Social plasticity and ontology

Ruth Groff has created a valuable blog and Facebook page on “Powers, Capacities, Dispositions” aimed at creating a community of scholars interested in the causal powers literature. Both are worth following! In a recent post she offers some thoughtful comments on my post on social powers. Here I will extend my reasons for thinking the powers approach raises some distinctive problems when applied in the social realm and respond to several of Ruth’s comments. Thanks for engaging on this topic, Ruth!

Here are a couple of starting points for me. First, I believe that social entities are plastic, heterogeneous, and contingent. (I am thinking here primarily of organizations, institutions, and structures, but I would also include value systems, knowledge systems, and technology practices as well.) They are the interwoven product of intentional efforts to accomplish something collectively (as a group or a subgroup) and stochastic changes over time. A certain regulation gets written into the system at a certain time without any particular outcome in mind, and the change persists through a series of iterations. A practice arises spontaneously and becomes a powerful tradition.

The first source gives a weak kind of functionality to social entities, though it may be that it is functional only for a subgroup (e.g. the bosses, the civil servants, the admin assistants) but not for the group as a whole or for society at large. (Has anyone else noticed practices at his or her own university that seem to exist largely for the convenience of this or that group of staff or faculty?) The second source doesn’t support an expectation of functionality at all unless we can postulate something like selective reproduction of complexes of institutional arrangements. (This might work for firms in a competitive environment, for example, where stochastic innovations permit superior performance and get carried over. This would be a part of evolutionary economics.) So we can expect that social entities will be shape-shifters over time, incorporating innovations, adaptations, self-interested changes, and random alterations over time. This means: no functionalism, no social kinds, no social essences.

It is true that there are some social factors that work against rapid change in social entities. So there is some degree of weak homeostasis among social entities. One of these stabilizing factors is the interests of powerful actors whose fortunes are intertwined with the particular features of the social entity, both inside and out. (Consider how hard it is to enact serious tax reform in the face of opposition of wealth holders and businesses.) A second factor is the internal processes of discipline and rectification that organizations often embody. A part of an organization is specifically developed as a control of innovation — for example, the audit function of a business organization that prevents the “innovation” of taking expensive vacations at company expense. But nothing guarantees the correct workings of the audit function either! A third factor may be the discipline of selective survival in the course of competition with comparable organizations. Organizations have an interest in preserving features that favor survival. (It will be odd in the coming years if some universities allow their student recruitment functions to atrophy!)

These points suggest that social ontology is different from the ontology of the natural world. It is substantially more fluid, contingent, intermittent, and less orderly than entities and processes in the natural world. This is one reason I am somewhat drawn to the ontology of assemblage in the social realm — entities are somewhat accidental and stochastic piles of unconnected sub-level stuff. (At one point I suggested that we think of the paradigm of a social entity as a rummage sale rather than a molecule.)

If we think these ideas are roughly correct in relation to social entities, then several things seem to follow:

  • There are no social kinds in a sense seriously analogous to natural kinds. “Bureaucracies” are not analogous to “metals”.
  • Social entities do not have “essential natures”. Rather, any and all of their characteristics may change over time. They are a bit like Neurath’s raft, except that in the long run they may shift from a Phoenician fighting ship to a floating apartment complex!
  • Social entities cannot be treated as if they have inherent functions; their functionality at a certain time is no more than the partial success of one group or another to construct the entity so as to further some goal.
  • The causal properties of social entities derive from the contingent and transient structural properties that constitute them at a given time; so their causal properties are non-essential and shifting as well.

It is common to make assumptions about the “function” of a given social entity. But we have learned over the past twenty-five years to be very cautious about social functional talk. When Aristotle attributes a functional definition to “table” he is working with a couple of background assumptions that are not generally true of social entities. He is able to assume that there is a clear and broadly understood purpose that tables are designed to accommodate; and he is able to assume that individual designers and builders construct this simple artifact out of regard for this purpose. But social institutions and organizations aren’t like tables in this regard. There is no single and universally shared understanding of the purpose of the institution; and no single designer typically builds the institution. Rather, it is largely a collective and unintended product of many individuals pursuing a number of different goals.

