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 McClelland Office: 515-269-3134
Assoc. Prof. of Sociology Home: 515-236-7002
Grinnell College Bitnet: mcclel@grin1
Grinnell, IA 50112-0810 Internet: