Category Archives: Society
Some type of shared utopian view is beneficial to a society, as it paves the way for large-scale coordinated reform. This view has to be positive in order to be truly motivating and empowering. Big Society has the potential to become the utopia of the 21st century, but only if two key concepts are included: mutual respect and open dialogue.
The archbishop of Canterbury recently denounced David Cameron’s Big Society as aspirational waffle “designed to conceal a deeply damaging withdrawal of the state from its responsibilities to the most vulnerable.” The response is understandable, as the ongoing austerity drive doesn’t show much of the responsibility, mutuality or obligation that Cameron underlined in his 2009 Big Society speech. On the contrary: cutting social benefits with the excuse of balancing welfare budget seems irresponsible and short-sighted – especially when billions of taxpayer pounds and euros flow to keep financial institutions up and running.
Big Society, as I understand it, refers to the joint effort and common responsibility in the society, and moving away from politician-centered and hierarchical government towards multilateralism and networked cooperation. The historical context of the Big Society is, of course, the crisis of the welfare state. An essential question in this ongoing crisis is: How to make the transition to socially and environmentally sustainable economy while remaining competitive and maintaining the living standards of most people?
This question has no answer, which refers to the fact that in the current crisis, we are dealing with one huge wicked problem:
A wicked problem is a social or cultural problem that is difficult or impossible to solve for as many as four reasons: incomplete or contradictory knowledge, the number of people and opinions involved, the large economic burden, and the interconnected nature of these problems with other problems.
Wicked problems of the society are rife with conflicts of interest, anxiety and fear. This is what has preserved them for centuries. Currently, however, they are getting out of control (see the news on Euro crisis or climate change), so new approaches are needed. Big Society is a utopian mindset with the aim of promoting a change in the culture – our patterns of thinking, feeling and potentially acting – that is at the root of these wicked problems.
The Big Society mindset is promising, but currently it has one big problem: it lacks a solid view of mutual respect – the cornerstone of social stability -, and open dialogue on policy decisions. The lack of mutual respect is deeply intertwined with antiquated party structures which manufacture dissent while maintaining the phenomenon of ‘preaching to the choir’. The absence of dialogue, on the other hand, enables decisions to be made quickly but at the expense of the wider social context.
So what should be done to promote mutual respect and open dialogue in the society? I set an open challenge to all citizens and parties, in Britain as well as in Europe. Together we should try to answer the following questions:
- What is good in the Big Society mindset, and what is lacking? If you fundamentally disagree with the concept, what is your alternative utopia?
- Big Society has the potential to guide global social policy efforts. Could it be the British approach to the crisis in Europe? Could the approach even be spread to development cooperation?
- Reducing the power of central governments also leads to gradually moving away from the war economy in which national politicians manufacture and support armed conflicts abroad for political and economic purposes. What kind of Big Society institutions encourage the use of soft power in global networks and make the use of violence unviable?
When we learn to maintain respectful dialogue throughout the society, we are much better equipped to face the long-awaited social reforms. At the same time it is essential that we find the fine balance between cynicism and idealism. In this process, approaches such as Theory U and participatory design may prove beneficial.
PS. I wrote this text Comment is Free in mind, but as they refused I decided to publish it here. (I guess it was too intellectual for the general reader.)
Society has many faces. Even inside a particular society there are numerous different ideas of what the society consists of, depending on e.g. the personal education, background and influences. The ideas also vary between different discourses.
It could be thought that the “average” of these ideas is what the single society (such as the Finnish or American society) is. However, the nature of a society is never fixed, but the society is always fluctuating and changing its shape. Therefore a lot of this discussion has to do with mental images, currently dominating ideas in the mainstream media and personal interests. We see society as we view our own lives, and vice versa.
Here I have tried to build four categories into which the societies could be put.
Focus on Civil Society
- adopted by educators, volunteers and government innovators
Focus on Market
- adopted by entrepreneurs, CEOs, economists and contemporary government officials
Focus on Government
- adopted by government bureaucracies and nationalists
Focus on Family
- adopted by children, housewives and the politically indifferent
Comment is Free reported about the US war veterans tossing medals back at Nato, and the writer frames it as a heroic act. The comment section was quickly filled with remarks about what medals were thrown (nothing important, such as Medals of Honor), and how the act is “purely symbolical and actually means nothing”. However, it seems the discussion in this thread is something historical, as many commenters openly and critically address the US military power from different viewpoints. There are also some veterans involved, although their contribution is quickly framed as “lobotomic” and “propagandistic”.
