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The Great Leap

Chapter 6

Social Complexity

Looking at the emergence of human social systems, we must first consider the problem of choice and contingency.  In the first place, a truly contingent event takes place whenever there are among the possible outcomes, two or more which have equal probabilities of occurring. There is no need for an external force to cause one outcome rather than another, for if only one of the equally probable outcomes is possible, then the choice can just as well be made by pure chance. Another case is when the chance occurrence of an unrelated event modifies the probabilities that such a specific outcome Is chosen. In both of these cases we can say that an uncontrolled choice has been made. Neither case represents an example of a determined outcome since even knowing all of the relevant facts does not lead to a faithful prediction of the outcome. The chance occurrence of an unrelated event Is not a relevant fact.

The difference between these cases is a matter of control. Given a contingent event in an environment with a great deal of variety, the outcome is self-controlled when the choice from among probabilities is determined by forces within the system Involved. It is an externally controlled event if the choice is determined by events external to the system. Thus in order for a system to be self-controlled It must contain within Its own repertoire at least as much variety as there is in that part of the environment which it must normally face. This, of course, is a restatement of Ashby's law of requisite variety

The problem of choice, however, cannot be described in terms of Simon's description of complexity because it is a view from the inside out. Robert Rosen has developed a picture of complex systems as they might be seen from the outside looking in. As he explained it, a system is "complex" if we can interact with it at several different levels. When we analyze any complex system we use a set of measuring instruments. Different sets of instruments will give different partial descriptions of the system. The difference between the system as described by one set of instruments and as it exists in reality is called "error." The descriptions given by different sets of measuring instruments are called "relative descriptions." Because, as we have seen from Simon's description, each level in a complex system has a certain amount of autonomy, it is not possible to obtain a complete description of a system by concatenating relative descriptions. However the error developed by a set of measuring instruments, also due to the same semi-autonomy, may not be significant for the purposes we have in mind. The average person, facing a sea of environmental variety, can apply a number of sets of social, political, and ideological instruments to his understanding of his environment and thus will develop a number of differing relative descriptions. This is the source of variety from which conscious choosing is made. Among the mechanisms available to human beings for the development of relative descriptions of the environment is creative imagination.

A social system emerges from the patterns of interactions among individuals. The effect of the organization is to constrain the available activities to those which are most amenable to the goals of the social system. However, action by individuals is determined by their own interpretation of the system. This is developed from personal self-reflection and therefore will result in relative descriptions which include some error. For example, people recognize as good those activities preferred by the system only if they Identify them with aspects of the system which they feel augment its success. In this way, error can be derived both from the use of relative descriptions and from the Influence of one social system on another. This can cause strange Incommensurabilities to arise, for example, when a culture's ideology determines that one choice should be made while at the same time members of the society see, through reflection, that another choice is preferable. Of course individuals are anarchistic to a great extent and have differing ideas about what is to be considered successful. They apply different sets of criteria to the same systems. The more consistent the perceived goals of a system are to the various members, the smaller will be the variety of activities that will be available for the system in its interaction with its environment. The nature of complexity is such that it restricts the amount of variety In the environment that a given system will encounter. It should be obvious, therefore, that there is a great deal of variety existing in the environment that, in the case of environmental change, the system might unexpectedly be forced to overcome. As a result, the greater the variety of activities within the system, the greater chance It has for ultimate survival.

While that may be true, if the assessments of the environment, and by implication those activities chosen by the members of the system, are consistent, then there will be very little variety in the activities of the members. As long as the chosen sets of activities result in outcomes that the members identify with success, then the system will grow stronger and the variety will decrease. As long as the environment does not challenge that variety, the system can remain in a kind of apparent equilibrium, as have many aboriginal societies, for a very long time. This, on the other hand, more often leads the system into real problems when environmental change forces the members to encounter new and novel problems because there will not be sufficient variety, meaning there will not be included in the variety within the system a set of activities which will can successfully confront new and unforeseen events.

This is the nature of social reflexivity. We can speak of an ideal system, one which would constrain the activities of the individuals to those which result in outcomes that are successful in terms the individuals recognize but at the same time would allow sufficient variety that, In the case of environmental change, there would be available activities that could successfully overcome unexpected problems. But we cannot instill Into this system the ability to reflect on and modify its own structure. This is a condition that is only possible when individual members of a social system reflect on and evaluate their own conceptions of the system, their roles in it, and the role the system plays in the life of each individual. Then, using these reflections, choose those activities out of the available variety that augment their own personal evaluation. It is a threshold property that involves people as individuals but does not occur until we reach that level of complexity which includes social systems. This means, for example, that both ideologies and value structures are developed out of the interactions of the individuals who make up the society. Such members may reject responsibility for them and thus be at the mercy of indiscriminate complex forces, or they may build into their ideologies escape clauses such as Marx's view of history, or Smith's theory of an invisible hand, but ultimately, whether through action or inaction, they cannot evade that responsibility or they will reap the consequences of their action.

