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Notes on methodological individualism, ontology, and social science theorizing

From Sugden’s JEL review of Epstein’s The Ant Trap (.html):

The current “consensus view” [in philosophy] recognizes a distinction, first proposed by Lukes (1968), between explanatory individualism and ontological individualism. Explanatory individualism maintains that social facts are best explained in terms of facts about individuals and their interactions, while ontological individualism maintains that social facts are exhaustively determined by facts about individuals and their interactions. The consensus view is that explanatory individualism is a contestable claim about the most useful methodology for social science; it might be true that many social facts are best explained individualistically, but there are no good grounds for treating nonindividualistic explanations as unacceptable in principle. In contrast, the consensus view takes ontological individualism to be true—indeed, trivially true, a set of what Lukes (1968, p. 20) called “banal propositions.”

You could take the ontological point further to propose that facts about individuals are exhaustively determined by their finer moving parts (cells, all the way down to atoms), but this does not affect judgments of explanatory individualism. So don’t confuse the ontological point with evaluations of explanatory power.

Epstein thinks that these (and other) considerations do indeed support a ‘maybe, maybe not’ position towards explanatory individualism…. But he challenges the second part of the consensus view, that social properties are nothing over and above the properties of individuals.

Hmmm…so Epstein takes issue with social scientists’ emphasis on methodological individualism.

[Epstein’s] new way of thinking [“social ontology”] begins with the recognition that the actions of groups do not necessarily supervene on [that is, reduce immediately to,] the actions of group members. That allows us to understand that particular kinds of groups (legislatures being an example) can be set up to achieve particular purposes, and that thousands of years of sociality have endowed human beings with strategies for “improving the design of groups, helping to ensure that they accomplish their purposes” (pp. 234–35). In the case of a legislature, the [group-level] factors that can be manipulated [while keeping the individuals constant] include its rules for aggregating votes and the rules by which its members are elected.

Sugden is not convinced, at least not convinced that social scientists’ emphasis on methodological individualism has caused them to overlook such possibilities:

Of course, Epstein is right about this. But if these are new ideas for social ontology, they are not new for social science.

So even if social scientists’ principles are not stated in a complete fashion, it is not clear that there has been an important consequence to that. This leads Sugden to wonder, does progress in social science really require that ontological questions like this are sorted out?

If [a] counterfeit dollar is not detectably different from the real thing, both types of bills will serve interchangeably as a common medium of exchange. A natural way of modeling this scenario—say, as part of an explanation of changes in the general price level in an economy with forgery—would be to use a model in which paper money is a homogeneous commodity, produced both by the Bureau of Engraving and Printing and by the Mafia. In a model of this kind, the concept of “money” does not correspond with…ontological accounts of what money really is [emph. added]. But in deciding to use this modeling strategy, the modeler does not need to engage in ontological analysis of the true nature of money. The rationale for amalgamating the two types of bills into a common category comes from economic reasoning about the properties of trade and from an understanding of what the model is designed to do.

Lies, Dupes, and Shit Tests

Leaders sometimes tell outrageous lies. Maybe they are channeled through “fake news” sites. Of course fake news has been around forever — e.g., we’ve long spoken of “government mouthpieces” and propaganda. How could leaders get away with such lies?

A great read on this is a working paper by Andrew Little: .pdf Here is a summary: .html. Andrew’s theory supposes that some segment of the population are dupes — gullible enough to fall for the lies. Of course if most people are dupes, there is not much of a story to tell (though not to say it isn’t accurate). But the world also contains sophisticates who can see through the lies. The dupes could nonetheless induce sophisticates to express belief in the lie (even if privately the sophisticates think differently). The reason is that the sophisticates share a sense of the need for consensus. So they will go along, not because they believe or even like the lie, but because they would simply prefer to be part of the consensus.

A complementary way to think about this does not require there to be any dupes at all. I call this the “shit test” explanation. Suppose everyone is a sophisticate. But for at least some of these sophisticates, it is important to be in good standing with the leader. Then the leader can say something outrageous, but this serves as a shit test: the leader can use this to check people’s commitment to the leader. If you are truly devoted, you will “swallow the shit.” The more outrageous the lie, the better as a shit test (although maybe the leader cannot push it too far). The way people respond therefore conveys information about whether they are with the leader or not. The leader’s allies might also beat other people over the head with the shit: are you with us or against us? You would expect separation in people’s expressed support for the lie on the basis of their degree of attachment to the leader or the degree to which they feel compelled to go along with the leader’s allies. An implication of the shit test theory is that a mirror phenomenon is also possible: when the leader speaks truths those who are alienated from the leader may have reason to deny those truths.


Election questions

  1. R votes were about what they were in the past. What we really need to know is whether these are almost entirely people who have chosen R in the past. If yes, then the big question for Rs is “why would they accept him?” If it’s lots of new R votes, compensating for lots of Rs who didn’t vote for R again, then the question is “why these new Rs for this election?”