The claim of the meaning (or, meaninglessness) of the event is interesting. I’m currently reading Antonio Damasio’s Self Comes to Mind and his thesis is that it is homeostasis, the desire for balance, what makes humans act. In Damasio’s thinking, our “mental balance” is just a more complex extension to the chemical balance that already exists in e.g. protozoa. (Homeostasis is equivalent to the thought of power use as managing cognitive dissonance, which I introduced back in March.)
Why am I talking about homeostasis here? Because the claim of meaninglessness of the event springs from it. The writer has perhaps made a career in the military or identifies with patriotism; therefore, the balance, feeling of identity and perhaps even the social position of the speaker depends on the claim that the event was meaningless. Saying or accepting that it has a lot of symbolic value would have introduced a lot of cognitive dissonance to the writer’s mind – so the balancing process of life comes to the scene and claims that it’s stupid, childish and meaningless.
Another perspective is that the discussion shows clearly the social side of meaning. Before we go there, however, let’s have a short clarification on what meaning actually is.
In linguistics, meaning is what the source or sender expresses, communicates, or conveys in their message to the observer or receiver, and what the receiver infers from the current context.
Rather than being something any one person can define, meaning is always collectively (re)defined and distributed in social networks. The end result of this collective definition process is the negotiated order: contracts, understandings, rules etc. in the social encounters.
The negotiation process is actually tightly linked to the concept of social casting. While negotiated order approaches the social situation from the perspective of the end result, social casting focuses on the dynamic process between individuals in the social system. The latter also emphasizes that the process is not always democratic, as the word “negotiated” would suggest.
The situation of veterans tossing medals can be understood from this perspective: they are refusing from the role of the war hero and consciously dismantling it. Taking an established symbol (war medal, a symbol of heroism) and claiming it symbolizes the opposite (shame) is actually the most powerful and empowering act in the contemporary society.
I’m often faced with phrases such as:
It is easy for you to say, you’re so talented.
I’m not intelligent enough company for you, you have to find someone to argue against you.
Well, you are a good person but most people are not.
I don’t understand you and that makes me feel stupid.
There are a couple of aspects to pay attention to here:
- Separation of You and Me
- Dichotomy of talent – no talent, intelligence – no intelligence, good – not good, easy – hard
I’m currently reading a book titled Introduction to Hegel’s The Phenomenology of Spirit (in Finnish). The back cover states:
According to Hegel, the source and objective of philosophical thinking is humane, historical experience and no abstract world of ideas. That is why philosophy includes all aspects of reality: life and death, knowledge and error, science and art, religion and politics. To reach absolute knowledge one must follow the path of doubt and despair and experience all the different forms of human knowledge. The Phenomenology of Spirit is a description of this path, a rich presentation of the different elements of human experience.
In the Hegelian framework, what kind of awareness do the above phrases reflect?
First off, they reflect the feeling of separation. When a less conscious I faces a more conscious You, it creates an explanation: I’m less conscious because I’m less intelligent. It is my own fault that I don’t understand, now I feel angry and frustrated.
Separation causes the mind to create external explanations. Philosophy, rather than springing from experience that is common to all human existence, is a sign of brilliance that can only be reached by those with “talent”. Also understanding such things is reserved for the talented few. Thus the Spirit states: “You should find more intelligent company to argue with.”
This brings us to the Great Man theory, “according to which history can be largely explained by the impact of “great men”, or heroes: highly influential individuals who, due to either their personal charisma, intelligence, wisdom, or Machiavellianism utilized their power in a way that had a decisive historical impact.”
Herbert Spencer‘s criticism is enough to refute the theory:
“[Y]ou must admit that the genesis of a great man depends on the long series of complex influences which has produced the race in which he appears, and the social state into which that race has slowly grown…. Before he can remake his society, his society must make him.”
However, history is still implicitly approached through this theory – that is, national heroes are celebrated every year. This has to do with the narrative needs of the society: history is written and read so that it supports and creates legitimacy for the existing social structure and institutions.
In practical life this can be seen in national holidays, celebrations and events. For example in Finland being proud of being Finnish (no value statement here) has been in the last couple of years slowly linked to the True Finns party that is critical towards immigration and political establishment. This has caused somewhat negative connotations in celebrating the Day of Finnishness (which actually is today, May 12th) and Independence Day (December 6th). The political establishment has actually become increasingly more “pro-European Union” which creates an interesting tension in the Finnish political climate. (At the same time we have started to celebrate the Europe day on May 9th.) Depending on the current events, also such celebrations can start to feel “weird” – celebrating the EU in the midst of a European Union economic crisis creates lots of cognitive dissonance.
