The science of uncertainty III

In the last two posts I have been exploring the work of two scholars who use computer models to simulate complex social reality. I have been making the argument that both would consider themselves to be academics writing in a natural science tradtion, although their interest is in non-linear rather than linear phenomena. Both Allen and Hedström acknowledge the shortcomings of developing computer models as a way of having something to say about human experience. They are precise and generalisable, but they are at the same time abstract and built on some strong assumptions. Neither would claim that a human would ever behave like a programmed agent in a computer model. Nonetheless, I want to argue that some of their observations about uncertainty, the importance of time, paradox, interpretation and the mutually-adaptive behaviour of humans can also be found in the work of the very theoretical sociologist, Pierre Bourdieu, that Hedström in particular has reserved such criticism.

Previously we have explored some of Norbert Elias’ theories about how the interplay of many, many intentions of longer and longer chains of interdependent people bring about social and psychological effects and trends which no-one has planned. These ‘blind social forces’ constantly amaze and frustrate us:

“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.”

Similarly Bourdieu reflected on how it is that we experience continuity and change in our social interactions with others by offering his own definition of habitus, a term also used by Elias. In developing his definition of practice, Bourdieu focuses on the micro-interactions between social actors in a way that reconciles the local and the global and explains the paradoxical relation between individuals and the societies which they form, and which form them. He describes this paradoxical relationship thus:

“In short, the habitus, the product of history, produces individual and collective practices, and hence history, in accordance with the schemes engendered by history. The system of dispositions – a past which survives in the present and tends to perpetuate itself into the future by making itself present in practices structured according to its principles, an internal law relaying the continuous exercise of the law of external necessities (irreducible to immediate conjunctural constraints) – is the principle of continuity and regularity which objectivism discerns in the social world without being able to give them a rational basis. ”

For Bourdieu the individual’s ‘cognitive and motivating structures’ cannot stand outside the objective structures of history which have formed an individual, and yet is also not reducible to them. The subject is not some free-floating essence, but arises out of objective conditions which shape it. And yet the subject still contributes to these objectifying structures through the creative improvisation with others. We are social products of our cultural and contextual history but this does not prevent us from acting spontaneously in our iterative interactions. Our dispositions to behave, think and act in particular ways are embodied: we are not necessarily conscious of them since we are mostly absorbed in the game we are playing with others. There are some obvious parallels here with Mead’s ideas of the generalised other, gesture and response that we investigated in previous posts.

Drawing on his field work analysing the rituals of the Kabyle people in Algeria, Bourdieu concluded that practical judgement occurs with improvisation on and around the habitus:

“…only a virtuoso with perfect command of his ‘art of living’ can play on all the resources inherent in the ambiguities and uncertainties of behaviour and situation in order to produce the actions appropriate to each case, to do that of which people will say “There was nothing else to be done”, and do it the right way.”

Social practice for Bourdieu is ‘the art of the necessary improvisation’, the iterative patterning of mutual adaptation within the constraints of the habitus, which I am claiming as a theory of emergence, when unplanned emergent novelty grounded in paradox arises between social actors. For Bourdieu, as for Mead, this improvisation is never something one can get on top of and master. We become aware of it only through reflexivity, after the event, and is not reducible to if-then causality:

“This paradoxical logic is that of all practice, or rather of all practical sense. Caught up in ‘the matter in hand’, totally present in the present and in the practical functions that it finds there in the form of objective potentialities they contain; it can only discover them by enacting them, unfolding them in time.”

Bourdieu suggests that practice, or the equivalent for Mead would be the cycle of gesture and response, are temporally bound. We cannot be aware of how we will respond until after we have responded, which in turn informs the next response in an endless chain of interactions. It is impossible to identify the genesis in terms of which gesture led to which response. To respond to others is to make evaluative judgements which we are not conscious of in the moment, although they will be informed by past judgements and the habitus in which we find ourselves. Although absolutely any response is impossible, what the actual response will be is unpredictable, even to ourselves. But the making of such judgements, the exercise of value-creation, is what makes us human since it is part of the formation of mind and self-consciousness. Causality becomes a matter of inter-subjective interpretation.

I am bringing in Bourdieu’s theory of habitus to make a parallel with the mathematical models of Allen and Hedström, arguing that it offers a similar interpretation of how individuals are constantly adapting to others in local interaction, within a broader population we call society. Individual activity is possible and intelligible because it is informed by a previous history of activity, while it in turn influences what is currently happening, which we will later interpret as history. Yet further interaction may lead us to reinterpret our history, and so on, and so on. Individual activity is constrained and informed by the activity of others, but there are sufficient ambiguities and possibilities to allow for spontaneous improvisation locally.


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