Volume 1 Number 1 Spring/Summer 2000
A Journal for Sociocybernetics
By: Richard E. Lee; Felix Geyer; Bernd R. Hornung
The Journal of Sociocybernetics responds to the growing interest evinced in “sociocybernetics” over the past two decades and the concomitant demand for a venue expressly dedicated to disseminating work in the field. Indeed, sociocybernetics has attracted a broad range of scholars whose departmental affiliations represent the entire spectrum of the disciplines and whose countries of origin attest to the wide international appeal of sociocybernetic approaches. Within this highly diverse community, there is ample agreement on some general issues, for instance, on developing strategies for the study of human reality that avoid reification, reject reductionism and dualism, and eschew linear or homeostatic models. Not surprisingly, however, there are also wide divergences in subject matter, theoretical frameworks and methodological practices.
With its appearance, the Journal of Sociocybernetics becomes the official organ of the Research Committee on Sociocybernetics, RC51, of the International Sociological Association. The institutional history of the organization that eventually became ISA RC51 began in 1980 with the founding of an ISA Ad Hoc Group by Professor Francisco Parra-Luna who single- handedly managed to organize sessions at succeeding World Congresses of Sociology: first in 1982 in Mexico City, then in 1986 in New Delhi, in 1990 in Madrid, and in 1994 in Bielefeld. The eventual RC51 first became an ISA Thematic Group and then a Working Group at the New Delhi World Congress, but lacking both a board and an official Newsletter it was demoted back to Thematic Group in 1992. In early 1995 the group was reactivated and elected its first ever board with Kenneth Bailey as President, Francisco Parra-Luna as Past President, Richard Henshel as Vice-president and Felix Geyer as Secretary. Following the death of Richard Henshel, Vessela Misheva became Vice-President in early 1997. The statutes for the group were written in 1995 and approved at its conference in Bucharest in 1996, while the publication of a biannual Newsletter was initiated in January 1996. As a consequence of the activities of the board, the group was re-recognized by the ISA Executive Committee in November 1996 as a Working Group. It grew from some 30 members in early 1995 to 240 in 1998 and, in recognition of its extraordinary success due primarily to the efforts of Felix Geyer, it was promoted to the status of Research Committee in less than the normally stipulated four-year period at the 1998 World Congress of Sociology in Montreal.
Since June 1998 RC51 has had its own website at the University of Zaragoza (http://www.unizar.es/sociocybernetics) where a detailed description of the group’s activities,
past, present and future, may be found. The website contains: abstracts of some 100 papers presented at the World Congress of Sociology in Montreal, and of some 20 papers presented at the 1999 Annual Conference on Sociocybernetics in Kolimbari, Greece; a 400-item bibliography on sociocybernetics; personal website addresses of some 65 RC51 members; detailed news about upcoming conferences and other activities; and links to other websites in related fields, such as General Systems Theory, first- and second-order cybernetics, autopoiesis, chaos theory and complexity studies. While the Journal of Sociocybernetics (to be available for downloading from the website twice yearly in the Spring and the Fall) will supplant the Newsletter, it will continue to publish the normal Newsletter rubrics in the “RC51 News” section.
The intellectual heritage of Sociocybernetics, and thus of the Journal of Sociocybernetics and the Research Committee it represents, draws on a broad spectrum of approaches in terms of appropriate subject matters, pertinent theoretical frameworks and applicable methodologies. To be sure, the intellectual roots of sociocybernetics reach back to the rise of a whole array of new developments in scientific inquiry beginning in the 1940’s. These included the most important direct progenitors, General Systems Theory and cybernetics; however, the general movement was also expressed through the development of information theory, game theory and automata, net, set, graph and compartment theories, and decision and queuing theory. In one way or another, they were strategies elaborated in light of the difficulties encountered in the study of organized complexity. This was an arena that had proven particularly resistant to the application of the analytic method, that is, to the development of mathematical equations expressing general laws in which all contributing causal factors appear as variables.
The initial expression of the issues involved came with General System Theory (eventually, General Systems Theory, GST), first during the inter-war years in the work of Ludwig von Bertalanffy. Along with the economist Kenneth Boulding, the biomathematician Anatol Rapoport and the physiologist Ralph Gerard, von Bertalanffy founded the Society for General System Theory in 1954 (which later became the Society for General Systems Research and still later, the International Society for the Systems Sciences) and by the early 1960’s vigorous efforts–the work of Walter Buckley was particularly influential–were being made to link social research to a systems perspective.
