Punched Out

Assuming I did not botch the task, by the time this posts I will have been dead via suicide for several hours.  Nope, that’s not a setup to a joke.[1]

Why would someone who is healthy, employed, has every outside appearance of success, and so on, take their own life? In my case the answer is simple enough: I was done, but my body wasn’t.  But that answer isn’t satisfying, so, for those who are aggrieved, upset, saddened, etc., let me do my best to try to explain.

And lest you imagine me some sort of sad human whom you should pity, I have never had that view of myself (aside from the occasional pity party, of course).  I did struggle with that self perception on and off as an adolescent and teen.  But since becoming a young adult I came to understand myself as a remarkably privileged human being.

Indeed, I have had nearly every conceivable advantage a human might hope for.  And I lived a rich, rewarding life of which I am, I confess, quite proud.

So, WTF!?!  Right?  Why would someone like that off himself?  Surely he was full of self pity, whining and crying, blah, blah, blah.

Perhaps I have deceived myself and that is the best account.  But it was not my experience.

As one last bit of prologue, I fear this post will be little more than a scattered set of thoughts.  Is there such a thing as a “suicide note” that makes sense to those who valued and loved the one who killed herself?  That seems unlikely. But perhaps some of you who are hurting will find something useful here.

 

chickenmisfit

Misfit

I didn’t “fit” in society.  That isn’t a problem of society.  Setting aside moments of petulance, I viewed it as a plain fact.  There it was.  What to do about it?  Ask society to adapt to me?  Hah!

Being a misfit manifested itself in two broad ways over the course of my life: (1) far too often I angered, insulted, offended and otherwise upset people, without expecting or intending to, and (2) I rarely felt that I was successful explaining my ideas, perceptions, understandings to others.

Yeah, I know: “Cry me a river!”  Nobody “fits.”  Everyone feels like an outsider.  Fair enough.  I am not trying to persuade anyone.  But for those of you interested in why I decided to end my life, it begins there.  This was a lifelong problem, and I while I certainly got better at reducing the frequency of both, daily interactions regularly reinforced each (admittedly, more the latter than the former, which was a blessing).

I began to get a handle on the fact that I experienced life differently than others in second grade.  While I certainly could not understand it as such back then, I basically observed class like an anthropologist might.  There were all these unwritten rules governing my classmates’ behavior, as well as a slew of them that governed my teacher’s interactions with us.  To be sure, our teacher had laid out some formal rules (e.g., don’t speak without raising your hand; line up in single file; sit still; walk on the right side of the hallway).

The formal rules were great: I knew what to do.  To be sure, I didn’t like many of the rules, and I struggled to figure out why some existed (e.g., sit up straight).  But several I could back out (e.g., walk on the right side of the hall).  And even if I could figure out why the rule existed, I knew how to behave: I could choose to obey or transgress the rule.

But the behavior of my fellow students often mystified me.  Why didn’t they pay attention in class?  Why did the teacher have to repeat herself?  How could they not understand that? Why did lessons have to move forward soooooo slowly?

But the real mysteries involved interactions outside of the formal classroom.  Why weren’t my classmates interested in the things I wanted to talk about?  Why did they want to talk about things that I found inane and uninteresting?

You might be surprised to learn that I was among the shortest of my classmates.  I was also horribly slow.  In short, I was a short, skinny boy who found social interactions curious and confusing and spent lots of time “in his head.”  Outside of a formal setting where the rules of behavior were clearly established I was shy.

I would figure out in my late 40s that I am borderline autistic.  Of course, in the late ’60s and early ’70s that wasn’t meaningful.  Had my parents or teachers known, there wouldn’t have been any useful resources for them to have done anything with the knowledge.

On Briggs-Meyer tests I score either INTJ or ENTJ, depending upon how I answer several questions: in a large group where I have no (leadership) role I am introverted.  Hand me a (leadership) role and the size of the group becomes irrelevant: I become extroverted.  In addition, as I become comfortable from repeated interaction in a group I switch from introverted to extroverted (primarily by filling leadership voids).

Both types are apparently unusual, each estimated to comprise around 2% of the population.  So, borderline autistic and I/ENTJ?  Yup: Misfit.

Here’s a quote from a description of INTJ’s that resonates with me.

People with the INTJ personality type take pride in remaining rational and logical at all times, considering honesty and straightforward information to be paramount to euphemisms and platitudes in almost all circumstances

 

Status Seeking Behavior

In Middle School, and especially 8th grade, I began to put together a useful way to understand the mystifying behavior of others.  Humans can usefully be understood as social creatures whom are constantly engaged in enhancing or protecting their rank among their peers.  As a recent post put it, quoting a researcher:

“Social cooperation is our key for survival and reproduction. It is not enough for individual men and women to know the whereabouts of lions and bisons,” he wrote. “It’s much more important for them to know who in their band hates whom, who is sleeping with whom, who is honest and who is a cheat.”

