Categories
g. What is Information at Source?

What is Information at Source?

Information exists at source or in replicated form. To define information at source, three concepts, granularity, order, and chaos, first need to be explained.

“Granularity” describes the extent to which a physical entity is broken down, conceptually, into component parts. Least granularity comprises just two components; greatest granularity typically comprises all the sub-atomic particles of the entity, i.e., about 7×10^28 for a human being.

“Order” describes the meaningful way in which these component parts are arranged in space-time, i.e., in patterns that are seen to recur elsewhere. Alternatively, it may describe the recurrence in time of features of the entity, which can also be seen elsewhere, e.g., cycles. “Chaos” is the opposite of order, and none of these criteria apply.

The information held by an entity is essentially a description of it using meaningful component parts and meaningful relationships between them. To be recognised and meaningful, all these components and relationships must recur elsewhere. However, they cannot recur within the entity. Its components do, of course, have their own information content or descriptions, but these can recur within the entity and are descriptions of the components rather than the entity.

Thus, the information held by an entity is the order inherent in the least granularity that displays it just once, i.e., the first level of granularity at which order appears. The diagram below shows a typical event, e.g., a hammer striking a nail. Events comprise one entity interacting with another. The world is full of things which strike one another, and so, just two components, the hammer, nail, and the relationship between them, are sufficient to meaningfully describe the event. This then becomes the information inherent in the event. However, if it is broken down further into, say, random pieces of iron, some of which are part of the hammer, some of which are part of the nail, then no recognisable pattern of relationships exists between them. This is because the way in which these relationships are organised exists nowhere else. These components are therefore disordered and provide no information about the event.

The event can be broken down yet further into atoms. These atoms do interact in an ordered way to form the molecules of the hammer and nail. However, rather than providing information about the event, they provide information about molecules. Whilst it is true that this information is repeated elsewhere, in an asteroid for example, it is also true that it is repeated many times within both the hammer and the nail. Thus, it does not constitute information about the event.

To give another example, a chair comprises four legs, a seat, and a back, all of which can be seen elsewhere. The relationships between these parts form a pattern and can be seen elsewhere too. Thus, these components and the relationships between them comprise the information inherent in the chair. The chair may be made of wood and the cellular structure of wood is also ordered. However, this order is repeated throughout the chair. The chair also comprises many complex molecules, whose atoms are ordered in a way that is repeated many times within it, but relationships between the molecules are essentially disordered. They occur in an arrangement that is not recognised as recurring elsewhere. Thus, they do not constitute information about the chair.

So, for any physical entity, as granularity increases, order appears at some levels then disappears, only to reappear at another level and disappear again. Thus, at higher levels of complexity, an ordered structure at a particular scale does not necessarily require its components to be ordered. For example, a heart must be shaped in a particular way to pump blood, but its component cells can be arranged in infinite ways.

The question is, of course, whether this has a psychological or a physical cause. Certainly, human recognition of recurrences has a significant part to play. However, the following factors are also involved:

  1. Sometimes within chaos, the laws of physics create recognisable entities. For example, gravity creates planets, stars, and galaxies. Geometric structure may also be involved. In the field of biochemistry, for example, the shape of molecules has a significant role in catalysing reactions and the manufacture of proteins.
  2. Sometimes within chaos, processes recur which also create recognisable entities. For example, lightning is a common feature of chaotic weather systems, and war is, unfortunately, a common feature of chaotic social systems.
  3. Finally, entities at one level of granularity can fall into recognisable categories. For example, individual organisms form species.

Note that entropy is not the reciprocal of information defined in this way. Rather, it is the reciprocal of the total information content of an entity at all levels of granularity from the atomic or molecular upwards.

Categories
f. The Importance of Information

The Importance of Information

“No matter how abstractly formulated are a general theory of systems, a general theory of evolution and a general theory of communication, all three theoretical components are necessary for the specifically sociological theory of society. They are mutually interdependent.”

Niklas Luhmann, The Differentiation of Society (1982), quoted in http://scihi.org/niklas-luhmann-social-systems/

The German sociologist and systems theorist, Niklas Luhmann (1927 – 1998), regarded social systems as systems of communication, i.e., he believed human society to be based largely on the transmission and processing of information. In this regard animals, particularly human beings, are unusual. Unlike other physical entities, except perhaps the machines we have created, information can lead to action. For example, we may reason that “there may be an accident so I will drive carefully”. In this statement, “there may be an accident” is information and “I will drive carefully” is a physical event. This does not apply to other physical entities, such as boulders, which cannot roll carefully due to information received. Evolution is undoubtedly the source of this ability, and we can see its progressive emergence as nervous systems become ever more complex. Its pertinence to people is largely a consequence of our social nature and the evolutionary advantages that this gives us.

The flow of information is what binds human beings together into society. However, the flow of goods and services also has a part to play. As might be expected from a characteristic that has evolved, there is a strong correlation with the hierarchy of needs. Satisfiers for our existence and procreation needs are largely material, i.e., air, water, food, shelter, etc. However, we do rely on information to know where and how to acquire these satisfiers. As we climb the hierarchy, material satisfiers become ever less important, and information plays an ever-increasing role. For example, although an exchange of material satisfiers has a part to play, relatedness is largely based on communication between the parties. At the top of the hierarchy, the growth of an individual is based almost entirely on knowledge or information. This is something that many religions stress.

So, what is information? We tend to regard it as something intangible, as being in some way separate and distinct from matter and energy. But this is not so. Information is not merely conveyed by matter and energy; it is integral to it in the form of order and structure. Thus, for example, information is held in the shape of letters written on a piece of paper, in the modulation of sound waves, radio, or electrical signals, in the way that neurons are connected in the brain, in patterns of magnetisation on a hard disk, and so on. Thus, information has a physical presence in the same way as all other entities in the universe.

