Plasticity of the social

I maintain that virtually all social entities are “plastic”: their properties change significantly over time, as a result of the purposive and unintentional behavior of the socially constructed individuals who make up a society. Organizations, labor unions, universities, churches, and social identities all show a substantial degree of flexibility and fluidity over time, and this fact leads to a substantial degree of heterogeneity among groups of similar social organizations and institutions. This points to a general and important observation about the constitution of the social world: The properties of a social entity or practice can change over time; they are not rigid, fixed, or timeless. They are not bound into consistent and unchanging categories of entities, such as “bureaucratic state,” “Islamic society,” or “leftist labor organization.” Molecules of water preserve their physical characteristics no matter what. But in contrast to natural substances such as gold or water, social things can change their properties indefinitely.

This interpretation interprets “plastic” as the contrary to “static and fixed”. A second way in which an entity might be unchanging is as a dynamic equilibrium. A social structure might be a self-correcting system that restores its equilibrium characteristics in the face of disturbing influences. The temperature in this room is subject to external influences that would result in change; but the thermostat provides cool or warm air as needed to bring the office temperature back to the equilibrium value. When I say that social entities are plastic, I also mean to say that they are not generally determined within a dynamic equilibrium (as sociological functionalism maintains, perhaps), with powerful homeostatic mechanisms that correct for disturbing influences. There is no “essential” form to which the structure tends to return in equilibrium.

This ontology emphasizes a deep plasticity and heterogeneity in social entities. Organizations and institutions change over time and place. Agents within these organizations change their characteristics through their own behavior, through their intentional efforts to modify them, and through the cumulative effect of agents and behavior over time and place. Social constructs are caused and implemented within a substrate of purposive and active agents whose behavior and mentality at a given time determine the features of the social entity. As individuals act, pursue their interests, notice new opportunities, and innovate, they simultaneously “reproduce” a given institution and also erode or change the institution. So institutions are not fully homeostatic, preserving their own structure in the face of disturbances. This is not to say that institutions lack such homeostatic mechanisms altogether; only that we cannot presuppose that a given institution or organization will persist in its fundamental characteristics over extended time and space.

A familiar example will illustrate the kinds of plasticity and variation that I am thinking of. Take the tenure process in American universities. We can see an overall similarity in processes, rules, and goals in the tenure processes at various institutions. Organization is to some extent influenced by function. But we also see substantial variation and drift in both process and content (criteria and processes for awarding tenure). For example, there are some universities that are incorporating “community service” into tenure criteria. Different universities give a different balance of faculty review and provost and dean review. There are different cultures of seriousness in review by faculty committees and academic administrators. Different institutions define different institutional goals: enhance national reputation of the faculty (through research productivity), improve teaching, orient faculty to community service, … There is a visible push-pull by stakeholders on these institutions: deans, provosts, presidents; faculty governance units; individual faculty. There have been changes in the past 20 years that have affected many institutions: post-tenure review, greater willingness to do reviews leading to removal, … So tenure institutions display the variability and plasticity that I believe is inherent in all social institutions.

So far I have focused on institutions and organizations. But features of social consciousness and social identity are also variable across time, place, and group. The mechanisms through which social identities and mentalities are transmitted, transmuted, and maintained are varied; inculcation, imitation, and common circumstances are central among these. But the transmission of an identity is a bit like the transmission of a message through a telephone chain. Because of “noise” in the system, because of individual differences among the transmitters, and because of multiple other influences on micro-identities, we should expect great variation within and across groups with regard to the particulars of their social identities. In fact, it appears that the plasticity of identities, norms, and mental frameworks is particularly great. The mechanisms of transmission invite variation across successive instances and generations. Local variations will take root in sub-populations. There are limited mechanisms of homeostasis. And individuals and groups have the ability to modify the content and meaning of these elements of social consciousness more or less indefinitely over time. Small variations in locally-embodied content proliferate through imitation and parent-child transmission.

Finally, we might also say that individuals too are “plastic”. The social psychology of the existing person is the product of the individual’s earlier experiences, education, and training. So this particular person—perhaps now a “rational maximizer with racial prejudice and a fear of flying”—has been constructed through a concrete set of experiences. But (a) this concrete present individual herself can be brought to change some basic motivational and psychological characteristics through additional experiences—perhaps diversity training and a positive experience with a person of another race; and (b) other individuals from a similar background can be brought to have a different set of motivational characteristics through different circumstances of development. So the individual’s basic characteristics of personality, belief, and motivation are plastic.

In each case we find that institutions, practices, and social identities show a substantial degree of plasticity over time and place. And this is what we should expect–fundamentally, because we can sketch out the social processes and mechanisms through which institutions are formed, maintained, and modified. Institutions are human products and are embodied in human actions and beliefs. Sometimes an institution is designed through a deliberative process; sometimes it results through a series of uncoordinated adaptations and appropriations by a number of participants. Institutions solve social problems; they coordinate individual activity, control resources, allocate benefits and burdens. And institutions either maintain their structure or change depending on the interests and actions of the participants. The participants in institutions interact with the particulars of the organization in ways that improve the effectiveness of the organization, or better serve a particular set of interests, or some combination of both. Leaders may determine that a modification of the institution would increase the capacity of the organization to deliver services, reduce costs, or improve their own ability to control activities within the organization. Participants may modify the organization in their own ways—through spontaneous local modifications of process; foot-dragging as a way of impeding the functioning of unpopular aspects of the organization; collaboration with other participants to modify the institution in directions more favorable to their interests; etc.

So it is important for social scientists to avoid the fallacy of “naturalism”–the idea that social science should resemble natural science, and the idea that social entities have a similar constitution and ontology to natural entities.

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