The domain of GST may be specified as those general aspects, correspondences and isomorphisms or rigorous analogies that are common to systems in general. In its overall bearings, GST cuts across disciplinary lines, cultural and ideological frontiers, the nomothetic- idiographic or quantitative-qualitative divide, and, significantly, the descriptive-normative or scientific-humanistic distinction as well. Although physics was certainly impacted by the systems approach, the success of mechanics in predicting, and therefore controlling, physical phenomena was undoubtedly responsible for the continued supremacy of the billiard ball model of autonomous units, at least until the recent breakthroughs in “chaos theory” and “complexity studies.” However, there exist no analogues of the Laws of Motion, for instance, in the living world, not to speak of the human world. It was in biology especially, which begins with the concept of “organism”, and then in the social sciences, psychology and philosophy that what came to be described as a new worldview found particular resonance. This far-reaching scientific reorientation entailed a shift of the emphasis in inquiry to questions of organization and configurational wholes, precisely those “wholes” that had so often been eschewed as metaphysical, over the analytic, mechanistic and one-way summative causality of classical science and its primary units of discrete elements or events.
Sharing the holistic disposition of GST, cybernetics derives its name from the Greek word for steersman, and “socio” clearly relates to human reality. One might then assume that sociocybernetics pertains to the steering of societies. And indeed it does, to some extent, although without the notion that societies can be piloted in a hierarchical, top-down way.
First-order or “classical” cybernetics, introduced by Norbert Wiener, stressed the clear definition of the boundaries of the system under study in time-dependent, observer-dependent, and even problem-dependent ways and further emphasized the hierarchical quality, and relevance, of sub- and supra-systems. Most important, however, first-order cybernetics made circular causality respectable. Like GST, it did not consider the description of a system in terms of ends or goals to be a mistake in logical reasoning leading to tautologies. “Purposive action” was conceptualized as feedback loops, either positive (deviation-amplifying, morphogenetic) or negative (deviation-reducing, morphostatic), that could either occur spontaneously or be engineered. First-order cybernetics was primarily interested in negative feedback loops, as its purpose generally was to steer technological and industrial systems by keeping them on a steady course, fluctuating within specified margins around an equilibrium.
Second-order cybernetics–that is, the cybernetics of observing systems rather than observed systems–emerged in the 1970’s. The systems under study were generally living systems and simulation came into its own as a mode of analysis especially applicable to social systems. Simulation made possible the investigation of system evolution under altered initial conditions without the necessity of engaging in policy action available on a one-time basis only. It thus favored the discovery of the latent consequences of certain intended actions and the forecasting of the effects of counter-intuitive behavior.
Even primitive living systems have a “will of their own” and manifest what Maturana and Varela have termed autopoiesis or self-production. Consequently, they are more difficult to steer, and their interactions with their environments are impossible to forecast more than a few moves ahead. Second-order cybernetics is thus more concerned with morphogenesis and positive feedback loops than with homeostasis and negative feedback loops, while the system (whether an individual or a group) is defined as having the ability to reflect on its own operations on the environment, and even on itself. Such behavior is recursive and generates variety. That is, observations can be effected, communications can be realized, and alterations generated. It is not surprising that the concepts of second-order cybernetics all start with “self,” if not in English, then in Greek (“auto”): self-reference, self-steering, self-organization, autocatalytic cycles, autopoiesis.
Sociocybernetics can now be roughly defined as a general term denoting applications of GST and first- and especially second-order cybernetics in the social sciences. At its present state of development, however, it has gathered under its umbrella a substantial and growing number of scholars from an assortment of loosely related fields whose chief common denominator consists mainly of a post-Newtonian worldview.
Several such strands have their roots in functionalism and “systems theory”. For one, the work of the German sociologist Niklas Luhmann has been extremely influential (although only now making significant impact in the English-speaking world due to translation delays) and forms a central current within a large segment of scholars associated with RC51. Luhmann was Talcott Parsons’s student. But as a student who rapidly and thoroughly constructed his own
innovative body of theory in which the legacy of Parsons receded into the background, he made
an interesting theory transfer, defining social systems as consisting of autopoietic communications networks, rather than of individuals, or roles, or actions.
