Today; cutting edge sociology says society is still ‘radically uncertain’ (see Paul Collier, John Kay, Michael Sandel, Robert Putnam, and Mervyn King). This scholarship relies on an impressive but eclectic list of social concepts; most of them ‘normative’ or humanist. These include: the wisdom of the community mind, networked webs of social and economic relationships, evolutionary biology’s explanation for altruism, the wants and needs of homo economicus, the nature of groups as organisms, the zeitgeist swings from WE to ME and back again, the tragedy of the commons, and more. The purpose of this collection is to generate and support practical recommendations for government policy-makers worldwide. But their roots are grounded in Radical Uncertainty (below); in intellectually shifting sands. There is no biologically bonding principle which unites them. No glue, or unifying principle other than unscientific exhortations to ‘do the right thing’; to ‘be good because I say so’.
In ‘The Wheels of Society’ I tried to feel my way towards such a glue or bonding principle.
First question; what is actually going on? Comparison with the English premier football league may help us to recognise the primary importance of cooperating groups or teams rather than individuals in all this. The attraction of the English football league lies in following the churning fortunes of the twenty competing clubs. Individual performances may thrill but they make little sense without the wider context of ‘the club game’. It’s the clubs that really matter. This is not nearly so true of the Olympics, Wimbledon tennis, or the motor-racing Grand Prix, but of course those aren’t team-games.
Consider a primitive and isolated human tribe. Cooperating groups or teams are assembled to help members to do the essentials of life: processing energy (eat, eliminate waste, etc), self-protecting against weather, diseases, and hostile tribes, and bringing up children. A member may belong to several teams, and importantly, teams will interact in the the rough-and-tumble reality of social life. As with a football league the most realistic way to understand what’s going on is to start with the transactions between teams; rather than individuals. Individual transactions can only make sense within that context. Both angles combine in social interaction but individual behaviours alone cannot explain how society works; I mean to an outsider.
Social Network Analysis (SNA) is an excellent way to chart the social interactions within a society. It uses pictorial diagrams with nodes and lines to show the significant inter-connections between both the individuals and the groups within a community. But unfortunately SNA is little more than a static diagram of the status quo, it is not very useful for describing the dynamics of society, let alone for generating political policy. When we ask “What’s going on here – what are the dynamics?” society is conventionally assumed to be a churning network of daily transactions between individuals where Radical Uncertainty (below) rules OK.
The assembly and performance thinking promoted in my ‘Wheels of Society’, offers the following categorically different explanation of what’s going on.
1. Local people spot a threat or opportunity.
2. A working team is assembled to deal with it. Teams can be big or small, permanent or temporary.
3. Each team, also called a group, is a greedy self-seeking unit; groups interact more or less harmoniously. A hierarchy naturally emerges; we call it society.
4. Each team does its work by cycling repeatedly through a three- phase mutually trumping feedback control lop; a ‘rule of three’.
5. As in the football league it is the transactions between these teams and groups which comprise the dynamics of human society; individual player performances are thrilling but they are secondary. They are the punches that are landed but they are not the boxing match.
This description of the dynamics involved seems a more realistic way to try and understand what’s actually going on. It recognises the group, not the individual as the main factor in society.
Reducing Radical Uncertainty
Historically; radical uncertainties will have confronted scholars, each in their own field, for centuries before a breakthrough was made. I’m thinking of the different problems taunting Pythagoras, Parmenides, Socrates / Plato, Aristotle, Copernicus, Newton, Comte, Durkheim, Parsons, Lamark, Humbodlt, Darwin, Einstein, and Wittgenstein, not to mention Kay and King; themselves collaborating in ‘Radical Uncertainty’ (2020).
Radical Uncertainty is tantalising; it provokes a process of discovery. Each answer reveals yet more questions. It’s like the hydra’s head; chop it off and seven more will sprout. It is sobering to realise that none of the great thinkers discovered the ultimate answer. We aren’t as clever as we think. The cosmos must surely have started, but when? The orbits of the planets are now understood but how to reconcile e=mc2 with quantum physics?. It was obvious for centuries that all animals clearly belonged to a ‘kingdom’, but why? Society clearly functions, but why and how? What can I really know? It must surely be written on the wall of some public lavatory somewhere: “Radical uncertainty rules OK”.
But though few uncertainties have been resolved, they can be reduced or deflated.
On p7 of their ‘Radical Uncertainty’ Kay and King examine the difference between understanding a system (a model or business plan) and predicting its performance (statistically amenable). Though the future cannot be predicted, understanding a system can help to make predictions; it can help to avoid mistakes. Copernicus’s cosmology, Newton’s gravity, Darwin’s natural selection, business company financial statements, and assembly and performance thinking (A&PT) are understandings, but they cannot predict. They can however rule out unlikely predictions.
And that’s what my A&PT claims to do. On p1 of his book ‘Greed is Dead’ (2020), Paul Collier asks; “What is going on here?”. A&PT claims to reduce our radical uncertainty about the mechanisms of society. To do this it concentrates first on the teams rather than the players, and then, but only then, it examines how each team or group works: How does it do the job it was assembled for? Assembly and performance are recognised as totally distinct achievements.
The dinner party googling guest deflates a lively discussion by looking up the answer on his mobile. Similarly; understanding how a particular society works reduces its Radical Uncertainty. Copernicus (for the cosmos) and Darwin (for life on earth) both reduced radical uncertainties by explaining what was ‘going on’. In each case multiple uncertainties were resolved. I claim that it may similarly be possible to derive new explanations and generate practical political recommendations by thinking in terms of social assembly and social performance. This could then lead to sharper politics about pollution, habitat destruction, climate change, and communitarianism. In other words; an improved, less radically uncertain, understanding of how society works could be used to generate specific, behaviourally ‘streetwise’, political policies on economics (monetary policy etc), diplomacy (USA Vs China etc) the environment (climate change etc), and more.
I claim that the way in which assembly and performance thinking applies, not just to homo but to all cooperating animals from certain bacteria to mammals, gives it scientific authenticity. This may eventually enable us to do for sociology what the doctrine of natural selection has done for zoology.