Category Archives: Norbert Elias

Why appeals to nationalism involve narcissism and provoke runaway feelings, particularly towards non-members of the group – reflections on the referendum via Norbert Elias

I watched some of the final debate over Britain’s referendum to Remain/Leave last night and wondered at the wild clapping and cheering that greeted references to Britain’s putative ‘independence’ if we vote leave. Boris Johnson referred to this coming Friday morning as potentially Britain’s ‘independence day’. The setting was bound to amplify dynamics in a crowd of 6,000 or so people, particularly with a  debate which swtiches between poles. There is no middle position here: Britain will either remain, or leave. A large, public televised space is not a forum which naturally lends itself to nuance or subtle argument. But in thinking about the intense nationalist emotion that this debate stirs up, particularly for Leavers, I was reminded of Norbert Elias’ digression on nationalism set out in the The Germans. Continue reading

Complexity and ideology

If you can prevent yourself following the footnotes to the end of the post, try and guess who offered this critique of scientific method when applied to the social:

“Yet the confidence in the unlimited power of science is only too often based on a false belief that the scientific method consists in the application of a ready-made technique, or in imitating the form rather than the substance of scientific procedure, as if one needed only to follow some cooking recipes to solve all social problems. It sometimes almost seems as if the techniques of science were more easily learnt than the thinking that shows us what the problems are and how to approach them.”[1]

Perhaps this is a quotation from a post-Marxist sociologist, or a post-modern relativist worthy of being mocked by natural scientists such as Alan Sokal?

How about this quotation from the same person on the limitations of modeling social phenomena using statistical methods:

“Statistics of limited use because it proceeds on the basis of reducing complexity: it deliberately ignores the structure into which the individual elements are organized. We can talk in generalities, if, all things being equal, certain patterns will occur. We should have developed beyond the understanding that we are in search of simple regularities which will help us with predicting events. The idea that to be scientific we have to produce laws has proved very harmful.”[2]

Maybe these are the thoughts of a famous social anthropologist or a critical management scholar?

Or lastly, the observations of our eminent mystery guest on social complexity:

“Since a spontaneous order results from the individual elements adapting themselves to circumstances which directly affect only some of them, and which in their totality need not be known by anyone, it may extend to circumstances so complex that no mind can comprehend them all. Consequently, the concept becomes particularly important when we turn from mechanical to such ‘more highly organized’ or essentially complex phenomena as we encounter in the realms of life, mind and society. Here we have to deal with ‘grown’ structures with a degree of complexity which they have assumed, and could assume only because they were produced by spontaneous ordering forces.”[3]

Perhaps this is a contemporary of Norbert Elias, another process sociologist? Or perhaps another pragmatist arguing that ‘mind and culture developed concurrently rather than successively’[4]? Continue reading

Tennis championships as complex responsive processes of stability and change

The Wimbledon grand slam tennis event is a very good example for helping us to think about how we would account for the complex stable instability of social life.[1] It is an event where the dynamic regularities of British social life are reproduced and potentially transformed year after year and where we have an opportunity to reflect upon the interconnectedness of individual and group behaviour. We recognise and might look forward to the event year on year, and partly because there are always differences and novelty. We are reassured by the annual improvisation on traditional themes. The recognisable patterns of tradition and the familiar arise because of a multitude of fluctuating, responsive social relationships dependent on the co-operation between very long chains of interdependent people. Meanwhile the event is predicated on competition and the disciplined channelling of intense emotional and physical drives. Continue reading

Complex, but not quite complex enough II

Evaluation scholars abstract to varying degrees from the social programmes they are invited to evaluate. Perhaps the highest degree of abstraction is demonstrated by those evaluators using experimental methods who are concerned to draw statistical distinctions between a ‘treatment group’ and a comparator group which is randomly selected. Experimentalists are generally disinterested in social theory and think of causality in terms of independent and dependent variables. Meanwhile, adherents of Theories of Change (ToCs) made popular by the Aspen Institute (1997), draw on propositional logic and represent social change in the form of entity-based logic models showing the linear development of social interventions towards their conclusions. Additionally, however, they will often point to the importance of participation and involvement of the target population of programmes to inspire motivation. In this sense TOCs are a hybrid of functionalism and emancipatory social theory, which encourages participants in social programme to be active in the change process.

Less abstract still are ‘realist’ evaluators who claim to be interested in ‘generative’ theories of causality, i.e. ones which open up the ‘black box’ of what people actually do to make social programmes work or not.  Realistic evaluation draws on Bhaskar’s critical realism (1978) as taken up and developed by Pawson and Tilley (1997) and Pawson (2006) and is the theory most often linked to the complexity sciences, particularly complex adaptive systems theory (CAS).  In trying to reconcile realistic evaluation and CAS they adopt a functionalist, systems-based understanding as a default position and argue that interactions between human beings take place as ‘mechanisms’ and have an effect at different ‘levels’ of reality.The conceptual link between  CAS and realistic evaluation is that they both have an understanding that stability and change does not arise because of ‘variables’, the staple of experimental methods, nor does it proceed with propositional logic as in ToC, but as a result of what people are doing in their local interactions with other people. CAS are relational models demonstrating how patterns emerge over time because of ensembles of interacting agents. So from a realistic perspective and in the words of Pawson and Tilley:

Realists do not conceive that programmes ‘work’, rather it is the action of stakeholders that makes them work, and the causal potential of an initiative takes the form of providing reasons and resources to enable programme participants to change. (1997: 215)

So both CAS and realist evaluators are most interested in local interaction as the basis for developing more general observations about the success or otherwise of social interventions. Realistic evaluators argue that interventions do or do not achieve what they set out to because of a combination of context, mechanism and outcomes (CMO). The perspective is concerned with finding what works for whom and in what circumstances and then extrapolating a detailed and evolving explanation to other contexts. In Pawson’s words it is predicated on the ‘steady accretion of explanation’ (2006: 176) about a reality which exists independent of the evaluators who are enquiring into it.  Continue reading

Trends in the management of development

In this post I will continue with the discussion about the particular assumptions which now seem to underpin theories of social development as currently practised by staff in many INGOs. I will also offer some thoughts on the specific configurations that have evolved in the domain of international development between a handful of very large INGOs and others, as well as between INGOs and the state and the public which supports them. In doing so I will be exploring what I consider to be three historical trends which have interwoven to bring about significant changes in the way that staff in INGOs have come to think about their work and how they undertake it. Continue reading

What is practical and useful?

I was working with a group of people the other day who were engaged in a long-term research project. We came together to share ideas, progress and developments from what each of us was doing in our area of research. One of the themes that began to emerge to shape people’s experience of their discussions together was the perceived difference between theory and practice, or theoreticians and practitioners.

Of course there can be no sharp distinction between people who consider themselves to be practitioners and those who would think of themselves as theoreticians. We all sit more or less comfortably with a different amalgam of theory and practice which is more or less explicitly acknowledged. Nonetheless, clear frustration arose between those who wanted to talk ‘practically’, sometimes about how ‘useful’ what they were doing was or was not, and those who took up these ‘practical’ expressions as a way of further theorising. To over-draw the dynamic, those who might predominantly understand themselves to be practitioners were frustrated that we could not be clearer about what we were trying to achieve and how this would be taken up in a practical way by stakeholders, and why theoreticians always seemed to answer a question with another question. While on the other hand, those who might predominantly think of themselves as theoreticians wondered out loud how it was possible to work without a theory of what one was doing, even if mostly implicit, and counselled against the drive in many contemporary organisations to ‘deliver’ things without stopping to question what things and why. Continue reading

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. Continue reading