Heath on “normative sociology”

Here’s an excellent piece about “normative sociology” by Joseph Heath. Some intro:

The whole “normative sociology” concept has its origins in a joke that Robert Nozick made, in Anarchy, State and Utopia, where he claimed, in an offhand way, that “Normative sociology, the study of what the causes of problems ought to be, greatly fascinates us all”(247). Despite the casual manner in which he made the remark, the observation is an astute one. Often when we study social problems, there is an almost irresistible temptation to study what we would like the cause of those problems to be (for whatever reason), to the neglect of the actual causes. When this goes uncorrected, you can get the phenomenon of “politically correct” explanations for various social problems – where there’s no hard evidence that A actually causes B, but where people, for one reason or another, think that A ought to be the explanation for B. This can lead to a situation in which denying that A is the cause of B becomes morally stigmatized, and so people affirm the connection primarily because they feel obliged to, not because they’ve been persuaded by any evidence.

My favorite part, in the sense that I think this error is particularly harmful to good, useful, helpful social science:

2. Worrying about “blaming the victim.” The most common confusion between the moral and the causal order occurs when people start thinking about responsibility. There is an enormous tendency to think that if person X caused A to occur, then X is responsible for A. As a result, when people don’t want to hold X responsible for A, they feel a powerful impulse to resist any suggestion that X’s choices or actions might have caused A. This is, of course, a confusion, since whether or not X caused A is just a factual question, which doesn’t really decide the question of responsibility. And yet I’ve often heard academics being challenged, after having made an entirely empirical claim about the source of a particular social problem, by people saying “aren’t you just blaming the victim?” One can see here a moral concern intruding where it does not belong. If we follow this line of reasoning, we wind up talking about what we would like the cause of problems to be, rather than what they actually are.

Just to explain this a bit: A causal relationship to an outcome is typically a necessary but not sufficient condition for an attribution of responsibility. That is because of the phenomenon of “too many causes.” If I throw a beer bottle out my window, and it strikes a pedestrian below, it is clear that I have caused an injury to this person. But that person also caused the injury, by deciding to take a walk and to pass by my house at that precise moment. And who knows, many others may have contributed as well, by allowing that person to go for the walk, or by selling me the beer, and so on. Thus the question of who is responsible is really a separate question from the question of causation. So it should be possible to have a conversation about what causes what that is completely separate from the question of who is to blame for what – it is perhaps a prelude to the latter conversation, but definitely concerns that arise in the latter should not be allowed to intrude into the former.

To pick just one obvious example of this, there is an enormous reluctance to believe that underdevelopment could be largely due to domestic conditions within poor countries. There is a pressing need to treat this poverty as some kind of harm inflicted upon the poor by rich countries, or else a consequence of past harms (e.g. a “legacy of colonialism”) — not so much because any of the mechanisms being posited seem all that persuasive, but rather that doing anything other involves “blaming the victim,” or treating the poor as somehow responsible for their condition.

This particular criticism will resonate with anybody who has taught economic development.* Many nations have institutions that are not conducive to economic development. It’s not that they are stupid or ill-intentioned—the institutions must have arisen to solve or mitigate other problems, and they are very costly to change—but these endogenous internal factors do have consequences beyond what they evolved for. It’s not “victim blaming” to acknowledge this. In fact, it’s counterproductive to evade finding these causal relationships if anybody wants conditions to change sooner rather than later.

The entire thing is brilliant and well worth your time.

Via Alex Tabarrok

* That is, anybody who has taught development via economics. I notice there is a mountain of literature out there that treats economic development as something other than an economic issue. This relates to my Calculus of Dissent post on neoliberalism.


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