  2. D votes are down relative to the past. What we really need to know is whether this is primarily because lots who voted D in the past either stayed home didn’t vote (whether by choice or because of suppression) or voted third party. If yes, then the big question is “why didn’t they vote for D again?”

  3. If neither of the above accounts for what happened, then the implication is that a non-negligible share of people who had voted D in the past were actually comparing what R and D had to offer, and at least in a select set of districts in a select set of states, chose R. Then the big question is “why would they switch?”

My current belief, based on results (vote shares, vote share swings, and vote totals) and my own understanding about voters, is that 3 is unimportant, asking about the relative appeal of the R vs D candidates is irrelevant, and better understanding would come from examining why Rs do what they do as Rs and Ds as Ds. But my belief about this would change if I saw individual-level survey data or voter file data suggesting that 3 is in fact important.


Notes on trust

Let’s think about trust in the context of the trust game. In the trust game, the first mover has the option to engage in a transaction with a trustee. Specifically, the first mover has the option to transfer resources to the trustee in hopes that the trustee will enhance the value of these resources and then share the surplus back with the first mover. Trust, then, is the first mover’s willingness to engage in the transaction with the trustee. We can use this conceptualization in thinking about trust generally.

We can imagine two different sources of trust:

  1. Trust predicated on the first mover’s beliefs about the trustee’s intentions or motivations—that is, trust based on beliefs about the trustee’s intrinsic motivation to avoid doing harm to the first mover.

  2. Trust predicated on the first mover’s beliefs about whether the trustee is constrained by extrinsic circumstances that affect its ability to hurt the first mover.

The behavioral implications of the two types of trust are the same insofar as each yields the same prediction about whether the first mover would engage in the transaction with the trustee. Moreover measures of “generalized trust” do not distinguish between these two per se (though in principle you could look to see whether such measures correlate more strongly with things that affect intrinsic motivations versus extrinsic circumstances).

Where the difference matters is in thinking about how levels of trust might change and why levels of trust vary.

In terms of measurement, “lab in the field” methods are typically motivated in terms of isolating the first, intrinsic, source of trust. The argument is that “in the lab,” and under conditions of anonymity, there is no scope for punishing the trustee. That being the case, such lab-in-the-field methods are not always what we want. That is, maybe sometimes we want to measure change in terms of the second, extrinsic, basis for trust. Now, we could modify the lab measure such that behavior is not anonymous. That would allow us to get at some of the extrinsic bases, although not necessarily all. My hunch is that most people would think that giving in the non-anonymous set-up would tend to be quite high (I am sure people have examined this, but I don’t have the references at my finger tips). That being the case, it follows that most people must believe that such extrinsic bases for trust are first order important.


Monitoring versus Feedback

Think for a moment about service providers and beneficiaries. The issue is to motivate service providers to do a good job in providing services for beneficiaries. I am thinking about this in the context of development research, and so the focus is often on public service providers. But I think the concerns here could apply to private (whether non-profit or for-profit) actors as well.

Would-be beneficiaries are sometimes called upon to rate the quality of services provided.
At least in development research, beneficiary ratings are often interpreted as “monitoring” in the service of holding service providers accountable. Examples of this include Olken’s study on community monitoring of infrastructure spending, scorecard programs, and other “social accountability” arrangements. (Of course there are also examples that are closer to home, like student evaluations for professors.)

When ratings are used for “monitoring,” they are tied to threats that are meant to keep service providers honest. Maybe the threat is for the ratings to be passed on to higher authorities who have some kind of sanctioning power. Maybe the threat is just some kind of more diffuse social sanction.

But I want to propose that there is another way to view beneficiary ratings: as feedback rather than monitoring. To see what I mean, step outside the realm of development and think instead of things like Amazon seller ratings and Yelp reviews. In these cases, the reviews are not tied to any real sanctioning. Rather, the feedback serves different purposes.

First, it may help the service providers to know what they are doing well and what they are doing poorly. This information can in itself help to improve service delivery.

Second, the ratings can function as a tool that service providers use to win new clients. (E.g., restaurants may like Yelp reviews because when they get good reviews, they have a tool for winning the trust of new patrons.) Of course, the importance of this function will depend on the extent that a service provider benefits from winning the confidence of new people. Not all services would fall into this category but many may. (Indeed these thoughts came about during a discussion of strategies for extending the reach of basic health services via community health workers, where it was important to win the trust of new potential clients.) An institution that ensures that (i) good deeds are recognized and, through their recognition, (ii) allows for ratings to be used to gain new clients, would induce higher quality service provision as well.

This “monitoring” versus “feedback” distinction can have higher order “selection” effects too. You could imagine that the introduction of a punitive monitoring approach may disincline some people from taking up jobs as service providers. By contrast the feedback approach may provide assurance and induce some to take up such jobs. The point is that the manner in which the ratings system is presented and used may affect the types of people who become service providers. (This is a pretty basic adverse selection argument.)