I offered the example of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission previously. One might say that one of its essential functions is “to regulate”. It is true that this was what some of the framers of the legislation intended and that “regulation” is part of its name. But this is just a fact about the language we use, not a fact about the intrinsic nature of this specific organization. As the institution was built out, many other goals and interests were incorporated. So we cannot infer anything about the NRC from the premise that it is essentially a regulatory agency. It may have evolved into a rent-seeking entity, a compromise-generating bureau, a business promotion entity, or a ready source of campaign contributions. All these “functions” are compatible with its starting point.

What does this have to do with the metaphysics of causal powers? I think it lays the ground for a serious discussion of how and in what ways social entities can be said to possess causal powers. The anti-essentialist position is motivated at both ends of the story: the social entity does not possess essential characteristics, its causal powers are not generated by essential characteristics, and a specific set of causal powers is not essential to what a specific social entity is. So if we want to maintain that social entities sometimes possess causal powers — that social entities make things happen — then we need to allow that attribution of causal powers does not presuppose that the relevant entities have essential natures, or that the causal power is an essential expression of this essential nature.

Instead, I think it is entirely plausible to hold that the powers that a thing has are the necessary expression of its current inner composition and substrate of stuff of which it is composed. In the case of social entities this substrate is the nature of the human individuals who are involved in its activities, and the inner composition is the sometimes elaborate set of rules, incentives, opportunities, and norms that work to influence the actions and thoughts of the persons who constitute it. The differences in functioning between two chemical plants, populated by fundamentally similar human actors but embodying significantly different sets of rules and practices, will be substantial. This is the fundamental finding of the new institutionalism.

Ruth is right in noting that my NRC example actually lines up fairly well with the notion that “regulatory agencies are created to regulate, and the innovation Dan described just freed up that quasi-essential power of the agency” (my paraphrase of her point). That’s true enough, in this example, but it’s just an accident. The kind of innovation leading to new causal powers that I was searching for can point in any direction whatsoever with regard to the “essential functioning” of the social entity. It may restore functioning (as my example did; NRC2), or it may undermine functioning, or it may create new effects that are simply unrelated to the presumed function of the social entity. A rule innovation that makes the NRC even more subordinate to elected officials and legislative committees would likely have the effect of making the modified organization even less “regulatory” (NRC3), and an innovation that provided tuition support for employees might make the organization more likely to engage in mission creep (as employees are exposed to the more activist world of the university campus; (NRC4)).

Putting the point in Ruth’s terms: NRC1 has the power to enforce safety standards only to a middling degree; NRC2 has that power to a greater degree; NRC3 has it to a lesser degree; and NRC4 has a different power altogether. And in each case, the organization or social entity has the powers it has in virtue of (i) the nature of the individual actors who compose it and (ii) the specific arrangements that constitute it as an organization during a period of time.

I think this means I can agree with Ruth in saying that in each instance the organization’s powers are inherent in its current composition; but the coming and going of the powers in my several scenarios demonstrates that the composition of the entity has changed from one instance to another. I didn’t want to say that the powers identified here are external to the NRC, but rather that the NRC’s nature has changed as a result of each of the innovations mentioned. And this means to me that the NRC doesn’t have a “nature in general”, but only a nature as realized with specific institutional rules and arrangements.

Incidentally, much of what I know about regulatory organizations comes from Charles Perrow’s excellent work in The Next Catastrophe: Reducing Our Vulnerabilities to Natural, Industrial, and Terrorist Disasters And Normal Accidents: Living with High-Risk Technologies.

(I’ve created a collection of the postings in Understanding Society that are relevant to this topics. Think of it as a very brief book on the subject of plasticity and social ontology. Here is the e-book, which can be read in iBooks or any other e-reader. You can use the “export” function to download a format that works for you. Here is a direct link.)

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: