|The Impact of Chaos on Science and Society (UNU, 1997, 415 pages)|
|16. Chaos in society: Reflections on the impact of chaos theory on sociology|
All social systems continously face internal and external disturbances; it is an essential feature of social systems that they react to disturbances, including endogenous growth impulses or any kind of innovation. System collapses only occur if in the face of potentially disruptive disturbances the strategies or mechanisms to cope with them fail. System breakdowns are therefore due to the incongruity between the requirements and problems facing a system on the one hand, and the system's ability to react on the other.
The collapse of a system may, first, be caused by the cessation or ineffectiveness of restraining mechanisms that previously prevented the occurrence of specific disruptive disturbances. Simple examples are measures aiming to prevent events that may trigger violent collective behaviour. Attempts to control disturbances ex ante are also present when children are taught what they are not allowed to do, when binding contracts are signed, when legal norms are established and applied, and when corporate actors concur to forestall undesirable developments - the arms race, inflation, soil erosion. If mechanisms of social control fail, the "man-made" social order collapses. System breakdowns that are caused by the failure of a restraining factor can occur quite suddenly when the preceding state of rest is based on balancing highly antagonistic forces, as is often the case between aggressive and repressive forces prior to revolutions.
Social systems are not dependent on the ability to prevent the occurrence of disturbances if instead they succeed in mastering them without jeopardizing the order of the system. The failure of such compensating mechanisms represents the second important cause of system breakdowns. Examples of compensating mechanisms include the substitution of increasingly scarce resources by new materials, energy resources, or production processes. Compensation also takes place when unions offer various benefits to attract members in spite of declining class consciousness. Compensatory strategies make use of the fact that equifinality is a frequent phenomenon in the social world, i.e. that the same goals can be reached by different paths and that the same effects can be the result of different causes.
Disturbances that can neither be avoided nor compensated require adaptive transformations. The failure to bring about such a necessary structural change is a third cause of system breakdown. If change is necessary in the interest of long-term preservation, an obstruction of learning processes that conserves the existing order may lead to the collapse of a system or a radical structural change. A good example for this is Michel Crozier's vicious bureaucratic circle, which starts when the continuous adaptation of a bureaucratic organization to changing external demands is forestalled by the organization's rigidity (Crozier 1964). Growing dissatisfaction among clients follows and finally causes responsible politicians to force reform upon the unwilling bureaucracy; this represents a structural break. Adaptive transformations may be especially difficult to achieve by systems that are equipped with well-developed and initially even well-functioning restraining and compensating mechanisms.
Threshold values play an important part in these processes in two respects, especially if the first two, rather "defensive" ways of warding off disturbances fail. On the one hand, previously effective mechanisms to restrain and to compensate for disturbances may fail when a "disturbing factor" suddenly rises rapidly; that is to say that the speed with which developments take place is critical. Growing rates of unemployment or of car accidents may serve to illustrate the point. A slow and continuous increase leaves room not only for a gradual revision of our expectations concerning the acceptable level of unemployment or traffic deaths; it also permits to develop and extend measures to compensate for and limit damages, for example by establishing re-education programmes, emergency hospitals, and rescue helicopters. But if we are suddenly confronted with precipitous increases in the figures for unemployment or accidents we are shocked and the public reacts with mass protests, while politicians intervene with radical political measures and the atmosphere in the economy turns sour. Gradual increases of "disturbing factors" may, on the other hand, also lead into critical zones where neither restraint nor compensation remain possible. In the area of natural processes, the existence of such critical zones is part of our everyday experience. But the proverbial straw that broke the camel's back can also be found in social situations. This is true for individual behaviour (for example when with increasing pressure for compliance, conformity turns into resistance ("reactance")), as well as for social order. Social norms usually maintain their capacity to guide the behaviour of the majority in spite of a certain number of violations; should however those violations reach a critical level, social norms will suddenly lose their social (if not necessarily their juridical) validity. Similar observations can be made for solitary behaviour in groups; differing interests and latent conflicts can be tolerated to a certain degree, but if the strain reaches a certain intensity group integration may suddenly collapse.11
Disturbances that rapidly increase or reach critical levels and thus render existing restraining or compensatory mechanisms useless call for structural adaptations. Some disturbances, however, preclude or render the chances of coping with them by gradual adaptation practically unrealistic, and thus cause the system to collapse. Three types of disturbances in particular seem prone to cause breakdowns by more or less fundamentally overstraining the ability of social systems to react.
