Strategies of economic adaptation

Charles Sabel and Jonathan Zeitlin made a powerful case for there being alternative institutional forms through which modern economic development could have taken place in their 1985 article, “Historical Alternatives to Mass Production: Politics, Markets and Technology in Nineteenth-Century Industrialization” (link). In an important volume in 1997, World of Possibilities: Flexibility and Mass Production in Western Industrialization, they take the argument two steps further: first, that institutional variations were not merely hypothetical, but in fact had an extended history in a variety of industries well into the twentieth century; and second, that the current situation of pervading uncertainty about our most basic economic institutions was characteristic of the earlier periods as well.  The volume represents the work of an intensive seminar in economic history sponsored by the Maison des Sciences de l’Homme.  Contributors include a broad swath of researchers in economic history across Europe (not Asia!).  Chapters take up the processes of mechanization, specialization, and mass manufacture in a variety of industries in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries — silk, cutlery, watch-making, metal-working, and ship-building.  (Here is part of the very good introduction to the volume provided by Sabel and Zeitlin; link.)

Sabel and Zeitlin take the view that the history of business and technology can in fact shed quite a bit of light on the economic situation we face today — from brand new sectors (Google, Facebook, Amazon) to the abrupt decline of old industries (the US auto industry) to speculation about the next big area of business growth (biotech, alternative energy).  They highlight a couple of features of the business and economic climate in the late 1990s that seem equally applicable today — an acute sense of economic fragility and institutional plasticity.  They argue that these features were also the hallmarks of earlier periods of economic change as well.  So they argue that we can learn a great deal for today’s challenges by considering the situation of industries like glass-making or watch-making in 1880 or 1920.

The sense of fragility goes to the once commonsensical idea that progress would lead to the gradual consolidation of particular forms of economic organization, and hence to an ever more certain sense of how best to deploy technology, allocate labor and capital, and link supply of particular products to demand. Today … it is commonsensical to believe that the way many of these things are done depends on constantly shifting background conditions whose almost insensible mutation can produce abrupt redefinitions of the appropriate way to organize economic activity.

The second experience is one of the recombinability and interpenetration of different forms of economic organization: the rigid and the flexible, the putatively archaic and the certifiably modern, the hierarchical and the market-conforming, the trusting and the mistrustful.

The central theme of this book is that the experience of fragility and mutability which seemed so novel and disorienting today has been, in fact, the definitive experience of the economic actors in many sectors, countries, and epochs in the history of industrial capitalism.

But this double perception of mutability and fragility … has not led them to exalt catch-as-catch-can muddling through as the organizing principle of reflection and action. What we find instead is an extraordinarily judicious, well-informed and continuing debate within firms, and between them and public authorities, as to the appropriate responses to an economy whose future is uncertain, but whose boundary conditions at lease in the middle term are taken to be clear.

Our purpose here is to show that most firms in nineteenth- and early twentieth-century Europe and the United States, neither mired in tradition nor blinded by the prospect of a radiant future, carefully weighed the choices between mass production and what we would now call flexible specialization. (2-3)

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).

During the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, for example, the silk merchants and weavers of Lyons carefully monitored but did not imitate the policies of design routinization, subdivision of labor and price competition pursued by their Spitalfields counterparts, preferring alternative strategies based on rapid style change, increasingly flexible machinery and the skillful exploitation of fashionable markets for high-value products. … Much as they admired the efficiency of American methods, detailed accounts of the American system in trade journals and technical society proceedings typically emphasized that this efficiency depended on standardization of the product which was wholly incompatible with the current or expected organizations of their respective markets. (12)

In other words, specialized firms did not “resist change;” rather, they carefully assessed the full implications of one form of organization and one use of technology against another, and selected those innovations that represented the best match to their own business realities. 
An interesting case study of an alternative way of organizing production is provided in the chapter by Peer Hull Kristensen and Charles Sabel, “The small-holder economy in Denmark.”  It was an example of cooperative-based agriculture and small-scale production that provided a durable alternative to private capitalism farming and manufacture:

Denmark was the exception.  There in the decades before World War I peasant small holders built a technologically innovative cooperative movement that outcompeted estate-owners and urban financiers in virtually every segment of the dairy, egg and pork products industries.  In so doing they created demand for particular kinds of capital goods that contributed to the modernization of the small-shop sector of industry as well. (345)

Alongside the agrarian republic there was another estate of small holders, the artisans and craftsmen.  Their property was the knowledge of tools, materials, and techniques which made them independent of any one market or employer. By the outbreak of the First World War, they too had built institutions — particularly a network of technical schools — which allowed them to defend their place in Danish society by constantly renewing it. (365)

The history these activities in Denmark demonstrate that it was possible for voluntary producers’ cooperatives to manage the provision of specialized services, marketing services, and economies of scale to farmers and artisans that we sometimes believe can only be provided by the market.  This system did not last forever — though it proved economically durable for half a century, and it demonstrated much of the flexibility and organizational innovativeness that Sabel and Zeitlin emphasize in their introduction.

