In the twilight of social transformation
Since the turn of the millennium, uncertainty has become the only constant of the now irrevocably complex era. Recurring shocks, from terrorism and financial market collapses, to mass migrations of the impoverished and the Coronavirus pandemic, world changing events are occurring at an ever-increasing pace of transformational metacrisis. They are leaving behind the foundations of the old order and normalcy in ruins. Present generation finds itself stranded in the middle between two epochs. It is getting harder to understand what is going on, while the image of the future is already completely blurred. In the storm of centuries, have we suddenly been left to wander blindly among the swirls of our own delusions? In fundamental uncertainty, can we still keep the reins of the future in hand and hope for a favourable resolution of the metacrisis in the unforeseeable future?
The question is complex and so should be the answer. The key problem of the present generation is not yet the metacrisis itself but the inability, or at least the unwillingness to comprehend and deal with complex phenomena in a complex way. Complexity is usually identified as a serious threat to social stability that is nevertheless manageable somehow by improving standard routines.
The science of complexity does not present itself in very favourable light either. The main complexity schools, general and special, have authors who publish in separate journals and do not even meet at conferences and professionally interact (Malaina). Each school often ignores the other or treats it antagonistically. This is particularly disturbing since the prime mission of complexity is to bridge deep contradictions.
The predominant elaborations of the concept of social complexity are presently firmly anchored in the old ways of understanding the world, which see everything as polar: micro or macro, linear or nonlinear, systemic or random, binary or relativistic. When dealing with complex phenomena, binary approaches remain binary, and relativistic ones relativistic. Antagonistic mindsets do not speak the mother tongue of complexity, which is the language of the middle between extremes. In turn, one must carefully distinguish between the dominant interpretations of social complexity that reproduce existing philosophical and scientific divisions from new explanations that bridge them from the middle.
In his Agreement and Certainty Matrix diagram, professor Stacey accordingly placed the concept of complexity in the middle between complete certainty and complete uncertainty. He observes simplicity and chaos as opposite theories, but similar in one important detail: they are conceptually pure, either linear or nonlinear. Complexity, however, is a hybrid concept. Components of a complex issue are both separate and connected, on the one hand autonomous, on the other dependent, behaving rationally as much as irrationally.
The book explains mesoscopic thinking, with the concept of ‘secondness of thirdness’ developed by philosopher Charles Sanders Peirce. To think in a mesoscopic way, one must first acknowledge two independent poles of existence (Dopfer). These can be explained together only by intermediating categories that stay between the opposites, and so involve part of both. Mesoscopic categories are bi-modal with hybrid content, so they can peripherally translate between opposites in a non-exclusive manner, without interfering with their principal oppositions. Mesoscopic reasoning can explain deep oppositions in “co-existence without contradictions” (Flores-Camacho et al.). Socio-economic development, for instance, is a bi-modal mesoscopic category, which translates antagonistic conflict between the economic and social domain (of sustainable development) into a triadic structure.
In methodological terms, the meso plane is a cross-sectional landscape comprising a network of horizontal relations between multiple vertical domains of complexity. Relations between domains of a given binary relation can be ordered in a square input-output matrix as illustrated in three Case Studies. The matrical description is relevant due to its ability to integrate dual reasoning (rows and columns of the matrix) with triadic reasoning (three constituents in each row and column). A square input-output matrix of domains at the meso level is called a meso matrix. This is a twofold structure consisting partly of closed (direct, vertical) relations, placed on diagonal fields of the matrix, and partly of opened relations, placed on non-diagonal fields, so that it can integrally present a complex system as partly ordered and partly chaotic, rational and irrational at the same time. With its methodologically distinctive properties, the meso matrix is able to account indiscriminately for the interconnectedness of all things in a complex reality as well as for their separation in our minds (Ravetz).
(i) The book proposes a concept of mesoscopic social complexity that has three main characteristics: It consists of vertical and horizontal explanatory axes that orthogonally intersect at the meso level of enquiry.
(ii) Each axis encompasses at least three incommensurable domains of a rational explanation (micro-meso-macro vertically and A-B-C horizontally) that correlate or overlap in a meso matrix and form characteristic patterns of (in)consistency.
