image: Len Stomski, River Flow
Zygmunt Bauman advocates for the idea of “liquid modernity” (Liquid Modernity). This view emphasizes the fact of change within society; and it argues that change is occurring more and more rapidly in the “modern” world. Here is an observation by Bauman about the modern world:
Forms of modern life may differ in quite a few respects – but what unites them all is precisely their fragility, temporariness, vulnerability and inclination to constant change. To ‘be modern’ means to modernize – compulsively, obsessively; not so much just ‘to be’, let alone to keep its identity intact, but forever ‘becoming’, avoiding completion, staying underdefined. Each new structure which replaces the previous one as soon as it is declared old-fashioned and past its use-by date is only another momentary settlement – acknowledged as temporary and ‘until further notice’. Being always, at any stage and at all times, ‘post-something’ is also an undetachable feature of modernity. As time flows on, ‘modernity’ changes its forms in the manner of the legendary Proteus . . . What was some time ago dubbed (erroneously) ‘post-modernity’ and what I’ve chosen to call, more to the point, ‘liquid modernity’, is the growing conviction that change is the only permanence, and uncertainty the only certainty. A hundred years ago ‘to be modern’ meant to chase ‘the final state of perfection’ — now it means an infinity of improvement, with no ‘final state’ in sight and none desired. (kl 82)
This is an evocative paragraph, but it is important to be specific in reading what it does and does not assert. Plainly Bauman underscores the fact of change in modern social life. “Change is permanent.” But Bauman makes no assertion here about discontinuity, randomness, or complete absence of “structure”. Indeed, the quotation explicitly allows that there are structures — which implies that they persist over some period of time; and it observes, reasonably enough, that structures change and extinguish. As he puts the point a few pages later:
The original cause of the solids melting was not resentment against solidity as such, but dissatisfaction with the degree of solidity of the extant and inherited solids: purely and simply, the bequeathed solids were found not to be solid enough (insufficiently resistant or immunized to change) by the standards of the order-obsessed and compulsively order-building modern powers…. Flexibility has replaced solidity as the ideal condition to be pursued of things and affairs. (kl 97)
I have argued quite a few times in this blog for the idea that social phenomena are plastic, heterogeneous, and contingent. And these ideas seem to converge to some extent with the idea of a “liquid” society. Here are a few statements of these ideas:
On the core idea of plasticity of the social (link):
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.
On gradual institutional change (link):
The issue of the internal processes of change within an institution is of interest here for several reasons. But central among them is the idea of plasticity that has been described in earlier posts (link, link, link). The basic idea of plasticity is that institutions and organizations are the product of various kinds of structured human action, and that they can change over time. So we shouldn’t think of institutions as having fixed characteristics, or as though they were equilibrium systems that tend to return to their original states after perturbances. Mahoney and Thelen’s volume demonstrates some of the ways in which this plasticity emerges; they prove an account of the mechanisms of gradual institutional change. And this approach makes plain the high degree of path-dependency that institutions display.
On slow institutional change (link):
So what happens when institutions change? Mahoney and Thelen categorize gradual change into four types: displacement, layering, drift, and conversion (kl 444). And they argue that these categories are significant given the different roles that actors and strategies play in each of them. (This categorization seems to have something in common with the way geneticists and ecologists might characterize different modalities of adaptation within a changing environment.) They provide a 2×2 table that predicts the kind of adaptation that will occur, depending on combinations of strong/weak veto possibilities and low/high levels of discretion in interpretation of rules. For example, they assert that strong veto associated with high discretion produces drift rather than layering or conversion. They offer a similar analysis of different types of change agents, and attribute different kinds of strategies to the different categories of change agents. How does this framework relate to the topics of “actor-centered” social science and “meso-level causation” that have been considered in earlier posts? The theoretical framework Mahoney and Thelen describe is clearly actor-centered. They are focused on identifying the ways in which different categories of actors are empowered to interact with various features of a set of institutional rules. This picture seems to correspond to the ascending and descending links of the macro-micro analysis proposed by Coleman’s boat.
On the contingencies of economic development identified by Sabel and Zeitlin (link):
One of Sabel and Zeitlin’s most basic arguments is the idea that firms are strategic and adaptive as they deal with a current set of business challenges. Rather than an inevitable logic of new technologies and their organizational needs, we see a highly adaptive and selective process in which firms pick and choose among alternatives, often mixing the choices to hedge against failure. They consider carefully a range of possible changes on the horizon, a set of possible strategic adaptations that might be selected; and they frequently hedge their bets by investing in both the old and the new technology. “Economic agents, we found again and again in the course of the seminar’s work, do not maximize so much as they strategize” (5).
