Tuesday, 18 February 2014

Systems Theory and Conservative Sociology

The first sociological theory thrown at me during A-Levels was jolly old Functionalism: the perspective that established social institutions and social behaviours exist because they're functional from the point of view of the social whole. Just as lungs, stomachs and hearts maintain biological organisms, the division of labour, the state, the family work to reproduce society according to established norms. It is tautological - the social order exists because it produces social order - but that is it in a nutshell. As you might expect, oriented as it is toward 'the now' Functionalism can be read conservatively and evoked to justify the conservation of institutions. Indeed, for many an A-Level class it is deliberately set up as a straw man to hone critical thinking skills. Yet at the same time, Functionalism is useful as it invites us to think through the consequences institutions and components of the social system have on other parts. It is also possible to avoid conservatism. Noting that the traditional nuclear family fulfills a number of functions through the roles it inculcates does not require its endorsement, nor necessarily blind one to its latent dysfunctions. It could, potentially, be value-free.

Value-free sociology has been something of a holy grail for a long time, and it's one that has come apart time and again - not least because sociological perspectives condense, in theory, the outlooks of classes, fractions of classes, social movements and so on. This is where Niklas Luhmann comes in with his own attempt to introduce a properly scientific approach to the study of social systems. His 'Systems Theory' is something I've only recently encountered (yes, I'm terrible - so shoot me), so indulge me thinking aloud about it.

Luhmann's starting point are with the functions, or how social structures serve certain functions. Under the influence of the German conservative philosopher Arnold Gehlen, Luhmann took his concept of Entlastung, which refers to relieving/unburdening. Alone among the animals, Gehlen believed we can act intentionally and make decisions about our actions. But rather than live in a state of permanent, radical contingency we conscious creatures crave the stability of security and routine. Habits, rituals, traditions, and institutions meet this inescapable ontological lack in a variety of ways, but function to help us cope with having free will.

Institutionally speaking, structures works to reduce contingency, to narrow the range of freedom. Hence when we go to work, regardless of our levels of responsibility and salaries, our jobs tend toward routine. The possibility of contingency, of random accidents and unexpected disruptions, are minimised as much as possible through organisation design. As far as Luhmann was concerned, this foreclosing performs the crucial task of reducing social complexity for the individuals who occupy certain roles. A chief executive of a local authority, for example, is not embedded in the minutiae of day-to-day operations. Their lot is sitting in meetings and making decisions. They do not have to do detail, because the complexity of the organisation is carved up into areas of competency. However, Luhmann notes that the more an organisational system is divided up for the benefit of the limited human minds that inhabit it, the greater the overall complexity of the system becomes. As simplicity begets complexity, the system gets more unwieldy and the possibility one can make causal statements about social processes is reduced.

In addition to the primary functional observation about social systems, Luhmann rejects Talcott Parsons view that goals, or norms, are guides to social behaviour. It appears common sense to assume that that organisations, like individuals, appear to be guided by certain intentions that can explain their actions. For instance, a couple of weeks ago our vice chancellor came to talk with the newest cadre of lecturers. His remarks about an upcoming restructure were prefaced with an overview of the institution's values. There was mention of local roots, commitment to graduate employability, partnering up with local businesses, maintaining scholarly standards, developing research excellence, and so on. Exactly the sorts of objectives common to each and every university. Yet the behaviour of few, if any of the university's employees can be explained by these objectives. Motives for my cohort take in the usual reasons - good salaries and conditions, freedom to teach, freedom to research, etc. What drives the institutional mechanism is system momentum. Or, the continued performance of duties irrespective of the officially sanctioned values and objectives charter. By focusing on small, controllable aspects of their worlds, individuals, departments, faculties and the institution itself keeps on ticking over.

Key for Luhmann here is differentiation. With echoes of Durkehim's division of labour, society itself is structured in a manner analogous to the institutional system, though Luhmann suggests society is best thought of as being distributed across a series of more or less discrete systems. In his 1984 book, Social Systems, he argued that the social comprises a gaggle of functionally differentiated systems that were self-referential and could only be grasped by understanding their internal logics. The elements of these systems are not human subjects as such but continuous acts of communication and the ceaseless production of meaning. Hence, systems theory allows for non-human actors. From a systems perspective, both computers and humans are media for the circulation of communications, and as this is the base element individuals are radically interchangeable. The person may be different but the messages they are expected to emit within a system remain the same.

