Systemism. Parte 3

5. A second batch of examples

Fourth example: The science-technology-market system. There are two main socioeconomic views on the relation of technological innovation and the market. Individualists claim that inventor proposes and market disposes. Holists claim, by contrast, that invention is market-driven: market demands and inventor supplies. (Yet, ironically, all market worshippers espouse individualism.) Each party parades a large collection of examples, without bothering about counterexamples. I submit that only a systemic view of the matter attains the whole truth.

The first thing to note is that there are big inventions and small ones: radical novelties and improvements. Whereas the former are motivated mainly by sheer curiosity and the love of tinkering, improvements may also be motivated by profit: they are often commissioned by the technologist’s employer with a view to marketing the corresponding products. By contrast, some radically new inventions have created whole new markets. For example, the electrical industry was made possible by electrical engineering, which in turn was the child of experiments and theories on electricity and magnetism. In particular, Michael Faraday discovered the principle of electromagnetic induction, which was used by Joseph Henry to design the electric motor, and by Nikola Tesla to design the dynamo. Industry transmuted these and many other bits of scientific and technological knowledge into welfare and wealth. This is only one of many science-technology-industry systems. The market does not create: it only demands and selects–that is, rewards or punishes. It would be just as silly to underrate its power as to regard it as the fountain of technological ingenuity.

Fifth example: The combination of competition with cooperation. Whereas individualists stress competition or struggle, holists emphasize cooperation or solidarity. (Marxism is a special case: it stresses interclass warfare but intraclass solidarity.) Actually, competition and cooperation coexist in all social systems, though not in the same respects. Social systems cannot emerge and persist without a modicum of (spontaneous or coordinated) cooperation in some regard. And, once in place, competition in some respect is bound to arise precisely because of a common interest in some scarce resource–attention, love, time, space, food, money, job, or what have you.

Think for instance of a scientific community. Some post-Mertonian sociologists of science, notably Latour and Woolgar (1979), claim that there is no such community: that individual scientists are engaged in a selfish and unscrupulous struggle for power. But these writers are poorly informed in this regard as in others (see Bunge, 1999). Indeed, every scientist knows that, while researchers compete for peer recognition, they also learn from one another: scientific research is a social endeavor even when it has no social content and no practical value (see Merton, 1973). As Wolpert (1992) states, “[i]n order to promote the success of their ideas, scientists must thus adopt a strategy of competition and cooperation, of altruism and selfishness” (p. 88). In any event, Latour’s claim that “science is politics by other means” has recently been falsified by an empirical study of citations (Baldi, 1998).

Sixth example: Boudon (1974), who calls himself a contextual individualist, has shown that the proliferation of universities after World War II has had a perverse effect. This is the emergence of a voluminous intellectual proletariat, and a concomitant increase in social inequality. The mechanism is this: As the number of university graduates increases, the queues of candidates waiting for qualified jobs lengthen. The practical moral is obvious: to check the massive unemployment of university graduates, either (a) impose quotas in the professional faculties, or (b) raise the level of job specification in industry and government. That is, influence choice to minimize failure.

6. Implications for social-policy design

The preceding examples suggest two important points, one theoretical and the other practical. The first is that the explanation of social change calls for the unveiling of social mechanisms, which in turn involves micro-macro analyses. This is so because every individual action is partially constrained by macrosocial circumstances, which may in turn be affected to some extent by individual actions.

The second point is that the design of effective social policies should be based on correct hypotheses concerning the social mechanisms of interest. The reason is that a social policy is supposed to set up or repair some social mechanism–e.g., of wealth redistribution, conflict resolution, or health care. By contrast, the intuitive and the empirical approaches to social policy-making are wasteful and often counterproductive. For example, contrary to popular wisdom, a raise in minimum wage does not increase unemployment, but benefits the economy as a whole because it increases demand (Card, 1995).

There is an additional reason for favoring systemic social policies, namely that social problems are typically systemic. That is, they involve many interrelated features and even several social systems at a time. For example, an effective policy of national development must involve factors of various kinds: environmental (e.g., protection of forests and fisheries), biological (e.g., birth control and health care), economic (in particular industrialization), political (in particular political participation), and cultural (in particular education).

