THE NATURE OF SOCIAL REALITY
In Ritzer's Toward an Integrated Sociological Paradigm, he attempted to divorce himself from Kuhn in order to show how an integrated paradigm can be developed from the important writings of some particular (exemplar) sociologists. However, this leads to the objection that purely arbitrary classifications may not necessarily add empirical content to a subject. That sociological thought can be divided into micro-subjective, macro-subjective, micro-objective and macro-objective is intuitively obvious, however, if doing so does not illustrate some heretofore unrealized or unrecognized property of social theory then it becomes a mere academic exercise.
But even as we accept this, we must also realize that Ritzer's work is more than an academic exercise, his arbitrary levels, as he applies them, become a powerful mechanisms for discussing the works of sociologists who come from very different schools of thought. He defended his choice in these words. "Remember that those levels do not exist in the real world, all social phenomena gradually blend into each other as part of the larger social continuum. But one must make some artificial and arbitrary differentiations in order to be able to deal with the complexity of social reality." While this is true, and the power of that approach can be seen in Ritzer's work, it is directed toward a study of sociologists and not toward a study of social theory. What I would like to bring out at this time is that because social phenomena are complex, they exhibit properties that are the result of that complexity. Therefore, by applying concepts developed in the study of complex systems toward the identification of natural levels of social reality, we can add empirical content to social theory. First, social reality, as a complex system is structured in hierarchical levels. However, applying the usual analogical examples, atoms-molecules-things, or people-social systems-cultural systems, does not work for the very reasons Ritzer has pointed out. That is, that the line from individual actions to world-systems is an obvious continuum while the systems mentioned have clear hierarchical levels. But, is this strictly true? For example, the inner thoughts of an individual and the social milieu in which they are immersed are clearly as distinct and as autonomous as are atoms and molecules. In fact, we can put it the other way. Examined at the molecular level it turns out that the dividing line between the atom and the molecule is as fuzzy as that between individual actions and social structures.
In fact, one characteristic common to most complex systems is that even though they may be constructed of hierarchical levels, each made up of the level below and going to make up the level above, the demarcation between these levels is clear only with a selected level of magnification. For example there is no question that a pile of connecting rods, pistons, and assorted engine parts are not an engine, nor is their any difficulty in distinguishing them in the final assembly. But what of a "short block", that is, a partially assembled engine normally carried in automotive parts houses, is it an engine? Probably not, but during the assembly of the engine when does it cease to be an assemblage of parts and become something we would classify as an engine? When it is capable of running? This might sound like a good answer except that different engines come equipped with different arbitrary sets of options so that even if two engines had duplicate sets of parts one could be a complete engine while the other might not. Another well-known example is the distribution of vegetation on a mountain side. If you stand away some distance you can see clearly demarcated bands of vegetation depending on elevation. Yet, on the mountain itself there is no such demarcation, just a continuum. In complex systems the demarcation of levels is seldom clear. In fact, when they seem obvious it is only because the point of view where they show up the best happens to coincide with the point of view we usually have.
Returning to our two examples, that is automobile engines and mountain-side vegetation, the first is an example of hierarchical organization, that is levels in which the elements are lower levels systems, and the system itself is an element in a higher level system. The second example is one of parallel interaction. In the first example pistons, connecting rods, and bearings are clearly parts of the engine which is clearly a part of an automobile. In the second example, the elements of the two adjacent levels of vegetation are essentially the same, particularly at the point of demarcation. It is the distribution cf varieties that makes the two levels appear different. At the same time the changes in distribution can be proved to be a continuum by examination on the ground. The appearance of bands of vegetation is caused by the emergent physical properties of the distributions. The appearance of demarcation is a threshold change, the result of an abrupt change in emergent properties brought about by the achievement of a threshold condition in a continuum. All this is simply to show that in complex systems the existence of continuous change does not rule out the existence of either vertically integrated hierarchical levels, or horizontally integrated modal levels.
If we look at Ritzer's micro subjective level we should expect to find the actions that individuals perform in their daily routine but instead we find the set of concepts that various sociologists have developed about these actions. The problem at the individual level is that either individual actions are free or they are predetermined. I don't believe that any social thinker of the past few centuries would hold that they are predetermined, yet we all know that the actions people take are largely the result of their social and cultural environment. One of the questions that has plagued sociologists from the beginning has been whether individual acts determine or are determined by social structures. Those who assume that social actions are determined by social structures usually admit that these are affected, if not ultimately determined by social actions. On the other hand, those who assume that social actions determine social structures inevitable realize that the reverse is also true. Ritzer's categories will not lead to a resolution of that dilemma because the answer lies not in the realm of his categories, but in the relationship between them.
