Seasons Greetings, Bureaucracy Stylee

When I receive something like the e-card below I generally wonder–and I use that word literally–what it is like to not feel insulted; what it is like to not want to lash out and demand some respect for myself, for language, for all of us. Let’s see if I can unpack that.
I am fully aware that I am the odd one, the one who’s brain wiring is curious, and that my emotional response to this kind of blatant public lying is bizarre relative to social norms.  Indeed, referring to the use of words/phrases such as “My deepest gratitude,” “instrumental,” and “joyous” blatant lying is, I suspect, offensive.  But at a minimum it is a norm violation.
Since I was an adolescent I have had this sort of visceral response to implicit demands that I perform a role, on command, in public ritual.  Even when that expectation is passive–in this case I can literally do nothing, and I do not transgress expectations–that bugs me.  Why? I want to call out “Bullshit!”
As I grew older I found I am not alone.  Fiction has no shortage of narratives that lampoon this sort of “fake community”  ritual with over-the-top expressions of communal ties and “deep” human emotion.  I when I receive something like the above I wonder what it would be like to not immediately think of Catcher in the RyeCatch-22, or a character like Dolores Umbridge.  And, of course, Foucault: discipline.
These sorts of bureaucratic communications are rote, unthinking, ritual. And therein lies the absence, for me, of human dignity. And I think what really bugs me is that I am drawn into a performance in which I have not just a lack of interest, but an active disinterest. I do not wish to perform the role society assigns me.  This also manifests itself in my strong emotional distaste for Hallmark (and similar corporations and their products) .
Jeez, just chill already.
folks will say.  And intellectually I get that (though I most definitely did not a teen).
But it may surprise some to learn that what I hear is:
Your intellectual and emotional response is illegitimate.
And culturally my response is, by definition, illegitimate.
Rituals are a glue in society, but some (many? most?) of us “on the autism spectrum” find some (many? most?) of them offensive because they place public demands on our emotions and behavior and, well, that’s just inconsiderate and rude.
Do your thing, but please leave me out of it!
I want to shout.  I resent having to “pretend” that you did not just lie to me / abuse the English language / trivialize important human emotional experience.  Fuck that: I don’t care to be a member of your “civilized,” “mutual admiration society” with all of its
Bowing and squawking
Running after tidbits
Bobbing and squinting
Just like a nitwit [1]
You can imagine how wonderfully well I fulfill some of the societal expectations of a boyfriend, husband, father, or son.
[1] Two Little Hitlers, Elvis Costello.
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Public Notice to all Levels of Government in the United States

I, hereby publicly declare my Muslim and Arab/Berber heritage.[1]
My surname, Moore, was the 16th most common surname in the United States in the 2000 census, and our lineage traces back to one of three surname sources:
(1) the people known as Moors, black Muslim Arabs/Berbers living in present day Algeria who conquered Hispania (present day Spain) in 711, some of whose descendants made their way to England via the Norman conquest, and contributed to the development of English etiquette (e.g., Strickland’s 1893 work on the Lives of the Queens of England, Vol 5, p. 710),
(2) Nordic descendants whose roots in Africa are, to the best of my knowledge, not yet established, and lived in an “area of uncultivated land” in England when surnames began to come into use, or
(3) descendants of the Gaelic Mórdha clan.[2]
My lineage is from the first of these.
With that accomplished, I protest in the most vigorous terms attempts, by any local, state or federal government in the United States, to “register” us, or otherwise set us apart in legislation or executive decree as a potential threat or risk to the United States of America.
I further protest in the most vigorous terms any effort to register any other group of people based on heritage, religion, genetic information, or whatever other classifications may be devised to deprive groups of people of their inalienable rights as defined in the US Bill of Rights, the Declaration des Droits de l’Homme et du Citoyen, and the International Bill of Rights.


Race classification certificate issued in terms of the Population Registration Act

PS: If you have read previous posts in which I discuss my Puritan / Mayflower / Plymouth Colony heritage and thinking “Wait a minute…,” that’s on my mother’s side.  My surname comes from my dad’s side.
[1] This whole heritage thing is, of course, silly in the sense that virtually all human beings are descended from Africans.  But when governments begin to distribute status, rights and privileges in accord with it, it is not longer silly.  Consult, for example, South Africa’s Population Registration Act, 1950.
[2]  From’s entry on Moore:
Moore Name Meaning English: from Old French more ‘Moor’ (Latin maurus). The Latin term denoted a native of northwestern Africa, but in medieval England the word came to be used informally as a nickname for any swarthy or dark-skinned person. English: from a personal name (Latin Maurus ‘Moor’). This name was borne by various early Christian saints. The personal name was introduced to England by the Normans, but it was never as popular in England as it was on the Continent. English: from Middle English more ‘moor’, ‘marsh’, ‘fen’, ‘area of uncultivated land’ (Old English mor), hence a topographic name for someone who lived in such a place or a habitational name from any of the various places named with this word, as for example Moore in Cheshire or More in Shropshire. Irish: Anglicized form of Gaelic Ó Mórdha ‘descendant of Mórdha’, a byname meaning ‘great’, ‘proud’, or ‘stately’.
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A Hot Take on Human Rights & Backlash

This is something I teach my undergraduate students in my human rights course: there is nothing about the radical notion of universal human dignity and rights that is “natural” to homo sapiens. It is an argument. Nothing more.



And it is far from obvious that groups of homo sapiens with high status would advocate ideals that reduced their status, much less that some scribblers, dreamers and activists, spread across the globe would, in a few centuries, make the unbelievable progress that has been made persuading so many members of our species that we should strive to meet those ideals; that we should design political social and economic institutions for the express purpose of binding the powerful in ways that advance those ideals.


National Front party, France

Because there is nothing “natural” or even likely about that, there is NO reason to believe that it cannot be rolled back!


The Sweden Democrats party

Politics is best understood as a constant struggle of ideas and institutions about the authoritative allocation of opportunities, resources, responsibilities and rights upon a foundation of a monopoly on the legitimate exercise of coercion. Conservative counter-mobilization in defense of reduced status is as old as the success of the rights movement.

