made, what types of relationships between people or organizations are forged, what tactics are utilized) and the impact of a movement on policy depend on features of the political environment (e.g. the extent of state capacity, or the relative distribution of power in a political system) in which people are mobilizing.

Christian Joppke (in his book, Mobilizing against Nuclear Energy) argues that part of the difference between anti-nuclear social movements in the U.S. and Germany can be attributed to the political structure of the countries. The multi-level and fragmented nature of the U.S. political structure allows for new issues to arise, but often dilutes their strength, while in Germany, an exclusionary state structure facilitated a more unified movement. Koopmans and Duyvendak (1995) compare responses to the 1986 Chernobyl disaster in Germany, France, the Netherlands, and Switzerland, where Germany was the only country with a substantial increase in the number of anti-nuclear protest events. They argue that the objective conditions (how much radiation the countries received after the disaster) had no bearing on anti-nuclear mobilization in the countries. Instead, the state of anti-nuclear movements and the political landscape in those countries at the time, in addition to the ability to control interpretation of events, drove differences in the response to Chernobyl. The authors conclude that political opportunities– especially the distribution of political power– determined the degree of success of anti-nuclear movements in the 1960s and 1970s, which influenced later movement mobilization.

The social movements literature reminds us of all the intermediary steps between complaints and successful mobilization to address those complaints. Political opportunity structure and control over the interpretation of recent events in Japan may be most important in determining what shape anti-nuclear protests in the U.S. take now.


Read more about political opportunity explanations of social movements in the Blackwell Companion to Social  Movements here.


The events in Egypt prompted renewed attention to the phenomenon scholar Ayesha Siddiqa refers to as milbus (military-business)— military ownership of property and businesses (the Pakistani military peddling cornflakes is a particularly vivid example). Siddiqa’s 2007 book, Military, Inc., provided an account of the Pakistani military’s involvement in the countries economy, including hotels, shopping malls, insurance companies, banks, farms and an airline (see a review here). She defines milbus as “military capital that is used for the personal benefit of the military fraternity, especially the officer cadre, but is neither recorded nor part of the defense budget.”

Some of the most pressing and frustratingly opaque issues during the ultimately successful Egyptian protests involved the military: what role were they playing in the conflict, who was the leadership loyal to, what were their long-term intentions for the country?  There was plenty of speculation, and little definitive knowledge among media observers. A segment on the NPR program Planet Money posited that the military did not violently repress protests at least in part because of their interest in not alienating their consumer base. As Robert Springborg, a professor of National Security Affairs at the Naval Postgraduate School, argued, the Egyptian military was primarily interested in stability during and after the protests in order to protect its businesses. This theory of the army’s behavior relies on the assumption that the Egyptian public both knows which businesses are military-owned, and has other options for buying necessary goods, neither of which I have the sources to address.

After relative stability emerged in the 1970s, and after the 1979 peace treaty with Israel, the military found themselves with many more young men in their ranks than they could keep occupied. So, they developed businesses to employ the former soldiers. The military gave private developers access to the land that served as coastal bases in exchange for shares in the resorts they built there. This was part of a deliberate strategy, developed under Nasser, to have a self-sufficient military. Some estimates put the military’s contribution to the Egyptian economy at 30-40 percent (other estimates claim a more modest 10 percent). A leaked diplomatic cable explained that Egyptian military-owned companies are “particularly active in the water, olive oil, cement, construction, hotel and gasoline industries.”

There are many types of milbus across the world, Siddiqa notes in her book. In countries like the U.S., U.K., France, Israel and South Africa, the military has many ties to civilian business, often mediated by the government, which others have referred to as the “military industrial complex.” In Iran, Cuba, or China, the military has partnered with the dominant party or leader to gain access to capital. And in places like Turkey, Indonesia, Pakistan, Myanmar and Thailand, Siddiqa writes, “the military is the sole driver of Milbus” (I would presume Egypt also falls into this group). In these cases, access to the information needed to study milbus in any detail is hard to come by, due to the secrecy surrounding these deals. (I might add that I can’t evaluate the utility of Siddiqa’s distinctions between the types of milbus here– something to follow up on.) One way in which milbus is not particularly extraordinary, no matter what flavor it comes in, is that elites in particular domains often parlay their influence into privileges in other domains (just ask C. Wright Mills in The Power Elite). The military often provides a trajectory by which individuals can gain access to, for example, leadership in business organizations or ownership of property, around the world.

