What sociology needs from cybernetics

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pryncyb-l (Principia Cybernetica Project)
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elias-l (Norbert Elias Group)

Paul Stokes
Department of Sociology
University College Dublin

As a sociologist I have been concerned for some time now that
the general conceptual system (GCS) (Harre) that underlies the
conceptual configuration of contemporary sociology is out of
kilter with its subject matter. Furthermore I have been of the
opinion that this mis-match has been responsible for the lack
of progress by sociologists in producing powerful and effective
theories of society and of sociological phenomena generally. In
many respects sociology has distracted itself by diverting its
attention down many an alluring boreen. Only by basing its
theoretical development on a conceptual substrate that is in
line with its subject matter can sociology hope to make
progress. Among recent sociologists only Norbert Elias has
written about this problem and placed it seriously on the
agenda. What you are reading here, however, is based on my own
particular analysis and understanding of this problem and I do
not wish to implicate Elias in the specifics of this
discussion, if only because he himself never went further that
to point up the problem in a more general way.

Specifically, my position has been for some time now that that
the work of all the major sociological theorists right up to
the present day has been cloaked in terms of lineal
cause-effect and metaphors of matter-energy (Stokes) as befits
the study of the realm of organised simplicity (Weaver).
Society, however, is a realm of organised complexity (Weaver).
In effect, people in society are connected by means of channels
of communication and their experience of social existence is
therefore overdetermined by what these channels allow and how
they allow it. People are enmeshed in complex networks of
communication which very often exert very powerful influence on
their actions, sense of identity and so on. Synonyms for such
networks are possibly the concepts of `figuration' (Elias) and
`system', although much work needs to be done in clarification
of these concepts. Communication itself as a `causal medium'
operates in many ways contrary to the cause-effect laws of
energy transfer of classical mechanics or even thermodynamics.
(Bateson, Wilden)

The term `cybernetics' is now used almost as a cover-all term
for a lot of disparate work that has been going on since
mid-century in cybernetics proper, but also in systems theory,
communication/information theory, control theory, hierarchy
theory and theories of evolution, complexity, games, ecology
and many other areas and it is in this sense that I use the
term here for the non-mechanistic variants of these
disciplines. I have analysed elsewhere (Stokes) the reasons
for the failure to apply many of these ideas to social science
topics over this period. To this end I have found Gernot
Boehme's finalization theory of science development particularly

I am posting this document to a small number of discussion
lists of which I am a member with a view of eliciting a
response primarily from cybernetics and systems people but also
hopefully from sociologists as well. I am prompted to do this
because of the endemic nature of the problems that I outline as
well due to the extremely poor quality of discussion of
sociological topics on the cybernetics and systems lists. This
last point is important. A key conclusion which emerged from my
study of Gernot Boehme's finalization theory is that a
cybernetically informed sociology can only develop under the
leading cognitive interests of sociological theory itself
(Weber, Habermas). Very often contributions have come from
people outside the discipline oblivious of the problematic
which animates us as sociologists or else sociologists have
themselves abandoned their own cognitive interests in favour of
some technicist versions of socio-cybernetics or social systems
theory. This is why I have outlined below some of the kinds of
theoretical questions to which sociologists typically seek
answers and why I wish to focus specifically on these. (For
instance, I haven't broached the topic of autopoiesis in
society yet, something I would regard as being a bit previous,
pace Luhmann, due to its exogenous origin.)

I outline below in a very preliminary and schematic way
signposts to some of the most pressing problem areas in
sociological theory in which I think cybernetics can make a
significant contribution of conceptual underlabouring (Winch).
Each topic and its problems deserve more extensive essay
treatment which neither time not resources allow right now.
Perhaps, depending on the response to this posting it may be
possible to put together a collection of responses from both
sociologists and cyberneticians? Who knows. A list of
references will be made available on request.

The following are the tasks of conceptual underlabouring that
sociology requires of cybernetics:

1. A concept of the whole that is more than the sum of its
parts; this concept must remove the burden from the individual
as the basic unit of society yet allow individuals to act and
produce effects both among their fellow and at the level of the
whole. In other words, it must avoid `structural determinism'.
It must also allow for change to occur endogenously from within
the social order in question. The solution will also have to
show how the whole can produce effects on the level of the
individuals that comprise it i.e. adherence to social codes,
and mores, linguistic behaviours, etc.

