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Social structures built on other social structures

One feature of my book Profit and Gift in the Digital Economy that may puzzle careful readers is that the central ontological concept in it does not match up immediately and transparently with the social ontology developed in my earlier books. PGDE argues that we should explain the economy in terms of complexes of appropriative practices, while my earlier work stresses that causal influence is exerted by entities – people, objects, and social entities like organisations (which are in turn composed of people and often objects too). In this post I propose to explain the relation between the two – and the explanation is of wider importance because it leads us to think about how some social structures can be built on or from other social structures.

The heart of the issue is that practices are produced, I argue, by social entities – to be specific, the social entities I call norm circles. As we shall see, this means that one social structure, a complex of practices, is built ‘on top of’ another, but this relationship is very different from superficially equivalent relationships in material objects. Critical (and other) realists often argue that objects are wholes are made up of parts, suitably related, and that as consequence of the way that those parts are related the whole has mechanisms that give it emergent causal powers. A laser pointer, for example is able to project a point of light onto a distant surface because it is made of certain parts – a laser diode, a battery, some electrical wiring, a switch, and a casing to hold the other parts in the required relation to each other – and those parts interact in a characteristic way: when the switch is pressed the battery provides power to the diode which produces a beam of light.

The author, with laser pointer

In the ontology of social entities there is a relationship that is at first sight equivalent, because social entities have parts. Organisations, for example, have parts, some of which are people, and as a consequence of the way that those parts are related the whole organisation has mechanisms and emergent causal powers. But things are more complex than they might at first appear. One reason for this is that the structure of an organisation is normative. It depends on the roles that members of the organisation occupy, and those roles are normatively defined: a role is a bundle of guidelines about how a person in the corresponding position is expected to act. But as I have argued in detail in my 2010 book, norms themselves are only effective in influencing our behaviour because there is a group of people that stands behind each norm, endorsing and enforcing it – the norm circle for the norm concerned,  Hence there is a sense in which organisations are social structures that are built on other social structures: the norm circles for the norms that define the roles in the organisation.

In PGDE I introduce the concept of complexes of appropriative practices to describe the different types of economic structure. These stand in a similar relationship as organisations do to norm circles, in that the practices that define them are each produced by a norm circle. The name complexes of appropriative practices, however, may be a little misleading, as its relation to social entities, conceived of as wholes made up of people and potentially other material parts, is not apparent in the name. Indeed the name conjures up images of a process ontology – the idea that our world is not populated by interacting things, but rather by processes which we limited humans sometimes erroneously perceive in the form of things. My view, however, is that any worthwhile ontology must include both processes and things, without making either ‘primary’ as if one could exist without the other. Hence my intention was not to suggest that these complexes are processes rather than entities. Perhaps it would be more accurate to call them complexes structured by practices rather than complexes of practices.

For any particular complex to have a causal impact on the world there must be not only practices but also people following those practices – people who are parts of the structure concerned. Like an organisation, then, any concrete example of a complex of appropriative practices consists of a group of people (and often other objects) interacting in the ways that result from them following the practices in the complex. Again, then, we have one kind of structure, whose parts are organised through a set of practices, and those practices depend on other structures: the norm circles for the different practices in the complex. But it is very clear that this relationship between the first structure and the norm circle is NOT the same kind of relation as that between an ordinary material object and its parts – between a bicycle and its wheels, for example.

Let me illustrate the point. The role of a CFO is defined partly by the norm that a CFO should be responsible for the accounting function in an organisation. This is a norm that is endorsed and enforced by a wide range of individuals (and indeed organisations) who constitute the norm circle for that norm. That norm circle may include, for the sake of the argument, a professor in a business school. Our imaginary professor forms part of the norm circle by advocating the norm, and because she is someone who can generally be relied on to support that norm. But this does not exhaust her capacity to be a part of social structures. She may also advocate other norms, e.g. that boards should include significant numbers of female directors, or that people should report breaches of business law to the authorities, and thus also forms a part of other norm circles. And as a professor in a business school she also forms a part of the business school and/or university concerned. Indeed, she is likely to be a part of a large number of other social entities.

U.S. Department of Agriculture Acting CFO Lynn Moaney
CC BY 2.0  Image source

So the structure of a contemporary corporation depends on a large number of role norms, generally including the norm that the CFO should be responsible for the accounting function, and many of those depend on a norm circle that extends far beyond the corporation itself. And thus the relationship between social structures and other structures that they depend on is not a whole-part relationship but a profusely overlapping relationship. (If that’s not complicated enough consider the implications of my bracketed comment above: an organisation may be parts of the norm circle for a norm that contributes to the structure of the organisation itself).

Nevertheless, it is a relationship that, at least in part, does operate through the parts. It is often because the members of an organisation or of a complex of appropriative practices are also members of other social structures that they are able to transmit structural influence from one to the other. In our example, the CFO herself is likely to be part of the norm circle for the norm that CFO’s should be responsible for the accounting function. Outsiders, of course, may also be influential in a case like this – perhaps the auditors, or financial journalists, or the representatives of major investors in the firm. But still, the influence of one social structure on another – whether it is a constitutive influence, as in this case, or a different kind of causal influence – occurs through individuals who are parts of the structures concerned, and some of these influences depend on the fact that some individuals may be parts of both structures concerned.

The very possibility that a human being can be part of multiple different social entities is something we may take for granted, but it is important to recognise that it is a fundamental difference between social structures and ordinary material objects. Human beings can be parts of multiple different wholes at the same scale (unlike a bicycle wheel, for example, which can only be part of one bicycle at a time) because their role in the whole depends on mental rather than spatial relationships, and this opens up structural complexities that are unheard of in ordinary material objects.

One important consequence is that the nesting of levels of structure that we find in ordinary material objects does not occur, or at least not so rigidly, in the social world. In objects nesting is unavoidable because parts are exclusive to singular wholes, but in the social world it is entirely avoidable because people are not exclusively parts of one and only one social structure. The result is that social structures may be built on other social structures, but the relationship between these structures takes the form of a massively complex network of inter-relationships of varying strength and significance rather than a hierarchical structure of nested parts and wholes.

That might sound like a recipe for complete chaos, but in fact many social structures fall into types that follow a common pattern. For example, there are many universities, which operate as similar complexes of practices to each other, many restaurants, which operate as similar complexes of practices to each other, and many queues, which operate as similar complexes of practices. No two universities, restaurants or queues may be exactly alike, but most are recognisably similar to others of the type. Such similarities underlie our capacity to integrate and cooperate with each other because they enable us to draw on our shared cultures to identify how to interact in these contexts.

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