But some fifty years later, in the late 1950s, the cooperative core of this small-holder economy was coming visibly undone.  First cooperative dairies, then the cooperative slaughterhouses began to combine into larger and larger units abandoning in the process many of their original constitutional features and becoming in fact and law corporations. The corporations in turn fought with one another and the remaining cooperative for control of their respective markets. (374)

I find the contributions to this volume interesting in exactly the way predicted by Sabel and Zeitlin in the introduction: for the models they illustrate of deft navigation of uncertain economic environments by firms, cooperatives, and individuals.  The economic and business environment in the region where I live is unforgiving for a wide range of industries; for example, job shops and tool and die shops have largely disappeared in the Detroit metropolitan area.  However, there are a number of mid-sized adaptable businesses that have continued to thrive, through exactly the kinds of intelligent, forward-scanning adaptation to new opportunities described by contributors to this volume.  These businesses are in the engineering and advanced services sector, and they are innovative in two ways: they are constantly looking for new opportunities to apply existing and new technologies to new applications; and they are looking for customers in developing countries, including especially the Middle East from Lebanon to Saudi Arabia.  Energy, solar power, building control systems, urban parking systems, and aviation maintenance can be found within the portfolio; and the leaders of these companies are systematically and strategically developing the relations abroad that are necessary to secure the next wave of contracts.

It is interesting to consider whether there is a difference between economic history and business history. One might say that the former has to do with the large features of economic organization, social regulation, and logistics that constitute an economic system, whereas business history has to do with the tactical maneuvering and small-scale adaptations that individual firms undertake within the general framework of the existing economic structure.  But I think Sabel and Zeitlin’s answer would be a fairly decisive one: there is no fundamental distinction between the two levels of analysis.  They frame the distinction in terms of the ideas of “epochs” and “crises”; this language distinguishes between long periods of institutional stability, and short periods of dislocation and change — something like the theory of punctuated equilibrium.  But Sabel and Zeitlin doubt the validity of this distinction.  “The solution, we think, is to relax the distinction between periods of stability and periods of transition in the same way and for the same reasons that we relaxed the distinction between maximizing actor and constraining context” (29).  Or, in other words, when we look closely, almost every period of economic activity is also a period that mixes elements of stability with deep and unpredictable change.

Technical practices

What is involved in providing a sociology of technical practices? (An earlier posting is also devoted to this question.) Here I am thinking primarily of technical material practices — building a house or a boat, distilling spirits, weaving a basket, maintaining a biological research lab, or repairing a photocopy machine. There is a degree of continuity in the “tacit knowledge” and embodied skills and methods that are represented in the plans and actions of practitioners of these different human activities. These bodies of knowledge and skill define the activity in a fairly specific way. And there are indefinitely many other configurations of practices that might have accomplished the same task. So a practice is historically and socially specific; it is the result of prior experimentation and adaptation in the context of needs, materials, and a physical environment within specific communities and locations.

Here is a simple formulation of what I’m calling a technical practice:

A practice is an ensemble of techniques, skills, and stylized responses, embedded in a population at a time, accomplishing a specific range of domestic tasks, and sustained through social mechanisms of transmission.

There are a number of fundamental questions that this definition raises. How are practices embodied in individuals or groups? How do they proliferate, from one generation to the next and across social space? How does a given state of practical knowledge change over time, through transmission, mutation, and deliberate refinement? Do practices have a degree of stability over time, or do they morph so flexibly as to defy analysis? Are there “signatures” for given ensembles of practices — e.g. a set of features of device design in boat building or a set of techniques of water management in farming — on the basis of which we can observe the proliferation and change of a practice over time and space? Is there a self-referential element in practices—do practitioners deliberately or consciously modify their practices?

