Sunday, October 21, 2018

System effects

Quite a few posts here have focused on the question of emergence in social ontology, the idea that there are causal processes and powers at work at the level of social entities that do not correspond to similar properties at the individual level. Here I want to raise a related question, the notion that an important aspect of the workings of the social world derives from "system effects" of the organizations and institutions through which social life transpires. A system accident or effect is one that derives importantly from the organization and configuration of the system itself, rather than the specific properties of the units.

What are some examples of system effects? Consider these phenomena:
  • Flash crashes in stock markets as a result of automated trading
  • Under-reporting of land values in agrarian fiscal regimes 
  • Grade inflation in elite universities 
  • Increase in product defect frequency following a reduction in inspections 
  • Rising frequency of industrial errors at the end of work shifts 
Here is how Nancy Leveson describes systems causation in Engineering a Safer World: Systems Thinking Applied to Safety:
Safety approaches based on systems theory consider accidents as arising from the interactions among system components and usually do not specify single causal variables or factors. Whereas industrial (occupational) safety models and event chain models focus on unsafe acts or conditions, classic system safety models instead look at what went wrong with the system's operation or organization to allow the accident to take place. (KL 977)
Charles Perrow offers a taxonomy of systems as a hierarchy of composition in Normal Accidents: Living with High-Risk Technologies:
Consider a nuclear plant as the system. A part will be the first level -- say a valve. This is the smallest component of the system that is likely to be identified in analyzing an accident. A functionally related collection of parts, as, for example, those that make up the steam generator, will be called a unit, the second level. An array of units, such as the steam generator and the water return system that includes the condensate polishers and associated motors, pumps, and piping, will make up a subsystem, in this case the secondary cooling system. This is the third level. A nuclear plan has around two dozen subsystems under this rough scheme. They all come together in the fourth level, the nuclear plant or system. Beyond this is the environment. (65)
Large socioeconomic systems like capitalism and collectivized socialism have system effects -- chronic patterns of low productivity and corruption in the latter case, a tendency to inequality and immiseration in the former case. In each case the observed effect is the result of embedded features of property and labor in the two systems that result in specific kinds of outcomes. And an important dimension of social analysis is to uncover the ways in which ordinary actors pursuing ordinary goals within the context of the two systems, lead to quite different outcomes at the level of the "mode of production". And these effects do not depend on there being a distinctive kind of actor in each system; in fact, one could interchange the actors and still find the same macro-level outcomes.

Here is a preliminary effort at a definition for this concept in application to social organizations:
A system effect is an outcome that derives from the embedded characteristics of incentive and opportunity within a social arrangement that lead normal actors to engage in activity leading to the hypothesized aggregate effect.
Once we see what the incentive and opportunity structures are, we can readily see why some fraction of actors modify their behavior in ways that lead to the outcome. In this respect the system is the salient causal factor rather than the specific properties of the actors -- change the system properties and you will change the social outcome.

When we refer to system effects we often have unintended consequences in mind -- unintended both by the individual actors and the architects of the organization or practice. But this is not essential; we can also think of examples of organizational arrangements that were deliberately chosen or designed to bring about the given outcome. In particular, a given system effect may be intended by the designer and unintended by the individual actors. But when the outcomes in question are clearly dysfunctional or "catastrophic", it is natural to assume that they are unintended. (This, however, is one of the specific areas of insight that comes out of the new institutionalism: the dysfunctional outcome may be favorable for some sets of actors even as they are unfavorable for the workings of the system as a whole.)
Another common assumption about system effects is that they are remarkably stable through changes of actors and efforts to reverse the given outcome. In this sense they are thought to be somewhat beyond the control of the individuals who make up the system. The only promising way of undoing the effect is to change the incentives and opportunities that bring it about. But to the extent that a given configuration has emerged along with supporting mechanisms protecting it from deformation, changing the configuration may be frustratingly difficult.

Safety and its converse are often described as system effects. By this is often meant two things. First, there is the important insight that traditional accident analysis favors "unit failure" at the expense of more systemic factors. And second, there is the idea that accidents and failures often result from "tightly linked" features of systems, both social and technical, in which variation in one component of a system can have unexpected consequences for the operation of other components of the system. Charles Perrow describes the topic of loose and tight coupling in social systems in Normal Accidents; 89 ff,)


Fausto Marques Pinheiro Junior said...