Every physical entity, including energy, has an information content which depends on the extent to which it is ordered. For example, a crystal is highly ordered, but a pile of sand is not. Entropy is understood in physics to be disorder at every level of an entity from the molecular or atomic level upwards. It is, therefore, the reciprocal of information at all levels, i.e., of the total information in an entity and its component parts. It is not the reciprocal of information at just one particular level as used in human reasoning. The more disordered a thing, the higher its entropy and the lower its total information content. This is an important relationship because the second law of thermodynamics states that, in a closed system, entropy increases with time. Thus, in a closed system, total information content decreases with time, i.e., information naturally decays unless it is maintained. Meaning is lost through errors of transmission. Individuals and societies forget.

We recognise information through its recurrence. Those things which are random and disorganised, i.e., which have a low information content, can take many, almost infinite forms and are therefore unlikely to recur. Those things with a high information content take fewer forms and their recurrence is more likely, therefore. We have evolved to recognise recurrences because of the survival advantages bestowed upon us by the ability to learn from them and predict events. So, entities with a high information content are meaningful to us, and we give them names, whilst those with a low information content are not.

The general properties of information are as follows.

  1. Because information is order inherent in matter and energy, an item of information occupies a region of space-time.
  2. Information is recursive. Any item of information comprises lesser items of information and is a component of greater ones. However, some of the lesser or greater items are meaningful, whilst others are not.
  3. In the physical universe, complexity increases along different paths, from the level of sub-atomic particles and their interactions to the level of the entire universe. For example, one path may be via human society and another via astro-physics. On a particular path of increasing complexity, order, and thus information content, may exist at some levels but not at others. For example, stars recur in their trillions. A single star shares information at its level with all others, and so, it is a recognisable entity. On the other hand, a collection of stars can take many forms, none of which are likely to recur. At this level no information is shared with other collections of stars, and so, it is not a recognisable entity. It has a description but no name. At the next level up, a galaxy does frequently recur and shares information at its level with many other galaxies. So, galaxies are recognisable entities.
  4. A key feature of information is that it can be replicated, whilst matter and energy cannot, i.e., organisation in one place can be copied to another. The term “replication” is used because information is established in the latter, whilst also being retained in the former.
  5. However, the replication of information is for the highest level of complexity for the entity concerned and information at lower levels is excluded. For example, we may name an individual person or film them, and replicate that information, but we do not replicate their cellular structure or thoughts. The matter or energy onto which the name or film is replicated may comprise an entirely different sub-structure, e.g., the cellulose of paper, the neural connections of a brain, or the magnetic particles in a hard disk.
  6. Information can be transmitted from place to place by causality. When it is transmitted this is via a medium, e.g., a book, or via a chain of micro-causality, e.g., cables. The latter is known as a channel.
  7. Information at source in the physical universe is, by definition, always true. However, replicated information can be true or false.
  8. Information is translatable, i.e., a structure in one medium can represent, rather than replicate, a different structure in another. Most notably, patterns in the physical universe are encoded as patterns in the mind and in language. Significantly, also, the things that we recognise and are meaningful to us are given a name.
  9. Information decays with time and transmission unless it is maintained. This is the same as the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics. Information is order or low entropy, lack of information is disorder or high entropy. In a closed system, from which no matter or energy enters or leaves, entropy increases with time. But in an open system it can be held steady or even decreased.
  10. According to the American mathematician, Claude Shannon, and the physicist, Warren Weaver, decay in transmission is caused by noise in the channel. Noise is anything which can alter information during its transmission. However, this theory neglects other ways in which human communication can fail. The problem of noise interfering with communication can be minimised by redundancy either in the information transmitted or in the channels through which it is transmitted.
  11. Information often contains redundancies, i.e., the same component of information repeated laterally, and recursion, i.e., the same component of information repeated vertically. It also contains irrelevances, i.e., meaningless components which have no influence on the information content of the entity. Thus, the information held by an entity can be condensed without any loss of meaning.
  12. The General System Theory principle of darkness states that no system can be known completely by anything less complex. This assumes that the information content of a system must be replicated in the one that “knows” it, and thus, that the latter must be sufficiently complex to hold it. However, information can often be condensed without loss of meaning. Thus, a modified principle of darkness would state that no system can be known completely by anything insufficiently complex to hold its information in a condensed form. Failing that, the model must necessarily be simplified and will, therefore, contain errors. This implies that the components of a system only react to the inputs they receive and cannot “know” the behaviour of the system as a whole.

Human needs, emotions, culture, values, norms, and beliefs are all information. They are held in the minds of individual people in the way that the brain is structured. They are also held by a larger organisation in an aggregate of the minds of its members, plus any other places in which information is stored, such as computers, paper files, etc. The relative priority of our needs, the levels of our emotions and of our satisfaction are variable characteristics held in the same way. Thus, much of social systems theory is concerned with the flow of information.

Categories
e. Social Interactions Part 2

Social Interactions (Part 2)

Inter-organisational Interactions

Three main factors affect whether an organisation interacts co-operatively with another, or engages in positive or negative competition. The same principles apply to individuals except that they are their own leader. These are:

  1. Leadership. Organisations reflect their leadership. Their behaviour differs according to whether the leader acts in his or her personal interest or in that of the organisation. Usually, there is a balance between the two.
  2. Resources. If a necessary input or resource is plentiful, then there will normally be co-operation or positive competition for it. On the other hand, if it is, or is becoming, insufficient to satisfy all parties, then negative competition will result. The planning, establishment, existence, or growth of an organisation can act as negative motivator to another that, either directly or indirectly, needs the same resource. If a threatened organisation already exists, it will engage in negative competition. If it does not, then one may be established with the same result. When two organisations are in negative competition, then the belief system and culture of each is progressively strengthened and becomes more selfish. Positive feedback then occurs, in which stronger identity and self-interest leads to greater perceived threat, which in turn leads to stronger identity and self-interest. Ultimately, conflict can result. Usually, both parties lose, but negative competition can also lead to some maintaining or even improving their situation, whilst making the situation worse for others.
  3. Distance. The effect that one organisation can have on another depends on distance, i.e., how many causally connected organisations form a chain. Clearly, if there is a chain of such connections between organisations, then it is also possible for there to be positive, negative, or regulating feedback. The example of negatively competing organisations given above embodies positive feedback. With just one organisation in a causal chain, feedback must, by definition, exist, i.e., the organisation’s outputs become its inputs. This is the basis of self-maintenance and growth. For example, a business normally reinvests some of its income. If there are two organisations in a chain, then the outputs from one form inputs for the other. As explained above, the former’s outputs may be necessary for the latter, or there may be other organisations providing the same inputs, i.e., redundancy, and this makes the recipient more resilient. A particular input may also be necessary, but not sufficient, and others are usually required for an organisation to carry out its function. Thus, the relationships on the input side of an organisation are more like a tree, with several organisations providing inputs for one, several also providing inputs to each of those, and so on. Nevertheless, a chain exists between any two organisations in this tree. For example, a farmer provides flour to a wholesaler, who refines it and supplies it to a baker, who in turn supplies bread to a supermarket. In general, the longer the chain, the more likely it is that redundancies will occur, and the less influence a supplier at one end will have over a consumer at the other. Nevertheless, there may still exist critical suppliers or consumers whose failure will either directly impact on an organisation or indirectly via the demise of others in the chain. For example, a critical supplier may source resources unethically, or a critical consumer may cause pollution, thereby generating opposition and their ultimate demise. So, longer term organisational survival depends on the identification of any such critical external organisations, and the introduction of changes or redundancies.