(iii) Evaluative interpretation of obtained overlaps ensures an integral (by axis, by domains) and holistic (between rational and irrational), but only vague explanation of a socially complex issue at meso level.
Evaluative view from the middle decisively expands the understanding of social complexity. This claim is supported by conclusions of three case studies. They test the ability of mesoscopic thinking to solve three eminent problems of contemporary complex societies: aggregation, integration and organisation problem.
The aggregation problem with an explanation of the laws that link the individual to the collective (Arrow; Scriven) remains one of the least developed aspects of the social sciences (Coleman). Leaving out a big-picture vision of large scale social concerns and confining the analysis either to an overly disaggregated view or to a too narrowly aggregated view, is detrimental to the possibility of their complex comprehension. All of the sciences reveal a micro-macro divide, and even the most advanced among them have not reconciled the two levels theoretically (Turner, Boyns).
The problem remains generally unresolved, as the literature has mainly concentrated on how to avoid it. The aggregation problem is generally absent from conventional textbooks. The social sciences have largely ignored the problem and instead focused on individual actions or studied macro processes and structures only (Morçöl).
One area of applicative social research that is especially hurt by the unresolved aggregation problem is the evaluation of multi-level and multi-domain impacts of policy interventions (Virtanen, Uusikylä) on the general public good. To evaluate (governmental) policy impacts is to collect detailed factual evidence of the performance of numerous independent policy measures assessed against numerous independent evaluation criteria. Standard approaches usually evaluate impacts only with intra-sectorial appraisals, such as when assessing the economic impacts of economic policies. These imply a commensurable situation, which allows for simple accumulation of assessed detailed impacts into an aggregate impact indicator.
The study is introduced by comparing different ways of synthesising detailed assessments of the policy effects to the solution of a selected social problem. Effects assessed in different units of measure are of course not cumulative but incommensurable. Leopold properly recognised this so he left assessment results in a disaggregated form. However, he failed to notice that cross-sectional effects as hybrids are only weakly incommensurable, so they are at least to some extent aggregatable, at least by source and area of impact. Ekins and Medhurst have acknowledged this but did not implement the finding consistently in both dimensions of their assessment matrix. When the inconsistency is removed, fragmented assessment results first partly aggregate into a square input-output matrix of effects on the meso level and then synthesise correlatively. Finally, their results are evaluatively interpreted. The three-step methodology at meso level of synthesis is circular. It can produce only provisional synthesis so results can never assert themselves as totalising and dogmatic.
Mesoscopic methodology of synthesis reveals the origin of the standard (vertical) aggregation problem in exclusion of qualitative difference (horizontality). Mesoscopic approach does not dismantle qualitative difference in forming synthesis, so its holistic aspirations are considerably less exclusive. As less determinate in terms of universality the synthesis becomes more connective and explanatorily rich. The study concludes that the aggregation problem can be resolved to a sufficient extent to enable effective and coherent governance at the macro level for complex societies facing challenges in an era of uncertainty.
The second case study starts with recognising social disintegration as one among the most urgent problems in postmodernity enhancing differentiation and individuality in societies. Durkheim showed that integration is either ‘organic’ pursued from below, from individuals to the whole, micro to macro, or ‘mechanical’, imposed from above, macro to micro. However, practicing divisive strategies of integration in complex conditions is among the main drivers of further social disintegration.
Giddens dismantles the divisiveness of the classical formula by approaching integration with his circular structuration theory, which relates the macro system as a whole to the microscopic level of individuals, and its parts to the whole. The theory explains integration with a chaotic principle where micro and macro spontaneously accommodate one another, similarly as to how demand and supply spontaneously balance in a free market. Unsurprisingly, Mouffe observed that his model of integrating polar oppositions produces skewed macro level outcomes in the favour of more powerful agents. One way or the other, there is an integration problem with perverse mechanisms of translation between micro and macro level of complex society.
The Case Study instead approaches integration problem at the meso level of complexity. It develops three measures of integration. The first is ‘strong balance’, which measures mechanic integration between domains of integration (territorial, in this case) — Physical, Social, and Economic. The second is ‘cohesion’ as a correlatively obtained measure, which expresses the strength of peripheral overlaps between integration domains. The last is the newly introduced ‘weak balance’, which measures the mutuality of relations — if cohesive ties are woven in an emancipatory way for all included. This is a hybrid category: it is obtained correlatively (organic aspect), but it nonetheless measures how balanced the connections are (mechanical aspect). Weak balance differs between two types of cohesion: the first is one-sided and asymmetrical, as in a globalised market, imposed on everybody leaving all without workable alternatives, the other is symmetrical and mutual between essentially diverse but equally valued domains, as between trusted partners, friends or lovers.
