March 26, 2005

Deconstructing nonsystemic theories

Before deconstructing prevailing social interaction theories and theories about individual behavior, Hanson suggests an approach that bases research on starting with “wholes” or relational patterns. This is in contrast to traditional approaches of making truth claims about human reality that constrain the “range of phenomena” entered into analysis or used to frame a debate of issues. It means "seeing a world of relational wholes, rather than discrete individual pieces" (p.10)

Her basic idea is that conventional theories about social interaction or human behavior are premised on assumptions. The theory flows out of the assumptions. Hanson contends that rather than starting with a part (the assumption), it would be more helpful to start from the entire patchwork of relations between things. She points out that the atom bomb came from an epistemology that divorced science from ethics, yet the consequences of a thought (e.g. E=mc2) were fatal. She wants to use nonsummativity and multifinality and other "Wholes" concepts to make an epistemological shift from linear, compartmentalized short-term theorizing to a Wholes approach which includes cybernetics, relational unites and process. This doesn't discard old theories, it revises them. For example, conflict theory would be revised in the "language of equifinality to describe the inevitability of conflict" (p.10)

Social theories

Conflict theory
• Assumes human goodness & that economics drive society
• Based on Heglian dialectic, i.e. a struggle between opposite forces—the haves and the have-nots
• Based on view of macro systems, e.g. social structures
• Goal is to raise collective consciousness through awareness of historical analysis

Consensus theory
• Assumes human greed
• Social structures arise to contain “insatiable human desires”
• Parts of system help maintain homeostasis
• Competition dictates which person/skills get the more or less advanced parts
• Consensus about organization of the whole, although conflict occurs in areas of minor deviations within whole

Symbolic Interactionism
• Assumes humans are creative & able to reflect on their behavior
• Humans share meanings (symbols) about what is important, e.g. language
• Focus on micro level
• Subjective meanings of the self determine self-purpose, membership in groups, etc.

The micro/macro debate
• Debate between micro vs. macro OR interpersonal, subjective, personal vs. societal, objective, abstract.
• Assumes that either micro or macro has greater causal influence
• Assumes a linear causality and, therefore, blame
• Research--What is the unit of analysis? Raises the aggregate vs. context issue…this is maybe more salient than objectivity vs. subjectivity
o Aggregate—the societal or general social property is analyzed; data from individuals and generalized for whole
o Context—the particular and subjective are analyzed; data of majority response is contrasted with the largest proportion of a unified response.
Implications for building a research model:
• Aggregation to the universal may bias the most frequent response even though it’s not the majority response
• Even when the focus is on the majority, it may miss the subjective views of particular groups
The issue of [focusing on the particular context vs. proposing a generalization via aggregation] shows one way that “we move from the theoretical to the practical and what is means in terms of interpreting results.”
• Does the average represent the particular?
• Does the perceived statistical predominance represent consensus, or a lowest common denominator, or the views of the most powerful?

Theories of Individual Behavior:

• Humans and animals share similar characteristics
• Humans can be reduced to utilization of artifacts through series of behavioral rewards/punishments
• Based on logical positivism & nomotheism (deriving universal properties based on the observation of individuals & then aggregating these data into average properties).
o So, you can generalize from individual to general & from animal to human

• Assumes human subconsciousness (id, ego, superego)
• Goal is to dig into unconsciousness and release pent up frustrations
• Based on logical positivism—focuses on objectivity of the analyst although the response is to the subjective meanings of the human subject

These theories require you to accept their underlying assumptions. Because each approach is belief-based (beliefs form the foundation of the theory), it cannot be reduced beyond the basic assumptions. Any contrasting assumption must be rejected. This is how the classic debates proceed. However, starting with the whole first has promise to formulate a different process.

General systems is really an approach, not a theory. The beginning point of the approach is not the basic assumption, it is the “point of departure, nonsummativity, which states that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.” When you start with a Whole, it is not just an adding up of all the individual variables, it is literally a different animal.
There are two ways to view the current war in Iraq, as an illustration. One is that the war had a beginning and an end..."mission accomplished." This linear, short-term view only needs to look at a beginning and end point in order to determine whether the goals/outcomes were achieved. The war is a containable thing. In contrast, a view of nonsummativity would gather all variables and look at them as a Whole. From the preparations for war (impact on American economy/conscience) to the dovetailing effects of a regime change in Iraq upon the Middle East, Europe and the rest of the whole (precedents, ideologies, societal trends, etc.). Hanson puts it nicely, "a wholes approach means seeing not just the initial effects but how these effects are reacted to, how the process amplifies and mutates from the original" (p. 12).

So, here's my question. If we start with the Whole, do we end up with a thousand parts/pieces?


Yes...maybe more.

If you begin with the BIG PICTURE, you can make sense of an infinite number of small details. To put it epistemologically, the systemic/ecological approach necessarily requires model-building; it is not possible to communicate in "pure" systems terms, other than mathematically (which is also modeling, but at a very general level). All of the theories you have summarized above are models examining certain aspects of reality (and of necessity neglecting others, even though we know they are "there"). Modeling permits selecting a certain number of parts/pieces from an infinite number and focusing on them for the purpose of "simplifying" for understanding. As Weinberg puts it, models allow us to talk about something we are trying to understand in terms that we think we already do understand.

Posted by gschache at 10:38 AM