Plasticity of social entities

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.

The view that I prefer is one that 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. So at the level of the individual social formation, I maintain that 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.

This plasticity applies to “subjective” constructs like social identities as well as to “objective” entities like organizations and structures. Features of social consciousness and social identity are 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. (See “Mentalities, Practices and Identities” for more on this subject.)

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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