Social Contingencies

[From Dag Forssell (980501 1600)]

Bill, I'll pass for now on enlightening Bruce on Ayn Rand. In a few moons,
he should be able to search the index of a forthcoming CD.

However, I have searched the archive for "social contin" thinking that this
short thread is higly relevant to the current thrashing of coercion. Social
control is the name of the game, is it not?

Hardheaded Swede, indeed!!!

Best, Dag

···

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Date: Fri Dec 10, 1993 12:52 pm PST
Subject: On Kent McClelland's paper about social power

[From Bill Powers (931210.1145 MST)]

Kent McClelland:

Thanks for the copy of your wonderful article, "Perceptual control
and social power." Getting this introduction to PCT into print is a
great accomplishment, particularly because it is so clear and
well-written. I think your analysis of social power opens the way
to some real understanding of this phenomenon.

While reading your paper I was inspired to have a thought about a
facet of social power that is not mentioned. Skinner's concept of a
"contingency," while not analyzed correctly by Skinner, is still a
useful concept and I think bears resurrection.

A contingency is a cause-effect relationship imposed by the
environment. If you drive your car into a tree, the car will be
damaged. That is, the condition of your car is contingent on where
you drive it. Likewise, if you want to drive from Durango to
Denver, you will not arrive at Denver unless you drive on the
roads. So achieving the goal of driving to Denver is contingent on
driving your car where the car is capable of going. And again, if
you want to drive from First Avenue to 30th Avenue along Main
Street in Durango, your success is contingent on driving at
considerably less than 50 miles per hour; if you drive too fast,
you will be arrested.

The first of these contingencies is in the class of natural law:
nobody can drive a car (at speed) into a tree (of large size)
without damaging the car. There's nothing personal in it; that's
just how the world works.

The second contingency is man-made, because the roads were built by
human agents. They were built along certain routes and not others;
they provide access by car to certain places and not to others. By
building roads where they are, the builder in effect said, "Here
are the ways a person can go by car." Driving to a certain place is
contingent on staying on the roads that already exist. Nobody can
just build a road to go to any arbitrary place, so the choice of
places to drive to is limited, as is the route. There was nothing
personal in the choice of where to build the roads; that is, the
builders were not thinking of the convenience of any particular
person (normally).

The third contingency is also man-made, but it is not a physical
thing: it is a social rule. It says that anyone who drives in that
place above a certain speed will be arrested. Still nothing
personal: the rule isn't aimed at you or President Clinton, but at
anyone who exceeds the cutoff speed. Driving from A to B
successfully is contingent upon following this rule. In this case,
the contingency is not implemented by a physical arrangement of the
environment, but by the actions of a person.

The special property of a contingency in relationship to behavior
is that it does nothing but create links between actions and
consequences. It does not say whether a person should seek or avoid
those consequences, or that the person must do or not do the act
that leads to them. It just says that if the act is performed, the
consequence will follow. A Skinner box is set up so that for every
n presses of a lever, a piece of food will fall into a dish. This
box in no way says that anything or anyone has to press the lever,
or that the appearance of the food in the dish is of consequence to
anything or anyone. It just says, "If you do this, that will
happen."

When an entrepreneur opens a bagel shop, a contingency is
established: if you go into that shop and pay the asking price, you
will be handed a bagel. Conversely, if you don't enter the shop or
don't pay the price, you get no bagel. That's just how this little
corner of the world operates. If you don't want a bagel, you don't
have to go into the shop or pay any money. Even if you do want a
bagel, you don't have to enter the shop. The shop is simply a
cause-effect entity, which can be operated by anyone who is willing
to do what is required. A person could enter the shop, pay the
money, and throw the bagel away. Nothing forces the person to do
anything, at any stage.

So contingencies are not force, coercion, or influence. They are
simply properties of the world, some natural and some artificial.
People can take advantage of them or not, as they please. In PCT
terms, contingencies are part of the feedback function that
converts actions into perceptual effects.

