Category Archives: paradox

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

Groundless hope

In the recent general election in the UK in May the political discussion sometimes turned on the idea of hope. Each of the political parties was keen to convince the electorate that their particular plan for the UK, their ‘vision’, was the best recipe for hope. They each promised UK citizens a better future (although the vote may have come down to people’s perception of the least worst option). Equally, the current leadership election contest in the Labour Party which has been triggered by the party’s humiliation by the Conservatives, has provoked some jostling amongst the candidates. Each has been arguing that their particular platform offers most hope particularly to the poorest in society who have been most severely hit by government initiatives which target benefits.

To a degree you can see how politicians are caught in something of a double bind. One the one hand if they fail to set out some kind of transformative ‘vision’, a promise of hope, then no-one will follow them (even if it is as simple as ‘yes we can’, or ‘change we can believe in’). On the other hand, and because we have come to distrust politicians with their grand promises, any grand narrative is bound to be met with a sceptical response. Nonetheless, each of the candidates seems to be setting themselves the impossible task of coming up with a ‘clear vision’ for the future. Continue reading

The rational and the irrational in organisational life

I came across two recent stories from organisational life which reminded me of how attempts to rationalise it can often bring about irrational consequences, and how schemes to systematise and order can disrupt even as they try to make things cohere.

One educational institution I know has decided to streamline and control its purchasing with the noble intention of cutting costs. This means that any member of staff wanting to buy something has to fill in a form justifying the purchase and explaining why they are using the particular provider they have chosen. The form designed by purchasing colleagues clearly has in mind those members of staff ordering stationery or perhaps chairs, since there are questions to be answered about which catalogue and which page the item is on, which colour you are ordering, and where you want the item delivered. Be that as it may, all members of staff have to fill in the same form.

In anticipation of next year’s centenary commemoration of the start of WWI staff in the History department encouraged students to undertake a creative project and make a short film about the war. They found a historian locally who had turned his garden into a mock-up of a WWI trench. In return for the use of his facility and in order to maintain it, the man asked for a fee of £500. In order to get the man paid, staff in the History department had to convince purchasing colleagues by filling in the form explaining why they had not used the institution’s ‘preferred suppliers’ of WWI trenches and why they had not sought competitive bids.

In another organisation a recent restructuring was used as a way of both centralising and decentralising control. In terms of centralisation, all financial responsibility was pulled upwards to the rank of directors of departments, so members of staff who previously had had financial responsibility for, say, signing off their teams’ expenses no longer could. And as for decentralisation, colleagues at the newly configured ‘centre’ of the organisation were told that they couldn’t speak to colleagues in the region, because now the organisation was devolved requests for help should come from the periphery to the centre, rather than the other way round. Otherwise it would seem as though the centre was dictating terms to the regions, rather than strategy emerging responsively and ‘bottom up’. Continue reading

Meeting the universe half way

In her book Meeting the Universe Half Way the theoretical physicist Karen Barad (2007) draws on quantum theory and the philosophy of the Nobel prize-winning physicist Nils Bohr, to develop her thinking about the paradoxical relationship between the knower and the known and the sense we can make of the world through our engagement with it. She argues that Bohr’s philosophical reflections on his work in physics provides opportunities for linking the natural and social worlds in the sense that we are part of the natural world we seek to understand. She accepts that both Bohr’s views (he was regarded as too philosophical for a physicist!), and her own interpretation of them are contested, but I will explore them nonetheless because both perspectives are interesting and helpful in the context of the discussion on this blog about systematic ways of comprehending the social. Her ideas are interesting in terms of furthering the discussion about what it means to be scientific. Continue reading

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. Continue reading

Conforming and resisting. Thinking with and within institutions

In her book How Institutions Think (1986) the social anthropologist Mary Douglas, who died in 2007, struggles with the paradox of the individual and the social. On the one hand, she argues, it is unreasonable to assume that institutions can think and act as though they had some group mind and body. These are only figures of speech, shorthand, because only individuals can think and act. But on the other hand, the institutions which we form, with their organised ways of doing things, their procedures, rules and sets of values, are one way of organising to promote specific categories of thought, certain choices, and particular values:

Our social interaction consists very much in telling one another what right thinking is and passing blame on wrong thinking. This is indeed how we build the institutions, squeezing each others’ ideas into a common shape so that we can prove rightness by sheer numbers of independent assent. (1986: 91)

One of the things that she is concerned to do in this book is to illuminate more clearly the ways that individuals come together to shape organisations, and consequently the way that individuals in their turn are shaped by the sustained processes and functioning of institutions. She draws on the work of Ludwik Fleck, who coined the term ‘thought collectives’ to describe the way that particular approaches to science become institutionalised so that it becomes impossible to think or argue in a different way. For a more thorough treatment of Fleck’s thought, see Ralph Stacey’s post here. Similarly, institutions constrain individuals in the way that the price of belonging may rely upon obedience to particular ways of understanding the world.

This brings Mary Douglas hard up against the age-old difficulty for the social scientist: how can we possibly think of ourselves in society except by using the classifications established in our institutions? For Douglas this is a necessary task to secure some degree of autonomy and freedom of thought, because institutional concerns are not necessarily our concerns:

They fix processes that are essentially dynamic, they hide their influence, and they rouse our emotions to a standardised pitch on standardised issues. …For us, the hope of intellectual independence is to resist, and the necessary first step in resistance is to discover how the institutional grip is laid upon the mind. (Ibid: 92)

Intellectual independence, which may take the form of resistance, is particularly important in times of crisis such as we are enduring economically and socially at the moment in the UK and throughout most of Europe, and more broadly and deeply in the less developed world. Things need not be the way they are. Continue reading

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.

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