So to sum up this rather meandering path of thought: consciousness likes to claim that it is separate from others and that intelligence and wisdom is something to be reserved for the few in order to protect itself; in the social context this is linked to the theory of Great Men; this theory is actually the basis of the nation state, which uses great men to create narratives of a common ancestry and shared experiences and values.
Perhaps we should ask: If intelligence and wisdom is part of the human experience and in the reach of everyone, what happens to the narratives of nations and their heroes?
The roles that are available to individuals in the society largely defines the nature of that society: many roles for factory workers constitute an industrial society, while roles for knowledge workers constructs a knowledge-based society. The concept of a social role is tightly connected to the institutions that make those roles available. The institution of state enables the role of the public servant, university makes the role of the scientist possible and the large quantity of production and leisure time creates the consumer.
In this timeline I have tried to describe the available roles in the Western society in the last 200 years. This timeline is, of course, highly subjective and dependent on the society in question. To whom are the roles available? Can an individual switch between roles? I have approached this with the idea that social roles used to be selected at a young age and that in the past they were more fixed for the whole lifetime than they are now.
It is a matter of another debate to consider which roles are currently available. There can also be a mismatch of available roles between the educational system and the economy. Studying how large percentage of graduates are employed to their own field is one indicator for the amount of mismatch. For example, the fact that Masters and Doctors of Philosophy end up as cleaners and cashiers indicates the inflation/disappearance of the role of the scientist.
The society can be thought as a stream which constantly offers different roles which individuals then fulfill. Hofstede et al. (2010) present the idea like this:
We can approach this role-selection process through the concept of social casting. Casting itself can be defined like this:
1. The act or process of selecting actors, singers, dancers, models, etc. to a production.
2. A manufacturing process by which a liquid material is poured into a mold, which contains a hollow cavity of the desired shape, and then allowed to solidify.
Thus, social casting can be defined as follows:
Social casting is the process of a social system in which individuals are offered roles that they seek to fulfill, into which they are put or collectively selected.
The concept is a key in understanding many different social phenomena, such as social exclusion, deviance and awkwardness. Social exclusion can be thought to occur when an individual refuses or is prohibited from fulfilling the offered roles (such as that of a settled spouse or an employee) for one reason or another. Deviance describes this phenomenon from a viewpoint that presupposes more active efforts from the individual. Awkwardness can be understood as the feeling of confusion before social casting takes place. Imagine a rebellious teenager in a family party. E.g. when s/he says: “Celebrating birthdays is stupid.” this is followed by the feeling of awkwardness, which results in casting the teenager a role of “a teenage rebel” – this is necessary to release the social tension in the situation.
While social casting takes place in small-scale situations like that mentioned above, it also happens in big transitions such as finishing primary school, graduating from a university and getting employed. In addition, social casting occurs in elections where individuals are selected to fulfill the roles as heads of social bureaucracies (parties, local governments, national governments and organizations).
In each of these occasions the role of the individual changes: from child to teenager, from young person to adult, from student to employer, from citizen to leader. The shift from one role to another is constructed in language in many ways:
“You are not a child anymore, you shouldn’t need me to support you financially.” (child-adult)
“As a student, you must take responsibility of your own studies.” (pupil-student)
“You should know, you’re the one who just got his Ph.D.” (undergraduate-employee)
“I have a family now, I can’t just go travelling around the world.” (single-settled)
“I don’t want to be at home with the kids all day long, I want to build a career of my own.” (housewife-career wife)
“A party leader cannot have a personal blog.” (citizen-leader)
All of these notions are followed by a feeling of confusion/disappointment, which results in the individual either accepting the proposed role or one seeking to redefine the role/relationship. Social casting is never a permanent verdict. Relationships are built and roles cast continuously in the communication, so individuals are also able to actively transform their roles through conscious effort.
In the core of holiness is the feeling of awe – this feeling both creates and reinforces the social structure.
When it comes to “manufacturing” holiness, religion is not that different from politics. While religion builds holiness on relics and tall buildings, politics trusts in black suits and bodyguards with a serious face.
The secular society concentrates its holiness in commodities and consuming. Can you think of anything more convenient than holiness that can be bought?