I cannot convey how visceral was my distaste in pursuing such information.  As a social scientist, and a dad who watched his children develop, I came to understand why people do this.  But it remained something I could not stand and actively avoided.

Unsurprisingly, rejecting pursuit of the types of knowledge that are “key,” is not especially healthy.

But this explains why my literary anti-heroes were The Little Boy in Hans Christian Anderson’s The King Who Wore No Clothes, Holden Caufield in Catcher in the Rye, and Yossarian in Catch-22.  I viewed those as one character during three periods of life: as a child (taught to conform), as a teen (struggling to conform, and hoping to save his sister from “growing up” and becoming a “phony” who conformed to social norms), and as an adult (struggling to make sense of a world in which collective action problems, status competition, and social norms create havoc with individuals’ lives).

 

You arrogant prick!

 

Early in life I had to choose between honest arrogance and hypocritical humility. I chose the former and have seen no reason to change. Frank Lloyd Wright.

I heard this quote for the first time just the other day.  And I get it.

The best way for me to articulate why I valued honesty is that it hurt to lie.  White lies (told to spare another’s feelings) hurt.  As Holden Caufield puts it, being “phony” hurt.

And regardless of whether I was correct, I believed I was better than most at some things.  I was certainly worse than others at LOTS of things, and it struck me as appropriate to acknowledge that.

But in some settings it is costly to “put yourself down” in front of others, and in others it isn’t.  What distinguished those settings?  Damned if I knew!  But there are social norms that most human beings intuit / learn well, but I struggled to see / learn.

In some settings it is beneficial to “take credit” or “brag” a bit.  But in others it is costly.  Again, the distinctions were largely lost on me.

 

A Few Minutes Later You’re Laughing Again

Several years ago my brother, father and I were chatting about social interactions, and especially small talk.  We were in a bar and I asked my dad whether he suspected that the myriad conversations going on around us would interest him.  He confessed that he doubted many would.

My brother furrowed his brow and said something to the effect of

What’s the big deal?  People in here are having fun.  Sure, somebody says something that seem boring or irritating or whatever.  But it’s ware off a duck’s back!  A few minutes later you’ll be laughing again.

That really stuck with me.  My brother has mad social skills.  He can walk into any place where people speak English and in a few minutes he’ll be engaged in conversation and having a grand ole time.

I remember looking at him and wondering what it would be like to experience that.  Small talk literally hurt.  I loathed it. Why?  I found it stressful.  Seriously.  It induced stress. And that’s a problem.

Small talk is a hugely important social lubricant. Intellectually I came to understand that.   But emotionally I could not deal.

 

Pissing People Off

I had a relatively high tolerance for conflict.  I did not enjoy it: I found social conflict very stressful.  But I was willing to do it, especially in defense of those I felt were not in a good position to respond for themselves.  So there were numerous times when I angered, upset or offended people and I knew full well that my behavior / comments would do so.

But I was often surprised when someone, or a group of people, responded to me with anger, etc.  Over the years I came to understand myself as adopting a tone that has been described to me by various women in my life as “that tone,” “obnoxious” or “condescending.”

Sometimes I recognized what they were referring to.  But, and this is the difficult part, I very frequently did not.  Indeed, my ex-wife had to put up with more than a decade of me responding very defensively when she would make that observation.

Sadly, it took a comment from a colleague, Shaun Bowler, to help me see that I was, indeed, tone deaf.  “You know you piss people off,” he said, almost off handedly.  He had no incentive to do so, and for that reason it stuck with me.  “I guess I must,” is how I filed it.

Several years later another colleague, Matt Golder, would similarly say to me, roughly, “You really should be more careful with how you say things.”  I honestly did not know what / how I had said whatever it was I said, but I had by then long accepted that I piss people off without being aware that I was likely to do so (i.e., w/o the intention of doing so).

 

I was done

And so the simple way to say it is this: I was done.  I was tired of fighting to try to share my experiences, ideas, and views.  Large portions of my conversations with most everyone contained frustration where I let things go that bug me.

Perhaps that is true for most people.  Perhaps it is part of the human condition.  But I had enough and just wasn’t up for the continued effort.

And I was tired of pissing people off, especially when I did not expect to or mean to.

 

But you have so much to live for

Why not do the things I love? For example, I loved novels, (live and recorded) music, plays, movies, and films. I enjoyed watching ball sports on tv. I loved being out in nature, on a trail or off.

Over the past few years I’ve tried to do that, and while my enthusiasm for those things did not wane, they share something in common: they are consumption. And for some unknown, damnable reason, I could only do so much consumption.  Just doing things I enjoyed consuming was a tried and true path to depression for me.  To feel good about myself–to be able to look myself in the mirror–I needed to produce.