Intra-organisational Interactions

Social intra-organisational interactions are not possible for individuals. For an individual, internal interactions are biological. Thus, social interactions apply only to organisations comprising two people or more.

The same three factors, i.e., leadership, resources, and distance, affect intra-organisational interactions. Their impact is, however, via the attributes necessary for an organisation to carry out its purpose or function successfully. These are:

  1. The purpose or function of the organisation:
    • relates to an external demand or need;
    • is agreed by members of the organisation, i.e., individuals and component organisations;
    • is clearly defined and communicated;
    • has the commitment of members of the organisation; and
    • is consistent with the culture of the organisation.
  2. Organisational structure:
    • is effectively divided into component functions;
    • includes effective operational systems;
    • includes effective interaction between component functions, including the transmission of information; and
    • includes an acceptable balance of effort vs. reward for individuals and sub-organisations.
  3. Leadership:
    • has the appropriate skills;
    • is effectively structured; and
    • comprises effective management, monitoring, and control.
  4. Resources.
    • There is adequate availability of the necessary resources.

If all these attributes exist, then attitudes will be ones of of co-operation or positive competition. However, negative competition can arise if just one is deficient. There are causal relationships between these attributes, and a deficiency in one can lead to negative competition, which, in turn, can lead to a deficiency in another. For example, if the purpose of the organisation is not clearly defined and communicated, then competing opinions can arise. If these are expressed in the form of positive competition, then ultimately there will be agreement on the better option. However, if competition becomes negative, then members of the organisation will commit to one or the other, interactions between parts of the organisation will be less effective, and so on. There are many possibilities, and the range is too great to list here.

Extra-organisational Interactions

Positive extra-organisational competition is the natural order, i.e., both the natural world and humanity are evolving, in different ways, thereby improving our likelihood of survival. The outcome is unknown but, as mentioned in a previous article, the direction of travel seems to be one of subsuming the natural environment into the human economy.

For the present at least, the non-human environment generally lacks agency, and any agency that it does have cannot successfully compete with that of humanity. The natural world cannot engage in negative competition, therefore. Any apparent pushback, e.g., viral pandemics, is simply a matter of evolutionary adaptation to the existence of humanity.

We rely on the environment for our continued existence, and any environmental damage, depletion of resources, or other form of misuse ultimately has an adverse effect on us. If extra-organisational interactions comprise negative competition, i.e., if we prevent our environment from carrying out its function, then people will see this as a threat and engage in negative competition on the environment’s behalf.

On the other hand, if extra-organisational interactions are co-operative, then this leads to stable and sustainable relationships with the environment, in which both are able to pursue their destiny without the one impeding the other. The environment is unable to actively co-operate with humanity and help us in this. However, the reverse is not true and is the path that I would advocate.

Categories
d. Social Interactions Part 1

Social Interactions (Part 1)

Introduction

Any organisation, when treated as a system, comprises inputs, internal processes, and outputs. Inputs are external interactions that comprise the passing of space/place, matter, energy, and information from some unspecified source to the organisation. It is a causal relationship, but the cause is not specified. Outputs comprise the passage of the same from the organisation to an unspecified recipient. It is a causal relationship in which the effect is not stated. Finally, the organisation’s processes comprise internal systems, some of which are child organisations such as departments, others of which are physical processes such as production machinery, and the relationships between them. The latter are also causal relationships.

Although this system concept is helpful in focusing on the internal behaviour of an organisation, it does have its drawbacks. Typically, for example, it can result in the effects of an organisation’s outputs being neglected, resulting, for example, in social or environmental harms. It can also result in the sources of its inputs not being fully appreciated, resulting, for example, in their loss. A more wholistic approach to the management of an organisation is suggested in the section entitled “Distance” in my next article.

The functioning of an organisation can therefore be regarded as a matter of complex causality. Several inputs, i.e., causes, may be necessary, but only together may they be sufficient for the organisation to function, and thus, persist. If there is only one source of a necessary input, then the organisation is dependent on that source, and the one producing it has power over the one receiving it. A topical example is Europe’s current dependence on Russian gas. However, if there are several sources, then this power is much diminished.

Likewise, an organisation’s outputs can form the inputs of just one organisation, or of several. Clearly, if there is just one, and if the inputs are unnecessary or if there are several suppliers, then the customer has power over the supplier.

Interactions

Organisations, in a very general sense and including individuals, are the elementary entities in social systems. However, it is their interactions that are important for social systems theory. They are what forms society. These interactions are of three types:

  1. Intra-organisational Interactions or Processes, i.e., interactions between an organisation and a familial organisation. These interactions can be vertical, i.e., parent/child, or horizontal, i.e., sibling/sibling.
  2. Inter-organisational Interactions, i.e., interactions between separate organisations.
  3. Extra-organisational Interactions or Environmental Impacts, i.e.,interactions between organisations and the non-human environment.