Contingencies in themselves never control behavior, but they do say
that if a person wants something, only certain ways of getting it
are available, and if the person wants to avoid certain
experiences, then certain ways of getting things must be avoided
(and the two other combinations as well). A contingency is always
expressed in such if-then terms, like a natural law. Artificial
contingencies add to those that naturally exist: if you want to
fly, then you have to use a flying machine. Of course if you don't
want to fly, you don't have to use a flying machine.

All social projects establish contingencies. The establishment of
contingencies goes beyond the kind of social influence that comes
simply from people aligning their goals. A contingency is not a
control action taken with respect to any given person, in the way a
bigoted white community can band together to make life miserable
for a black person who moves in. The contingency simply lies there
until someone has a goal that involves the contingency; then the
if-then rule is triggered, and the person finds that only certain
behaviors will work to attain the goal. If you want to drive a car
legally, you have to have a driver's license; if you want a
driver's license, you have to go to the place where they are issued
and pass some tests. If you want to pass the tests, you have to
write down the correct answers or drive a car in a way that
satisfies an examiner.

Social contingencies obviously proliferate and form a network of
subcontingencies, sometimes an almost impenetrable network. This
network has no physical existence independent of people; it
consists entirely of people who have chosen to act in certain ways,
according to rules they have accepted. The policeman who issues a
speeding ticket is not carrying out a personal relationship with
the offender, but simply implementing a contingency that he or she
has accepted as the way to do this job. That is why the offender is
called "the offender" instead of Joe Smurf. The offender is whoever
acted in a way that triggered the contingency.

Contingencies form an impersonal social system that transcends the
alignment of individual goals and the exertion of direct influence
by a group of persons on one individual. Contingencies are
established by people with aligned goals, but they are not control
actions in themselves. What they do is define properties of the
social world without regulating behavior, just as physical laws
establish properties of the physical world without specifying
particular occurrances. The main difference between social and
physical contingencies is that people can complain about social
contingencies and act to change them. All that can be done about
physical contingencies is to change your goals or look for
loopholes.

So, do you think contingencies belong on the list of means of
applying social power?

Best, Bill P.

Date: Sun Dec 12, 1993 2:56 pm PST
Subject: social contingencies

[From Kent McClelland (931212)] Bill Powers (931210.1145 MST)

   Contingencies form an impersonal social system that transcends

     the alignment of individual goals and the exertion of direct
     influence by a group of persons on one individual.
     Contingencies are established by people with aligned goals,
     but they are not control actions in themselves. What they do
     is define properties of the social world without regulating
     behavior, just as physical laws establish properties of the
     physical world without specifying particular occurrences. The
     main difference between social and physical contingencies is
     that people can complain about social contingencies and act to
     change them. All that can be done about physical contingencies
     is to change your goals or look for loopholes.

   So, do you think contingencies belong on the list of means of

     applying social power?

I certainly do!

Thank you for your compliments on my paper and even more for the
compliment of taking its argument one logical step further. This
idea of a social contingency pinpoints a phenomenon that
sociologists have attempted to describe in various ways: as social
structure, social arrangements, norms, mores, social systems, etc.
Understanding the workings of this "almost impenetrable network" of
"social contingencies and subcontingencies" (as you aptly put it)
has been a prime goal of sociologists ever since the days of Max
Weber, a century or so ago. Sociologists have always insisted on
the importance and power of these social structures vis-a-vis the
individual (and a cynic would say that by emphasizing the
importance of the social they're trying to keep themselves in
steady work!). Your point that "contingencies in themselves never
control behavior" is a useful reply to some fuzzy sociological
thinking on the subject.

*********************

Social contingencies come in at least two kinds--the dead hand of
tradition and the manufactured rationality of bureaucracies (to
paraphrase Weber). Some things, like rules of language or of gender
roles or our ideas of the proper color garb to wear at funerals
were devised in their traditional essence long before anyone now
living was born. To children such rules seem as much a part of the
natural order as are trees or rocks. The individual is free to
break these rules but at the cost of widespread disapproval or
worse from associates.