At this point we need to step back and look from a critical distance at what systems theory in general and complexity theory in particular highlight about social reality that other approaches might overlook. The principle we will examine in this instance is the concept of threshold level. When properties of a continuum change suddenly at a specific point along that continuum, we call that a threshold change. Recent descriptions of threshold change include Herman Haken's Synergetic Systems, Kenneth Wilson's Renormalization Group Theory, and Rene Thom's Catastrophe Theory. Each of these approaches demonstrates one way of describing how sudden and dramatic change can arise out of gradual development through the attainment of a threshold condition.

All three of these approaches begin with the assumption of a system that is far from equilibrium. This is what makes these systems so difficult to analyze in mathematical terms. Compared with the positive and negative feedback forces within the system, the second law of thermodynamics for example, is of minor importance at best. The advantage of a hierarchical constraint is that it makes possible far more variety than simple complex hierarchies. For example, the hierarchical constraints of spelling, syntax, and grammar make possible almost unlimited communication with only twenty-six letters of the alphabet. What we are interested in are the properties which emerge at the level of human social systems. Here there are some very striking differences as we have already noted. For one thing humans do not simply respond to outside forces. They are free to choose alternatives of action including alternatives which may not be the best choices from the view of the upper level (social) system. Self-reflexive systems, or the social variant of Hierarchical constraint, are emergent properties of social interaction. Whether they act to optimize the social system or not depends on how the individual people who form the social system visualize the system because the forces that lead to the emergence and change are derived from the judgment people make of that view. This is what Niklas Luhmann called "reflexivity," or "self-thematization," the reflection by the members of a social system on the structure of the system and the changes that occur in the system as a result of that reflection.

Let us consider the implications of this situation. A social system emerges from the patterns of interaction among individuals. This then tends to constrain those activities to those which are most amenable to the goals of the social system. However, individuals recognize these preferred activities only if they identify them with successful aspects of the system. On the other hand, when a cultures ideology determines that one choice will be made, while at the same time members of the society see, through reflection, that another choice is preferable, then seemed impossibilities arise. Individuals are anarchistic to a great extent and have differing Ideas about what is to be considered successful. They apply different sets of criteria to the same systems. The more consistent the perceived goals of a system are to the various members the smaller will be the variety of activities that will be available for the system in its interaction with its environment. Now, considering that the nature of complexity is such that it restricts the amount of variety in the environment that a given system must encounter, then it should be obvious that there is a great deal of variety that the system might be forced to overcome that it is not aware of. Therefore, the greater the variety of activities within the system, the greater chance it has for ultimate survival.

While that may be true, if the assessments of the environment and, by implication, the choice of activities, chosen by the members of the system are consistent then there will be very little variety in the activities of the members. As long as the chosen sets of activities result in outcomes that the members identify with success then the system will grow stronger and the variety will decrease. This, however, often leads the system into real problems when environmental change forces it to encounter new and novel problems because there will not be sufficient variety, meaning there will not be, included in the variety within the system, a set of activities which can successfully confront new and unforeseen events. The 1980's drought in Africa, particularly in its early stages, illustrates this problem because many societies were faced with a rapidly changing environment without the knowledge within their cultural heritage needed to develop new methods that would be appropriate to their changed conditions.

The failure of world powers in their attempts to force their own ideologies on third world countries is final proof of another property The imposition of outside concepts on an indigenous culture will essentially short-circuit self-reflexivity. The only individuals who can make a social system successful are those who make up the society. It is not that successful systems do not arise from the interference of outside powers, it is just that, to the extent they are successful, they reflect the underlying ideology of the indigenous people.

Only a society in which all of the people identify themselves as contributing members, and are therefore willing to accept responsibility for the societies actions, will have the necessary mechanism of self-reflection to enable them to develop into a fair and just society. Here lies the great advantage of a democratic society. To the extent that the members of a society believe that they have a meaningful impact on political processes, and to that extent only will members of the society feel they are responsible for the impact of the societies laws. Finally, the long-range survivability of a society is directly related to the amount of variety in the form of anarchistically developed worldviews allowed by the society.

This view of complex social systems, partly developed out of the insights of Niklas Luhmann, show us how "Complex Hierarchical Reflexivity," the special reflexive structure of social systems, provides the answer to meeting the contingencies of life in a sea of excess variety. It also points out the dangers in social policies which limit variety or attempt to impose outside ideologies on indigenous cultures. Most important, however, is that it describes the role of self-reflexivity. We live in a contingent universe where the problems we face tomorrow may not be related to the answers of yesterday. The responsible action of an individual in this rapidly changing contingent world must exercise his own critical faculties, must learn to live in what Joseph Agassi calls a "continuing revolution." That means living with a conscious critical attitude toward the very structures upon which we depend for the stability of our world. The answers to tomorrows problems may very well be found in the deepest recesses of that variety we are willing to allow within our cultural heritage. The solutions to unexpected contingencies will only be found by searching in unfamiliar places