Saturday, December 15, 2012

New metaphors for the social


The social world is not like the natural world. Nature is composed of things, forces, and geometries that have strong determining regularities whose interactions can be formulated with mathematical precision. There are problems of indeterminacy in physics, of course; but fundamentally we can rely on the material properties of steel, the magnetic properties of the sun, or the curvature of space-time to continue to work as expected. Nature constitutes a system of interactions. And this is because, fundamentally, nature consists of atoms and forces -- as some of the pre-Socratic philosophers thought 2,500 years ago.

The social world is different. It is not a system, but rather a patchwork, a mixture, an ensemble, a Rube Goldberg machine, a collage, or a jumble. Its properties arise from the activities, thoughts, motivations, emotions, and interactions of socially situated persons. Outcomes are influenced by a hodgepodge of obstacles and slopes that crop up more or less randomly -- leading to substantial deviations in the way we might have expected things to work out. Agents are not fully predictable or comprehensible; and their actions and interactions are indeterminate as well. We discover that people usually compare costs and benefits when they make choices, and we invent rational choice theory and microeconomics. But these are simply abstract models of one aspect of human behavior and choice, and it is rare indeed to find large social processes that are governed exclusively by this aspect of agency. We see large, somewhat stable social structures that persist over time -- patterns of habitation and social exchange (cities),  patterns of racial or ethnic discrimination, rising and falling rates of violent crime -- and we believe there are social causes and influences that help to explain these dynamic configurations. But we should never imagine that social outcomes and patterns are the manifestation of an underlying abstract social order, analogous to laws of nature. Social causes are heterogeneous, probabilistic, exception-laden, and inter-connected -- with the result that we can't hope to have a full model of the workings of a social system.

The heterogeneity and contingency associated with the social world suggested by this set of ideas do not imply that social scientific research and knowledge are unattainable. It implies, rather, that we need to understand the limits on representation, abstraction, and prediction that are implied by the fundamental nature of social things.  Our knowledge of any particular snapshot of social reality is inherently partial and incomplete.

A number of sociologists and philosophers have put their fingers on this important problem of social ontology. Here is Bruno Latour in Reassembling the Social: An Introduction to Actor-Network-Theory:
The argument of this book can be stated very simply: when social scientists add the adjective 'social' to some phenomenon, they designate a stabilized state of affairs, a bundle of ties that, later, may be mobilized to account for some other phenomenon. There is nothing wrong with this use of the word as long as it designates what is already assembled together, without making any superfluous assumption about the nature of what is assembled. (1)
Here is Norbert Elias in The Society of Individuals:
 Society is understood either as a mere accumulation, an additive and unstructured collection of many individual people, or as an object existing beyond individuals and incapable of further explanation. In this latter case the words available to us, the concepts which decisively influence the thought and action of people growing up within their sphere, make it appear as if the single human being, labelled the individual, and the plurality of people conceived as society, were two ontologically different entities. (vii)
What kind of formation is it, this "society" that we form together, which has not been intended or planned by any of us, or even all of us together? It only exists because a large number of people exist, it only continues to function because many individual people want and do certain things, yet its structure, its great historical transformations, clearly do not depend on the intentions of particular people. (3)
What we lack -- let us freely admit it -- are conceptual models and an overall vision by which we can make comprehensible in thought what we experience daily in reality, by which we could understand how a large number of individuals form with each other something that is more and other than a collection of separate individuals -- how they form a "society", and how it comes about that this society can change in specific ways, that it has a history which takes a course which has not been intended or planned by any of the individuals making it up. (7)
And now Manuel Delanda in A New Philosophy of Society: Assemblage Theory and Social Complexity:
Is there, for example, such a thing as society as a whole? Is the commitment to assert the existence of such an entity legitimate? And, is denying the reality of such an entity equivalent to a commitment to the existence of only individual persons and their families? The answer to all these questions is a definitive no, but several obstacles must be removed before justifying this negative response. Of all the obstacles standing in the way of an adequate social ontology none is as entrenched as the organismic metaphor. (8)
So we should not think of the social world in analogy with examples drawn from what we know about the natural world.  We should not think of society as a "thing" or a unified system. The ontological properties of the the natural and social realms are substantially different.  This is the primary reason I find some of the basic ideas of assemblage theory appealing: because these theories and theorists deliberately question the naturalistic approach to the social world, and they attempt to advance strikingly different and original concepts for characterizing the social world. They emphasize heterogeneity and composition over uniformity and subsumption.