They all pass space/place, matter, energy, or information from one place to another and are, therefore, causal relationships.

In a previous article it was explained that organisations can interact with others in their environment in one of three ways: co-operation, positive competition in which each competitor strives to excel, and negative competition in which each competitor strives to prevent the other from achieving their aims. Thus, interactions are two dimensional as follows:

Asymmetrical Interactions

The discussion above assumes that all interactions are symmetrical, i.e., that the attitude of both parties is either co-operative, positively competitive, or negatively competitive. However, asymmetrical interactions are also possible, in the short term at least.

Co-operation or positive competition can deteriorate and become negative via asymmetrical interaction. If one party to co-operation feels under threat, or if one party engaging in positive competition feels they will lose, they may begin to engage in negative competition. If this is overt, then, unless the other party has ethical objections, they will reciprocate. Negative competition can, of course, be carried out covertly, whilst maintaining a façade of co-operation or positive competition. If so, then the interaction becomes asymmetrical, i.e., one party engaging in negative competition and the other in genuine co-operation or positive competition. Usually, however, the interaction becomes symmetrically negative when the deceit is discovered.

Theoretically, the reverse is also possible, i.e., negative competition can become positive or cooperative, but this requires reciprocal de-escalation, whilst the interaction remains symmetrical. If one party de-escalates unilaterally, they will lose.

Organisational Inputs and Outputs

The basis for inter- and intra-organisational interactions is the reciprocal trading of satisfiers, or in some cases contra-satisfiers. Such satisfiers or contra-satisfiers comprise outputs from one organisation, in the form of space/place, matter, energy or information, and inputs to the other.

In a co-operative interaction, satisfiers are exchanged by mutual agreement to the benefit of both parties. In a positively competitive interaction, there is no trade between the two. However, space/place, matter, energy, or information can be passed, inadvertently, from one to the other. Finally, negatively competitive interactions involve the provision of contra-satisfiers by one to the other and vice versa, as in the case of war. This is to the detriment of both, although one party may ultimately prevail. Negatively competitive interactions can also involve the extraction of satisfiers without reciprocation or with the threat of contra-satisfiers, e.g., robbery at gunpoint.

Clearly, feedback loops are involved. For example, organisation A may provide a satisfier for organisation B, which in turn provides a satisfier for organisation A. However, in the modern world, organisational distance is a significant factor. For example, if organisation A provides a satisfier to organisation B, then the latter may be unable to reciprocate with physical satisfiers. A much larger and more complex arrangement of feedback loops, comprising many organisations, may be necessary for the equitable satisfaction of all parties. Clearly, such complexity can become unmanageable, and so, money has been introduced as a token of exchange in markets, thereby forming the basis of economics.

Categories
c. Basic Social Systems Theory

Basic Social Systems Theory

Introduction

The term “Social Systems Theory” has been used to describe the sociologist, Niklas Luhmann’s theory, but the one presented here differs in important respects. In this article I will describe its core principles.

Firstly, we use different terminology in different fields of study, but as can be seen from the table below it is all the same thing really. So, please refer to this table if in any doubt about the meaning of a term.

The Social Systems Concept

The basic framework of social systems theory can be described as follows:

  1. A general system comprises inputs, processes, and outputs. Processes, in turn, comprise components and their interactions. These components are also systems.
  2. Humanity is a social system which follows the same structure and rules as a general system. Its components are organisations. The reader may recall that, in these articles, an organisation is defined as any group of people who work together for a common purpose. Thus, an organisation may be a single individual, a club, a nation, or all of humanity.
  3. The interactions between organisations are the trade of satisfiers and contra-satisfiers between them. The satisfiers and contra-satisfiers traded take the form of information, matter, and energy. In more familiar terms, they comprise raw materials, products or artifacts, services and, as a general token of exchange, money.
  4. The satisfiers exchanged are related to the needs of the organisations concerned which, in general terms, are existence, relatedness and growth.

So, organisations are the elementary entities in social systems theory. At the next level of complexity up, i.e., ecology, the elementary entity is the species. Humanity is one such species and its inputs and outputs are those things that it takes from and gives to the natural ecosystem.  At the next level of complexity down, i.e., biology, the elementary entity it is the organ. The domain of social systems theory lies between these two boundaries.

The most notable aspect of organisational behaviour is its similarity to that of individual people. This is not because organisations have a “group mind”, but rather because every organisation is ultimately led by a single individual, and its specialist activities are also carried out by individuals. There are, however, important variations in the behaviour of both individuals and organisations which depend on their time, place, and size. These common features and the ways in which they vary are summarised below.

Theory

The following core principles apply to all organisations no matter what their size, location, or era. They are therefore universal and constant. They will be explained in more detail in future articles and only a simplified summary is given below.

  • Agency. All organisations have agency. They have choices available to them, they process information and act on it.
  • Purpose. All organisations have a purpose or function.
  • Needs. All organisations have needs which when prioritised form a hierarchy.
  • Satisfiers, Contra-satisfiers, and Motivators. Every organisation is affected by these and, together with its knowledge and needs, they influence its behaviour.
  • Inputs, Processes and Outputs. All organisations require inputs to carry out their function, which is to produce outputs. These inputs and outputs comprise materials, services, and/or information. However, information must always form a part.
  • Self-maintenance. All organisations are self-maintaining, i.e., they use a proportion of their inputs in self-maintenance as opposed to producing outputs.
  • Recursiveness. All organisations are recursive. Every organisation, except an individual person, comprises a number of component organisations and is a component of larger organisations.
  • Specialisation. All organisations comprise specialised sub-organisations or individuals. This is commonly known as a division of labour.
  • Co-ordination. All organisations require a control component, i.e., leaders, to co-ordinate specialised activities. This is carried out via an internal feedback loop with information passing upwards and instructions downwards.
  • Culture. Every organisation has a culture comprising values, norms, beliefs, operational knowledge, and symbols.
  • Schemata. Every organisation holds knowledge in schemata which are resistant to change. These include a schema for worldview/purpose, an internal ethical schema, external ethical schema, operating schemata, self-image, etc.
  • Misinformation. All organisations are capable of concealing information from others or supplying misinformation to them.
  • Adaptation. In response to both internal and external change, all organisations adapt their processes, attempt to adapt their environment, or both. Without adaptation, an organisation will eventually fail.
  • Evolution. The laws of evolution apply to organisations of all sizes, i.e., random mutation occurs within them, and natural selection occurs through the way in which they and their environment interact.
  • Inter-organisational Distance. Ultimately, every organisation interacts with every other. In some cases, they interact directly. In others there is no direct interaction. Rather any interaction is via a chain of direct connections.
  • Competition/Co-operation. The choice between co-operation, positive competition and negative competition always applies when one organisation interacts with another.

