THRESHOLD CHANGE

More of the insights of Niklas Luhmann could be discussed, but 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. Robert Oldershaw has noted a unique characteristic of the universe itself. When structures in the universe are examined with respect to their rest mass or rest energy, they appear as a set of repetitive hierarchical patterns each displaying self-similarity with all of the others and each clearly demarcated. He described it in these terms:

The most important feature of the pattern is that there are special classes of objects that punctuate the sequence at widely spaced intervals: atomic, stellar, and galactic systems. The most distinguishing characteristic of these special objects is that their masses fall within relatively narrow limits.

This gives us a feeling of one kind of change that results from threshold conditions Considering a continuum from the mass of atomic particles to the mass of the universe, we find that each set of systems, as Oldershaw described them, is clumped around a small band of masses separated by a wider band where no physical object manifests itself. At the same time, his description of the hierarchical structure of the universe follows our description of complex systems in general

If the physical universe was not hierarchical, but rather was one-leveled or totally scale free then any partitioning of the universe would he completely arbitrary. However, the discreet hierarchical nature of the cosmos makes it "nearly decomposable," though nearly must be stressed. We can partition H into galactic, stellar, atomic, etc. but we must never forget that the system is a "part of the whole cloth," IE that no system has an absolute independence from the other systems of H. When we partition H so as to define a particular system, a galaxy for example, what we are implicitly doing is temporarily truncating H at a particular galactic level, identifying a specific system at that level and ignoring all of the higher level systems that encompass the galaxy. The galactic system can be defined as a galaxy which is primarily composed of stellar systems which in turn are composed primarily of atomic systems etc.

Now, if we return to the hierarchical nature of our complex systems which make up the objects on earth, the same kind of effect is noticeable. What we are particularly interested in here, though, is the nature of emergent threshold properties as we increase in levels of complexity rather than levels of mass. The lowest level of complexity, for example, would be where the interactions between elements of simple variety emerge through positive and negative feedback forces into stable patterns. These patterns then have properties that are not related to the properties of the variety that formed to make them up.

One threshold point where considerable research has been done is that level that demarcates living from non-living systems. A set of properties that emerge at this level are called "Hierarchical Control Programs." It is a characteristic of all complex systems that the variety in any level is constrained by the level above to include primarily those that compliment the higher level. In crystal formation, for example, the patterns of the constituent atoms are constrained to those patterns that result in the lowest energy levels. Hierarchical control programs, however, rather than being simply passive constraints, actually test the environment and then constrain the lower level system to optimize it for a specific role. For example, in the development of an organism, each cell plays a role that is specific its particular location within the organism. It accomplishes this because the hierarchical control program located in its genetic material tests its environment to determine exactly where within the organism the cell is located, then it turns on those mechanisms within the cell which are appropriate for the role that cell must play.

The advantage of a hierarchical control program is that it makes possible far more variety than simple complex hierarchies For example, the hierarchical control programs of spelling, syntax, and grammar make possible almost unlimited communication with only twenty six letters of the alphabet. What we are interested in, however, is 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 control programs, 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 judgement people make of that view. This is what Luhmann calls 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, for a moment, 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 strange incommensurabilities arise. A good example is occurring now(1984) in the Soviet Union. The state employs about 90 percent of the people and 97 to 99 per cent of the land in producing and distributing goods, yet villagers selling their foodstuffs grown on their own allocated family plots (which amounts to between 1 and 3 percent of the cultivated land in the country) produce and distribute over a third of the countries food. Because the dominance of one social system, the ideology, restricts the amount of variety allowed in the society, the Soviet Union is a net importer of food when it could easily become a net exporter.

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 unforseen 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.

This is the nature of social reflexivity. The ideal system would constrain the activities of the individuals to those which result in outcomes that are successful in terms the individuals recognize. At the same time it would allow enough variety that in the case of environmental change there would be available activities that could successfully overcome new and unexpected problems. This is a condition that does not happen with simple hierarchical control systems, it is only possible with self-reflexivity, or the ability of the individuals of a social system to reflect on and evaluate both their conception of the system and their role in it and to choose activities from among the available variety according to their own personal evaluation. It is a threshold property that does not occur until we reach that level of complexity which includes social systems. This means, for example, that ideologies or value structures are developed out of the interactions of the individuals who make up the society. Such members may reject that responsibility and thus be at the mercy of indiscriminate complex forces. 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.

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. Every successful social systern has developed from the ground up. The only individuals who can make it a success 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. The limited successes of the planned economies in Hungary and Yugoslavia were directly related to the infusion of local ideas while the problems in Poland and Afghanistan are essentially confrontations between external and internal ideologies

Secondly, 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.

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