Other social contingencies are the on-going achievement of certain
kinds of organizations. In your examples of bagel shops and speed
limits, you're pointing to business and government bureaucracies
respectively, which are good examples of these organizations. By
setting up and giving orders to maintain certain social
contingencies, the people in charge of these organizations are
controlling their own perceptions of social order and material
well-being, if not directly controlling other people's behavior. An
active alignment of goals on the part of the people belonging to
the organization is necessary to keep the various contingencies in
place. Undoubtedly, the people arranging such contingencies by
virtue of their organization position can be regarded as more
powerful than those who are only subject to contingencies arranged
by others.

*********************

I don't think sociologists have paid enough attention to the
"man-made contingencies" which are embodied in physical objects.
Many organizations are busily engaged in remaking the physical
world (by building buildings and roads or by turning out millions
of manufactured items) in ways which rapidly use up "degrees of
freedom" in our common environment and thus facilitate some
behaviors while making others nearly impossible. Anyone is free to
use the interstate highways, for instance, but only in a motor
vehicle not on roller blades. (Us PCT folks just can't resist those
driving metaphors, can we?) Surely such contingencies built into
the physical environment are also an important expression of social
power.

Here we go again, talking about "social control" but hopefully in a
more useful framework than some earlier exchanges!

Best regards, Kent

Date: Mon Dec 13, 1993 9:19 am PST
Subject: Contingencies; leaning on the world

[From Bill Powers (931213.0930 MST)] Kent McClelland (931212)

Good, I'm glad you agree about contingencies. There's obviously
more to say on the subject; I just wanted to point out that
contingencies aren't an active form of social control. They can, of
course, be used as part of a control process by a person ("If you
do that again I'll clobber you"), in the form of a threat or a
promise. They can also be used to deny responsibility: "If you
don't give me what I want, the bloodshed will be on your head."

Chuck Tucker pointed out to me that his use of the term
"arrangements" means about the same as what I mean by
contingencies, and that I couldn't see what he meant until I had
put it in my own words. Too true.

Best, Bill P.

Forssell Translation Team: Christine and Dag Forssell
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[From Bruce Gregory (980502.0558 EDT)]

Dag Forssell (980501 1600)

Bill wrote:

Chuck Tucker pointed out to me that his use of the term
"arrangements" means about the same as what I mean by
contingencies, and that I couldn't see what he meant until I had
put it in my own words. Too true.

I used the word "affordances" to describe the same phenomena.

Best Offer

[From Bruce Nevin (980501.2252 EDT)]

Dag Forssell (980501 1600) --

Thank you, Dag, for retrieving that from almost five years back. Needless to say my understanding of PCT has changed since then. That probably has something to do with my not remembering it.

We've acknowledged that a lot of what goes on here is testing and validation of one's understanding of PCT. Perhaps we can talk about "social reality" now without wasteful argument, as long as we are clear that social structures, arrangements, norms, mores, systems, affordances, contingencies are not themselves agents--are not control systems. The problem is that most of these terms already have established meanings derived from an animistic fantasy. Maybe if we say "contingencies" we won't mislead others who might suppose that we have in mind what *they* mean by affordances, memetic structures, etc., to which they attribute intelligence or agency.

Social contingencies come in at least two kinds--the dead hand of
tradition and the manufactured rationality of bureaucracies (to
paraphrase Weber). Some things, like rules of language or of gender
roles or our ideas of the proper color garb to wear at funerals
were devised in their traditional essence long before anyone now
living was born.

If "rules" of language were devised, who devised them? And lacking language at the outset, how did they do so? If by "rules" we mean the dicta of schoolteachers, they merely identify obvious contrasts between dialects to enforce as means of safeguarding social-class boundaries. The regularities of language are a third kind of contingency, emergent 'self-organizing' structures in multi-generational variation and selection of means, historically contingent, yet perceived by children learning to speak as though static, one among the many contingencies in their environment; who by their learning devise anew its "rules" for themselves. When we understand that learning we will understand better the constraints on what it is possible for languages to become in the course of people learning and using them.

  Bruce Nevin