On the plasticity of technical practices (link):
A particularly interesting question is the degree to which technical practices are “plastic” over time and space. How readily do they morph over time and space (akin to the way in which messages morph in the game of “telephone”)? Is there an analogy between a practice and a gene, in which the gene encodes instructions for the phenotype—producing a next-generation genotype? The stability of species through biological evolution depends on the fact that gene transcription is a highly accurate process, so the offspring is highly likely to encode the same bits of information as the parent. Is there the requisite stability within the domain of practices, or are we more likely to find significant differences in ostensibly similar practices across the villages of a region? The stability question turns on the mechanisms of replication that social practices embody. Traditional social practices are not embodied in standard “handbooks” of best practice; instead, they are transmitted through networks of training and imitation. So changes are likely to occur during the replication of the practice at the local level. Innovation occurs as local illiterate but intelligent farmers or builders discover enhancements. These innovations are imitated and reproduced by neighbors and changes accumulate. Naturally, there is nothing inherently optimal or progressive about such a process. Good ideas and innovations die out; mediocre practices persist; and sometimes genuine advances occur.
And on continuity (link):
It is evident that this expectation of gradual, continuous change is not always a valid guide to events. Abrupt, unexpected events occur — revolutions, mass cultural changes like the 1960s, sweeping political and legislative changes along the lines of the Reagan revolution. And of course we have the current example of abrupt declines in financial markets — see the graph of the Dow Jones Industrial Average for the week of September 23-30, 2008 below. So the expectation of continuity sometimes leads us astray. But continuity is probably among our most basic heuristic assumptions about the future when it comes to our expectations about the social world and our plans for the future.
The deeper question is an ontological one: what features of social causation and processes would either support or undermine the expectation of continuity? We can say quite a bit about the features of continuity and discontinuity in physical systems; famously, “non-linearities” occur in some physical systems that lead to singularities and discontinuities, but many physical systems are safely linear and continuous all the way down. And these mathematical features follow from the fundamental physical mechanisms that underlie physical systems. But what about the social world?
These arguments and others interspersed over the past eight years add up to a view of the realm of the social that attempts to bridge between stability and change, continuity and discontinuity, and to understand both structure and agency as the effects of social actors pursuing their plans. States, property systems, constitutions, religious institutions — all these persisting social frames are themselves subject to strategic interventions by the actors who inhabit them, and their properties change over time.
So how can we resolve the apparent conundrum presented here: is the social world solid or liquid? Do structures constitute a more-or-less stable context for action, or is the social order simply a shifting play of forces and powers that resolves differently at different moments?
We know that the social world changes, and that these changes extend to deep structures as well as more superficial characteristics. Department stores change owners, so my local Marshall Fields becomes a Macy’s. More fundamentally, shopping patterns change and downtown department stores close for good in favor of suburban shopping malls. And in the end Amazon eventually replaces them all. So both superficial and deep-structure characteristics of the social world change over time. Is this “liquid modernity” or is it “change overlaying structural persistence”?
The key to the answer lies in formulating a more nuanced understanding of the temporality of change. It is important not to assume all-or-nothing liquidity: either the social world is wholly labile, from moment to moment; or else there are “determinate” structures that are impervious to change. A better answer might be couched in terms of different temporal scales (along the lines of Paul Pierson’s ideas; link). Rather than taking social structures or cultural systems as “static”, we are better off thinking of these structural components as having a tempo of change that is many times the tempo of actors’ choices. An investor considers purchasing a property in a neighborhood. He or she determines the current market price of the property but also takes into account the fact that market conditions change over time. So the real estate values of this neighborhood may rise or fall significantly in the medium term — say, thirty years. This is not “permanence,” but it is enough temporal range to admit of confident action.
If we took this point of view, then the relevant opposition is not between abiding structure and changing circumstance, but rather between long-duration change and short-duration change.
Introducing this change of language casts a bit of doubt on the validity of the metaphor of “liquid”. Bauman emphasizes the instantaneous malleability of a liquid:
What all these features of fluids amount to, in simple language, is that liquids, unlike solids, cannot easily hold their shape. Fluids, so to speak, neither fix space nor bind time. While solids have clear spatial dimensions but neutralize the impact, and thus downgrade the significance, of time (effectively resist its flow or render it irrelevant), fluids do not keep to any shape for long and are constantly ready (and prone) to change it; and so for them it is the flow of time that counts, more than the space they happen to occupy: that space, after all, they fill but ‘for a moment’. (lc 311)
But this isn’t quite right in application to the social world either — any more than the idea that social institutions are “solid” and unchanging. Instead, what we have is differing degrees of rigidity and different tempos of change attaching to different social structures. (Perhaps a more accurate metaphor is “stiff molasses” — both liquid and solid!) And the work by institutional sociologists like Thelen and Pierson is specifically aimed at discovering the forces that lead to the stabilization of an institution or organization — for a while.
There is another important area of uncertainty here as well. I don’t yet have a clear opinion about Bauman’s idea that the modern world is more plastic than other periods of social life. The arguments that I have offered for concluding that institutions, organizations, and value systems are plastic are as compelling for the Roman world as they are on Wall Street; so there is nothing in that argument that suggests that the modern world is more “liquid” than the ancient or medieval worlds. Perhaps it is so; but this actually seems to be a question for detailed historical research rather than philosophical speculation.