4.1. People and systems


Why do people stand in queues? Why is Finland still using fossil fuels? Why doesn't everyone even have food? These are all essential questions in the social sciences. And although they are not directly answered in this course, we give a general guideline: To answer such questions, we need to understand systems.

In social science research, systems thinking carries a historical baggage in that it is often associated with holistic thinking, which typically emphasizes the properties of systems rather than the components of systems, such as human individuals, as explanatory factors of phenomena. The holistic approach easily (over)emphasises the permanence of systems, which can be problematic when we know that systems are in a constant state of change - slower or faster.

On the other hand, the counterpart of holism that is individualism does not always recognize systems at all. In its extreme forms, individualism views social systems as mere groups of individuals. A well-known quote from Margaret Thatcher, a former Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, provides an example: “[W]ho is society? There is no such thing! There are individual men and women and there are families.” As stated above, both individuals and families are components of social systems, but systems also have a structure and systems involve processes - and thus social system will feature emergent properties that no individual has. We would not find much sense in statements such as “there are no houses, only bricks”, or “there are no words, only letters”.

It is true that without human individuals, there would be no society. It is equally true that there would be no society without the cells of human bodies. But it would not be practical to consider cells as the basic components of society; instead, it is practical to consider human individuals as such basic components. There is nothing more fundamental behind this choice - and there does not need to be. It is equally valid to consider something else as basic components of society - only think of subsystems of societies, such as economy, justice, science, art, or education.


All systems are fundamentally the same…

In the history of social sciences, systems have been theorized in various ways. For this course, we will apply ideas about the nature of reality that are based on a philosophy of science called critical realism, and specifically on the work of a British scholar, Prof. Dave Elder-Vass.

The systemic approach adopted on this course is linked to the idea of different levels of reality. Thus far, we have focused on physical, chemical, and biological levels. In this line of thought, the social realm is simply another level “above” these other levels.

The social system is viewed as consisting of interacting components, that is, less complex social systems, and the relations between these components. All such systems are composed of human beings organised into some kinds of collectives. Similarly, human beings are composed of their (material) components and the relations between those components - organs, which are composed of cells, which are composed of cell organelles, which are composed of even smaller parts and their interrelations, all the way to their fundamental subatomic parts. All of these components are systems in their own right, with the exception of the ultimately fundamental things which we currently do not understand in detail.

All of these systems have emergent properties based on their components and the relations between those components. ‘Emergent’ means that no component of the system, nor the system as a whole, would have such properties, if they were not organised in the form of that very system. For example: the thinking processes of humans are made possible by neurons and the neuronal system that consists of the relations between neurons, even if no single neuron can think.


…but social systems are fundamentally distinctive

The above-described general theory of emergence and the construction of reality proposes that, when it comes to their construction, social entities - such as families - are fundamentally similar to the objects of natural sciences. However, it is notable that all entities composed of interrelated components have specific emergent properties. This means that the social level features properties that the biological (or the chemical or the physical) does not feature, which both adds complexity and requires that social systems are observed with specific methods.

Social systems feature many properties that “lower” level systems do not. Such properties include power, reflexivity, intentional decision-making and strategic behaviour. Compared to “lower” level systems, these properties decrease regularity and predictability. Similarly, in comparison to ecological systems, human systems are characterised by the features of language, discourse, culture, and knowledge (even if such properties are not exclusive to human systems).


The relationship between social systems and the human individual

How should be conceive of the relationship between a human individual and social systems - societies or any other human collectives?

It goes without saying that there are many different ways for doing this. The relationship between individuals and societies (or societal structures) may well be the most fundamental question in social sciences, and social sciences have been practiced for several centuries. As social animals, humans have probably always contemplated on their roles in communities.

Norms are specifically important to social systems. Generally speaking, a norm is a rule or an expectation, shared by a group of people, about how people should behave. This means that a norm is an emergent property of a social system - it only makes sense if a particular group of people recognises it and acknowledges it as meaningful.