It is striking to consider the parallel that emerges between this way of thinking about the "social" and some post-Cartesian ways of thinking about the "self". Some philosophers and psychoanalysts have argued that we should question the idea of the unified self that has governed the philosophy of mind since Descartes.  Instead, we should consider the notion that the self is not a unified center of consciousness and will, but rather a loose and contingent collage of psychological, physiological, and neurophysiological processes; that the impression of a unified self is a post-facto illusion; and that acting, thinking individuals are coalitions of a heterogeneous and often conflicting group of cognitive, emotional, and practical processes. These are radical challenges to the rationalist theory of the unified self. And they bear a striking similarity  to the assemblage challenge to the idea of society as a law-governed  structural-functional system.

Here is a word cloud of descriptors that seem accurate in application to the social world.

Readers -- what sociologists or philosophers do you think do a good job of characterizing the nature of the social world? What metaphors and concepts do you find most helpful in thinking about the social world?

19 comments:

Diogo said...

My preferences for possible answers: Searle "The Construction of Social Reality" (2006) and Boltanski and Thévenot (1991) "On Justification".

Daniel Little said...

Thanks, Diogo.

Mike Huben said...

How is the social world not like an ecology?

Anonymous said...

Stefan S has left a new comment on your post "New metaphors for the social":

Carol Rovane, The Bounds of Agency

Daniel Little said...

Mike, that's a good question. Here's part of a reply: in an ecology organisms compete for space, niche, and resourced. Their success is measured by reproductive success. We have one overriding mechanism to work with, natural selection. So even though an ecology is extremely complex with many species interacting, it lacks dimensions of complexity and heterogeneity possessed by a society. Would you disagree?

Steve Bannister said...

Doug Hofstadter, of G.E.B. fame, not a sociologist or philosopher, but a (spiritual) cognitive scientist, wrote the book "I Am a Strange Loop." For me, that remains the single best explanation of how we form as individuals, and how larger groups form (though he focuses on the first).

He explains that our behavior is individually represented by internal symbol networks which are not deterministic, exhibit emergent behavior, and that they are shared with our lovers, loved ones and tribes. And my sense is that they are also, non-deterministically, shared with our larger tribes (nations, for example), usually exhibiting emergent behavior at every higher level of sharing.

howard Berman said...

I am an amateur at sociology; but one thing I recall from the university is that Durkhiem posited social facts to rival physical facts; are you undermining his idea as social facts as copying the physical sciences and characterizing social reality falsely?
Thanks the works cited sound interesting

jed said...

Re Mike Huben and Daniel Little: I would agree with Mike and disagree with Daniel in the following sense:

Natural selection, and the concepts of species, niche, etc. are our constructs to make sense of the complexity of real ecosystems.

Real ecosystems like real societies are heterogeneous and complex. However we have found organizing concepts that give us a rough grasp of the complexity of ecosystems -- only rough because in applying this to any real situation we must deal with a lot of aspects that don't fit into our organizing concepts. But this is even true of physics experiments.

I see no principled reason to believe that we can't find such organizing concepts for social systems. I think there are candidate building blocks around, but we have a way to go before they can be assembled into conceptual structures that are as adequate as models of ecology.

So the reminder that existing proposals are grossly inadequate is good. Studying examples that demonstrate their inadequacy is good. Adopting an ontology that says such the search for such organizing concepts is hopeless is bad.

Walker said...

A very powerful alternative view on this question can be derived from Postone's interpretation of Marx in Time, labor, and social domination. Modern society is a system, but it is a relentlessly differentiating and internally contradictory system, which accounts for the unevenness and inconsistency we see all around us. Postone's work also provides a sophisticated approach to making sense of the seemingly irreducible gap between the individual and society: both sides of the opposition are generated by the structure of modern social life, and the conflict between them is one expression of the insuperable contradiction within modern social forms.

Reading Marx as Postone does, and as his predecessors Lukács, Adorno, or Horkheimer did, opens up a difficult but fascinating, theoretically extremely rich, and to most readers refreshingly novel Marx to grapple with. It displaces forever the vulgar Marx of the Marxists or the bloodless Marx of the sociologists, which is generally the Marx that shows up on this blog.

Tom Hickey said...

My two cents. A "society" is a system comprised of elements, which are individuals, e.g., humans or other primates, bees, ants, etc, arranged in hierarchies of relationships, such as nested sub-systems in complex societies. Individuals may play roles in different groups and thus contribute to the system in diverse ways. In defining a system, the relationships among elements are as significant as the elements, and in a sense even more so than the elements, although in another sense the elements are more intrinsically important, being substantial, e.g., human beings are considered to be "moral" agents. These relationships may be informal, e.g., cultural rituals, or formal, e.g., institutions operating in terms of legally defined rules.