Some relationships between organisations, and thus, social systems theories, change with size, time, and place. These changes are due to:

  • Availability of Resources. The availability of resources varies from time to time and from place to place. This affects culture, which also then varies in the same way. Culture in turn affects knowledge, the relative priorities of needs, satisfiers, motivators, and attitudes towards relationships, i.e., whether co-operation, positive competition, or negative competition is favoured.
  • Knowledge. This, including knowledge of social systems, is part of an organisation’s culture. Because knowledge is one component affecting behaviour, the latter also alters from place to place. Knowledge can also be gained or lost, and so varies with time. If new knowledge is gained this can alter culture, and thus, social theory. However, progress is not inevitable, shocks can occur, and knowledge can be lost, e.g., the collapse of the Roman Empire and the subsequent Dark Ages. Loss of knowledge can cause an organisation or society to revert to behaviours similar to those of earlier years.
  • Redundancy. The amount of redundancy, i.e., duplicated capability, in an organisation, and thus its resilience, varies depending on factors such as whether an organisation has been designed or has evolved. This includes redundancy of potential command.
  • Size. As organisations increase in size the following characteristics alter and affect their efficiency. The interaction of efficiencies and inefficiencies of scale usually results in an optimum organisational size.
    • Specialisation, Departmentalisation, and the Formalisation of roles generally increase. Departmentalisation is the collection of specialised tasks into groups under a leader. Formalisation is the specification of tasks and the introduction of rules and regulations regarding the way in which they are carried out.
    • Informal Innovation generally decreases.
    • Hierarchy, i.e., the number of levels of command, generally increases.
    • Distance of Intra-organisational Communication, including Leadership Distance and Peer Distance, i.e., the lengths of chains of communication, generally increase, and along with them, the likelihood of communication errors.
    • Decentralisation, i.e., the delegation of power and control, generally becomes increasingly necessary.
    • The relative amount of Self-maintenance or Administration generally increases.
    • Speed of Decision-making generally decreases.
    • Cultural Entrenchment, i.e., the unchangeability or otherwise of an organisation’s culture, generally increases.
    • Cultural Homogeneity, i.e., whether all members of an organisation share a common culture, generally decreases.
    • Frequency of Restructuring, i.e., reorganisation, generally decreases.
    • Social Traffic, i.e., irrelevant communication, generally increases.

Explanation/Prediction/Design

The theory of social systems can be used to explain society, but not to predict it with certainty or to design an ideal system. This is because there are approximately seven and a half billion people in the world. So, the vast number of relationships between organisations, including individuals, leads to great complexity. Added to this is the vast number of relationships with the non-human environment. We do not have the mental capacity to understand such complexity. Even if we were able to model the human social system, then our understanding of it would change, and so too would its behaviour. Furthermore, predictability would diminish due to a build-up of un-anticipatable random events. The best we can do, therefore, is imagine relatively small, closed, sections of society, and make predictions about them, with reasonable confidence but no certainty, a short distance into the future.

Categories
b. Are the Social Sciences Scientific?

Are the Social Sciences Scientific?

Scientific inquiry is a process that enables us to gain new knowledge with greatest likelihood of it being correct. As a starting point, a hypothesis, i.e., a proposed explanation of a phenomenon based on limited evidence, is proposed. This hypothesis is then tested by experiment, by gathering data, or by reference to existing experiments and data. If this supports the hypothesis, then it is proposed as a theory, the research is written up, subjected to peer review or checks by other specialists in the field, and published.

Together, the accepted theories and the way in which they are developed form a paradigm. Wikipedia defines a paradigm as “a distinct set of concepts or thought patterns, including theories, research methods, postulates, and standards for what constitute legitimate contributions to a field.” An initial hypothesis is usually consistent with other theories in the prevailing paradigm, but sometimes not.

The philosopher of science, Thomas Kuhn, argued that science does not progress in a linear manner, but that the prevailing paradigm is relatively resistant to change, and undergoes periodic revolutions when the amount of contradictory evidence reaches a critical mass. In part, this resistance is brought about by human nature. I think it is fair to say that scientists and academic organisations are more objective than most. Nevertheless, they are still human, and the following traits will tend to introduce a bias in favour of the existing paradigm.

At the level of the individual, considerable effort is put into developing a theory. It becomes a part of his or her mental schema and is resistant to change. Furthermore, reputation and livelihood depend on any theory promoted as being correct. There will, therefore, be a personal vested interest in its acceptance and a resistance to any challenges. Obviously, acceptance is more likely if it is consistent with the prevailing paradigm.

Every organisation, including academia, is organised hierarchically, i.e., there are higher status individuals who command groups of lower status ones, and this assembles into a pyramidical structure. This structure is maintained by a process of trade or negotiation. Typically, a senior may delegate some of his power, influence, reputation, wealth, etc. in return for a subordinate’s support. Status is gained from the resources we control, and so, if one has many supporting subordinates, then one has greater status. With increasing status comes increasing power, influence, reputation, and wealth. Thus, there can be a personal vested interest in a theory and in the prevailing paradigm. Independence can be had by refusing to trade, but obviously this will result in a personal loss.