Gericht bestaetigt Verbot von Neonazi-Demo in Dortmund

The Right party, Germany

Lynn Hunt‘s Inventing Human Rights is a very accessible book that will give you historical context to understand the global counter-mobilization we are witnessing today in Western democracies (see Hunt’s lecture on the book).


Golden Dawn party, Greece.


Brexit, UK



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Week 7: Scale & Causal Relations

Given the break from abstraction provided by week 6’s review of exemplars, we dove back into abstraction for the final two weeks of the Theory section of the course.  For week seven we first covered the concept of scale (usually called “levels” in political science), and then finally discussed casual relationships.  A strong case can be made for discussing both of these topics prior to, or simultaneously with, conceptualization.  Such is the Gordian Knot problem.

Scale: Micro, Meso, Structural Levels of Conceptual Aggregation

The first task for seminar in week seven was to have them pull up the video represented in the screenshot below.   It’s old, and thus not visually cool, but it is a very cool illustration the point that “reality,” and the concepts we use to describe it and explain causal relations at, and across, that scale changes depending on the scale at which we choose to work.  Note the word choose.  It implies that there is no given scale.  Indeed, we must select a scale at which to conceptualize, and thus we ought to declare the scale at which our conceptualization occurs.  Our present practice is to leave the scale implicit, and this weakens our theorizing rather considerably.


Contemporary practice in our field involves the usage of vague terms such as “level of analysis,””unit of analysis,” and similar phrases.  First of all, I have no idea what “analysis” is.  Conceptual?  Theoretical?  Empirical?  Any/all of the above?  Second, while some political scientists distinguish “level” as conceptual and “unit” as empirical, many treat them as    I use the term “unit of observation” for empirical (measurement) work, and we’ll get to that in the fourth section of the course.  But we are still talking about theory here–the empirical will wait.  This week we are trying to get them to abandon “level of analysis” for “conceptual scale.”

We have stressed that conceptualization should occur over two dimensions in the social sciences: space and time.  Both space and time have well developed conceptual scales, but we do not take advantage of them in our conceptual and theoretical work.  As such, we are leaving some very valuable tools in the shed.



Metric Spatial Units

Now, just because we can choose to use continuous conceptualizations of dimensions in space and time does not mean that we must adopt such precision.  Indeed, it is far from obvious to me in the social sciences why anyone might want to conceptualize at a milli- or micro-meter spatial scale.  We can probably do quite well with three to five or six ordinal distinctions, one of which is likely to be what we might call the “human” or individual scale (deca-meter in the figure above).  A meso (group scale) is higher up, and we may want to define that spatially over villages, counties, states, or other spatial units defined by political or other socially defined boundaries.  To be sure, thinking of space as distance conceived over the metric scale would be an unhelpfully limiting convention to adopt.  I thus raise it not as a proposal for the way to proceed, but instead as an illustration of one way we can proceed and emulate.


Temporal Units

For time, on the other hand, we can likely work with the established units.  In addition to those listed in the figure above we have fortnights, quarters, decades, scores, centuries, millenia, and so on.  However, we might also think about time as defined by sequential interactions (i.e., abandon fixed units of time, and define the temporal units over socially constructed interactions such as “moves” or “turns” as I do in my 1998 AJPS article).  The well defined conventional units for conceptualizing space and time, then, are options to emulate.

This is a hobby horse of mine: every article and book should declare the spatial and temporal scale at which each concept is conceived.  Doing so is a joint conceptual and theoretical task.  Our failure to do so weakens our (individual and collective) theorizing, and leads to dumb mistakes that follow from poor habits.  I return to this below, but let me now turn to the reading, which focuses on how to construct theories that work across multiple scales (and make a case for the value of doing so).

I assigned chap one from Schelling’s (1978) Micromotives and Macrobehavior, pp. 1-23 of James Coleman’s (1990) Foundations of Social Theory, Randall Collins (1988) article “On the Micro Contribution to Macro Sociology,” and pp. 1-3 of Achen & Shively’s (1995) Cross-Level Inference.  I have them read three pages written by a political scientist, an article by a Nobel prize winning economist, and two papers by sociologists.  Why?  Outside of Achen & Shively I am unfamiliar with similarly strong presentations of theorizing across scales by political scientists.

Schelling explains that his book is about

a kind of analysis that is characteristic of a large part of the social sciences, especially the more theoretical part.

That kind of analysis explores the relation between the behavior characteristics of the individuals who comprise some social aggregate, and the characteristics of the aggregate.  This analysis sometimes uses what is known about individual intentions to predict the aggregates…

There are easy cases, of course, where the aggregate is merely an extrapolation from the individual… (p. 13).

Put another way, some causal relationships operate at multiple scales, or perhaps are even “scale free.”[2]   But interesting cross-scale theorizing tells a causal story about why concepts and assumptions at various scales combine to logically imply observable phenomena at a given scale.

Of greater interest are models where we assume people

are responding to each other’s behavior and influencing each other’s behavior.  People are responding to an environment that consists of other people responding to their environment, which consists of people responding to an environment of people’s responses…

These situations, in which people’s behavior or people’s choices depend on the behavior or the choices of other people, are the ones that usually don’t permit any simple extrapolation to the aggregates.  To make that connection we usually have to look at the system of interaction between individuals and their environment, that is, between individuals or between individuals and the collectivity (pp. 13-4).

Such stories are the stock in trade of works such as Dahly (1958), Gurr (1970), Tilly (1978) and the della Porta (1995) book I assigned in week six.  Note that those are not formal game theoretic works.  The Keiweit (1991) and Cox & McCubbins (2005) books are constructed via game theory, but the Roy (1950) article, Ostrom (1991) book, and Liu (2011) article fit the Schelling description, but are not formal.

If you are familiar with the drum I have been beating in my work (from 1991 through today) that the literatures in which I work will improve should they shift attention from thinking about the impact of structures on outcomes (e.g., deaths over a given threshold) to studying the impact of structures on the behavioral choices of dissidents and states, you can appreciate why I am such a fan of Schelling.