The study of society is a subset of what Ludwig von Bertanalffy called "general system theory," and the method applicable to such study is systems analysis. General system theory is a bridge that brings together system theory, the physical sciences, life science and social sciences in terms of similarities and differences. The social sciences, including economics, have to deal with higher degrees of complexity and emergence than is usual in the other sciences and therefore social science is less precise and amenable to explanation that is predictive in the causal sense.

Some of the difficulties in the study of social systems in particular arise not from the complexity of data but from the methodological assumptions. Methodological assumptions are often connected to ontological, epistemological, and ethics assumptions embedded in an ideology that defines a worldview in Wittgenstein's sense. That is, "reality" is itself a logical construct and different constructs are not only possible but operative in the same society. Thus, the perspective of those studying the society impinges on the study through POV, presumptions, and assumptions.

Anonymous said...

Human society is part of nature, it is not different from nature. It is wrong to say that nature is predictable. Complex systems are not predictable, and nature is made up of complex systems. Just consider how hard it is to make long term weather predictions.

The author is misinformed about nature. It is infinitely more complex than what reductionist science tells us.

The behavior of human societies is unpredictable for the same reason weather is hard to predict. All of nature, including ourselves, is made up of complex systems. The organization of a system is above and beyond the components it is made of.

Howard Johnson said...

How about Bakhtin's dialogic concept of heteroglossia which is applicable to the self as well as language; where the self is made up of a polyphony of many voices from our past experience. In principle I don't separate Bakhtin's concepts from Vygotsky's developmental view of psychology where language and attendant psychological functions are formed through interaction. A Mother and Child interacting is the model for how psychological functions are shaped through dialogue (though Vygotsky did not emphasize that term). Psychology is not all that there is, but it serves to create higher level functioning by which we shape and transcend both our biological and neurological selves.

Anonymous said...

I would add Bernard Lahire's metaphor that the social world (social structures, institutions, groups, fields, worlds, domains, systems, interactions etc.) is like a paper or a piece of cloth (a flat surface) and each individual is comparable to a crumpled sheet of paper or a creased piece of cloth.

Anonymous said...

I guess the idea of a non-self is post-Cartesian in the West.

This idea that the unified self is merely an illusion is a pretty old Buddhist idea (probably one of the oldest Buddhist ideas). When Buddhists claim that there is no self, that's what they mean. There is no unitary self: we just have a cognitive illusion that there is a unitary self.

This cognitive illusion is partly created because we use language to understand reality. We have to use subjects and verbs to communicate, but using language ironically hinders our understanding because there is no unitary subject. (It's also partly created because people want to believe in an eternal soul, but that's a whole another set of discussion. Also Hinduism rejected this theory as heresy so it's probably not going to be a popular thought in the West too.)

That is why you can't use words to explain in Zen and why you should meditate. Because according to Zen Buddhists, meditation leads you to understand viscerally that there is no unitary self.

[Of course I don't meditate, I just read some of the stuff so I could be wrong...]

I find it fascinating that people can get to similar ideas from very different starting points.

Eduado Sciammarella said...

It may inform to discuss Christopher Alexander's theory of "good fit". If you look at people and society as a design problem you will rank three needs high on the list to satisfy. 1. Safety in action and rest 2. Time for Entertainment 3. Access to Resources - The boundary between our context and that of the environment as a function of theses three needs are weighted will unveil many familiar patterns. The resulting topology of theses boundaries we can call history.

Ian said...

You ask what metaphors and concepts do you find most helpful in thinking about the social world?

I would take an inside-out approach to understanding social theory.

1. A person perceives the world through their thinking. Even a person’s identity(ies) a thought-gemerated. A person has the power to think any thought.
2. A person tends to make unconscious sense of “reality” through embodied metaphors (prior to language)
3. A person becomes consciously self-aware of themselves and the reality around them through language, which is fundamentally metaphorical (it carries over meaning). Language surrounds a person like water surrounds a fish, such that we don’t even notice it.
4. A person can construct conceptual metaphors using language (to describe concepts that do not fit in a wheelbarrow)

Thus I would agree with Tom that “social reality” itself is a construct of the mind; “Society” can exist in the mind at multiple levels of granularity and timespans from 2 people to everyone who has ever lived on planet Earth. I would also agree with Anonymous that nature is far more complex that what reductionist science claims, and indeed human society is part of nature.