Experimental proof must be reproducible, and data must be readily accessible, so that others can check it. However, in the social sciences, there are several difficulties with this:

  1. Variables in the social sciences are often qualitative rather than quantitative, i.e., they are either true or not. Even if a variable is quantitative, there can be difficulties in measuring it. In physics it is relatively easy to determine the mass of an object and apply a number to it. However, in the social sciences, there are, for example, no objective ways of quantifying personality traits. These are probably more acquired than inherited, and so, more to do with the brain’s software than its hardware. This means, that they are unlikely to be revealed by MRI scans, etc. There are also issues with the reliability of questionnaires in which we report on our own personality.
  2. Experimental proof based on historical analysis can be flawed. History comprises reports and interpretations that can be highly subjective. In addition, there are often only a small number of examples to which we can refer.
  3. Experimental proof which relies on direct experience can also be highly subjective and is not reproducible.
  4. Experimental design is constrained by ethical considerations. For example, if one wished to prove that an event x always causes war, then it would be unethical to cause such an event.
  5. Finally, culture can have a strong influence on both hypotheses and the evidence used in their proof. For this reason, cross-cultural studies are becoming increasingly common. It is also the case that knowledge is a part of culture and so, new knowledge can alter culture. Thus, a feedback loop exists, i.e., culture affects social theory, which can, in turn, affect culture.

So, the paradigm for the physical sciences is very different to that for the social sciences. An analogy might be to regard the former as a criminal law case in which it is necessary to prove the defendant guilty. The latter can be regarded as a civil case, that is judged on the balance of evidence. This does, of course, mean that theories in the social sciences are less likely to be true than those in the physical sciences. Nevertheless, their pursuit is worthwhile because an understanding of human nature does, in general, and in the long term at least, appear to lead to an improvement in our circumstances.

Categories
a. How We Understand a Complex Universe

How We Understand a Complex Universe

Introduction

In this article I will describe the way in which we human beings make sense of the world that we inhabit, and the implications of this for the theory of General and Social Systems.

Relationships

My starting point is the concept of the relationship. Normally, to describe a relationship, we use a diagram showing an arrow, the relationship, between two points, the related entities. However, this image can be misleading. A relationship is not something separate and distinct from other physical entities in the universe. Rather it comprises the two related entities in conjunction for a period of time. Thus, the relationship is also a physical entity, albeit one comprising two parts. The nature of the relationship is the nature of the conjunction of these parts.

A valid scientific theory is a statement of a causal relationship, in which entities of one type, the cause, always result in entities of another type, the effect. In fact, it comprises the cause and the effect for so long as the causal relationship exists between them. These theories are a subset of all relationships, and the same principles apply to them. A causal relationship differs mainly in that several recognised and named causes may be necessary for the effect, but it is their un-named and unrecognised conjunction that is sufficient for it to occur.

Physical Entities

Relationships do, of course, relate two physical entities. Every physical entity can be regarded as lying on a scale of complexity, from the smallest and least complex ones known by us, to the entire universe. The sub-atomic level is the lowest level of complexity at which we know all of the building blocks of the universe. This comprises three particles, i.e., protons, neutrons, and electrons, together with four fundamental interactions, i.e., the weak nuclear force, the strong nuclear force, the electro-magnetic force, and gravity. The latter interactions can be regarded as relationships between the particles. There are, of course, lower levels of complexity, comprising quarks and leptons, but they and their interactions are not yet fully understood. So, for the purpose of this article, protons, neutrons, and electrons will be treated as elementary particles.

Measuring Complexity

Every physical thing or entity can be regarded as lying on a scale of complexity, from a simple sub-atomic particle or interaction to the entire universe. The term “complexity” does not imply that the entity is either ordered or disordered. Rather, it merely refers to the number of sub-atomic particles and interactions that comprise it.

Ultimately, every physical entity, its properties, and its relationships with other entities are the consequence of a complex of sub-atomic particles and their interactions. The more complex an entity, the greater the number of particles and interactions. The same is true of relationships. The complexity of the relationship is the sum of the complexity of its two components.

Meaningful Entities and Relationships

If we draw a boundary around any part of the universe, call everything within it an entity or relationship, and give it our focus of attention, then for the most part its contents will be random, disorganised, and meaningless. However, in some cases the boundary will contain organisation and order. The more ordered an entity, the more likely it is to recur. The entities and relationships which are meaningful to us are those which we recognise as recurring. We then symbolise them by, for example, naming them, or creating an image of them.

Simplification

However, we lack the ability to store and process the amount of information involved in representing more complex entities via their sub-atomic particles and interactions. There is a threshold of comprehension beyond which we are unable to understand entities in this way.

To overcome this, we simplify at or before this threshold of comprehension is reached. We do so by identifying a new set of elementary entities and relationships from recurrences at that level of complexity. For example, in chemistry, our elementary entities are atoms, and our relationships are atomic bonds. In sociology, our elementary entities are individual people, and our relationships are their social interactions.

We then use these new elementary entities and relationships to deal with greater complexity. They have substantially less information content and, initially, remain within our threshold of comprehension.

Ultimately, however, with further increases in complexity, each simplification reaches the threshold of comprehension once more. To remain within it we must simplify yet further. This leads to several fields of knowledge, each with its own elementary entities, relationships, and theories, each dependant on the speciality below, and each lying on a path of increasing complexity.

Possible Limits to Simplification

With each simplification, information is lost. It is also true that, unless emergent theories are based on careful and accurate observations of the real world, with each simplification comes the introduction of error. There is, therefore, likely to be an upper threshold to complexity beyond which a reliance on pure theory cannot take us. Observation is necessary to progress further.

However, there are difficulties in observing reality at very high levels of complexity. In general, the more ordered the elementary components and relationships within an entity, the greater the likelihood of it recurring and being recognised. However, it is also true that the more complex it is, the greater its size, and the greater its size, the less likely it is that we will be able to perceive it. Furthermore, it is less likely that it will recur within a timeframe that allows us to recognise its recurrence. Thus, there may be an upper threshold to complexity beyond which we are unable to perceive recurrence, and thus, recognise and name entities, including scientific theories.

Emergence

Because each relationship, and thus, each scientific theory relies on a minimum amount of complexity, it cannot also apply in a less complex field. Thus, it will appear to emerge as complexity increases. However, the reverse is not necessarily the case. A relationship which requires relatively little complexity can, of course, exist within an entity of much greater complexity.