Of course, the students in the course are in their first semester, so they struggle to make efficient use of such abstract material.  To address this I illustrated with some thought experiments and discussion.  I began by claiming that most political scientists work at what we might call the human spatial scale.[1]  We tend to refer to that as the individual scale (by which we mean a single human being).  At the meso (or group) scale we think about collections of people.  And at the structural (or macro) scale we think about norms, institutions, and aggregate outcomes (electoral outcomes, economic output, people killed, bills passed, etc.).  These three “levels of analysis” are often distinguished, but we have an incomprehensible tendency to treat them as mutually exclusive “levels” at which to theorize.  Noooooooooooooooooooooo!


Mr. Bill (SNL).

OK, to get conversation started I asked them to name concepts that might influence the likelihood that a sitting judge on a court in the US might retire rather than stand for re-election, and when naming that concept, tell us the scale at which they were conceiving that concept.  And I observed that we were conceiving of the decision (retire, run) at the individual scale.   Somebody said: age, individual.  Another offered: partisan composition of the electoral district, structure.  A third suggested: family (e.g., children whose lives the judge was missing out on), group.  Excellent: from the perspective of the individual whose choice we are modeling her age is an individual scale concept, her family is a group scale concept, and the partisan composition of her district is a structural scale concept.

I then asked them to think about the reading from Gurr (1970) the week prior and asked what scale he was working at for the object of explanation.  Somebody said: civil strife.  That’s a macro scale concept.  Bingo.  And I noted that though we would not be discussing measurement for several weeks, that Gurr’s initial empirical work collected data at the “country–semi-decade” spatial–temporal unit of observation (it turned out several of them had read that in a Comparative core).

I then asked them to identify the scale at which he begins his conceptualization and assumptions.  Somebody ventured: the individual, psychological scale.  Great, Gurr assumes that aggression is an innately satisfying response to frustration among homo sapiens.

Then I asked: so how the hell does Gurr start with an assumption about innately satisfying responses to produce hypotheses about the amount of civil strife we’ll observe in Sri Lanka during the late 1970s v Italy during the early 1960s (and so on)?  And something seemed to click for several students.  I then asked: what about national income?  Does Gurr make a case for why national income might impact civil strife via the innately satisfying response of aggression to frustration?

Someone suggested that the distribution of income well might.  I then reminded them of the Roy model and talked about the 1% v 99% slogan of the Occupy Movement.  I then asked them to imagine that Gurr had explicitly assumed that peoples’ responses to information about an increase in the proportion of income/wealth accruing to the 1% was normally distributed over a dimension ranging from no change in their perceived gap between expected and realized income for the 99% to a huge spike perceived gap between expected and realized income for the 99%.

How might Gurr then deduce an implication about an increase in the concentration of income/wealth upon the level of Relative Deprivation in a country?  When nobody spoke I prompted: how about the mean response?  Given the assumption peoples’ responses being normally distributed, might the mean be a good representation of the most common response?  They agreed it was, and agreed that the mean given an increase in concentration was an increase in RD, and that an increase in RD would, ceteris paribus, raise the expected level of civil strife.  We had thus clarified Gurr’s theory and made more explicit the cross-scale theorizing in his book.

I closed that discussion by observing that assumptions about probability distributions is a generically available tool for theorizing across scales in the social sciences.  It is not the only tool, but it is one to consider.

I returned to the judge deciding between retirement and running for re-election and asked whether we had done any of the cross-level theorizing that Schelling, Coleman, Collins and Achen & Shively had discussed.  Were the concepts we identified at the three scales operating with one another, or in isolation?  I then explained how what I like to call our “OLS regression hangover” helps explain so much of the ad hoc theorizing that was hegemonic during the 1980s through the early 2000s.  The linear representation permits us to “throw another shrimp on the barbie,” as it were: we add another X to the equation by stating (or citing) some verbal account of why the object of explanation (Y) should co-vary with X.  While Blalock invested most of his career , it has taken Judea Pearl’s recharacterization of the problem via cyclic graphs (and overclaims about casual “identification”) to get us to pay attention to what Blalock and macroeconomists were discussing during the late 1950s, 1960s and 1970s.  But I digress…[3]

The relevant problem is our poor habits thinking explicitly about scale and conceptualization, and thus cross-scale theorizing.  Using levels rather than scale, Achen & Shiveley write

Theoretical disjunction poses two kinds of problems for social analysis.  One problem is that of theoretical consistency.  Hypotheses valid at the microlevel often have readily apparent and intuitively plausible macrolevel analogues, and yet the macropropositions may be shown to be incoherent nonsense (Green 1964).  Avoiding false analogies across level is obviously prerequisite…  Thus theoretical consistency in aggregation is of fundamental important to social sciences (pp. 2-3).

If you are familiar with one of the conventional critiques of Gurr’s Why Men Rebel, this passage may strike you.  I underscored this passage to my students, and then told them how happy reading it makes me.  Despite the fact that Gurr (1970) does an excellent job of starting with individual level assumptions and deducing macro-level hypotheses, the book is routinely criticized for doing precisely that.  People frequently critique it for not testing hypotheses at the individual level.   Sure, Gurr could have developed individual level implications and put forward such hypotheses.  But that was not the project he pursued.  He was interested in explaining cross-national differences in civil strife.  To do so he constructed a theory with psychological microfoundations and made a cross-level theoretical case (which, yes, could have been strengthened, as I note above).  I have never understood why people find that confusing.

Achen & Shiveley continue.

Most of the literature on aggregation bias has been concerned, however, not with theoretical consistency but with statistical issues – “cross-level inference” or “aggregation bias” or “ecological inference.”  Here the concern is typically with using macrolevel data to infer microlevel relationships.

A common boneheaded error that occurs in our discipline is an inaccurate charge of “ecological fallacy” for a study that uses macro-level measures to study macro-level hypothesized relationships that were produced from cross-scale theorizing where the author “explicitly derive[d] the macrolevel models from microlevel counterparts… demonstrat[ing] theoretical consistency across levels” (Achen & Shiveley, p. 3).  I have repeatedly experienced this fallacious charge, sometimes when presenting my work, and many more times as an audience member at a presentation.  Indeed, were one to swing a dead cat in the lobby of The Palmer House during an APSA or MPSA meeting, she would strike at least one person who has made, and is likely to again make, this error.  We need to read and internalize Schelling (1978), etc. and stop the madness.