Functionally differentiated systems are, funnily enough, discerned according to the functions they perform. Hence there are systems for economics, politics, science, religion, art, and so on. Putting a system under the slide of the analytical microscope reveals further layers of differentiation inside, of systems meeting functional needs specific to the overarching functional system. Increasing magnification peels away the layers until you come to the individual being or machine generating codes in their own simplified work space. However, internal differentiation is specific to each functionally separate system. There is no overlap between systems, nor is there a system standing apart, above and capable of corralling systems to behave in particular ways. Any attempt to regulate, or "irritate", as Luhmann puts it, a system from the outside will be responded to solely in terms of the logic of the irritated system. Politically-motivated attempts to tax profits, for example, might encourage systemic avoidance of tax through mass scale accountancy fiddles, offshoring of production, domiciling companies elsewhere, and so on. Another example - considered by Luhmann - was how our social systems are doomed to respond adequately to environmental crisis. The "logics" of natural processes are quite alien from the grammar of profits and votes, and so on. It follows from this that if a system is forced to perform tasks outside its competencies, the inevitable result will be social pathology.

Althusser fans might find this non-Marxist view of social formations as processes without a subject fascinating. I was also struck by the parallels this has with Bourdieu's work around social fields, albeit at a more abstract remove and without any appreciation of the constitutive spadework done by social conflict. Yet, despite this, Luhmann did not link his social theory to any politics. In his sociology, politics is one functionally differentiated field among many in a social space where no one predominates over another, where norms and values are the outcomes, not causes of functions, and where, therefore, sociologically grounded social critique of any kind cannot exist. All that does are free floating 'nice ideas'.

However, the implications are clear. If functionally differentiated systems are not commensurable, any politics seeking social change is utopian from the off. For instance, as politics is a different system to economics, it is the height of folly for the former to involve itself in economic matters - let alone start practising truly democratic socialism - unless one wishes to irritate and damage those systems. Where have I heard that argument before? Oh yes, it sounds mightily similar to the touchstone of neoclassical economics with its quaint belief that states cannot hope to understand the price-signalling information of millions of commodities, which dooms it to wrecking economies when it interferes with market mechanisms.

Has Luhmann provided the bare bones of that rarest of beasts, a conservative sociology? It can certainly be read that way. But then again, there is nothing essentially conservative about it. For example, the extension of economics into politics, a case of conditioning if not determining in the first instance where UK politics are concerned, can highlight dysfunctions coming the other way. Is the commodification of areas under the state's purview, like health and education, good for politics functional health? I would say not - hence Luhmann provides tools for a localised critique not dissimilar in character to Habermas taking up the cudgels against "subsystems" invading the "lifeworld".

This raises unanswered questions about the role of the state and struggle. Sure, the state (or rather, states - Luhmann believed the social system was global) can be treated as a functionally differentiated system too, which is rather extensively differentiated internally. But clearly, no amount of abstract systems theorising can escape the empirical fact that the state is the pre-eminent institution (or set of institutions) in advanced industrial societies, and that it guarantees the set of property relations upon which economic systems are built. It can and does have the power to intervene in other social systems through law and mandatory regulation. How can this real privilege sit within Luhmann's theory?

As someone who was interested in functions rather than structure, Luhmann was open to the idea that different societies would meet the same functional demands in different ways. But why? Is it purely accidental that Britain has a National Health Service and the USA does not, or do the shape structures take to meet functions differ because of the outcomes of popular struggles? If that is the case, then what role for collective actors and collective action? If they are creatures of the political social system, how can they occasionally restructure attitudes across supposedly non-commensurable social systems?

Clearly, Luhmann's systems theory has conservative implications, but it helpfully asks serious and searching sociological questions of itself as an abstract system, and how we theorise the interconnectedness of complex societies with or without it as a guiding framework. Perhaps Luhmann did try and address these issues - I don't know yet. But either way, his rethinking of Functionalism and transformation of it into systems theory is nevertheless fascinating, however flawed his project may turn out to be.


jimboo said...

Brilliant, my daughter is doing Functionalism at the moment, will show her this as a link.

Phil said...

She'll certainly impress her teachers/lecturers if she starts spouting off about Luhmann!