Divergence

Increases in complexity can follow different paths, e.g., from an elementary particle to the cosmos, or from an elementary particle to an ecosystem. Different valid scientific theories emerge on each path. Those which emerge for life will, for example, differ for those which emerge for astro-physics.

The following path of increasing complexity is relevant to human social systems. At each level new theories emerge:

  1. Logic.
  2. Causality.
  3. Physics.
  4. Chemistry.
  5. Biochemistry.
  6. Evolution.
  7. Social Sciences, i.e., Psychology, Social Psychology, Sociology, Economics, Political Science.
  8. Ecology.

The path for astro-physics is, of course, different.

The Search for Understanding in Practice

In the above article, I have described the process of understanding reality from the elementary particles and their interactions upwards. However, in practice, the starting point in our search for understanding was reality at the human scale, i.e., the world in which we live and its direct impacts upon us. From here, the search has not only been in the upward direction towards ever greater complexity, but also in the downward direction towards ever less complexity. Both processes are ongoing, but the more we understand what underlies the sub-atomic world, the more this increases the complexity above it.

Implications for General Systems Theory

Because systems and entities are essentially the same concept, the implication for General Systems Theory is, of course, that there is no single set of rules applicable to all systems. So, for example, human social systems will have their own set, some of which are shared by less complex levels, and some of which are particular to the field. Any General Systems Theory is therefore likely to be a meta-theory, i.e., a theory of theories, that explains what theories emerge on a particular path of increasing complexity, and why. This would require an explanation of the relationships between simplifying concepts at one level of complexity, and those at the levels above and below.

Implications for the Social Sciences

In the social sciences, the search is for valid macro-causal rules, or theories which emerge at, as yet un-simplified higher levels of complexity. However, in the same way as other entities, their recognition depends on their recurrence. Unfortunately, the greater the level of complexity, the less frequently these recurrences will be observed. Furthermore, the larger the scale at which they operate, the less likely it is that we will recognise them.

To add to these difficulties, human behaviour is caused by emotion, knowledge, and reasoning skills. If we were to recognise a new macro-causal rule, then this would constitute new knowledge, and might alter our behaviour. This, in turn, might invalidate the theory. For example, if it becomes known that an event, x, always causes war, then, whenever x is encountered, effort will be put into avoiding its consequence. So, rather than stating that “x always causes war”, the theory should in fact state that “x, and not knowing that x always causes war, and the absence of any inhibitors always cause war”.

The decreasing likelihood of our recognising causal rules or theories as complexity increases could well mean that there is a maximum level of complexity at which human recognition can occur. If so, then beyond that point, causal rules are unrecognisable, and so, not affected by human agency. However, whilst they are fixed, we are unable to recognise and take advantage of them.

If for example, they could be identified using advanced artificial intelligence, or by a General Systems Meta-theory, then the newly discovered macro-causal rules would no longer be fixed, and the threshold would move upwards. This increased knowledge would, of course, also alter our culture.

Is New Social Knowledge Worth Pursuing?

Given all these difficulties, the reader may question whether new social knowledge is worth pursuing. Personally, I believe that it is, but that an ethical framework is needed to control its use. New knowledge can change human behaviour for the better, for example, by avoiding war. However, it can also change it for the worse. An elite may, for example, keep the knowledge to themselves and use it to manipulate others, as may already be the case in the fields of politics and advertising. To avoid this, it is important that there be open access to any new knowledge in the social sciences, that it be used ethically, and that these requirements are policed.

Categories
n. The Acquisition of Status

The Acquisition of Status

Those who rise to the top of an organisation are not necessarily those whose skills are associated with its intended function. Rather, they can be those whose skill is the acquisition of status. People who achieve high social status often show some or all of the following characteristics.

Ambition. As well as carrying out a community function, organisations also satisfy the needs of their members. For example, normal employment provides a salary, social interaction, etc. In a voluntary organisation, it provides for more social and psychological needs. To be ambitious one must have a pressing need to satisfy. The more pressing the need, the more vigorously we will pursue its satisfaction, and thus, the more likely we are to succeed.

Negotiating skills. To acquire status, one must trade support for it. Some are more skilled in this than others. We may, for example, have learned these skills during our upbringing or from a role model. Imbalances in trading skills will eventually lead to a situation in which those with greater skills have greater status than others.

Skill in Selecting an Existing Hierarchy to Climb. A point worth noting is that it is far easier to climb an existing hierarchy than to create a new one with oneself at the pinnacle. The latter requires genuine leadership skills and much effort. This is not a universal rule, of course. There are, for example, politicians, press magnates, businessmen, and celebrities who have achieved high status with the help of a silver spoon from their parents.

Displays of Status. Clearly, those who aspire to higher social status must be seen to have something to trade with potential supporters. They must, therefore, overtly display the attributes of leadership and/or power. Irrespective of the role that they fill, the more successful they are in this, the more support they will receive. Conversely, those of lower status must display a willingness and ability to provide support.

Status is displayed through symbols, e.g., material goods such as clothing, cars, houses, etc. They are also displayed through communication, e.g., “name dropping”. A common strategy for acquiring social status, leadership and power is therefore the false display of such symbols and communications. People will create an impression of status by creating an impression of power or influence. Potential supporters will respond accordingly, and thus, status comes to those who appear to have it.

Within a very large hierarchy such as a nation, the various strata may be so large that they form their own distinct culture, for example the social classes in the UK. Displaying the values, norms, symbols, and beliefs of a higher status culture are often necessary to enhance one’s social status. Again, this can be learnt through upbringing or the emulation of a role model. However, it is more difficult to do so if one has been raised in a lower stratum of society. This reinforces the strata in a hierarchy, making movement between them more difficult.

Displays of Competence. Leadership skills will attract followers, thus enhancing social status. However, such skills also need to be overtly displayed.

Displays of Altruism. People who aspire to climb a hierarchy can be altruistic only to the extent necessary for others to support them. A common strategy among those who would lead is to give the impression that it is the needs of the group which are valued most highly whilst, in reality, it may be personal needs. However, the individual will take care that this is not recognised by the group until his or her status is established, or convincingly faked.