The only explanations I can offer are the poverty of our engagement of scale, conceptualization more generally, and the fact that we tend to teach students about the “ecological inference problem” not from the context of a Schelling or Achen & Shiveley’s discussion of theoretical consistency, but from the context of ecological regression building off of Robinson’s classic 1950 article.

Finally, the discussion about scale permitted me to walk them through an issue recently debated in the discipline: the recent work on genetics and partisan political attitudes (e.g., Alford, Funk & Hibbing 2005).  The object of explanation–attitudes–are manifest at the human scale, but the explanatory concept–a genetic allele, if I follow properly–is conceived at a much finer scale (I have no idea how that would be well described).  Given the discussion to date, I asked the students, how might we well describe that work, and should the early efforts be published in influential general journals like APSR?

They had not read the article, so I suggested the work makes no effort to construct a cross-scale argument about why certain allele structures are probabilistically associated with particular partisan  attitudes, but merely demonstrate that they are, using a design (twin studies) that gives us considerably greater confidence that the relationship would replicate than we would have had they found the relationship in a random sample containing measures of peoples’ alleles and their partisan attitudes.  I reminded them that according to this course that gives the finding a credible claim to being considered a stylized fact.  As Clarke & Primo remind us, there is a model underpinning that relationship’s claim to what we call a stylized fact, and importantly, it is both novel and unexpected given existing theory.  A novel stylized fact that is unexpected definitely warrants a claim to the pages of a widely read journal as long as there are people who care about the object of explanation in that stylized fact.  A non-trivial portion of political scientists do care about partisan attitudes.  On those grounds, I argued, the work belonged in a journal like APSR.  Critiques about the known likelihood of finding spurious relationships in large datasets are accurate, but to judge the value of such a study on that criterion alone makes no sense from the perspective of the course we are offering.  The becomes even more clear in week eight where we discuss how to assess theory.

Types of Causal Relations: Deterministic, Probabilistic

In addition to scale, in week seven we also discuss causal relations.  I assign the “Causal Analysis” chapter of Daniel Little’s (1991)  Varieties of Social Explanation (pp. 13-38) and a brief primer I wrote back in 2006: “Necessary, Sufficient, and Probabilistic Causal Claims.”  The key here is to help them understand the difference across these types of causal claims: deterministic (whether bivariate or conjunctural via Boolean logic) and probabilistic.  They are simply two distinct types of causal claims, and neither should be privileged ex ante.

I recognize that my views on this are unorthodox, and explain that to them.  I note that the seminar focuses on probabilistic causal claims, but encourage them to explore necessary and sufficient deterministic claims if they are drawn to them.  I recommend Charles Ragin’s books (The Comparative Method and Fuzzy Set Social Science), but tell them that–jarringly–Ragin, who understands probabilistic causal claims and statistical inference, fails to recognize this crucial distinction, as does all the work on the so-called “comparative method.”  I explain that Ragin’s empirical tools are super valuable for exploring necessary and/or sufficient condition deterministic relationships, or the less deterministic, somewhat probabilistic “fuzzy set” variant.  Indeed, I taught those books and software years ago at Florida State, and used them prior when working on my dissertation and again when doing the early empirical work that led to my 1998 AJPS article.

I have neither the energy nor the space to defend these assertions (nor, I suspect, does the reader likely have the patience to read such a defense).  I have been planning to write on the topic since my initial frustrations engaging the “comparative method” literature in considerable depth in the summer of 1987.  My frustration has never abated, but the defense requires elaboration of the entire integrated approach to scientific inquiry that we develop in this course.  Perhaps some readers can piece it together on their own from the disparate parts in these posts.  But I told my students I would be happy to meet with them over a coffee or a beer and discuss it, should they wish.

That said, I did share this with them.  Nec/Suff causal claims (and Mills’s Methods of Difference) cannot generalize to explain an outcome conceptualized as whole numbers, real numbers, integers, or over a continuous space.  This type of causal process can only be used to account for assignment to values of a nominal or ordinal concepts that have a limited number of values (perhaps, 4, 6, 8…).

Why did Mills, and those who have followed his lead, fail to appreciate this large limitation?  First, the study of probability distributions and statistics was not yet well developed when Mills was writing.  That theory provides a denotative vocabulary needed to generalize about research design as well as to understand probabilistic causation with falsifiability (e.g., null hyp testing).  In the absence of such a vocabulary Mills was left to connotation.  Naturally, he began with the simplest situation–binary conceptualization of an outcome)–and developed his Method for that limited set of nominal / ordinal outcomes with a limited number of values.


Update [12:02 pm (MST; 19:02 GMT)]: I added the final two paragraphs of the post, which I had in notes, but had left out of the initial post.

[1] While spatial scale is well defined in the metric measurement scale, I do not anticipate our discipline is likely to make strong usage of the fine grained distinctions that scale permits, and thus do not encourage its adoption at that level.  Much more crude, ordinal scale values that are verbal (yes, I confess, vague) are likely to be serviceable.

[2] Yay, perhaps another physicist will publish a paper on the scale free power law distribution of deaths from war, terror attacks, or whatever in Nature or Science.  

[3] I will return to this issue several times during the research design weeks of the course.

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Week 6: Exemplars

For week 6 of the Scientific Inquiry–Theory & Inference seminar  we wanted to put some flesh on the abstract skeletal structure we had covered thus far in the course.  So we had them read a bunch of work that does some of the things we had covered thus far well.


At the end of class for week 5 I told them that they should not read the week 6 material for content, but instead evaluate whether the authors are clear about their conceptualization, their assumptions, and the underlying logic they invoke to produce implications.

A.D. Roy’s (1951) article on the distribution of earnings is my favorite example of a verbal argument that could be formalized, but need not be.  The conceptualization is clear.  His assumptions are clear.  The underlying logic is transparent.  I find it a fun paper to read.  And the paper also demonstrates that the criteria discussed in the seminar for developing theory do not imply formal modeling (i.e., formal models are only a subset of models that meet the criteria).