I learned long ago that producing something I found useful / valuable did not mean anyone else would see it as useful / valuable. One must market it: show others it use / value. And that may seem straight forward, but it isn’t.

And there’s the rub: strategic social interactions are front and center in that process.  Or so it seemed to me.  Either way I was just poor at it.

 

 

The Final Outro

For those of you who are aggrieved, upset, etc. with my death, please, to the extent you are able, try not to imagine that I viewed my life as miserable, unhappy, or anything of the sort.  Further, please don’t imagine that I went into some (slow or rapid) decline.  That narrative may describe well the lives of many who chose suicide.  But that was not how I understood my own life and choice.

I first began to weigh the costs and benefits to taking my life when I was a teenager (I suspect, roughly from the time I realized that I could).  Suicide is, of course, a taboo.  And the first rule of taboos is: don’t discuss the taboo!  The second rule is: if you must discuss the taboo, express your opposition and then close the discussion.

So I learned early on not to discuss it.

When I got married I mostly stopped thinking about the suicide option.  When we had children I stopped completely.  It literally just wasn’t an option to me.

And its important to explain that I experienced these as exogenous choices.  I don’t know whether you feel you are able to choose the thoughts that enter your mind, but aside from changing the stimuli (e.g., reading a book, watching a film, engaging in conversation), I did not exercise much control over the thoughts that entered my mind when I was not actively engaged in something.  My mind generated thoughts, seemingly independent of my will.

So, until my children became adults, the suicide option just disappeared.  I was thus surprised when, after my kids became adults, it returned.  But it did.

When I left my ex-wife I was well aware that my time on the planet might be shorter than my body’s life expectancy.  I knew I didn’t want to stay in the marriage, but I was far from confident that I would want to live a solitary life.  And so it has come to pass

In closing, I want to thank each and everyone one of you who interacted with me, in person and/or virtually, and especially those who I interacted with frequently and came to know.  I was fortunate to live a very rich life, and despite my challenges and frustrations, y’all were the reason for it.  Though I chose to exit rather than persist, I have been very privileged, and I thank you for being a part of my life.

 

Live well, and to steal a line from one of my fraternity brothers, “Go hug somebody!”

@WilHMoo

[1] I wrote this post prior to doing so–one can schedule blog posts, and I scheduled this one to post today.

PS: If you are curious about the title, it refers to the time clocks companies used to make workers insert a “punch card” to to establish when they arrived and when they left.

Sheep-Dog-Shift

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Kerfuffle, Human Rights Data Stylee

A post yesterday at openGlobalRights has generated frustration and ire among several of us who work in the data production (and analysis) salt mines.  Lawrence Sáez, a political economist at U London’s SOAS, opined thusly under the headline “Human rights datasets are pointless without methodological rigour.”

In general, I am very supportive of the effort to analyze changes in human rights protections from a cross-national perspective. I believe that dataset initiatives, like CIRI, can help us develop a more nuanced understanding about such trends. However, at present, the CIRI dataset suffers from significant methodological problems that may make it useless for any meaningful statistical analysis.

Pointless?  Useless?  Yup, those be fightin’ words.

Sausage

The hyperbolic tone of Sáez‘s post is unfortunate.  Sure, hyperbole generates clicks, but it also polarizes.  Polarization is fine when one is preaching to the choir and mobilizing one’s side against an opposing side.  While I have no interest in peering into Sáez’s head and backing out his goals, as one who produces and uses the human rights data it is challenging to read his post as something other than an attack.  And the unfortunate part is that all the reasonable/useful points he makes get lost in his presentation.  They further reinforce inaccurate biases that people who neither understand data collection nor believe that data, and especially the statistical analysis of it, can teach us anything useful about human rights.  When one includes phrases like “As a quantitative political scientist…” and concludes that data are pointless and useless, well, you be the judge.

You can’t post that!

Several of my colleagues have posted comments to the post, and Sáez added a response.  I want to call attention to some criticism leveled at oGR for posting the piece.  Amanda Murdie concludes her comment:

It is disappointing to me that a piece like this would be published at OpenGlobalRights.

Chad Clay, who recently contributed a post to the series this one is a part of, wrote:

Overall, this post feels beneath the standard of openGlobalRights. The claims made here would not withstand peer-review at the vast majority of journals, and yet, it was published on this popular website without any real vetting of the information it contains.

Those remarks made me wince a bit.  Why?

As the commenters point out, Sáez is ignorant.  If we set aside his tone, the post is a sophomoric effort to describe problems that definitely do exist in conflict data generally and human rights data specifically.  The problem, from the vantage of experts like myself and my colleagues who commented, is that scholars like Sáez do not avail themselves of the opportunity to move beyond the sophomoric critiques that all of us who use human rights data develop when we first engage such data.