Emulation of Role Models. To attract followers, members of the higher strata will display the trappings of their status to those in the lower ones. In many cases they will become a role model to those in the lower strata. Note that people learn both leadership skills and the use of power from role models. There are formal leadership courses but none for managing power.

Cultural Adaptation. If a higher status individual is seen to be behaving in a way contrary to the conscience or self-concept of a lower status one, then the latter may conclude that there is something wrong with their conscience or self-concept and modify it. Even if the behaviour of the higher status individual is believed to be wrong, the lower status one may value membership of the group to such an extent that, rather than risk rejection, they will adopt a strategy for dealing with internal conflicts, such as rationalisation, repression, or denial. Often a rationale will be provided by the organisation, which the lower status individual accepts and adopts.

Expansionism.  The larger a group, the greater the power of those in the highest stratum. Thus, there is a natural tendency for the latter to seek to expand their organisation or part of it. This applies whether the group is a department, business organisation, religion, or nation. Such expansion is not necessarily in the interest of the group as a whole, however, and may be solely in the interest of the highest stratum.

Chance, luck, or fortune. Finally, Imbalances in chance, luck, or fortune will inevitably lead to some individuals achieving greater social status than others.

Categories
m. Trading Status for Support and Vice Versa

Trading Status for Support and Vice Versa

In any organisation people advance their position by trading status for support. The process typically involves a higher status, or senior, individual identifying lower status, or junior, individuals who are likely to support their aspirations, whatever those aspirations may be. Many lower status individuals, in turn, signal their willingness to participate in such a process. They may for example, offer vocal support at meetings, act out the culture of their seniors, and so on. If a successful partnership appears to be possible, then the senior will delegate some of his or her status to the junior in return for their support. Thus, promotions within a hierarchy often have more to do with “politics” than aptitude.

Social exchange theory holds that the negotiation is based on a risk/cost/benefit analysis for both parties, as described in a previous article. A relationship will be successful if it provides a net benefit for both parties, but will fail if it provides a net disbenefit for one or the other. The former can even apply when the junior partner is coerced, if the disbenefit of the punishment exceeds that of compliance. The relationship is not based solely on the ability of the senior partner to provide something that the junior partner desires, therefore. Rather it is an aggregate of the rewards and punishments that the former can dispense. The same is true of the junior partner, of course, but the options to mete out disbenefits to a senior are often much reduced and, unless done covertly, may prompt reciprocal action.

This form of trading is so commonplace in human society that it is often carried out unconsciously.

Other forms of trading can take place within an organisation, of course, e.g., bribery, corruption, sexual services, etc. Fortunately, however, some forms of social interaction can be tempered by social norms, i.e., what forms of interaction are acceptable and what are not.

In a stratified organisation, the greater the support an individual can provide to the higher strata, the greater the delegated status they receive in return. The higher an individual is in the hierarchy, the more resources they control, the greater the support they can provide and the greater their ability to trade. Conversely, the higher they are in the hierarchy, the greater the threat they can pose, and the greater the adverse reaction if they do so. Thus, they will be more cautious not to upset the status quo.

Trading tends to take place between people in adjacent strata. Those in the stratum immediately below are the most familiar individuals and have the greatest support to offer to those in the stratum above. Those in the lowest strata tend to be of least consequence to those in the highest, and opportunities for trading between these strata are fewer, therefore.

In practice, a balance is often negotiated between the strata. This results in the lower strata being sufficiently satisfied to support the organisation, even though they are denied its full potential benefits. Conversely, the upper strata are denied the full potential benefit that they might otherwise take, in return for a stability which ensures that their benefits are sustained. Thus, degrees of egalitarianism and stratification within organisations can vary.

Categories
l. Power

Power

Leadership and power are two different aspects of social status, and there is a constant interplay between them. Leadership maintains group cohesion and purpose and enables us to adapt in a changing environment. Power, on the other hand, is the ability to direct the resources of sub-ordinates to some purpose.

Many people actively seek social status which, as well as holding leadership obligations, also conveys power. The reasons are diverse and vary from individual to individual. For example, it might be a consequence of lacking a feeling of safety, the influence of upbringing, or the influence of a role model. However, the principal motivators are thought to be:

  1. A desire to be in control of one’s own affairs and freedom from social demands. Power enables one to enjoy the benefits of a co-operative society without the associated effort of negotiating and compromising with large numbers of other people. Rather, it is easier to negotiate with just a few in a hierarchy. Those who seek power for this reason can often be identified by their retiring nature, e.g., living in homes surrounded by security fencing and avoiding the media.
  2. A desire for control over the affairs of others as a means of obtaining positive regard. Such seekers of power have a tendency towards narcissism and publicity seeking. They enjoy their status and having others look up to them.
  3. The pursuit of resources. When people believe that they have insufficient resources to satisfy, and sustain the satisfaction of their personal needs, they will attempt to control the resources of others: i.e., their time, physical effort, mental effort, and property. We seek to satisfy our needs as efficiently as possible. From a personal perspective it is more efficient to do so using the resources of others, rather than our own. Although communities rely on reciprocal trading for the equitable satisfaction of their members’ needs, some members will use strategies to tilt the balance of reciprocation in their favour. They will, therefore, benefit inequitably from the resources of the group.

The drive to acquire social status is a natural part of the human psyche and the consequence of millions of years of evolution. In the past, it has enabled us to survive and prosper. It is a part of human nature. Without it we would be less than human, and we certainly lack the skills to design a better psyche. However, one component of social status, the drive to acquire power, now poses a threat to the future of humanity. The answer, however, is not to attempt to remove it by technical or psychological means. Nor is the answer the replacement of one ideology by another. Nor is it the replacement of particular individuals or groups by others, e.g., men by women, or the elite by the working class. This is because we all seek power to a greater or lesser degree. Rather, the answer is to put in place social controls and attitudes which will ensure that power does not eclipse the other aspect of social status, leadership. In this way requisite hierarchy can be made to benefit all of humanity and life on earth.