The example of traditional boat design and building is a good one to illustrate a technical practice (suggested in the images above). The boat-building traditions of medieval Scandinavia represent a body of skill and technique transmitted from master to apprentice, with variation over time and place. Farming practices in traditional agricultural societies provide another good example. In this case, the practice involves knowledge concerning crops, animals, seeds, irrigation, fertilizer, timing, and response to the unexpected. (This is the kind of local practical knowledge that James Scott describes in Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed.) It is embodied in local knowledge, folk beliefs, techniques and tools, and customs of a given population at a particular time. It is transmitted from practitioner to practitioner (perhaps parent to child) through training and imitation. Sometimes organizations play a causal role in transmission (e. g., a guild of boat designers and builders may deliberately control the transmission of relevant knowledge and skills from one individual to another). And it seems likely enough that historians can in fact observe the proliferation of technical practices such as these over centuries of time by observing the spatial distribution of artifacts associated with the practice. (Jon Elster discusses some aspects of the technical practices associated with traditional boat building in Explaining Technical Change: A Case Study in the Philosophy of Science.)

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.

Finally, the question about whether a technical practice has a specific signature — a characteristic set of tools, patterns of land use, and products — is crucial for our ability to track changes in practices historically. With a signature — for example, a characteristic form of ceramic glazing — it is possible to track the spread of a practice across time and space. It is then possible to track changes in practice over time and geography by tracking the dispersion of tools and products. For example, a new technique in ceramics can often be pinpointed in a place at a time; then through archeological research it is often possible to track the diffusion of the innovation over the next century to other places. And once we’ve done that, we can ask productive questions about what the mechanisms of the diffusion of practical knowledge were: migration of farmers and artisans, trade routes, the sale of books and pamphlets, …

It seems that technical practices in pre-modern societies are of particular interest for a couple of reasons. They give us a subject matter where it is possible to study local knowledge and skill in some detail. They represent a domain of human activity where it is possible to track change over time and to form some hypotheses about the social mechanisms that underlie the diffusion of techniques. And they are a fairly visible manifestation of some basic features of social life — the harnessing of knowledge and skill to solving some of the practical problems of life, and the creation of innovations through which these basic material needs might be satisfied in a marginally better way. And it wouldn’t be surprising to discover that the mechanisms that underlie the maintenance and diffusion of traditional techniques are also found in the practical knowledge communities of technicians in the modern world — photocopy machine repair specialists, airline mechanics, or lab technicians.

Explaining rodeos

Suppose we have visited quite a few rodeos in Arizona and Texas and have observed a couple of things: there are more injuries in rodeos than in stock car racing or football, the stakes for the winners are lower than in golf, the rodeo riders score higher than average on the “introverted” component of the Myers-Briggs personality profile, some rodeos are almost silent places, and the parking lots are filled with a higher percentage of beat-up F150s than a typical baseball park. What would count as “giving an explanation” of these features of this particular type of social activity? And what kinds of mechanisms might serve as a basis for explanations?

Rodeos are an instance of a broader category of social activity that we migh describe along these lines: “mass entertainment events featuring professional athletes/performers and drawing extensive numbers of paying customers.” The comparative judments expressed above take the form of contrasts across several different sub-categories of this broad set — e.g., baseball, stock car racing, football, golf, soccer, circuses. We might further analyze this group of events in terms of several structural features: the character of the audience, the character and recruitment processes of the performers, the rules of the event, the culture of the activity, the meaning of the activity within the broader society, and the business fundamentals of the event (sources and quantity of revenue).

Let’s pull apart a few of the patterns noted above, and consider some social mechanisms that might explain them.

Personality profile of rodeo riders. Rodeo riders seem to have a different social psychology than baseball or soccer players; they are more solitary, introverted, and self-sufficient. This feature of rodeos presumably derives from the social selection processes through which an individual becomes a highly skilled rider; the personality features that are best suited to superior performance; and the cultural expectations of behavior within the activity and within the broader society. So an adequate explanation of this distinguishing feature of rodeos will probably invoke the processes of selection through which the performers are recruited, and the feedback and training they receive in the “minor leagues” of rodeo. Here the mechanisms are selection / filtering and training / inculturation.

Size of winnings. The size of the winner’s purse depends primarily on the revenue structure of the sport, which depends in turn upon the popularity of the sport, the affluence of the audience, and the size of the national or worldwide audience for the sport on television. The purse serves as a primary incentive for the most talented performers; rodeo operators compete with each other for the top performers; and competition among operators pushes the purse to a level commensurate with the total revenues generated by the sport. The audience for stock car racing is much larger than that for rodeo, both regionally and nationally; and the purses are correspondingly higher. Here the mechanism is business competition.