In such a particular group, such an expectation tends to shape people’s beliefs about one should act in certain kinds of situations, which means that a norm tends to produce behaviour that meets expectations. Norms participate in the development of many different kinds of behaviours. They can become institutionalised as laws, which is the reason why traffic usually follows only one side of the road (left or right, depending on where you are); or they can guide everyday behaviour as cultural codes, as when you only have candles on cakes when there is a birthday, or that you should wear a tie to the office; or they can, quite simply, be rules to a game, as when, in a game of ice hockey, a player cannot cross the blue line before the puck does. It is typical to rules that while they may be instantly changed by common ruling in principle, they are often “materialised” in our environments. If we would, for example, decide that the traffic now follows the other side of the road, all the traffic signs and exit ramps would be on the wrong side.

It is not strictly necessary for an individual to be morally committed to a norm - it is enough to be aware, on some level at least, of the positive consequences of following a norm and the negative consequences of breaking one. In this way, the norms upheld by a system shape the motivations of their participants, even if they do not strictly force them into certain kinds of action. Norms are internalised as a part of a belief system (which is sometimes also called a “disposition” or a “habitus”), and they guide the actions of an individual long after the norm is first adopted. There is thus a temporal difference to how, on the one hand, social systems affect individuals and, on the other, how individuals behave according to a norm. When one acts according to normative expectations, one reproduces and reinforces the norm as part of the social system.

This is, however, only one aspect of the shaping of human action. Because we are, as humans, the kind of entities that we are (i. e. organised into a certain kind of whole with certain kinds of properties), we are able to consciously assess - reflect on - our actions, motivations, or beliefs. In other words, we can also act in contradiction to normative expectations.

Social systems are made more complex by the fact that in thinking about them, we need to account for both how social systems affect individuals (sometimes on nonconscious levels) and how individuals reflect on a given situation. In a given situation, our choices and actions are guided both by the beliefs we have based on our previous experiences and our unconscious tendencies to act in certain ways in certain situations, but also by our ability to consciously reflect on our beliefs and attitudes. Even if depictions of human decision-making may emphasise either our unconscious tendencies - even to the point of losing sight of “free will” altogether - or conscious reflection, the mainstream of studies on human decision-making supports the idea that these aspects are both needed.

In other words, our action is conditioned by entities that operate on a social level - “above” the human individual - and on a biological level - “below” the human individual. On the one hand, we are affected by the social system, the norms of which we internalise (into our neurological system) even unconsciously. On the other hand, we are affected by our biological system, which has self-organised into a complex neurological system and thus provides a foundation for our cognitive capabilities, such as beliefs and tendencies, which are also partly unconscious. Such beliefs and tendencies are emergent properties of the whole “human system”, whereas norms are emergent properties of the social system.


Roles are positions in a social system

Typically, any one of us is part of many different social systems at the same time. Different social systems might include collegial groups, groups of friends, family, school, associations, religious groups, nations, et cetera. In these systems, part of our behaviour is conditioned by the roles the system requires of us, such as a father, a spouse, an employee, a customer, et cetera. These roles are positions determined by ones relations in a social system. They are not components of a system as such - rather, through norms, they affect the actions of someone who takes such a position. The above means that when we take up one role or another, we have beliefs about how to act in the role.

An added complication in making sense of social systems, when compared to many natural systems, is that the boundaries of systems that operate through norms are not very clearly delineated. In most natural systems, the interacting components of the system are materially in touch with each other, which means that they are located in the same physical space. In these cases it is easier to define where the boundaries of the system lie. In contrast, phenomena like cultural norms do not have any kind of geographical or material boundaries - they can engage people anywhere in the world, which is increasingly just what happens. This is part of the phenomenon of globalisation. Moreover, there are no spatial restrictions to acting in a particular role - due to the global covid-19 pandemic, many people began working from home, and thus homes became places for acting in an additional role - as an employee or a student, and not just as a family member.


“Hey! No jumping the queue!”

The relationship between an individual and the system can be explained through a very simple example system: the queue. As a social system, a queue is composed of parts, that is, people who queue up. It has a very structure that is based on the sequentiality of individuals. A queue also has emergent properties, which none of its components nor the group of them would have in the case that they had not configured themselves into this particular sequential form - most importantly, the system determines in which order the individuals will conduct their business. Moreover, the queue itself contributes to the process of identifying a group behaviour as “queuing” - something that would not happen, were there just one person standing next to several counters.

