domingo, 1 de julio de 2012

Cortito 6 "Sticky struggles… perennial networks in process"

Rytina’s approach to social stratification is audaciously provocative both theoretically and methodologically. And to be provocative in a realm where class and status analyses have colonized and reified the understanding of (occupational) stability and mobility is truly an important achievement. If provocation can be understood in a continuum, whereby one pole represents dullness and at the other extreme brightness, Rytina’s proposal can be located at the latter pole. The path to understand his main positions, however, can be intense since it demands a high deal of attention. Rytina’s bet is indeed risky because the reader can easily lose focus and start navigating towards other branches of sociological inquiry which are subtly developed in his program of social stratification. Make no mistake, from this risk I see the main strength of Rytina’s proposal. Readers, researchers, and lecturers can take Rytina’s main footpath as a re-conceptualization of what social (reality) is. Behind this pervasive and illusive question a new attempt to understand social reality can be explored regardless of whether his program can be located under the label of social stratification studies. In other words, although Rytina is explicit about how his research program can be a serious alternative to the study of social stratification, this program is not short to this artery of sociology, and therefore, it fulfils two criteria developed by Lakatos (1970): i) theory must provide topics for further research, and ii) “the programme must show usefulness independently of the general framework in which it was created” (Chernilo, 2002:443). Rytina’s program goes solidly towards that direction. Before attempting to point out why, a brief description of his proposal is a must.

Rytina argues that cacophony is a hallmark of social stratification inquiry. (Unless one can read cacophonic musical composition, notice that the word chosen is not necessarily visual but speaks of sounding discrepancies). And this is important because if one would take Abbott’s fractal theory of knowledge’s “development” (Abbott, 2001)—where opposing perspectives of thought and method can actually be regarded as similar since in order to develop their respective programs they rely in contradictions and perpetuate its difference—the contradiction between class and status approaches should be ultimately harmonic. But Rytina illustrates that this development is in fact cacophonic. The only similarity is that “leading contributors to the study of occupational mobility have settled into an ‘agreement to disagree’” (Chapter 2, p.1). However this ‘agreement to disagree’, unlike Abbott’s theory would predict, has only created methodological buildings whereby theoretical questions of social group formations, or the continuity of social patterns have been discarded altogether, and thus room for contradicting or even advancing knowledge has been discontinued. For instance, Rytina, similarly to Bourdieu (Chapter 3:25), uses references of socioeconomic statuses defended by leading scholars such as Featherman and Hauser, as cases of a measuring per measuring impulsivity. One specific quote of these authors denotes an extreme case of a practical solution whose objective seems to be just doing things rather than advancing theoretical knowledge about social stratification reality: “A central assumption underlying this book is that the hierarchies of socioeconomic statuses that differentiate the life chances of adults in America are predetermined (…) [we do not offer and explanation of why socioeconomic] dimensions rather than others have become the major axes of social differentiation” (cited by Rytina, Chapter 2:5). Regarding Erikson and Goldthorpe’s justification of class analysis, Rytina also identifies an impulse for practicality solidified by fiat. “As we sought to make clear our preference for [class rather than prestige or status] is entirely a matter of choosing one conceptualization over another because we believe that, on balance, it is more suited for our purposes” (ibid). This quote illustrates a curl which ultimately immunizes any potential criticism to how the understanding of social stratification could be advanced[1]. In other words, this approach is designed to survive, regardless of potential progressions, and therefore isolates itself from “scientific” interaction. This latter point is important because by definition there is no contradiction and consequently the absence of a fractal, not even a quasi-fractal is possible. Returning to Lakatos, since these research programs do not offer an explicit dialogue among them, it is hard to capture what they are really contributing to the advancement of social stratification program, beyond, of course, the important development of intricate methodologies which only at this point keep locking up their system of inquiry.

A second layer of cacophony is the appealing to normative templates which can help to identify social characteristics which are ultimately regarded as ubiquitously present. Rytina’s analysis of Searle and Stinchcombe illustrate how their respective proposals are cases of cacophony which theoretically echo some of the solutions of why people can be stratified. On the one hand, Searle argues that a claim to a right “rests on audience’s acceptance of that claim” (Rytina, Chapter 2:11), on the other, Stinchcombe points out that the prevalence of authority and property are the notions which can order/organize individuals. However, according to Rytina, both solutions are far from reaching principles of universality and therefore subject to cacophony. These solutions however are appropriate to capture regularities.

The latter analysis creates the conditions to introduce several concepts which will edify the process of social stratification that ultimately can transcend cacophony, Rytina suggests. Firstly, the insertion of the goo’s metaphor allows Rytina to visually understand that people essentially can be (inevitably) close to each other. However, a distinction is important. While people can be together in different both settings and times that does not mean, by definition, that everyone is close to each other neither physically nor biographically (by the latter I mean that biographies carry common patterns of interaction, which are not fully exchangeable). This epoxy, on the other hand, comes with two very important concepts of his theory, i.e. inertia and persistence. Behind both concepts one could argue that the common denominator is force, however, what really binds them, I think, is ‘time’. Both concepts also are very effective in illuminating the notion of (social) structure. In other words “goo” is what binds individuals among each other, I would even dare to say that “goo” also bonds individuals to the past. However, and this is the solution against cacophony, what binds network are local rules not universal ones. The price of the quest for universal bonding, as a program strategy, Rytina would argue, ultimately leads any observer to see differences which can only falsify universality, and therefore creates a fertile soil of cacophonies. On the other hand, by “avoid[ing the endorsement of] specific content while embracing an account that accommodates order” (Rytina, Chapter 2:23) the minimalist account of networks emphasizes the importance of local rules rather than Global Rules. Which in other words this means that attention can be moved from the lyrics towards the sound of the social structure.