Incidence of injuries. Riding a bull is a generally hazardous activity. So we would expect that riders will be injured. But so is driving a car at 180 miles per hour — and yet the incidence of injuries in NASCAR racing is substantially lower than that in the rodeo circuit. So paying attention simply to the inherent danger of the activity probably doesn’t explain the difference. Instead, it seems reasonable to ask whether there are institutional differences across these sports — the structure of the safety systems that each embodies — that account for different rates of injury in different types of performance. Industries that have developed genuine institutional commitments and rules governing safety generally demonstrate better safety records. So we might hypothesize that the culture of safety is less strenuous in the rodeo circuit than in professional football or stockcar racing. Here the mechanism is the institutional setting in which the activity takes place, including the presence or absence of penalties for operators with bad safety records.

The parking lot. We notice that the distributions of cars and trucks in the parking lots are quite different at rodeos compared to soccer matches. The vehicles come with their owners; so these differences must derive from differences in the audiences of the two sports. Here we have another example of selection: the composition of the parking lot corresponds to the selection of people who are interested in attending rodeos; this group has a set of tastes and preferences that favor F150s over other vehicles; and the result is — a preponderance of pickup trucks in the rodeo parking lot. (And the trucks are in bad shape for several reasons — the generally lower income level of the rodeo fan and the likelihood that he/she does a lot of back-country driving.) The mechanism here is — social selection.

The silent audience. We observe once in a while that the audience at a small rodeo is plainly enjoying itself — but there is almost no clapping or shouting. There is no roar of the crowd. Why so? Here we may find a cultural explanation in the background — this rodeo is drawing an audience of Navajo people, and applauding and shouting are not the means by which Navajo fans express their appreciation and enjoyment. Here the mechanism is — cultural practices.

What seems interesting to me about this example, is the fact that there are a number of quite different social mechanisms at work that lead to the particular characteristics of such a mundane activity as the rodeo. There is no single process we should point to as the explanatory foundation of rodeo phenomena; instead, there are selection mechanisms, business incentives, cultural practices, media promotions, and socialization processes for both participants and audiences that influence the activity as a whole. And, interestingly enough, these mechanisms can lead to some common characteristics across the set of what appear to be a fairly arbitrary set of activities — public arenas where daring men and women ride large, dangerous animals for pay. The social characteristics of the audiences, the performers, and the local institutions defining the activity impress a unique stamp on these performances that distinguish them from other public entertainment activities such as circuses or NASCAR races.

Institutions, functions, purposes

An institution is a specific ensemble of interlocked organizations and rules that serve to coordinate and constrain the behavior of a number of individuals; and the specific features of the organization have often been refined to bring about specific effects: enforcement of laws, maximization of tax collections, minimization of corrupt behavior, efficient delivery of services, … The reformers, in this case, are not usually master designers or architects standing at the top of the institution; instead, they are an army of players and stakeholders who have the capacity to proliferate or modify various aspects of the institution. So an institution is generally a collective product, created, sustained, and modified by an army of participants, from CEOs to supervisors and directors to front-line workers.

The ideas of “purpose” or “function” are hard to disassociate from the idea of an institution. Purposes have to do with the intentions of the creators or reformers of a thing; and functions have to do with the relationship between the thing’s effects and the broader needs of the system within which it sits. We are often led to ask questions like these: What is the mission or purpose of the institution? What social functions does it fulfill? What are the intentions of the actors that are expressed in the various sub-components of the institution?

Here, however, we have to be very cautious. Social institutions and organizations do not have “essences” or “natures”, and they do not have inherent functions. This functionalist interpretation may once have been appealing but is no longer credible. There is no basis for imagining that social institutions are optimized for bringing about important social effects. And there is no mechanism of “social selection” that serves as a general equivalent to “natural selection” and that would lead to a process of improvement of fitness for social institutions. (This isn’t to say that any variant is equally good; smart social engineers will plainly avoid institutional arrangements that are påatently unworkable. But there is usually a range of alternative arrangements that would be “good enough”, so that the existing arrangement is only one out of several that could have been implemented.) So the concept of an institution’s function isn’t a particularly useful one. (See an earlier post on questionable analogies between social science and evolutionary biology.)

It is fair enough to say that purposes come into the design of an institution. After all, institutions are semi-deliberate social artifacts, and their creators have purposes. But generally these are the local and parochial purposes of participants at a variety of levels, not the purposes of some grand designer for the institution as a whole. The conventions of double-entry accounting express the purpose of an enterprise owner to assure the honest performance of money-handlers in the organization; featherbedding work rules on nineteenth-century railroads expressed the purpose of resistant workers within the railroad business organization. Each of these features reflects the interests of one or another group of participants within the organization.