Robert Dahl’s (1956) A Preface to Democratic Theory is more of the same, as is Ted Robert Gurr’s (1970) Why Men Rebel.   For Dahl I assigned the “Madisonian Democracy” chapter and for Gurr I had them read pp. 22-30, 83-91, 155-60 and 317-22.  Chapter two of Lin Ostrom’s (1990). Governing the Commons: The Evolution of Institutions for Collective Action served as the Nobel Prize winning exemplar, and Donatella della Porta’s (1995) Social Movements, Political Violence, and the State served as an example from sociology that is also strictly verbal (I assigned pp. 1-14, 23-5, 55-8, 71-82).

I also assigned two works about legislatures: Keith Krehbiel’s (1998) Pivotal Politics: A Theory of US Lawmaking (pp. xiii-xiv, 3-6, 8-19) and Cox & McCubbins’s (2005) Setting the Agenda: Responsible Party Government in the US House of Representatives (chaps 2-3).  Finally, I assigned Amy Liu’s (2011) “Linguistic Effects of Political Institutions” article.

Needless to say, others offering this course would select different exemplars.  The goal was to provide a set of readings that were strong on at least two of the three criteria (and not poor on any one of them).  During seminar I asked them which they found strongest on conceptualization, which strongest on clarity of assumptions, which best on laying out the logic that connected the concepts and assumptions to produce implications.

They also received a homework assignment, the goal of which was to confront them with a work which was poor on all three domains and let them get some practice making an effort to improve the conceptualization, assumptions and logic.  I instructed them to read the first three chapters of Neustadt’s (1991) Presidential Power and the Modern Presidents: The Politics of Leadership from Roosevelt to Reagan, and then”reconceptualize, and identify the assumptions and arguments needed to establish logically coherent implications” from Neustadt’s effort.


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What is knowing, what is science, what is theory?

This is the third in a series of guest posts by Nate Monroe.

I’ve been under water for a few weeks, and that’s left me five weeks behind in my new blogging enterprise. So, in an effort to get back on track I’m here with an omnibus blog post that covers a bunch of the highlights from those weeks. But you should definitely check out Will’s coverage of Week 2 (Reality, Perception & Human Knowledge), Week 3 (What is Science?), Week 4 (Why Theorize?), and Week 5 (Want Ye Some Building Blocks for Theorizing?), as he gives a much more comprehensive take on what we’re trying to do with each class session.

Week 2

The focus of this week was ontology, but much of the class discussion focused on what it means to “know something” and, once we know what knowing is, how do we know we know? (I know, I know…) To start with, I argued that we should think of “knowing something” in probabilistic terms. That is, a person “knows” something—about the way some process works, some cause and effect relationship exists, some “fact” in the world is—when it’s no longer worth their time and effort getting new information to increase the probability that the “thing” (e.g. process, cause/effect, fact, etc.) works the way they think it works.

Once we had settled on this as a starting point, I argued that a key aspect of knowing, in a scientific sense, has to do with how we can collectively know something. There are two key points about the need for collective knowledge that I emphasized. First, we often have to act together to do things (whether it be building bridges or creating constitutions), and because of this it is very useful if we can agree about when we “know something” collectively. Second, by making knowledge creation and development a collective enterprise, we’ll be able to get around some limitations in biased perception at the individual level.

One consequence of this discussion, and perhaps my most heavily emphasized point, is that consumers of research should be very wary of people who say we should all “know” something simply because they know it through their expertise. As I explained to the class, this does not mean we cannot use “expertise” to build better theories, create better measures, conceive better designs, and so on. I simply warned them that they should be wary of academic snake-oil salesmen who will inevitably cite their own experience and expertise as the reason we should “know” that one theory or another, one implication or another, or one measure or another is in fact “true” or “false.”


Week 3

As Will already outlined in his post, Week 3 tackled the question “what is science?” One of the things the students picked up from the readings and seemed unsettled by is that there is no consensus on what science is either across disciplines or within political science. To their chagrin, I explained to them that I didn’t have a magical answer to this either (and if I did, they should be as suspicious of it as anything the snake-oil salesman above told them). Instead I gave them my own approximate definition along with some basic principles that I argue lead to better knowledge creation for a community of people working on the same basic set of problems. My definition was this: science is a process that allows us to, as efficiently as possible, create useful explanations that are able to serve as the foundation for even better explanations in the future. One of my students, recalling the lessons of the week prior, suggested that an amendment might be in order; a clause that reminds us of the need to “create a process that guards against the limitations of natural human biases and perception.” I accepted the friendly amendment and congratulated her on her sharp thinking.

The key thing I wanted to impart this week was a two prong motivation for thinking of science as a community endeavor. Prong one focuses on the point made in the friendly amendment: the basic ontological problem of individuals trying to “know things” on their own and being constantly fooled by their perceptual limits. Prong two is the more interesting one, I think: for me, the heart of science is the ability to constantly replace our explanations with better explanations.

In the rest of the class session, I tried to foreshadow the way that this would come into play as we work through the more tangible choices that come up throughout the research design process. Consider the need for explicit theory, for example. Articulating a carefully, rigorously, logically constructed theory isn’t particularly important for an individual doing “science” alone on a desert island, but it becomes crucial within a community of scholars all working to explain a particular phenomenon or related set of phenomena by building off of each other’s work. In that environment, explicitly stated theory becomes the anchor point from which better and better knowledge can emerge. Similarly, norms about sharing data and rewards for successful replications are the building blocks of successful science as I have defined it (for the students in the class). In short, thinking about science as a set of rules and norms designed to solve a collective action problem gives us a basis for choosing which version of “the scientific method” we adhere to (or cobble together).

Week 4

One theme that began in week 3 but carried us through week 4 (where the purpose was to explicitly discuss the goal of theorizing) was why deductive validity is so prized (by at least some cross-section of social scientists) in the development of theory. I presented the students with this “goal of theory”: to offer useful causal explanations for stylized facts (or phenomena or puzzles or relationships). So what “qualifies” as a possible explanation of a stylized fact? In other words, how do know that an explanation (i.e. a theory) actually “explains” the pattern we seek to explain? I argue that that deductive validity (either by formal or intersubjective means) is the only way for an explanation to quality; the only way it gets to “compete” to be the currently most useful theory.