Let’s consider the different ways things can “go wrong” in this framework of thought:
- Failure of education: individual doesn’t learn the essential skills needed to get along, such as social skills (home), or understanding of society (school).
- Failure of integration: social exclusion or marginalization takes place in new generations (difficulties in employment) and through justice system (difficulties of criminals to get back to normal life).
- Failure of adaptation: the social system faces increasingly more economic and environmental crises, as practices are not effectively changed.
- Failure of goal attainment: setting common goals through politics becomes more and more difficult when common belief systems are breaking up (the US political crisis).
It seems all these failures are actually intertwined: failure in education can result in failure in integration (e.g. choosing an industrial career in a post-industrial era), and failure in politics results in the failure of all three, education, integration and adaptation. This means improving the state of politics is crucial. Since effective decision making is based on a common belief system, promoting such a system is the starting point in solving the crises of the society. Dialogue is the tool for this.
Extensive quoting from Wikipedia:
Structural functionalism is a framework for building theory that sees society as a complex system whose parts work together to promote solidarity and stability. This approach looks at society through a macro-level orientation, which is a broad focus on the social structures that shape society as a whole.
The AGIL paradigm is a sociological scheme created by American sociologist Talcott Parsons in the 1950s. It is a systematic depiction of certain societal functions, which every society must meet to be able to maintain stable social life. AGIL is an acronym from the initials of each of the four systemic necessities:
- Adaptation, or the capacity of society to interact with the environment. This includes, among other things, gathering resources and producing commodities to social redistribution.
- Goal Attainment, or the capability to set goals for future and make decisions accordingly. Political resolutions and societal objectives are part of this necessity.
- Integration, or the harmonization of the entire society is a demand that the values and norms of society are solid and sufficiently convergent. This requires, for example, the religious system to be fairly consistent, and even in a more basic level, a common language.
- Latency, or latent pattern maintenance, challenges society to maintain the integrative elements of the integration requirement above. This means institutions like family and school, which mediate belief systems and values between an older generation and its successor.
I’m especially interested in this paradigm in the context of the Syrian uprising. In the uprising the conflict (which I thought was the starting point for power use) is apparent. Parsons, however, doesn’t handle conflict in his work; in the Wikipedia article it is only mentioned that “Parsons never spoke about a society where there was no conflict or some kind of ‘perfect’ equilibrium”. This lack of dealing with conflict is also present in the wider criticism of structural functionalism: it is seen as “ahistorical, conservative, and unable to deal effectively with the process of change or conflict”.
Perhaps we should consider Parsons’ work as describing the steady state of the system. It is “conservative”, because it is, by definition, describing stable social life. This does not mean it is useless since societies are full of conflict, but that it describes the structural necessities for a balanced society.
Let’s consider Syria here: the system is taken out of balance when information about the Arab Spring spreads wider and also reaches the unsatisfied Syrian citizens (inducing cognitive dissonance in them). This cognitive conflict calls into question the legitimacy of the prevailing social structure, as the view spreads that the society is not what it could be (introduce examples from other Arab revolutions here); before this understanding spread, everyone was relatively happy with the system, or at least not resorting to excessive violence.
Violence by rebels is their way of balancing their cognition, while violence by state aims to stabilize the cognition of those supporting (and benefiting from) the status quo. The conflict is the end result of this internal ambivalence in the system.
Another good question is why states are generally so unstable in the Middle East. I believe it’s partly because the religious and secular symbolism (manifesting through leaders, flags and institutions) are in a constant conflict; this means the secular state struggles to establish itself. In protestant countries this process was much easier, as even Martin Luther emphasized the separation of law and gospel:
According to Luther, God has established two kingdoms: one under the law, and the other under the gospel. The state must operate under the law, and its main purpose is to set limits to human sin and consequences. Without the state, sin would lead to chaos and destruction. Believers, on the other hand, belong to the other kingdom, which is under the gospel. This means that Christians ought not to expect the state to be ruled by the gospel, nor to support orthodoxy by persecuting heretics. Furthermore, there is no reason why Christians should require that the state be ruled by fellow believers in order to obey them. Rulers, as such, must follow the law, and not the gospel. In the kingdom of the gospel, civil authorities have no power. In that which refers to this second kingdom, Christians are not subject to the state, and owe it no allegiance. But one must always remember that believers are at once justified and sinners; therefore, as people who are still sinners, we are under the authority of the state.
From The Story of Christianity, Volume 2 by Justo L. Gonzalez (source)