The key word in the following paragraph is "normal": "A system effect is an outcome that derives from the embedded characteristics of incentive and opportunity within a social arrangement that lead normal actors to engage in activity leading to the hypothesized aggregate effect". Normal here, for me, should be understood as a statistical property.

The problem of attributing causal effects to structures is the implicit assumption of some set of properties the median actor must have, or at least an vague idea of a probability distribution for these properties (and different forms of organization can be identified with some implicit assumptions about the pattern of political virtue's distribution, for example). If you change some of those key properties about the actors, the causal effect vanishes, which is quite obvious. Small changes could be more or less disruptive depending on the sensitivity of the structure, but if you face a sudden unexpected change of mean behaviour, any structure would be endangered. I would argue that a systematic collapse (such as the Bronze Age Collapse) is exactly this kind of situation.

In a more extreme case, suppose we create a breed of cats as "intelligent"/rational as Homo Sapiens. If we put them on the same social structure as we are, we'd be delusional to think that our social structure would exert the same of even any meaningul impact upon their behaviour. Intelligence in a totally abstract, disembodied, way is quite far from what we know about how organisms behave. So any structure depends on the organisms for which it is designed or from which it has emerged.

If a structure is built upon knowledge of the mean actor, then we musk ask ourselves why is this the case. What I would argue that by organizing our social environment in such and such ways, what we're doing is finding a way to deal with uncertainty about people's behaviour and random events. Nature too has a way to favour means as a criterion of selection. In a way, we're unconscious - albeit quite incompetent - statisticians. So this structural causal effect, I believe, is the outcome of our strategy to deal with uncertainty and complexity of some set of constraints and stimuli upon single organisms and the randomness of their situation. So, if I'm right, it is not a property of reality, it is - as probability itself - a epistemic tool to deal with uncertainty.

Fausto Marques Pinheiro Junior said...

"In this respect the system is the salient causal factor rather than the specific properties of the actors -- change the system properties and you will change the social outcome".

I believe we'd agree that in if you change the structure, the different outcome is caused - proximate or not - by the different responses given by the organisms when submitted to a set of constraints and stimuli (which is regulated by the very function of the organism). This is the case in a ceteris paribus condition. So the question is if there is any benefit in distinguishing between proximate (and more salient) ou ulterior cause, right? Or am I misreading, professor? If it is so, I stand that considering the structural effect thesis as epistemically valuable, while not committing to it ontologically, has the added benefit of keeping with the same explanation (and symmetry) if we had the situation of changing some key aspect of the actors. And while I know that it is harder to see a drastic change in actors than it is to see a drastic change in structure, I would argue that taking into account the structure's dynamicity was a huge leap in contemporary sociology... but the same treatment is urgently needed for the actor, for a lot about this dynamic property of the latter is explainable by the very dynamicity of the former.

Actors, individually and as a species, are continually changing, and this very change is of vital importance to the structure, for each structure depends on the reprodution of some key properties at a percentage of the population in order to keep functioning. And this is not simple, because the constraints and stimuli change the evolutionary strategies and has impact on selection, while, more locally, can change the very key properties it needs to maintain. And while some of those actor's changes are up to now quite slow and predictable, we shouldn't take this for granted or forgot that we're in the dark in some of those matters.

Take, for example, space colonization. If we're able to colonize others planets, the effects of radically different environments could shape future generations quite significantly. And if this example sounds too distant, we have a quite important effect happening as we speak: the decreased rate of testosterone in men and the decrease of sperm count and quality. In a way, I believe that we intuitively know about this centrality of the actors... but the unconscious statitician inside us is very strong too. Here in Brazil, historically, a lot of conservative governments (including the one that will - unfortunately - win next sunday's presidential election) promoted the "whitening" of our population. Most of those conservatives follow this intuition, quite wrongly, arguing that for our State-form to work, our population must be more alike europeans, as "blacks" and "indians" are disruptive due to their lack of working ethics or even aesthetically inferiority (the future vice-president recently told some journalists this... belive it or not). While a lot of people on the Left here bring forth the argument that brazilians won't adapt to "capitalism with asian values" because asians have a lot of discipline and are community-oriented such as the chinese (or so they say...), while brazilians aren't known for these traits. I believe you would find these chinese argument very amusing, professer!

Sorry for the long comment. Your text was an excellent read as always, professor, a