Luhmann made an important shift which, at first glance, looks like playing with words, but which on closer scrutiny permits a dynamical mode of analysis surmounting the conservatism intrinsic in structural-functionalism. This is the shift to functional-structural theory and its extension to problem-functionalism; the sequence of “functions serve to maintain structures” is replaced by the extended sequence of “structures serve to fulfill functions and functions serve to resolve problems.” A theory building on this latter sequence is intrinsically dynamic, as problems can be resolved by different functions and a given function can be discharged by different structures and processes, that is, systems or systems components. In this way, structures become contingent: described as “functionally equivalent,” different types (structures) of societies can serve the needs of a population.
On the basis of this shift, Luhmann developed the formula of “construction and reduction of complexity” replacing “structure maintenance” as the most general reference problem of structural-functionalism. Although highly criticized (by explaining everything, it explains nothing), the complexity formula opens the way for conceiving social systems not just as an assembly of individuals, but also as an emergent, highly differentiated and multi-level layering of social structures and processes beyond the individual.
Another innovation Luhmann brought to sociology consisted of a move from viewing social systems as rationally constructed, or at least constructable, systems to conceiving them as self-organizing or autopoietic. On the one hand, the shift to autopoiesis promises to fill the empty formula of complexity with contents. On the other hand it is in the context of autopoiesis theory that Luhmann explicitly expelled the individual and its psychic system from social systems and defined social systems as pure communication systems, thus also excluding (physical) action.
Luhmann’s theory of codes integrates his conceptual system. It is related to Parsons’s generalized media of exchange, i.e., that in a particular functionally differentiated social system, such as the economic system, the level of social action/communication is controlled by the medium of communication, for instance in the case of the economic system, money. Media use a particular binary code, e.g., payment/non-payment, which determines what is going on with the medium. Self-reference and autopoiesis are after all located at the level of the processing of such a code, whereby the processing itself takes place according to what Luhmann called conditional programs and goal-oriented programs.
Finally, a significant part of Luhmann’s work concentrates on categories like meaning, semantics, and social knowledge, making Luhmann an important sociologist of knowledge; indeed, this work can even be read as cultural sociology. Although less widely discussed so far, it may hold much promise for future developments.
Luhmann is but one example of the influence of “systems analysis” and especially of Talcott Parsons. In the English-speaking world during the quarter century following 1945, this particular style of inquiry, theorized as structural-functionalism and operationalized through quantitative comparative techniques, defined the parameters of authoritative social research, especially in the nomothetic social sciences. On the micro scale it was manifested in the study of small groups and implemented all the way up to the national level in survey research. The inherently comparative methodology implied multiple units of analysis and this was nowhere more apparent than in the macro arena. Modernization theory purported to explain differential development on a world scale in the post-1945 period, thereby joining policy planners with their eyes on the East-West struggle with social scientists absorbed with explaining inequality.
“Modern” societies, it was argued, calling on some form of Parsons’s translation of Weberian “rationality” into sets of pattern variables, displayed universalistic, specific, and achievement based norms and practices. “Traditional” configurations, on the other hand, were portrayed as particularistic, diffuse, and ascriptive. With explicit reference to GST, social structures and institutions were conceptualized as performing functions in systems where a “society” was defined as a self-sufficient social system. Nonetheless, “societies” were invariably associated with the state; time was transmuted into a function of society/state units simultaneously positioned at different points on a single temporal hierarchy of development; and purposive action modifying social structures (removing the impediments of customary arrangements) was postulated as a primary mechanism of change and “progress”.
