On the complexity of stability and change

Long before theories of complexity became established in the natural sciences, the sociologist Norbert Elias wrote about social development as the complex evolution of ‘blindly operating’ processes. Greater interdependence in increasingly highly differentiated societies has led to longer and longer chains of people who are functionally interdependent with others. In other words, and without drawing on complex adaptive systems models, Elias noted how we are formed by, and at the same time we are forming the social processes of which we are part. It is not adequate to ascribe social change to the actions of highly charismatic individuals, on the one hand, or to mystical descriptions of emerging ‘wholes’ realising some kind of archetypal order, on the other. Instead, he argues, society evolves through the interweaving of intentions, a patterning which simply produces more patterning. Our plans and strategies form a tissue, an intermeshing web of actions and reactions, which are very difficult to interpret and to predict. There are trends in the patterning of social relations, and these tend in a particular direction. But the direction is not always forwards, and the consequences not always good. Development, or developments, are not always positive but are likely to both create and destroy.He criticises two tendencies in social research which try to understand these developments in the social. The first tendency, which we dealt with to some extent in the last post, is the move to disaggregate social processes into individual components, to atomise, and to assume that change happens in a particular social context at a particular time because rational individuals make changes to their behaviour influenced by variables. Statistical tests are then used to identify the extent to which these variables have influenced average behaviour in comparative groups. The research is carried out with a particular end in mind, that of proving or disproving that that a particular intervention is responsible for measurable changes in behaviour. If there is a statistical difference, then the intervention is deemed to have ‘worked’ and thus to be scalable and replicable elsewhere. This, for Elias, is an inadequate account since it doesn’t take into consideration how the variables are interrelated, by definition has to discount other variables, and assumes that the social evolution is two fixed states interrupted by a period of change. Nor does it take into account much broader social processes and power relationships between communities, between classes, between states and between North and South, if one is considering international development interventions.

Along similar lines a very good account of the inadequacies of statistical techniques to enquire into complex social changes is made by Sanjay Reddy in a review of the Duflo and Banerjee’s book Poor Economics, which you can read here. Reddy argues that by reducing the question of social development in developing countries to a discussion of micro variables is not so much to introduce rigour, but rather rigor mortis. The big questions of political and economic inequality never get addressed with this kind of perspective, he argues, and are replaced instead with what he terms a quietist discussion of the need for small changes in individual behaviour.

Alternatively, the second tendency borrows from the biological sciences, where there is an assumption that social processes are best described as interacting parts within wholes. With this kind of thinking a social intervention is an attempt to bring about wholesale change to the ‘system’ by identifying ‘levers’ to pull, or in some instances these are referred to as ‘mechanisms’. Scientific method is itself differentiated, Elias argues, and the highly processual characteristics of social life need an appropriate method to explore what are clearly dynamic and predictably unpredictable changes and not ones which are imported inappropriately from other sciences. To do so is simply using a mystery to explain a mystery in the case of systems theory.

The reasons we are driven to take up these particular methods for understanding the social world is not necessarily because they are particularly helpful, he argues, but because we are ideologically driven. We find it difficult to understand that our intentions, even those of the most powerful of us, do not always have the outcomes we would like. Our efforts are not directed towards describing and explaining what is actually happening so much as towards making a hopeful and speculative prognosis. So instead we continue to draw upon methods which we convince ourselves demonstrate what we are already looking for.

Both Elias and Bourdieu have drawn attention to the fact that we find it affronting and very difficult to contemplate the idea that we are not in control of our own destinies. Being detached about our involvement in the social would require us to pay attention to both the expected and the unexpected consequences of our plans and actions. This, according to Elias, would be more reality-congruent.

If social development means anything, he argues, it is to do with changes in the nature and character of social relationships of individuals or groups caught up in a figuration of power, a particular pattern of relationships which has evolved over time. More powerful groups do have more power chances, but, as he has observed, it is perfectly possible for these groups to try and enhance their power chances and make them worse, just as it is equally possible for groups of people consciously oriented towards change just to strengthen the tendency of the figuration to remain as it is. To understand more fully the resilience of otherwise of particular figurations of power requires not just paying attention to the new groups or figurations emerging, but noticing at the same time what is happening to the old patterns of interrelating, since the two are always interconnected. The ascendancy of one group is highly likely to be directly related the decline of another. These are not just abstract concepts but real changes in the fortunes and life chances of human beings.

Central to understanding these changes is an appreciation of tensions and conflict, he argues. It is easy to see how the tensions arise between new groups acquiring functions in relation to those groups who are losing them – these tensions form the very kernel of the process of development. They are not a question of personal animosities or the clash of ideologies, although they may also express themselves this way, but are a manifestation of the structural tensions involved in the shift in the balance of power.


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