The reason for such multifactorial approach is that all those factors are interrelated. For example, there is no modern industry without educated manpower, and no education on an empty stomach, let alone on a gut full of parasites. For this reason, the sectoral and one-problem-at-a-time approach is bound to fail. Even a staunch individualist like the financial wizard George Soros (1998,p. 226) has concluded that, contrary to the opinion of his erstwhile teacher Karl R. Popper, piecemeal social engineering cannot work to solve systemic problems, and suggests that these must be tackled radically and in all their complexity.

Contrast the systemic approach to social issues with its rivals. The radical individualists oppose all social planning in the name of individual liberties (aka privileges). Hence they leave individuals to their own resources — which, in an inegalitarian society, are meagre for most people. On the other hand, holists swear by top-down planning. Hence, even when they address the basic needs of the common people, they are likely to ignore their aspirations and rights. In either case, the powerless individual, whether forsaken or corralled, has nothing to gain. The systemic approach to social policy-design is quite different from both libertarianism and totalitarianism: it attempts to involve the interested parties in the planning process, and designs social systems and processes likely to improve individual well-being, revising the plans as often as required by the changing circumstances.

7. Social science is about social systems

Consider briefly the French Revolution of 1789. Despite its tremendous world-wide consequences, it was a cakewalk: the central government fell in the course of an evening. Tocqueville ([1856] 1998) explains this process clearly and in systemic terms, namely as a result of the replacement of the feudal social networks with four closed and mutually hostile castes: those constituted by the peasants, bourgeois, aristocrats, and the Crown. Those traditional networks were ripped when, in the previous century, the landowners abandoned their land and left their tenants to their own devices as a consequence of the concentration of both government and nobility in Paris. This is how it happened that “the ties of patronage and dependence which formerly bound the great rural landowners to the peasants had been relaxed or broken” (p. 188). The king was thus a victim of his own art “of dividing people in order to govern them more absolutely” (p. 191).

There was more: the centralization of political power left a political vacuum that was filled by the intellectuals, most of whom criticized the unjust social order. This explains the disproportionate influence of the philosophes, in particular the Encyclopedists: they occupied the place that the aristocrats occupied in England and elsewhere at the time. “An aristocracy in its vigor not only runs affairs, it still directs opinion, sets the tone for writers, and lends authority to ideas. In the eighteenth century, the French nobility had entirely lost this part of its empire; its moral authority had followed the fortunes of its power: the place that it had occupied in the government was empty, and writers could occupy it at their leisure and fill it completely” (p. 198). A century and a half later, the author of a huge treatise on the sociology of philosophy (Collins, 1998) devotes only one page to the Encyclopedists, and fails to explain their remarkable influence.

The point of these stories about the French Revolution is to remind ourselves that, contrary to the radical individualist tenet, society is not an unstructured collection of independent individuals. It is, instead, a system of interrelated individuals organized into systems or networks of various kinds. In fact, every one of us belongs at once to several systems: kinship, friendship and colleagueship networks, business firms, schools, clubs, religious congregations, etc. This explains the many “identities” every one of us has (Tilly, 1998, p. 34).

To be sure, the emergence, maintenance, repair, or dismantling of any social system can ultimately be explained only in terms of individual preferences, decisions and actions. But in turn these individual events are largely determined by social context. I support the systems that benefit me, and sabotage those that hurt me. In sum, agency and structure are only two sides of the same coin. We see agency through Weber’s microscope, and structure through Marx’s telescope.

Now, individuals are studied by natural science and psychology, which–along with anthropology, linguistics, demography, and epidemiology–is one of the biosocial sciences. The social sciences proper, such as sociology and economics, do not study individuals, except as components of social systems. Thus, anthropology studies entire communities such as villages and tribes. Sociology studies social systems, all the way from the childless couple to the world system. Economics specializes in the study of the social systems engaged in production, services, or trade. Politology studies power relations in all systems, particularly the political ones. And history studies social (structural) changes on all scales.

It is not enough for a social scientist to point out the social context or circumstance of a fact. He is expected to study social facts, and a social fact happens to be one that happens in a social system–such as a strike in a factory–or between social systems–such as an international conflict. Hence, he must study social bonds in addition to social contexts, for bonds are what hold social systems together.

In short, the social sciences study social systems. Some of those who dislike the word `system’ prefer the word `structure’. But structures are properties of things, not things, whereas social systems are concrete things. For example, a corporation is a system with a definite (though perhaps changing) structure, or set of bonds among its components and its environment. The socioeconomists who study the social structure of a corporation do not investigate the structure of a structure–a meaningless expression–but the structure of a thing.

Bunge, Mario, Journal of Socio-Economics


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