Universities provide a good illustration of an organization embodying multiple purposes. We might say that the purposes of a university are to educate young people and to conduct useful research. But immediately we need to ask: whose purposes are these? The university president? The board of trustees? The alumni? The employees? The tax payers and private donors? Society at large? The answer appears to be, all and none of the above. Instead of a single overarching purpose to the university, it seems more accurate to say that multiple stakeholders have multiple goals and expectations of the university, and use their various powers to shape its characteristics in ways favorable to the various stakeholders’ interests.

Moreover, even if we grant that universities have the function of disseminating and extending knowledge, the subsidiary organizations of the university have only a loose relationship to this macro-function. The processes of tenure and promotion, purchasing, selection of department chairs, governance rules, or student disciplinary procedures — that is, the academic and business functions of the university — are themselves the expression of past struggles between agents advocating for their interests. So we shouldn’t expect that these subordinate arrangements somehow fit together in a way that is optimal for delivering the primary function of the university. Rather, we might say that a university is a complex of procedures and activities that bear some relationship to education, but that reflect differing and sometimes antagonistic histories of composition.

This discussion underlines several important ideas about social entities: plasticity (institutions are adjusted and shaped by stakeholders), contingency and path-dependence (the particular features of the institution today are the result of choices made in a prior generation), heterogeneity (institutions should be expected to proliferate and differentiate over time; different universities are likely to have significantly different internal procedures); and agent-centered explanations (institutions take shape through the deliberate actions of the agents who populate them).

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.

More on "plasticity": hospitals

Let’s think more about the extent and pace of plasticity in social organization by considering an example: hospitals. Hospitals are complex social organizations geared towards providing health care for moderately to very needy patients. And the internal organization of hospitals provides a fertile locus for examining issues of institutional change.

The complexity of a hospital derives from numerous factors: the specialization of medical knowledge (resulting in numerous departments), the multiplicity of business functions (billing, marketing, finance and budget, supervision of doctors, nurses, pharmacists, support staff), the logistical demands of patient care (food, medications, room and bed cleaning), social work needs of patients and families, the regulatory environment, governance institutions, and communication to the public, simply to name the most obvious functions. So a hospital requires the coordinated efforts of hundreds of experts and perhaps thousands of skilled and semi-skilled workers, embodying tens or hundreds of functions. (A mid-sized regional hospital employs several thousand people.)

Diversity and plasticity comes into this story in several ways. At the mid-level of analysis there are alternative ways of organizing the various functions of the hospital–different ways of organizing human resources, billing, or patient services. That is, structure is underdetermined by functional needs. There are organizational alternatives, and we can expect that there will be actual variation in hospital organization and implementation across the US health system.
This variation can be observed at a range of scales: within a region (Atlanta), across regions (Atlanta versus Detroit), or throughout the national system (midwest versus Pacific coast). At the most macro-level, we may observe differences in organization across national systems–US versus Germany or China. (Frank Dobbin’s Forging Industrial Policy: The United States, Britain, and France in the Railway Age explores this sort of national-level comparison in application to technology policy frameworks in three countries.)

But diversity may also be observed over time at the level of the individual hospital. This is sometimes described as “organizational learning”–internal reorganization and redesign so as to better serve patient and business needs in a changing environment. Plasticity comes in here: the organization “mutates” in response to changing needs and new environmental challenges. (Consider some of the ways that hospitals will change as a result of new public reporting requirements concerning cost and morbidity.)

This mutation may be the result of deliberate choice on the part of hospital administrators (redesign of process). But it may also be the result of broader societal changes leading to changing behavior within the hospital, eventually leading to a change in the routine practices and organizations of the hospital. For example, the operating room of the US hospital of the 1990s is a social space governed explicitly and implicitly by the surgeon (usually male). But imagine the result of a broad values shift towards greater gender equality and less respect for hierarchical authority. We might expect a gradual shift in the operating room towards a team-based approach to surgery. That approach might be confirmed by a record of greater safety (as safety experts in fact expect). And the change might become entrenched in new formal operating rules and procedures–thus changing the institution for a while.

These arguments show the impulse towards differentiation across hospital structures. There is also an important “centripetal” force that works towards convergence to some degree. This is the process of imitation and the search for “best practices”. Consultants are summoned; ” how are other hospitals handling this problem of IV infections?” And successful efforts are imitated.

This example suggests a process of mutation, differentiation, imitation, and occasional convergence. Overall, it supports the vision of institutions as plastic and malleable and responsive to changing individual and societal needs.

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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