Queuing is determined, with fair amount of precision, by queuing-related norms. We know, for example, how wide a gap we need to keep to the next person - only small children are allowed to break this norm, as they are not expected to understand it. The most important and well-kept norm, however, is the one that determines the whole purpose of the queue - the one you break by jumping the queue. The act of moving in front of a person in a queue causes moral outrage not only in the people who end up behind the queue-jumper, but also to some extent in the people at the front part of the queue or the people in the adjacent queue.

The fact that even people in the next queue are affronted by the act of queue-jumping already suggests that the norms that regulate the practice of queuing are not a property of the queuing itself. The norms applying to queuing precede all individual situations where people queue up, and not only the people standing in a queue but most of their fellow citizens will recognize such norms. Even if a single queue is not an institution, queuing is. The norms that apply to groups larger than people in a queue guide us into forming queues and acting in them in ways proper to queues, but on top of that, the queues affect us on a systemic level - most importantly, a queue sequentialises the behaviour of a group of people.

Analysing the act of queuing - even if it may seem a little too obvious - can unravel the basic dynamic between an individual and a system. At the same time, it helps us to notice how our everyday environments are full of seemingly self-evident situations, in which our actions are guided by different social norms. It is typical to queuing that queus are formed and dispersed, that we do not pay much attention to other people in the queue, and that we do not expect to interact with them later.


Hierarchical organisation and coordinated work

Now we can turn from the social system of the queue to larger social systems. In organisations, we can find the same basic dynamic of norms and individual-level reflection, but they are made more complex by the fact that they involve continuous interaction between people. Organisations - like all other social systems - are thus wholes composed of a group of interacting people organised into specific relationships. In contrast to, say, queues, organisations have people act in highly specialised roles, which are often based on orders and authority. Often, organisations are formal, which means that individuals are positioned or recruited to fill these roles (or social positions) - such as the role of a salesperson in a shop, or any other job. Such a social position or role already exists in the organisation before its current occupant, and it will remain after them.

Norms, and the hierarchical order of roles in an organisation, guarantee that people in different positions will carry out the tasks linked to their roles. Perhaps tha most central emergent property of an organisation is, however, the specialisation of roles - that is, division of work - and the efficient production resulting from coordinated co-operation. Only by grouping into a particular organisation can that group of people produce, for example, a product or service that no one in that group of people could produce alone, or at least more efficiently than if each individual did every step of the work himself. The most typical example of this is assembly line work.

From this systemic point of view, it makes sense to say that when we look at the human communities we call organisations, the entity that brings about change in the world - the causal entity - is the organisation, rather than each individual human being. This does not mean, of course, that people are not also causal agents in an organisation. Although it is the position in the organisation that gives the member of the organisation the ability to do the things that are part of his role, recognised and acknowledged by others, it is the people who do the actual doing, and are, for example, legally and/or morally responsible for their actions alongside the organisation. As discussed above, human beings who are capable of reflection always have the possibility to act differently from what the norms and their role would suggest.

Of course, as organisations grow in size, they also grow in complexity. Not only can organisations create their own set of norms, or organisational culture, but organisations - like all systems - are embedded in the norms of society and wider circles, which organisations can seek to influence as they grow in size and also as they become more collaborative. States, for example, are specific organisations with specific functions, the most important of which is precisely the setting of legal norms through legislative processes. As governance, politics and economics become intertwined, large public and private organisations can influence the shaping of the norms that affect them, particularly through the advocacy organisations they set up to defend their interests.


The intertwining of non-human beings and humans?

Until now, we have only talked about organisations from a human perspective. In a course on planetary well-being, it is important to also consider the role of non-human material objects in human systems. Here we move towards systems, which in section 4.4 are referred to as socio-ecological systems.

We noted above that systems in which the individuals who are part of them are organised in particular ways are capable of producing particular kinds of outputs. We ignored the fact that people are often not the only entities that contribute to the outcome of their organisation, but have at their disposal a variety of material objects with which they interact. 

The use of tools is a very simple example of this. If we think, for example, of chopping logs, it is easy to understand that the ability to chop logs requires not only a complex cooperation between different parts of the human being - eyes, brain, limbs, etc. - but also an axe suitable for chopping. The axe is thus an essential part of a system capable of chopping logs. 

There is some controversy in social science as to how strictly non-human beings should be included in descriptions of systems. