More on emergence

In previous posts I have referred to the sociologist Norbert Elias who developed his own theory of social processes as ‘blind social forces’:


Again and again, therefore, people stand before the outcome of their own actions like the apprentice magician before the spirits he has conjured up and which, once at large, are no longer in his power. They look with astonishment at the convolutions and formations of the historical flow which they themselves constitute but do not control. (The Society of Individuals, 1991: 62)


I have been developing an argument that the social processes Elias is pointing to come close to what I would understand as emergence. We are part of social processes in which we participate, but over which we exercise only partial control. In pursuing this line of enquiry further I want to draw on an academic who comes at the question of the link between intention and outcome from a completely different perspective, but who seems to me to draw similar conclusions.


Peter Hedström describes himself as an analytical sociologist. That is, he has by his own definition very little patience with theoretical sociology, because it seems to him too ‘imprecise’. He metes out particular criticism for one of my own favourites Pierre Bourdieu for offering explanations of social phenomena that mystify as much as they explain (Dissecting the Social, 2005: 4). Instead he has tried to explain social phenomena by simulating them mathematically using computer generated models. In so doing he is careful to outline the limitations of the particular approach he is taking. Although he feels that his approach offers helpful explanations of how social phenomena arise, he counsels against using them as empirical predictions, or as literal statements about empirical reality. However, in developing computer models to help explain patterns of unemployment among young people in different districts of metropolitan Stockholm, which involves making explicit quite precise assumptions about how people behave and running the simulation thousands of times to observe what happens, Hedström draws some interesting conclusions:


1                    There is no necessary proportionality between the size of a cause and the size of its effect.

2                    The structure of the social interaction is of considerable importance in its own right for the social outcomes that emerge.

3                    The effect a given action has on the social can be highly contingent upon the structural configuration in which the actor is embedded.

4                    Aggregate patterns say very little about the micro-level processes that brought them about. (2005: 99)


It is difficult to disaggregate these observations since Hedström intends them to be taken together, but in analysing the interaction of agents within a network he concludes that small variables can make a big difference to outcomes. While in one situation the actions of X might lead to Y, in another context where the power relationship between X and the network of agents they are related to are slightly different, an entirely different outcome is possible even if the same actions are pursued. Moreover, Hedström also admits that other factors, outside the field of scrutiny, can also have a big impact on outcomes between interactions. Social patterning arises in unpredictable ways even if we can identify many of the important factors, and in addition to this there are other factors that we cannot identify which may also influence the outcome. So rather than being linear and predictable, he concludes that the relationship between the individual and the social, the individual agent and multiple agents, is ‘complex and precarious’ where ‘large scale social phenomena that are observed may simply be due to an uncommon combination of common events and circumstances (Ibid.: 100).


The implications for staff in organisations developing a ‘global’ strategy that is to be taken up in lots of different contexts is that they can expect it to have very different effects in each of the contexts where staff are working. What actually happens as a result of their actions will be entirely dependent on their relationship with other actors in their context, how what they are trying to do is perceived by others, their relative power in relation to others, and their understanding of the strategy they are trying to pursue. There are also factors that Donald Rumsfeld once referred to as unknown unknowns, factors which, no matter how careful our analysis and planning we cannot know, and which may have profound consequences for what it is we are trying to achieve.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s