A person then has a *choice* of point of view given what they want to do next. Perhaps a person wants to simply “make sense” of society; or perhaps “predict” society; or perhaps “influence” society; or perhaps “respond to” society.

Some metaphors that might usefully carry over might include:
- Society is like an organism
- Society is like an ecology
- Society is like a learning brain
- Society is like a mammalian political system
- Society is like a structure
- Society is like a river in flux
- Society is like the ocean currents
- Society is like a garden
- Society is like a machine (non-natural)
- Society is like a probability machine
- Society is like a spiral that cycles back around at higher levels
- Society is like a tribe
- Society is like the weather
- Etc

As Anais Nin said “we don’t see the world as it is, we see the world as we are.”

Ian said...

You ask what metaphors and concepts do you find most helpful in thinking about the social world?

I would take an inside-out approach to understanding social theory.

1. A person perceives the world through their thinking. Even a person’s identity(ies) a thought-gemerated. A person has the power to think any thought.
2. A person tends to make unconscious sense of “reality” through embodied metaphors (prior to language)
3. A person becomes consciously self-aware of themselves and the reality around them through language, which is fundamentally metaphorical (it carries over meaning). Language surrounds a person like water surrounds a fish, such that we don’t even notice it.
4. A person can construct conceptual metaphors using language (to describe concepts that do not fit in a wheelbarrow)

Thus I would agree with Tom that “social reality” itself is a construct of the mind; “Society” can exist in the mind at multiple levels of granularity and timespans from 2 people to everyone who has ever lived on planet Earth. I would also agree with Anonymous that nature is far more complex that what reductionist science claims, and indeed human society is part of nature.

A person then has a *choice* of point of view given what they want to do next. Perhaps a person wants to simply “make sense” of society; or perhaps “predict” society; or perhaps “influence” society; or perhaps “respond to” society.

Some metaphors that might usefully carry over might include:
- Society is like an organism
- Society is like an ecology
- Society is like a learning brain
- Society is like a mammalian political system
- Society is like a structure
- Society is like a river in flux
- Society is like the ocean currents
- Society is like a garden
- Society is like a machine (non-natural)
- Society is like a probability machine
- Society is like a spiral that cycles back around at higher levels
- Society is like a tribe
- Society is like the weather
- Etc

As Anais Nin said “we don’t see the world as it is, we see the world as we are.”

Anonymous said...

You ask what metaphors and concepts do you find most helpful in thinking about the social world?

I would take an inside-out approach to understanding social theory.

1. A person perceives the world through their thinking. Even a person’s identity(ies) a thought-gemerated. A person has the power to think any thought.
2. A person tends to make unconscious sense of “reality” through embodied metaphors (prior to language)
3. A person becomes consciously self-aware of themselves and the reality around them through language, which is fundamentally metaphorical (it carries over meaning). Language surrounds a person like water surrounds a fish, such that we don’t even notice it.
4. A person can construct conceptual metaphors using language (to describe concepts that do not fit in a wheelbarrow)

Thus I would agree with Tom that “social reality” itself is a construct of the mind; “Society” can exist in the mind at multiple levels of granularity and timespans from 2 people to everyone who has ever lived on planet Earth. I would also agree with Anonymous that nature is far more complex that what reductionist science claims, and indeed human society is part of nature.

A person then has a *choice* of point of view given what they want to do next. Perhaps a person wants to simply “make sense” of society; or perhaps “predict” society; or perhaps “influence” society; or perhaps “respond to” society.

Some metaphors that might usefully carry over might include:
- Society is like an organism
- Society is like an ecology
- Society is like a learning brain
- Society is like a mammalian political system
- Society is like a structure
- Society is like a river in flux
- Society is like the ocean currents
- Society is like a garden
- Society is like a machine (non-natural)
- Society is like a probability machine
- Society is like a spiral that cycles back around at higher levels
- Society is like a tribe
- Society is like the weather
- Etc

As Anais Nin said “we don’t see the world as it is, we see the world as we are.”

Daniel Little said...

Yes and no! Of course it's true that there are natural systems that display complexity. That is an interesting fact. (Spin a plate with a marble on the surface; the stopping point for the marble is incalculable.) Ditto weather systems. This is all understood. But social aggregations are incalculable for different reasons! The plate and marble are fully mechanical objects. Unpredictability derives from issues about measurements and the effects of small differences. Human interactions are grounded in the natural body -- of course! But it is fruitless to attempt to reduce behavior to neurons.