The heterogeneous social?

image: screenshot from video, “A Bird Ballet”

I’ve argued in several places that we need to think of the social world as being radically heterogeneous (linklinklink). There are multiple processes, things, structures, and temporalities at work, and what we perceive at a moment in time in the social world is a complex composite of these various things. The social world is not a unified system; it is not a manifestation of a unified underlying process; it is not a unity at all.

What does this claim about the social world mean in concrete terms? And what are the implications for the social sciences? Consider a few examples of complex social wholes:

  • the industrial revolution, 1700-1850
  • the rise of Al Qaeda, 1970-2001
  • urbanization in China, 1600-1700
  • Chicago as a functioning city, 2000
  • the University of Illinois, 1971
  • being Muslim in Toronto, 1990 

These examples are themselves heterogeneous. Some are extended historical processes; others are synchronic sets of social facts; others are institutions and social environments at a time; yet others are states of social identities at a time. But the fact about heterogeneity that I want to focus on here is internal: for each social phenomenon, there are heterogeneous components and sub-processes that make it up and that generally have their own dynamics and properties.

First, where is the heterogeneity in these examples?

The industrial revolution is not one thing; it is rather a confluence of developments in technology, markets, habitation, ideology, labor practices, scientific institutions, natural resources, and numerous other social features that change over time. And the outcomes of “industrial revolution” are not uniform over regions, nations, sectors, or industries. Different parts of Britain had different experiences; and these experiences and outcomes are in turn different from those in Sweden or Italy.

Likewise, early-modern urbanization of Chinese cities is a the result of a complex ensemble of processes. We can summarize the outcome by a measure of the percentage of people living in cities greater than 100,000 at a certain moment in time. But the causes, processes, environmental factors, and institutions through which this transformation took place were highly diverse; and the cities that resulted were diverse as well. (G. William Skinner charts out much of this diversity in a number of works; The City in Late Imperial China.)

Or take Chicago in 2000. The social whole is a composite of population, institutions, political processes, demographic transitions, transportation networks, employment systems, and policing practices — and many other factors I haven’t mentioned. And if we were to ask a question along these lines — why did Chicago come to function in 2000 in the fashion that it did? — we would have to consider all of these processes and their composite effects, and their interactions with each other. There is no single answer to the question, “what is Chicago and how does it work?”.

Being Muslim at a time and place is likewise deeply heterogeneous. Individuals, families, sub-groups, and institutions differ — from Iowa to Ontario, and within communities and across mosques. Individuals differ in ways that are both personal and institutional. So there is no single identity that is “Muslim in Toronto”; rather, there is an ensemble of people, groups, and social organizations which in the composite represent “the many identities of Muslims in Toronto.”

In fact, it seems to me that heterogeneity comes into each of these examples in a variety of ways. There are:

  • multiple causes at work
  • multiple expressions of ethnic / cultural identity
  • multiple purposes and understandings on the parts of participants
  • multiple sub-institutions with different profiles and dynamics
  • multiple outcomes or macro-characteristics that are denoted by the term

So the constitution and dynamics of social phenomena reflect diverse kinds of things and processes.

So where does “science” come into this picture? Is it possible to have a scientific understanding of a heterogeneous phenomenon?

Here is one possible strategy. We might hope that the sub-components of heterogeneous entities might have separable dynamics of development; so even though the city simpliciter does not have an inherent dynamic of development or functioning, its subsystems do. In this case we might say that a scientific analysis of the whole involves a separate scientific theory of the components and a synthetic effort to show how they interact.

But this approach is perhaps too generous to the power of analysis; it seems to presuppose that we can disassemble a complex and heterogeneous whole into a discrete set of reasonably homogeneous components, each of which can be treated scientifically and separately. The thesis above, though, was fairly comprehensive: “all social phenomena are heterogeneous”. So that seems to imply that the results of analysis lead us to a set of components that are themselves heterogeneous — a heterogeneity regress! And this paradoxical conclusion actually seems to be true in a very practical sense: when we disaggregate “Chicago” into “political institutions,” “policing institutions,” “economic institutions / market system”, and the like — we again encounter social units that have internal variation and heterogeneity.

Could we at least argue that analysis reduces complexity to a certain extent, and that the components are more amenable to scientific and causal theorizing than the whole? This more modest claim does seem to be defensible. Take the processes underlying “industrial revolution”. It is possible to offer a reasonably rigorous study of the development of scientific knowledge and the institutions through which knowledge is created and disseminated, in ways that are less complex that the whole with which we began. Likewise, we can offer specialized study of the “making of the English working class” that includes some of the factors that influenced labor and politics during the period — thereby making a contribution to a better understanding of the complex whole, industrial revolution.

In an odd way this line of thought seems to bring us back to one of the oldest debates in the history of philosophy going back to the pre-Socratic philosophers: does “nature” have a “nature”? The atomists believed that the complexity of the observed world depended ultimately on the simple properties of the components; whereas philosophers like Heraclitus maintained that nature consisted of “flux” all the way down.

(The  video mentioned at the top, “A Bird Ballet,” is beautiful and surprising. But I’m not certain that it fully illustrates the point I’m making about the social world. The ensemble of starlings depicted here shows a startling reality of shifting shapes and motions over time. The viewer is led to ask, how did this ensemble of thousands of organisms come to have this graceful and shifting dynamic?” So far it is a good analogy to the social. But an animal behavior specialist is likely to be able to give us a pretty simple explanation of how the individual-level flight behavior interacts across birds in flight, and results in the swarming behavior documented here. In this respect the swarm is simpler than the “heterogeneity all the way down” picture that I’m putting forward for complex social phenomena. Still, it is a powerful example of “wholes” that are less unified than they first appear.)


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