The predictable unpredictability of social life

One of the enduring characteristics of modern management theory is that it aspires to producing law-like generalisations which are the goal of the natural sciences. It craves predictive power and the legitimacy of the claim to being scientific. For this reason managers are encouraged to adopt tools and techniques, to engage in strategy and project planning, setting targets and evaluating their efforts using methods based on ideas of predictive logic and efficient causality.  Many evaluation methods arise from the same kinds of thinking and are designed to assess the fit between the prediction and the outcome. In other words, much evaluative work is undertaken to test the strength of the predictive theory – it is theory-driven rather than being problem driven, if we take the widest definition of the term ‘problem’ and are not necessarily concerned to problem solve. What happens, then, is that the capacity to predict is elevated as the most important aspect of the manager’s role and the failure to predict as a kind of failure.

In this post I will call into question the idea that social life can ever be predictable by drawing on the ideas of the moral philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre. In a previous post I explored some of the uncertainties of social life identified by the analytic philosopher John Elster. Some of MacIntyre’s ideas overlap with Elster’s, although his writing predates him. MacIntyre’s claim is that the social sciences will never develop the predictive power of the natural sciences because of the unique and anticipative/responsive characteristics of human beings and because of the intervention of fate and contingency in our lives. We make our way together, he argues, in the paradox of predictable unpredictability.

For MacIntyre there are four sources of unpredictability in human affairs. Firstly, he calls into question the idea that humans can ever plan to innovate, a question I posed in a previous post. He argues that any plan to call into being something radically innovative already contains within it the idea of the innovation. He illustrates this by drawing on an analogy offered by Karl Popper. Two Stone Age people are standing together predicting that in ten year’s time someone will invent the wheel. Together they have already just invented it. So the notion of the prediction of some innovation is itself conceptually incoherent. Innovations, he argues are a form of discovery and are a surprise, which is not to argue that they are inexplicable after the fact.

This observation will no doubt be obvious to anyone who has had to apply for funding from a donor for a research and development project which needs to demonstrate in advance that it is going to be original or innovative.

The second area of unpredictability is one which MacIntyre describes as a trivial truth with substantive consequences – that I cannot always predict what I will choose from a variety of options in social life. My inability to predict my own choosing has consequences for others whose choices are to a degree dependent on my own. Even if it could be argued that those close to me might be able to predict my choices better than I could myself, they are in the same position as me: where their own preferences are partially obscured to themselves.

The third area of social unpredictability overlaps with John Elster’s observations, and that is to do with the game-theoretic nature of social life. Despite the original optimism that game theory, based on the idea of rational calculation, could produce rule-like generalisations this has not proved the case in more complex situations of imperfect knowledge. In effect, we have to anticipate the anticipations of others when, as in the last point, we are often unable to predict how we would behave ourselves. MacIntyre observes that the difference between a game modelled on a computer with a determinate set of players and determinate constraints, is that life is open-ended and there may be multiple games being played at the same time.

Fourthly we must acknowledge pure contingency, her argues with illustrations from great events in history. What if Cleopatra had been ugly and Anthony had not fallen in love with her; what if Napoleon had not had a cold at the battle of Waterloo and had not delegated command to Ney. We are all exposed to what Martha Nussbaum has termed the fragility of luck.

Having set out the unpredictability of social life, MacIntyre then turns to the more predictable aspects. The first arises from the necessity in highly interdependent, developed societies, to co-ordinate activities and to have regular routines, from the timetabling necessary to run bus and train services, through to the regularities of what Mead termed the social objects of attending school or universities. Without such regularities social life would break down.

Society also demonstrates statistical regularities, he argues. So we know that suicide rates increase at Christmas, that mental health problems are higher in Ireland than in Denmark, and that homicide rates are higher in the USA than the UK. But these regularities are relatively independent from causal knowledge about why such regularities should exist. Just as unpredictability does not mean we cannot find explanations after the fact, so predictability does not mean that we necessarily know the causes.We also have knowledge of the causal predictability of nature: that snowstorms cause chaos, viruses cause disease and that diet will affect our health chances. The regularity of statistical and natural regularity has a large impact on the making of plans and our ability to make choices between the relative success of one course of action over another.

As we navigate social life, then, we encounter the peculiar ways in which the unpredictable and more predictable aspects of social life interlock and affect each other. We would not achieve very much if we moved aimlessly from one isolated episode of life to another unconnected by what MacIntyre calls threads of large-scale intention to develop and perpetuate human institutions. But our intentions and plans are profoundly affected by the fragility  and contingency of human life. It is necessary for life to have meaning , he argues, for us to engage in long-term projects and to try to render the future predictable. Equally it is necessary for us to be in charge of ourselves and not just to be the objects of other people’s projects. Consequently we are actively engaged in trying to make others predictable to ourselves by developing generalisations to capture their behaviour, whilst we try to make ourselves unpredictable to others by eluding their generalisations of us.

To what degree does MacIntyre think we can we generalise from social life? First of all he thinks that generalisations will never have the law-like predictability of generalisations from the natural sciences. We will always be obliged to limit the scope of what we are claiming since there will always be counter-examples. They will take the form of ‘characteristically, and for the most part…’. Additionally, fate and contingency will always play a strong role in how things will turn out.

If the future is unknowable and if social life arises in the interconnection of the regular and the irregular in our social interactions, then the idea of a predictably efficient and effective organisation is a contradiction in terms. Mapping out the future would imply not just predicting the future but would involve attempts to control it in a totalitarian way, to develop projects which try to overcome the unpredictability of others. And history presents us with a number of examples of precisely this kind of totalitarianism, which was of particular interest to the political theorist Hannah Arendt which I have discussed elsewhere.

What then, is the expertise of the manager, if there are no law-like generalisations to be made about organisational life, and what is the claim to legitimacy? MacIntyre argues that the manager’s claims to expertise are false and that the best manager is the best actor, the one who can appear to others as though they are in control even though they never can be.

Perhaps a manager is someone who is more able to cope with radical uncertainty, who is more observant about the stable instability of organisational life, and who makes plans expecting to be surprised.



4 thoughts on “The predictable unpredictability of social life

  1. Orda

    German sociologist Niklas Luhmann has attributed the fundamental problem of unpredictability to double contingency, i.e. the fact that I have not only to make assumptions about the unpredictable behavior of others, but that I have to make assumptions about assumptions they may make concerning my actions; and vice versa. Social systems, he might go on, evolve routines that reconstitute one system as separate from other systems. Modern management employing various tools and indicators is still a system different from the reality it attempts to manage or steer through. MDGs, results-based management etc. are parcels in the growth of “scientific” management that increase its autism. Selective perception and selective decision-making is using indicators that may be of relevance to an organization or industry but are of little relevance to wider communities. Attempts to manage complexity better by using more complex methodologies (helped by computers) may help where mere complexity is the challenge. It will not help if (double) contingency is the problem.

  2. Pingback: To follow a rule « Reflexivepractice

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