For example, say we notice that constitutional systems with bicameral legislatures tend to be slower to change policy (radical, I know). At minimum, any explanation (read: theory) that purports to explain this pattern must be able to plausibly argue that this pattern is a deductively logical expectation of the theory. Say I proposed this explanation: “Dolphins cry to the sun and my foot hurts sometimes. Also, tacos.” That explanation doesn’t qualify, because I cannot derive from it the expectation that bicameral legislatures are slower to change policy. Yes, I realize that my explanation is the extreme end of silly. But consider that it shares a key property with many, many other “explanations” that sound relevant: none of them demonstrably imply the stylized fact they purport to explain. This argument may seem tautological, obvious, or both, but a quick spin through any social science journal will reveal plenty of violations of this basic premise, where the purported explanations for facts do not logically produce these facts as implications.

Next, I spent some time warning students about what theory is not. Diagrams are not theories (though many good theories have accompanying diagrams to help readers follow). Hypotheses are not theories (though many theories produce interesting and testable hypotheses). Literature reviews are not theories (though most theories have assumptions and concepts that are grounded in and motivated by previous literature). Experiments are not theories (rather experiments are analogies to the hypotheses that theories produce). Lists of variables are not theories (I have nothing to add to that). Of course I did my best to offer lots of caveats and nuance, but the reality is that in this class session I was just trying to lay the groundwork for good thought habits. I know they will need to be reminded of these things at least a few dozen more times before it occurs to them on their own; I’ll probably account for the first dozen reminders over the rest of this semester.

We finished that week’s discussion talking about the article “Fuck Nuance,” which I had never read until Will suggested it for the class. First of all, its abstract, which reads in full “Seriously, fuck it,” is by far the best abstract I’ve ever read. But it would be easy to read that and think that the article is devoid of useful content or is a spoof; that couldn’t be more wrong. Instead, its key lesson is perhaps the most sharply insightful critique of one of the most ubiquitous occurrences in political science: the demand for more plausibility, detail, breadth, depth… “nuance” in our theories. As I warned the students, it’ll happen during every workshop Q&A, in every set of written comments, on everything they will ever present.

My main point of emphasis in the discussion was to warn them to not be nuance-seekers. Theories are abstractions; we know for sure that they leave things out. Indeed, they would be useless if they didn’t. Only secondarily did I prepare them for the inevitable day when they’ll be asked to provide more nuance in some theory that they themselves had developed. Rest easy that I didn’t actually tell them to say “fuck nuance” in a Q&A, but I did give them the more cautious suggestion that they [1] show the nuance-seeker that they’re capable of thinking about what a theory that incorporates the requested nuance would look like and [2] gently remind the nuance-seeker that their theory, as is the case with all theories, is meant to be an abstraction from reality.

Week 5

In the fifth week we finally started talking about how to “do” this profession. Here, we focused on “the building blocks of theory,” which broadly consisted of talking about concepts and assumptions. I admit that I had a surprisingly hard time preparing for this discussion, for two reasons.

First, I had never thought as carefully as I should have about concept development, so I was thinking through some of this process for the first time. Luckily, Will is really, really good at it. So, across a couple of conversations with him, I came up with a three-step prescription for helping the students think about concept development:

  1. Develop a denotative definition
  2. Define the dimensional space of the concept
  3. Decide whether each dimension of the concept contains ordinal or continuous values.

On the first step, I argued for appealing to first principles, and staying away from connotative definitions. For the second and third steps, we talked through the basic mechanics of having conceptual values that are both collectively exhaustive and mutually exclusive, and the properties of different categorization types. Along the way, I repeatedly hammered one point: concepts are not measures (I figuratively slapped the hands of almost every student for saying “variable” or some other related term). Concepts are the starting point for developing measures, and the beginning of theory of measurement, but they are not measures.

Second, in the run up to class, I had a very strange realization: I don’t know what an assumption is. Or, to put it more precisely, I don’t have a rule for what differentiates it from other parts of theory, like concepts and actors. And, in fact, I wasn’t/am not sure if there is any difference. Are all parts of theory assumptions or do assumptions in fact have their own character? I asked some of my colleagues, including Will, and no obvious answer emerged. Perhaps one of you readers can weigh in in the comments.

I confessed this to the students right off, but as to not send them spinning into theoretical space, I gave them a rough attempt at a definition. An assumption, I told them, is “any part of theory that “identifies which parameters—including actors and concepts—matter, and how they relate to one another in the theory.” This explanation is far from satisfying; at best, I’m willing to say I think it’s probably partially correct.

Another assumption-related stumbling block of slightly less troubling proportion was my attempt to confront “unstated assumptions.” That is: in every theory—including formal theories—some assumptions are left unstated. For example, two game theorists constructing proofs for the same model might not produce identical sets of “assumptions,” because they might justify the solution concepts differently or because they might have different beliefs about what constitutes common knowledge among their readers. Similarly, to generate purely verbal—but intentionally deductively valid—hypothetical derivations, two authors might choose a different set of stated “simplifying assumptions.” Is there some rule or principle that informs this choice? I didn’t have one. So, again, I gave them the best advice I could come up with: since ultimately, their job is to come up with theories that are useful to some set of people, and since intersubjective agreement is the heart of deductive validity, I told them they needed to always keep their audience in mind when making these choices. That is, I told them they need exactly as many stated assumptions as would be required to persuade their audience that their theoretical implications necessarily follow from their assumptions.

This doesn’t quite get me all the way caught up, as I’ve already taught weeks six and seven. But since Will hasn’t yet blogged about his experience with those lessons, I’ll leave those topics for my next omnibus post.

Happy sciencing.

— Nate

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“Gracious” v “Sore” Election Losers, US Stylee

My friend, and former colleague at UC, Riverside, Shaun Bowler has a post over at Vox that discusses the important role of concession speeches by losing politicians that affirm the legitimacy of the process.  Adam Przeworski famously put the issue this way.  “Democracy makes winners and losers. Why would the losers choose to comply with the results? The key: democratic institutions help give political actors a

long time horizon. . . They allow them to think about the future rather than being concerned exclusively with present outcomes. . . . Political forces comply with present defeats because they believe that the institutional framework that organizes the democratic competition will permit them to advance their interests in the future (19).