Why do we (or should we) care about military involvement in business? In the most extreme cases, the financial independence (or near-independence) of a military can mean that it does not feel beholden to either the civilians it is ostensibly employed to protect or to other government leaders. Capital provides a military with a source of power not consensually or legitimately bestowed. Second, as suggested in the case of Egypt, military involvement in markets gives the military a different set of political interests and motivations, and they may act in a way to improve their own economic opportunities. In a diplomatic cable about Egypt from 2008, Ambassador Margaret Scobey wrote “We see the military’s role in the economy as a force that generally stifles free market reform by increasing direct government involvement in the markets.” Siddiqa also points out that the type of military-business relationship found in Pakistan both stems from and reproduces non-democratic “precapitalist” systems where, as historian Eric Hobsbawm describes, “assets are not only accumulated for deriving capital: rather they are acquired for accumulating power and influence.” Siddiqa argues that this fosters patron-client relationships between the military and those with other forms of political power. They end up needing each other.

The Egyptian revolution succeeded in part because it navigated (whether deliberately or incidentally) the military-government relationship. It will be worth watching how this relationship unfolds as a new government is selected.

Read more about the historical role of the military in the Middle East by Gareth Stansfield in the Blackwell Companion to the History of the Middle East here.

Read more about the study of militaries in the Blackwell Dictionary of Modern Social Thought here.

We now find ourselves in a unique media period: after the midterm election digestion, and before every news outlet begins twenty-four hour coverage of the 2012 election. So, this seems like a good time to talk about age-related voting patterns.

One of the most striking observations about the composition of voters in the midterm election was how few young people turned out, relative to their numbers in 2008. In 2008, about 18% of the voters were under thirty; about 16% were over 65. This time around, those under thirty made up closer to 11% of voters, and those over 65 made up closer to 23% of voters. (For context, the under 30 figure is close to the 2006 midterm participation of voters under 30 which was 12%– younger people do not relish midterm participation.) A widely circulating idea was that if young people had voted in the same proportions in 2010 as they had in 2008, the Democrats would not have suffered the magnitude of the defeat that they did. Underlying this statement was an assumption that younger people are more liberal and are thus more likely to vote for Democrats, while older people are more conservative, and thus more likely to vote for Republicans. This assumption prompts a question: are younger people are more likely to vote liberal because they are young, and when they age, they too will become more conservative (what demographers refer to as an “age effect”), or are they more likely to vote liberal because they belong to a new generation of voters which is at its core more liberal than previous generations were at that age (a “cohort effect”). (Another possible cause for differences in voting patterns is an event that affects everyone regardless of age (for example, 9/11), in a similar manner– a “period effect.”)

So what empirical evidence is there regarding the relationship between age and voting patterns? (I focus on research on the nature of how people vote over their lifetimes and across generations, instead of whether they vote, for which there is also a large literature.) The evidence is not definitive, at least in part because of the both geographical and temporal variety of the data used, and the lack of longitudinal data, but in general, the time during which you grew up (your generation or cohort) matters quite a bit for your later voting patterns.

There is limited support for the idea that voters necessarily become more conservative as they age.  Instead, most argue that much of the difference between older and younger voters should be attributed to cohort effects; people who grew up during a certain period (e.g. during the depression and WWII) are more likely to be conservative than those who grew up during a different period (e.g. post-WWII affluence) (see Braungart & Braungart 1986). Most likely, the effect age and generation on voting proclivities are interactive. Big events affect how age and generation matters: the voting patterns of individuals in eight post-Soviet countries in the elections of 1989 or 1990 reveal disproportionately conservative (in the sense of preserving the status quo) voting among older voters.  Younger voters, even wealthier younger voters who presumably enjoyed the benefits of previous Leninist regimes, selected change-oriented political parties at a much higher rate.  Schatz (2002) argues that this finding is due to a generational effect during the profound political transition; the effects of the Communist-era socialization of older voters were magnified in the context of the rapid social change.

Like many things, the effects of age and generation on voting patterns may not be consistently predictable and may differ by political context. A study comparing the voting patterns of British and West German voters in data from 1958 to 2002 finds a more nuanced picture that takes into account the nature of the electoral system. Goerres (2008) argues that age and generational effects are not alone sufficient to explain the voting patterns of older voters, because the extent to which these factors matter depends on the nature of the electoral system in which they participate (he discusses dealigned and proportional electoral systems in particular). (For reference, the study does not find evidence that voters choose more economically conservative parties as they age.)

What of the state of affairs in the U.S.?  A 2008 report from the New America Foundation uses data trends from 1972 on voting and political identity and finds a general age effect in previous generations where voters become more conservative as they age, but argues that there is a cohort effect for the “millennial” generation (which they define as those born between 1980 and 1986) such that millennials are substantially more liberal than earlier generations were at the same age).  For the effects of this generational shift, stay tuned…

Read more about determinants of voting behaviors here: Fabrigar & Krosnick on VOTING BEHAVIOR, in The Blackwell Encyclopedia of Social Psychology