But should we call on a blog like oGR not to publish such posts?  I don’t think so, and have weighed in on that here.  Many of my colleagues will disagree with my view, but it seems to me that we are better off viewing such posts as an indicator of the challenge we face educating our colleagues who do not study human rights data (about which I write below).  I get frustrated by posts like Sáez‘s, but I view them as teaching opportunities.  Calling for censorship strikes me as a bad idea: doing so will drive the ignorant underground and make it easier for us to think we are doing a great job teaching others about how to think profitably about human rights data.  Yes, I very much want people who read oGR to understand what we do, but as I argue below, what we do is complex and technical, and those who are new to the topic–even when they are trained quantitative scientists–will inevitably have reactions akin to those Sáez expressed in his post.

So, yes, Professor Sáez is a quantitative political economist and he has the training and skill needed to use statistics and data to do useful science.  However, like all of us when we first encounter a new topic domain, he has a Pollyannaish expectation of what data collection is likely to look like, and is thus horrified by the apparent compromises made by those who have collected data.  One hopes Professor Sáez would not walk into a chemistry lab working on measurement at the nano scale, and then write an incredulous  blog post about the fantastic assumptions made to assign values to observations, but perhaps he would.  He made that error here, and those of us who see it have a responsibility to point that out.

But I cannot support arguments that a blog post is “below standards” and should not have been posted.  When it comes to peer review publication, yes, that is absolutely correct.  But blog posts are not refereed and it is not reasonable, in my view, to imagine that they might be.

Then there is the issue of hyperbolic critique.

In a post on the issue of “mutual respect” in academic blogging I wrote:

what do you think about professional ethical conduct in the blogosphere?  Quixotically wishing it away is not a conversation that interests me, but I want to encourage you to think about whether the CA problem should be addressed, and if so, how?

My own rule, thus far, has been to permit myself wide latitude when I am posting on my own blog, but limit myself to a more professional (less conversational) and more collegial (less snark) tone when writing on a collective blog.  Is that a good/useful rule?

Of course, we are the norm entrepreneurs of the academic blogosphere.  None of us know what function academic blogging should perform, nor what norms should govern its conduct.  It seems to me it will emerge from practice.  But it also seems to me useful to use this kerfuffle (and others like it) to raise the question and encourage others to weigh in.  What norms do you advocate?

Newbies and human rights data

Let me now return to the issue of researchers familiar with data who have never thought about collecting human rights data.  Happily, there is both blogged discussions and published research that investigate the topic and offer guidance to those who are new.

Back in 2014 I wrote a pair of snarky posts under the title “Two Rubes Walk into a Bar, Order Event Data”  and followed it with another pair of posts I titled “No More Fountains of Youth/Pots of Gold: Conceptualization and Events Data.”[1]  I also co-organized (with Christian Davenport) a pair of meetings on creating conflict data, and in 2015 we released a Creating Conflict Data: Standards & Best Practices document for researchers to follow (link to PDF).

The four posts above, and the standards and best practices document, are too esoteric to be of value to people who do not have basic training in statistics, theorizing in science, and an interest in conflict data.   But they are precisely the sort of thing that someone like Sáez could usefully engage.  He would learn, among other things, that researchers who study human rights and use data have been publishing peer reviewed work on the types of concerns he describes since 1986.

That said, I am but one person who has contributed useful blog posts of these issues!  Happily, Anita Gohdes tweeted a nice dust devil in response to Sáez. and identified several of them (though hardly a comprehensive list).

Gohdes1

Gohdes2

Gohdes3

Gohdes4

Gohdes5

Gohdes6

Gohdes7

Gohdes8

Gohdes9

Gohdes10

Gohdes11

Gohdes12.png

I’m Out

If I can muster the energy and block the time I will draft a specific response to to Sáez to try to find some wheat in his pile o’ chaff.  Don’t hold your breath, but hopefully I’ll follow through.

@WilHMoo

Correction: In the initial post I botched  my capitalization of the acronym for openGlobalRights.  I’ve corrected that, replacing “OgR” with “oGR.”

[1] Not all events data are human rights data, nor are all human rights data events data.  Nevertheless, there is considerable overlap, and the issues I discuss in those posts are relevant for human rights data.

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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.
tosh
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.
#AspieLife
@WilHMoo
[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.

800px-population_registration_certificate_south_africa_1988

Race classification certificate issued in terms of the Population Registration Act

@WilHMoo
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 ancestry.com’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.

 

declaration-of-human-rights-2

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.

FRANCE-MAY1-PROTEST-LABOUR-FN

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!

sweden

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).

goldendawn

Golden Dawn party, Greece.

brexit

Brexit, UK

 

@WilHMoo

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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.

powersof10

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.

scale

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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.

gregorian_year_visualisation-svg

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!

mrbill

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.

@WilHMoo

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.

exemplars

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.

@WilHMoo

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