I was unable to find a collection of those speeches by the politicians who lost US Presidential elections, so I cobbled one together, below.

For me this issue highlights the challenge of collapsing parties: Donald Trump is not a career, politician, and he trades on that as a major part of his appeal.  Bernie Sanders is, but has worked outside the two parties in the US.  That Sanders endorsed Clinton after the primary is consistent with his stake in the political system.  That Trump likely will not is consistent with his absence of that stake.  Partisans routinely boo and shout “No!” when their candidate concedes.  Should we expect a non-politician who has won the nomination of a major party to share a career politician’s interests in their political party and act in response to the “long time horizon” (i.e., “behave like a politician”)?  What if that candidate called his campaign a “movement,” and was opposed by large parts of the party whose nomination he had won?

Thinking about the incentives of such a candidate in the context of Przeworski’s thinking puts Mr Trump’s comments about “rigged elections” in a different light than people seem to be discussing it. And it suggests to me that the implosion of the Republican party, and erosion of the Democratic party, are not events to celebrate.

Richard Nixon

U.S. President Richard Nixon at a news conference in Washington, D.C., March 4, 1969. (AP Photo)

2012: Mitt Romney

I have just called President Obama to congratulate him on his victory. His supporters and his campaign also deserve congratulations. His supporters and his campaign also deserve congratulations. I wish all of them well, but particularly the president, the first lady and their daughters. This is a time of great challenges for America, and I pray that the president will be successful in guiding our nation.

2008: John McCain

My friends, we have come to the end of a long journey. The American people have spoken, and they have spoken clearly. A little while ago, I had the honor of calling Sen. Barack Obama  to congratulate him on being elected the next president of the country that we both love.  In a contest as long and difficult as this campaign has been, his success alone commands my respect for his ability and perseverance. But that he managed to do so by inspiring the hopes of so many millions of Americans, who had once wrongly believed that they had little at stake or little influence in the election of an American president, is something I deeply admire and commend him for achieving. This is an historic election, and I recognize the special significance it has for African-Americans and for the special pride that must be theirs tonight. Let there be no reason now for any American to fail to cherish their citizenship in this, the greatest nation on Earth.

2004: John Kerry

Earlier today, I spoke to President Bush and I offered him and Laura our congratulations on their victory. We had a good conversation. And we talked about the danger of division in our country and the need, the desperate need, for unity for finding the common ground, coming together. Today I hope that we can begin the healing. In America it is vital that every vote count and that every vote be counted. But the outcome should be decided by voters, not a protracted legal process. I would not give up this fight if there was a chance that we would prevail. But it is now clear that even when all the provisional ballots are counted, which they will be, there won’t be enough outstanding votes for us to be able to win Ohio. And therefore we cannot win this election.

2000: Al Gore

Just moments ago, I spoke with George W. Bush and congratulated him on becoming the 43rd president of the United States — and I promised him that I wouldn’t call him back this time. I offered to meet with him as soon as possible so that we can start to heal the divisions of the campaign and the contest through which we just passed. Almost a century and a half ago, Senator Stephen Douglas told Abraham Lincoln, who had just defeated him for the presidency, “Partisan feeling must yield to patriotism. I’m with you, Mr. President, and God bless you.” Well, in that same spirit, I say to President-elect Bush that what remains of partisan rancor must now be put aside, and may God bless his stewardship of this country. Neither he nor I anticipated this long and difficult road. Certainly neither of us wanted it to happen. Yet it came, and now it has ended, resolved, as it must be resolved, through the honored institutions of our democracy. Over the library of one of our great law schools is inscribed the motto, “Not under man but under God and law.” That’s the ruling principle of American freedom, the source of our democratic liberties. I’ve tried to make it my guide throughout this contest as it has guided America’s deliberations of all the complex issues of the past five weeks. Now the U.S. Supreme Court has spoken. Let there be no doubt, while I strongly disagree with the court’s decision, I accept it. I accept the finality of this outcome which will be ratified next Monday in the Electoral College. And tonight, for the sake of our unity of the people and the strength of our democracy, I offer my concession. I also accept my responsibility, which I will discharge unconditionally, to honor the new president elect and do everything possible to help him bring Americans together in fulfillment of the great vision that our Declaration of Independence defines and that our Constitution affirms and defends.

1996: Robert Dole

Let me say that I talked to President Clinton. We had a good visit. I congratulated him. And I said. No, no, no. Wait a minute. Wait a minute. I’ve said repeated – I’ve said repeatedly – wait. I’ve said repeatedly – I have said repeatedly in this campaign that the president was my opponent not my enemy. And I wish him well and I pledge my support in whatever advances the cause of a better America, because that’s what the race was about in the first place, a better America as we go into the next century.

1992: George H.W. Bush

Well, here’s the way I see it. Here’s the way we see it and the country should see it — that the people have spoken and we respect the majesty of the democratic system. I just called Governor Clinton over in Little Rock and offered my congratulations. He did run a strong campaign. I wish him well in the White House. And I want the country to know that our entire Administration will work closely with his team to insure the smooth transition of power. There is important work to be done, and America must always come first. So we will get behind this new President and wish him–wish him well. Now I ask that we stand behind our new President and regardless of our differences, all Americans shamed–the–shared the same purpose: To make this, the world’s greatest nation, more safe and more secure and to guarantee every American a shot at the American dream…
I remain absolutely convinced that we are a rising nation. We have been in an extraordinarily difficult period, but do not be deterred, kept away from public service by the smoke and fire of a campaign year or the ugliness of politics. As for me, I plan to get–I’m going to serve and try to find ways to help people.

1988: Michael Dukakis

Just a few minutes ago, I called Vice President Bush and congratulated him on his victory. I want to, and I know I speak for all of you and for all the American people when I say that he will be our President, and we’ll work with him. This nation faces major challenges ahead, and we must work together.

1984: Walter Mondale, Jr.