Certainly, long-term and large-scale comparative work continues to produce valuable insights. Nonetheless, observation, feedback and action, however conceptualized, do not alone account for historical development. But as the critics of structuralism have indicated, neither is that historical development determined solely by a set of constraints. In fact, GST introduced the notion that such development is the product of the dynamic interaction of essentially different processes in an open system and this is, in fact, the tact that the major critique of modernization theory, crystallized in Immanuel Wallerstein’s elaboration of world-systems analysis, has taken. Here, it has been argued, the relevant unit of analysis of the reality of human experience in terms of both action and constraints, that is, of long-term, large-scale social change, is a historical system. The locution denotes an entity that is simultaneously systemic (possessing continuities in its relational patterns), in that its structures remain qualitatively recognizable over the long term, and historical (exhibiting irreversible change over the long term), in that it comes into existence at a specific time and place, undergoes a spatio-temporal development which renders it at all times and places different, and eventually ceases to exist. The consequences of specifying such a unit of analysis and defining it in terms of the spatio-temporal extent of its constitutive processes are, first, that the modern world, the “Modern World-System,” must be analyzed as an open system from the point of view of its uniqueness. Alone among historical social systems, it expanded to cover the entire globe. As its defining division of labor incorporated ever new pools of labor-power/”energy” to overcome the entropy of its processes, it incorporated all other previously autonomous systems. It thus constitutes both a singular and single unit of analysis. Second, it must be analyzed simultaneously as both systemic and historical, essentially jettisoning the nomothetic-idiographic debate. Third, its elements, including the categories for its analysis, are not timeless and trans-historical, but were constituted in and through the development of its relational structure. Finally, its evolution was predicated on the contradictions inherent in the production and reproduction of its multiple structures over time, its processes, that defined both the limits and possibilities of human endeavor.
These several examples of developments in the social sciences should not cause us to lose sight of the new thinking across the disciplines that is beginning to have an influence on contemporary sociocybernetic research. It should be remembered that if the social sciences have been enormously influenced by developments with a holistic focus, GST, although most explicitly deployed mathematically, from the beginning held a place for ordinary language models. Of course, an obvious case in point is systems philosophy as elaborated by Ervin Laszlo, Erich Jantsch and others.
In a thrust rejoining politics and theory, an amalgam of social science and humanities perspectives has come together under the rubric of “cultural studies.” At the level of theory, by
the 1960’s literary structuralism presented the possibility for many scholars of developing a non- reductionist, non-positivist human science concerned with the characteristic social activity of meaning making. At the level of practice, developments growing out of studies focusing on marginalized groups, such as women, ethnic and racial “minorities” and colonial and ex-colonial peoples, challenged the fact-values divide. Essentialist, received categories of difference did not constitute timeless, transcendental arrangements of human reality. It was argued, rather, that they were historically constructed collections of value-charged attributes that had functioned to inscribe whole groups into subordinate stations on status hierarchies legitimating differential access to social goods.
At the opposite end of the disciplinary continuum, “chaos theory” and “complexity studies” are a recent outgrowth of developments in mathematics and the natural sciences. Although relativity and quantum mechanics had already undermined the presumptions of classical science at the level of the very large and the very small, it is again only since the 1960’s that Newtonian dynamics has been challenged in the macro, humanly perceivable, non- relativistic, non-quantum domain. The emphasis on equilibrium and stability inherent in time- reversible natural laws is giving way to a reconceptualization of the natural world and a transition away from the Newtonian worldview. The image implicit in the theory of “dissipative structures”, that of the creation of order in far-from-equilibrium, open systems by exporting entropy, more closely resembles our perception of the social world. That world also may be described as one of instability and fluctuations, complexity and self-organization, a world whose deterministic yet unpredictable development cannot be reversed.
Cognitive science, too, has produced findings that, on analogy, may contribute to the transformation of our understanding of the social world. Its trajectory has taken it from a conception of the mind as a machine for the manipulation of data from the top down according to the rules of deductive logic to the bottom-up depiction of connectionism in which intelligence resides in the connections or structure. Along the way, it has shown how some types of systems give meaning to their interactions on the basis of their own history and how certain networks produce emergent phenomena as a result of both simultaneous processes and sequential ones.
Clearly, across the disciplines there may be observed a mounting concern for spatial- temporal wholes constituted at once of relational structures and phenomenological time. Furthermore, the identification and study of the feedback mechanisms of complex systems, including social systems, is at odds with a conception of “objectivity” defined in terms of externality.
It is, then, in this context of rich history and exciting possibilities that the Research Committee on Sociocybernetics launches the Journal of Sociocybernetics. The appearance of this new journal constitutes an open invitation to what has become a highly ecumenical community. Indeed, the Journal of Sociocybernetics welcomes submissions from all scholars engaged in a common quest to explain and understand social reality holistically and self-reflexively without forsaking a concern for human values.