Some sociological analogues of such a holistic level:
Social structure/network (e.g. Barry Wellman)
Social system (Talcott Parsons)
Figuration/game (Norbert Elias)
Field/habitus (Pierre Bourdieu)
Macro level (e.g. Nicos Mouzelis)

There is an absence of agreement among sociologists about which
of these approaches is the best. Others argue that these
concepts are just reifications; all that exists are just people
in interaction and that society is in their heads or is
`constituted in discourse'. It is unclear, however, whether
these social theorists would also wish to criticise people for
having society (an unnecessary reification) in their heads or
whether they accept the concept of society even. Others try to
explain the existence of society as an emergent phenomenon or
epi-phenomenon. Of course, even if macro theorists are willing
to concede this point they will go on to argue that it is
tautologous as it does not explain the existence of society but
merely tries to minimise or deny it. For instance, macro
theorists will argue that society has a constraining,
patterning or determining effect on the individual (e.g. the
high positive correlation between life chances and social
background) that cannot be explained just in terms of the
actions of other individuals in the society. Such theorists
will point to the role of extra-human elements such as
property, or capital in such explanations. Bourdieu has
extended this idea with his notion of `cultural capital' as an
important resource for social reproduction.

A key question will concern how the relationship of the macro
level, consisting of an impersonal nexus of interactions,
effects, communications, to the micro level of individual
action and behaviour should be conceptualised. In fact if all
`macro' is local ie contiguous with `micro' how are they
differentiated (Mouzelis)? Do the cybernetic concepts of
`degrees of freedom' and of `logical types' help explicate
these relationships? (Wilden, Bateson).

The urgency of these questions is attested to by the recent
rise within sociology of rational choice theory as an account
of societal emergence based on rational choice by individual
actors between revealed preferences and the resulting
stratagems and coalition arrangements that ensue in their
pursuit (Coleman). Many will row in with this position because
of the lack of any clear alternative. There may be much of
value in rational choice theory but without the work that is
proposed here it will be difficult to identify what this is and
how to build on it. Sociology would suffer as a consequence.

2. A concept of causal interaction: how things happen. For
instance, we know that lineal, mechanistic models of cause and
effect should not be applied to social interactions (Bateson,
Wilden). How communication models should be applied is less
clear cut. For instance, social power is ubiquitous. Some
theorists have suggested that power in society is like money
i.e. it is a resource for getting things done (Parsons). Yet
the distribution of power in society, also like money, is very
uneven. Whatever, causal relational model is proposed will also
have to be applicable to the analysis of social power.

3. The existence of hierarchies of inequality and distribution
of life chances in society. Can a hierarchy theory be used to
critique social inequality or justify it? Can it specify under
what conditions hierarchies may be more or less necessary (e.g.
for `cybernetic` reasons)? Perhaps there are cybernetic ways
around hierarchy? (Aulin has broached this area, for one.) Is
the social hierarchy of control distributed across various
modalities (e.g. economy at the bottom, etc.). Once again, are
the concepts of `degrees of freedom' and of `logical types'
enabling concepts for this type of analysis (Wilden).

4. Can the cybernetic concepts of control and communication be
used as foundational concepts of social science? Is it possible
to build up a body of applied social theory around these ideas?
Jack Gibbs, a sociologist, has proposed that the concept of
control should be sociology's central notion. Another
sociologist, Kent McClelland has attempted to apply Power's
Perceptual Control Theory (PCT) to sociological theory. Neither
of these attempts are as yet entirely convincing although they
both make good ground.

5. Interdependence and structural differentiation are argued to
be key features of modern society. They result in increased
complexification of the action space of society itself. Despite
some sociological work (Luhmann, La Porte) these processes and
their implications are not yet very well understood.

6. Rationalisation and bureaucratisation are dominant trends in
modern social development. In Weber's hands they represent the
complete entropification of the action space of a society
leading to the sclerotisisation of social action in his famous
`iron cage'. Can a cybernetically-informed concept of
organisation be counterpoised to these processes as
constituting another strong trend that counteracts these, one
that literally re-introduces negative entropy into Weber's
closed action system?

7. The very idea of social development i.e. trendlike tendency
in a determinate direction, has been in bad odour for some
time. Some recent attempts have been made to re-habilitate this
notion (Elias). Can late work on path-dependent development
(Arthur), complex systems (see Lewin, Waldrop) and the theory
of chreods (Waddington) throw some light on this?

8. Power again: the mobilisation of bias, rigging the social
agenda, the making of non-decisions, 2nd and 3rd faces of power
(Bachrach and Baratz, Lukes, Maguire). How far can one
conceptualise these phenomena without recourse to a theory of
agency or of conspiracy on the one hand or of complete
`structural determinism' on the other? The concept of social
power itself seems to be irremedialy limited by its emphasis on
dyadic interaction and simple causation. (Stokes) Both Andre
Gorz and Norbert Elias have proposed alternative concepts of
power based on complexity and interdependence but these must
remain suggestive and `free floating' until a more powerful
conceptual grounding can be established for these ideas.

This is obviously a very broad agenda. I am currently chipping
away at topic 6 above myself through empirical research using
both network analysis and cybernetic tools (Beer's VSM, von
Foerster/McCulloch's ideas on networks) but something like this
on the grand scale requires collaboration. Anybody interested?

Paul Stokes
19 February, 1995


University College Dublin
Tel: +353-1-706 2431
Fax: +353-1-283 7077
e.mail: pstokes@ollamh.ucd.ie


Subject: What sociology needs from cybernetics