A few minutes ago I called the President of the United States and congratulated him on his victory for re-election as President of the United States. He has won. We are all Americans.  He is our President, and we honor him tonight. Again tonight, the American people, in town halls, in homes, in fire houses, in libraries, chose the occupant of the most powerful office on earth. Their choice was made peacefully, with dignity and with majesty, and although I would have rather won, tonight we rejoice in our democracy, we rejoice in the freedom of a wonderful people, and we accept their verdict. I thank the people of America for hearing my case. I have traveled this nation, I believe, more than any living American, and wherever I’ve gone, the American people have heard me out. They’ve listened to me. They’ve treated me fairly. They’ve lifted my spirits and they’ve added to my strength, and if there is one thing I’m certain of, it is that this is a magnificent nation, with the finest people on earth.

1980: Jimmy Carter

I promised you, I promised you four years ago that I would never lie to you, so I can’t stand here tonight and say it doesn’t hurt. The people of the United States have made their choice, and of course I accept that decision, but I have to admit not with the same enthusiasm that I accepted the decision four years ago. I might say, I have a deep appreciation of the system, however, that lets people make a free choice about who will lead them for the next four years. About an hour ago, I called Governor Reagan in California, and I told him that I congratulated him for a fine victory. I look forward to working closely with him during the next few weeks. We’ll have a very fine transition period, I told him I wanted the best one in history, and I then sent him this telegram, and I’ll read it to you.

“It’s now apparent that the American people have chosen you as the next president. I congratulate you, and pledge to you our fullest support and cooperation in bringing about an orderly transition of government in the weeks ahead. My best wishes are with you and your family as you undertake the responsibilities that lie before you.”

And I signed it, Jimmy Carter.

1976: Gerald Ford (read by his wife, Bette Ford)

The President asked me to tell you that he telephoned President-elect Carter a short time ago and congratulated him on his victory.

1972: George McGovern

We’re here among friends in South ‘Dakota, where this campaign began almost 22 months ago. We now bring it to an end tonight and have just sent the following telegram to President Nixon:
Congratulations on your victory. I hope that in the next four years you will lead us to a time of peace abroad and justice at home. You have my full support in such efforts. With best wishes to you and your gracious wife, Pat. Sincerely, George McGovern.
The first Presidential concession that I remember hearing was that of Adlai Stevenson in 1952. He recalled the old Lincoln story of the boy who had stubbed his toe in the dark and when the lad was asked how it felt he replied, “Well, it hurts too much to laugh, but I’m too old to cry.” We will shed no tears because all of this effort I am positive will bear fruit for years to come… The Presidency belongs to someone else, but the glory of those devoted working friends and their dedication to the noble ideals of this country sustains us now and it will sustain our country… Now, the question is to what standards does the loyal opposition now rally? We do not rally to the support of policies that we deplore… But we do love this country and we will continue to beckon it to a higher standard. So I ask all of you tonight to stand with your convictions. I ask you not to despair of the political, process of this country, because that process has yielded too much valuable improvement in these past two years. The Democratic party will be a better party because of the reforms that we have carried out. The nation will be better because we never once gave up the long battle to renew its oldest ideals and to redirect its current energies along more humane and hopeful paths. So let us play the proper role of the loyal opposition…

1968: Hubert Humphrey

May I take a moment just to thank you, first of all, for your patience tonight. You have waited a long time, and I have waited an equally long time, and I wanted to take just a moment to come here to express my thanks to all of my many friends, particularly here at home and many that have come from other parts of the Nation for your wonderful support, and to tell you that I feel sufficiently at ease so that I want to get a good night’s rest. Some members of my family have already seen fit to retire in confidence and others have decided to stay up, but we have, as you know, several of the very important States nip and tuck, where the decision, I am sure, will not be known until some time at least late tomorrow, and if you want to stay up and wait for all that, I am all for you. But you have been watching the television and you have been listening to the reports, and I believe that it is fair to say that we have done much better than most observers had thought we would, about as good as I thought we would. Now, there are critical States yet to be heard from. They are not finalized as yet, States such as Ohio, Illinois, and the States such as California, the State of Washington, and, as you know, this is at best, as we put it, a donneybrook. Anything can happen. I understand from what I have been hearing from my friends on the television that it will be some time before we hear from California, and I thought since that was the case, since I just left California last night, that I maybe would retire and let both Hubert Humphrey and California have a night’s rest.

1964: Barry Goldwater

I’ve waited ’til now to make any statement about this elec­tion because I wanted to find out more of the details of the vote—not just the total but the spread of it, what it might portend at this very early date. I know many of you expect­ed me to make some statement last night but I held that off. I sent the President the fol­lowing wire, which I think will be available for you if you don’t have it now:
“To President Lyndon John­son in Johnson City, Tex.
“Congratulations on your victory. I will help you in any way that I can toward achiev­ing a growing and better America and a secure and dig­nified peace. The role of the Republican party will remain in that temper but it also re­mains the party of opposition when opposition is called for. There is much to be done with Vietnam, Cuba, the problem of law and order in this coun­try, and a productive econ­omy. Communism remains our No. 1 obstacle to peace and I know that all Americans will join with you in honest solutions to these problems.”
I have no bitterness, no ran­cor at all. I say to the Presi­dent as a fellow politician that he did a wonderful job. He put together a vote total that’s larger than has ever been gained in this country. However, it’s interesting to me and very surprising to me that the latest figures that I can get do not reach the totals of the 1960 election. I am dis­appointed in this because I thought that the American people would have turned out in greater numbers than they seem to have done… As I said in my wire, any­thing that I can do—and I’m sure that I speak for all Americans—anything that we can do to help the President get along with the solutions to these problems, we’re ready, willing and able to do.

1960: Richard Nixon

As I look at the board here, while there are still some results still to come in, if the present trend continues, Mr. Kennedy, Senator Kennedy, will be the next president of the United States. I want, I want Senator Kennedy to know, and I want all of you to know, that certainly if this trend does continue, and he does become our next president, that he will have my wholehearted support and yours too.

1952: Adlai Stevenson

My fellow citizens have made their choice and selected General Eisenhower and the Republican party as the instrument of their will for the next four years. The people have rendered their verdict, and I gladly accept it… It hurts too much to laugh, but I’m too old to cry. I urge you all to give General Eisenhower the support he will need to carry out the great tasks that lie before him. I pledge him mine. We vote as many, but we pray as one.


Update: Corrected some typos after receiving a Twitter DM noting them [23:52 (GMT -7) 16 Oct 2016].

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