The Case Study concludes that mechanical and organic integrations can become effective only to the extent that they indirectly enhance the weak balance. Vertical integration needs to become less exclusive for radical difference horizontally and enrich the range and multitude of social possibilities for all. Analogously, the most valuable horizontal integration must reaffirm the core concerns of vertical integration, for instance that people voluntarily adopt in their free interactions a more responsible attitude to the commons, to public goods and to the legitimate expectations of others (intra and inter)generationally.
The first two case studies relate to the complexity of systems (institutions) and their rather primitive holistic strategies, aggregation and integration, aimed at connecting similar or synergetic phenomena. Yet, the book’s purpose is to explain social complexity, not complex systems. Social complexity as a hybrid formation is a systemic as well as an antisystemic phenomenon. The latter applies an alternative holistic approach that does not enhance the inclusion but negation and exclusion.
The most vocal representatives of the antisystem are the social movements (reformist, revolutionary, or autonomist; RRA). They are protagonists of the third case study. These movements want to change, transform or even abolish the official system. This is not an easy task, especially since antisystemic social movements suffer from a severe organisational problem. On the one side, they refuse vertical organisation, as their exclusion is precisely the enforced result of over structured society. On the other side, their preferred organisational approaches, horizontal networks, are incapable of structuring large-scale actions to enforce meaningful social change.
The third case study first postulates that to resolve the organisation problem, these movements need to abandon programmatic similarity as a connective principle and instead institute their obvious inconsistencies as the common denominator. Social movements are usually more radical in program than in action or vice versa. Their program-action footprints are inconsistent unless they enter into coalition with movements that have symmetrical opposite footprints. Coalition reconstructs their internal consistency but only in a hybrid manner, in this way maintaining their principal distinctions. In this way three coalitions arise among RRA: quasi-, semi- and orto-antisystemic. They complement one another in the mobilisation of followers, the production of alternatives to the system, and in their capacity to defend against the system the boundaries of achieved autonomy.
The organisation problem eventually resolves with the establishment of the Antisystem structure between antisystem coalitions. The Antisystem structure exists only provisionally, as a fluid, often as a latent setup that emerges into political arena only when necessary and dissolves afterward to reappear in a modified setup somewhere else. The structure is not always visible but it must always be accounted for by the System as very much alive and operational.
Emergence of the Antisystem structure decomposes the initial antisystem conflict between society and the system, between freedom and order or ‘the good’ and ‘the bad’ (Pasquino). Initial antisystem conflict decomposes into two separate confrontations: first, a conflict between two competing structures (system vs. antisystem, as order vs. order, bad against bad) and second, between competing social concerns (good against good, freedom vs. freedom). Mesoscopic deantagonisation of social relations will free enormous co-operative potential among members searching for a middle-ground between different manifestations of the good instead of against the bad.
Three studies have unanimously concluded that up to a given point, but certainly not beyond it, a weaker orderliness of truth importantly enhances one’s capacity to form more generally valid, even though less universal knowledge (Ramalingam). Reaching a cold, objective, factual description of the social reality is only one vital aspect of the complex comprehension. The other is evaluative, between equally valid but contradictory views. Here, evaluation means what Wallerstein called a third culture of comprehending a complex world that stands in the unexcluded middle between the ordered and the disordered. Social sciences that aim to reach synthesis need to submit their methods and results to evaluative criteria. The purpose is not to institute irrationality in place of rationality, but to negotiate a passage between them through the middle world, by opening the black box of doctrine and replacing it with mesoscopic reasoning that is empty in its core and blindsighted, neither blind to the invisible nor blinded by the visible.
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From “Complex Society: In the Middle of the Middle World”, Vernon Press, 2021, Radej, Golobič, https://vernonpress.com/book/1083).
Book presentation: https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/social-complexity-complex-society-middle-world-bojan-bojan-radej/