In order to understand why, while Ritzer's micro-subjective and micro-objective levels of reality may be a convenient way to categorize sociologists, it still leads to misleading results when applied to social theory, we need to develop a clear description of objective and subjective reality. Objective reality, as everyone seems to agree, is the world of trees and rocks, the reality our bodies walk around in. It is the natural environment out of which all physical, psychological, and social reality grows. Subjective reality, on the other hand is the model of the world that individual actors carry around inside their heads. It is the reality that they interact directly with. Since the only communications the individual has between his inner subjective reality and the outer objective reality is moment-by-moment and immediate, the relationship between the two realities is determined primarily by the mechanisms the individual has developed to translate from one to the other.
Ritzer's micro-objective reality is the set of overt interactions between human beings, such as the S-R responses of the behaviorist. Since they are the exterior actions of individuals as examined by other individuals, they are considered to be objective. Because they can be identified and measured they are automatically considered proper objects of objective science. However, they are only the outward manifestations of inner or micro- subjective actions, and thus are meaningless except in terms of that micro-subjective reality. The concepts that inhabit Ritzer's, and by extension the sociologists he applies these concepts to, are valid only when it can be assumed that the micro- subjective reality out of which they emerge is constant over the range of objective traits being observed. That means that they are ethno-centric, or more specifically intra-social, that is concepts that can be applied successfully only when it can be ascertained that the social structure can be considered constant. While this may provide some insight into short-range social problems, it appears to be highly suspect for the development of basic social theory.
What this amounts to is that an examination of sociologists according to categories that do not correspond to levels of social reality that do exist objectively, is exceedingly limited, though not without value as Ritzer's work well attests. Beginning with a description of social reality which approaches social action as change in a complex system with dynamic properties that are more or less common to other, preferably simpler, complex systems, we will be building on a substructure of metatheory which is capable of bridging the interlevel interactions that divide contemporary schools of social thought.
For example, the idea of emergence, that is the coming into being of new higher order levels out of existing lower level systems is as old as Sociology itself, being an important element of Simmel's work and a fundamental assumption of Durkheim. However, as long as it has been around, its fundamental mechanisms still remain essentially mysteries, hazy notions assumed but not considered important. But in complexity theory, the concept of emergence takes on a clear and unambiguous meaning with specific and recognizable effects.
The first and most obvious mechanism of emergence is that of temporal succession. An emergent level is one that occurs later than the level from which it emerges. This is particularly troublesome for the functionalist approach to social theory since it is difficult to explain how the mechanisms of the lower level system came about to serve functions determined by a level that came later in time. Time, in fact, is a critical mechanism in the process of emergence. Emergence occurs when the interactions of random arbitrary forces increase the probability of specific interactions over others, a form of positive feedback for arbitrarily selected random forces. It results in an opportunistic choice of equally probable outcomes.
In retrospect we can often identify specific environmental reasons why one outcome survived while others failed. But we can do this only in general terms and only historically. Environmental factors may eliminate some interactions, but they contain no mechanisms for creating new ones. Potentially successful interactions must be part of the available variety. The environment itself presents a highly chaotic face to the interacting lower level elements such that future changes do not necessarily duplicate past performance. As a result a variety of potential mechanisms is a necessary property of surviving systems. Positive feedback from the emerging system primarily determines which interactions will survive. Retrospective examination can never isolate these from the environmental forces which limited the original variety. The point is that the emerging system chooses its own goals as it emerges and constrains those lower level interactions which do not favor those goals.
We run into serious problems when we apply these concepts to our micro-subjective/ micro-objective picture of social reality. All interaction between individuals occurs in that moment-by-moment immediate contact between the micro-subjective inner reality and the objective reality outside. It is, however, translated into meaningful interaction only in the micro-subjective reality. Part of the translation process is the identification of specific physical occurrences that take place in objective reality. When these physical occurrences are recognized as relating in some fashion with extant structures within subjective reality, they modify these structures and thus develop into the elements of emergent change in the micro-subjective reality. Further physical occurrences in micro-objective reality are determined by or translated by this new, modified subjective reality. In this way, the micro-objective that Ritzer, and those exemplars he discusses, recognize emerge from the dynamic interaction between the levels. One can not be discussed in any meaningful way without an understanding of the other.
We can take this a step farther and see that the macro-subjective world must emerge out of the multiple interactions of the micro-subjective. Social forces that interact in such a way that they reinforce themselves do so by constraining those multiple in subjective reality which inhibit those forces and encourage interactions that favor them. Social structures, the macro-objective reality of Ritzer, are outward manifestations of the resulting macro- subjective forces.
These statements do not negate the valuable work of sociologists who work within one of Ritzer's levels of reality. It does suggest that the interaction between these levels is just as important as the scope of the levels themselves, that these inter-level interactions are an essential part of any integrated social theory.