In the first case, one element of a widely ramified set of interdependent institutions fails (for whatever reasons) and causes the whole complex to collapse. Max Weber's analysis of the social reasons for the downfall of the classical culture may serve as an example. Weber claims that this collapse was caused by the abolition of a - seemingly rather insignificant - institution, namely the slave barracks, which resulted in the abolition of several other structural elements for which they had actually served as an indispensable foundation. As no more slaves were introduced into the system, the existing slaves became unfree socagers. As a consequence, landed property gained importance, the barter economy grew at the expense of the urban commodity economy, and this impeded the formation of monetary assets. This not only caused the marble splendour of ancient cities to vanish and poetry and historiography to dwarf but also the standing army and salaried civil service to disappear.12 Certainly this decline of a culture represents a collapse of a system only when observed by a historian in a quick-motion effect. Nevertheless, the example very well illustrates how a stable context of interdependent elements may collapse because of the abolition of one element.
A second type of disturbance that easily exceeds a system's ability to react can be seen in the appearance of changes in parts of the system's environment that endanger the system but are unnoticed until they develop into an acute threat that then, however, cannot be mastered any more because it is too late for any attempt to restrain, compensate, or gradually adapt. Destructive external interventions that an existing social system was neither able to prevent nor is able to master, as for example the invasion of settlements of peaceful farmers by roving tribes, are less interesting than those threats that are brought about endogenously and could be mastered or even avoided if noticed in time. The political intervention in the previously mentioned bureaucratic vicious circle represents one of many possible illustrations. The history of bankruptcies also provides numerous examples, and even Karl Marx's hypothetical "gravedigger model," according to which capitalists by their own actions produce the powerful class enemy that destroys them, follows the same logic.
The last type of disturbance to be mentioned here is caused by an accidental - and as far as the participants are concerned unforeseeable - concurrence of events that together lead to a system breakdown. This is typical of catastrophies in large socio-technical systems for which (in contrast to natural disasters) human actions are responsible.13 At the bottom of such man-made disasters that lead to the collapse of socio-technical systems lies typically the unexpected concurrence of several "mistakes." Although safeguards exist, they fail in the case of an unexpected combination of circumstances following from separate cause-and-effect chains that only accidentally intersect at a certain point. Precautions can only be taken against the expectable. Once the calamitous constellation of factors happens, the accident - the explosion, the crash, etc. - occurs at such a speed that it cannot be prevented by external interventions, i.e. there is no time for either compensation or gradual adaptation.
Charles Perrow, who analysed numerous accidents in large technical systems, emphasizes two features of these systems that increase the likelihood of catastrophies to develop according to the pattern just described: the close coupling of parts of the system and processes, and the interactiveness caused by the high degree of complexity; the unforeseen influence of separate processes upon each other. These features cannot only be found in large technical systems but also in social systems, and indeed above all in the kind that our highly developed industrial societies represent, in which the growing functional differentiation is accompanied by an increase of de facto interdependencies.
To conclude this outline of a possible sociological theory of system breakdown it should be underlined that the fundamental condition of such breakdowns is not the same as in models of deterministic chaos. The fundamental condition of social system breakdown is an imbalance between disturbances and coping, and not simply the irregular fluctuation of a given state variable. Moreover, the disturbances concerned may be of different kinds: not only endogenous but also exogenous, and not only the result of autonomous processes but also of purposive interventions. An understanding of chaos phenomena in the narrower sense may form a part of such a sociological theory, but in and of itself "chaos" in the sense used in physical and mathematical theories plays only a minor role when social systems break down.