Since various account of social stratification rely on conceptualizations that trigger cacophony, Rytina’s research program aims at avoiding these potential dissonances. He draws his frame from network imagery. Particularly he advances the Massively Parallel Accumulating Interaction (MPAI) as a centerpiece. Within MPAI three concepts emerge i) sticky networks, ii) divided labor, and iii) exclusive repetitive gatherings. Before mentioning these last three concepts a word on MPAI is worth it a try. Rytina in several passages discusses some Parsonian concepts of system theory—this is the explicit connection of network theory with system theory. However, there is also in Rytina’s proposal an implicit discussion with system theory, or at least with some of the concepts advanced by Luhmann (1996 and 1997).[2] Particularly the MI of the MPAI centerpiece. In Luhmann’s system theory, one can observe that a Massively Interaction effectively occurs. According to Luhmann the “world society has reached a higher level of complexity with higher structural contingencies, more unexpected and unpredictable changes (some people call this ‘chaos’) and, above all, more interlinked dependencies and interdependencies” (Luhmann, 1997:73). It is the interlinked and interdependencies part that is relevant for this discussion; in fact this can be taken as a sign of indeed massive interactions. However, the Parallel Accumulation (PA) elements of the discussion can actually be taken as an advancement of Rytina’s proposal. Or in other words in Luhmann’s discussion PA elements are likely missing. PA evokes a very and powerful image that while (all) the social systems can be potentially interconnected, in fact there are some social subsystems which might not at all be, and therefore the image of interconnectedness fades. A very simple example is the case of the medium ‘truth’ which is utilized by Luhman to characterize the (sub) system of science (Chernilo, 2002:439). Theoretically, one should expect that social stratification theorists, or rather methodologists were ready to introduce appropriate changes once mathematical rules prove the problem of empty cells to be false (or at least misleading). However, since both (local) learning and tradition of social stratification studies depend on its own inertia, characterized by specific school of thoughts (Bottero and Prandy, 2003) which furthermore are separated by a cacophonic hallmark, the interconnection within this social scientific program becomes a chimera. In other words there are PA elements which help to identify local practices of knowledge, because, on the one hand, cacophony impedes the interchange and on the other, cacophony is also a local dynamic which favors the establishment of parallel networks facilitated by accumulated practices.

The development of the last example actually helps to identify the concept of sticky networks. Rytina specifically points out that this concept is made of four concepts which succinctly can be the following: a) accumulative pattern of time of face-to-face interaction; ii) have a sharply skewed frequency; iii) are imperfectly stable; and iv) individual motivation to resist networks’ tears. (Rytina Chapter 3:15). Why are the networks sticky? Rytina explains that these are in function of time, in other words “sticky network records is the heavily biased, strikingly uneven way that people have distributed their interaction across possible partners” (Rytina, Chapter 3:20). Regarding division of labor Rytina argues that this concept while heavily echoes the notion of sticky networks, since repetition and its form of a sharply skewed probability distribution, it is mainly characterized by three variable ‘constraints’: i) most labor is team-work; ii) “decision to initiate inclusion is often poly-lateral” (Rytina, Chapter 3:29); and iii) the operation of the occupation necessarily needs to be learned, regardless of previous positions held. Certainly the slope of the learning curve of the new member will depend on previous experience in the former network. Lastly, Rytina, in a more Goffmanian approximation, introduces the concept of exclusive repetitive gatherings. For Rytina “any gathering is a duration that unites a list of whos and whoms, with due allowance for untimely arrivals or departures, and possible correction for sub-sets that accomplish face to face within larger gatherings. Gatherings are mutually exclusive since no persons can be in more than one at once” (Rytina, Chapter 3:35). Like the other two latter concepts, time, repetition and the skewed probability distribution are the main features of exclusive repetitive gatherings.

Lastly, Rytina develops a set of equations to fit an ideal data set of social stratification. This exercise helps him to advance via five equations his main thesis i.e. the existence of a unique axis whereby the reproduction of inequality can be captured. His solution although self-regarded as paradoxical (Rytina, chapter 5:19), offers a provisional understanding of social stratification i.e extra persisting inequality. Furthermore this concept is theoretically defined as the “totality of circumstances through which rank exhibits persistence and adjacency giving way to distance. Stratification is not restricted to any particular variables, or scheme of variables, and instead is an ongoing synthesis.” (Rytina, chapter 5:23). Within this synthesis the actual actions of individuals is conceived as a permanent characteristic. But these actions while enduring, are also embedded in social networks which carry information on how these actions in very short periods of time are almost identical. The “almost” part is what captures the difference and distance between very close individuals within specific networks but also with those that are very far from each other as the queen and the prostitute.

(Note: You can find his book in the following link

[1] In a similar manner the ‘taboo of the empty cells’ illustrates how a specific statistic standard—which proves to be resolved by a more relax standard provided by Agresti—is reified limiting the analysis of occupational mobility (Rytina, Chapter 2:6-9).
[2] Evidently this interpretation is high risk since Luhmann was a very prolific sociologist and therefore I am not going to be probably fair to his oeuvre. Nevertheless, as it is common with productive authors conflicting interpretations regarding their creations are also very usual, and therefore my interpretation can be of course regarded as vulgar.

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