Rationalists imagine life as lightning chess,
each individual respecting well-known rules,
instantly sketching alternative scenariosthat start from possible moves, comparingtheir merits, and choosing the wisest meansto maximize the probability of victory,only to see that the opponent is playingthe selfsame game. In such a caricature,few of us can recognize the improvisationsof our cluttered lives. Are we inadequate?
Let's find a betaphore, a better metaphore,for the expedients by which we rush throughthe traps and troubles of an ordinary day.We resemble kayakers, knowing the long streamin which we ride, more or less, but never surewhen its course will bend, speed up, narrow,or thrust us upon rocks and splintered treessavage storms have hurled into the streambed.
In fast white water we often cannot tellwhether we will founder, flip over, crashinto the bank, or hurtle against obstacleswithin the current. When the river slows,we become sentient driftwood, silently glidingat the pace of swans. Or we dig our paddlesinto the depth - one side, then the otherin order to propel our own course past fish,past tributary brooks, past fields of flowers.
The riverbanks exist, our boat exists, we exist,the current's force exists, the boulders exist,and yet we improvise, combining these elementsin quick inventions, and sometimes run aground.
Still, life as a surging kayak ignores the factthat makes the race worth running: the sociabilitythat ties us to other humans and their poor proxiesdogs, cats, and faded photographs - in strandsof gold, or silk, or steel, or yet barbed wire.
Metaphor gives way to metonymy, for our true modelcould be walking through crowds, alone or in pairs,silent or in earnest conversation, at once scanningfaces and facades, feet moving in two-four beats,signaling our approach with glances and swaggers,knifing between oncomers who seem separate or separable.
We follow those pioneers who find an open pathacross the traffic, follow even when another pathwould be shorter, or faster, or easier on the feet.We spot a penny on the sidewalk, a gown in a window,or a broken hydrant while the interior monologue hums,the exterior dialogue swirls, the frantic tinkeringof every day continues. A cameraman above shoots filmand charts human beings as molecules in a channel,lawfully accelerating and slowing according to density,flowing symmetrically around those talkers who stopprecisely in midpath, walkers miming viscous fluidswhose laws they do not know. Meanwhile we pedestrians
("Domination, Resistance, Compliance... Discourse," Sociological Forum 6(3), p. 602). To which my first reaction was: WTF? Also: is this the only use of a poem to make an argument in sociology or political science? Are there others? (James C. Scott apparently promised a poem in "his next review" of Tilly's work - does anybody know if the promise was kept?).dream, improvise, weave, stumble, curse, above all, hope.
I don't have a lot to say about the quality of the poem - let's say it's better than some, but it's no Dante. (I like the "strands of gold, or silk, or steel, or yet barbed wire" image, for what it's worth - it brings to mind other "strands of gold" images in ancient poetry and nicely reframes them). As for the points Tilly is making - roughly, that most problems of everyday life are computationally intractable, so we "satisfice," and that our intrinsic sociality affects the patterns of social action that we observe - they strike me as unobjectionable in the abstract. But I get the feeling Tilly misunderstands the purpose of models in the social sciences. (I say this with some trepidation - it is far more likely that I am wrong about this than that Tilly misunderstood anything).
As Kevin A. Clarke and David M. Primo have argued in a recent book (and article) models are maps of phenomena. (David Schmidtz has made a similar claim with respect to theories of justice, and I think both draw on the work of the philosopher Ronald Giere). And the most accurate maps are not always the most useful, though it is important that maps be sufficiently similar in some relevant respect to the phenomenon they image for them to be useful. To this I would add that models are also toys ("toy models") and analogies ("metaphors" - Tilly alludes to this in the poem above). They enable certain kinds of rule-constrained "inferential play" (as toys) and disclose or conceal connections to other phenomena (as analogies or metaphors). (They are rhetoric too, qua metaphors, and hence serve persuasive purposes). But let's stick with the map imagery right now. Consider, to use an analogy Clarke and Primo point to, two maps of the London Underground:
|From A Welsh View|
Similarly with social science models: economists and (some) political scientists tend to prefer more "abstracted" maps of particular social contexts (like the first map above), since they tend to use such maps for purposes that would not be served by the more apparently "accurate" models that may be favored by sociologists or anthropologists or (other) political scientists (like the second map below). The major methodological disputes in the social sciences thus tend to be (sometimes covertly) about the legitimacy of the purposes for which these maps are used (and only secondarily about whether any particular map does serve any given purpose, though that sort of debate does happen too).
In the poem above, for example, Tilly seems to be saying that the "chess" map of the rationalists (which would surely include economists) is not a good map for making sense of social action because we are not like that. (It is interesting that Tilly also seems to allude to the physicist's map, which depicts social action on the analogy with fluid dynamics, whose laws the fluid particles do not understand but which also makes no reference to individual psychologies, unlike the economist's map). But the "chess" model - the model of rational agents - is not generally a description of our psychology, though it does describe a psychology that is in some respects similar to our actual psychology and in other respects dissimilar. To the extent that rationalistic models of human life are useful (and they may not be, certainly not for every conceivable explanatory purpose) they are not useful because they describe our psychology accurately (though they will be more useful the more the similarities to our psychology in the model are relevant to the explanatory purposes to which it is put), but because they may provide insight into how human action can aggregate into larger patterns (e.g., how markets can sometimes produce efficient outcomes, or how conventions can be self-enforcing), or make certain kinds of predictions (e.g., about when certain norms break down), or identify potential puzzles about social action, or even simply to point to long-term forces pushing social systems in certain directions rather than others. The resulting picture of human action will tend to look (to the anthropologist or the sociologist) like a stick-figure drawing, but that is precisely the point, at least so long as the stick-figure drawing tells us something about human action that is difficult to see in the hyperrealistic map of the anthropologist or the somewhat broader frame of the sociologist.
Social explanation at its best is the art of selecting the right map for orienting ourselves towards some question. In some cases, that map better be quite detailed; if I am interested in getting a real feel for how people distant from me live, or how they can be motivated to rebel against injustice, I am often better off consulting the anthropologists' map than the economist's map. But in other cases, the thickly descriptive map just gets in the way of the particular type of understanding I may be seeking. Even given a certain kind of question, however, some maps will still be better than others. (Some maps give bad directions, or have inconvenient lacunae). In economics, for example, it seems that maps with explicit microfoundations are worse for predictive or policy purposes than maps without such microfoundations, though "microfounded" maps are not thereby useless. In political science, detailed understanding of the politics of particular countries is not necessarily very useful for predictive purposes, though it is certainly very useful for many other purposes. And further problems arise, of course, because fights about methods are also fights about resources and status. The theoretical pluralism of "multiple maps for multiple purposes" tends to break down when certain mapmakers are marginalized, or when there is a perception that particular kinds of maps are being used for purposes to which they are not well suited while serving to attack the status of makers of alternative maps. Somehow I find it easier to make this point in haiku:
maps are different
but mapmakers are prickly
and love their maps best(Ok, not a very good haiku. I'm sure you can do better.)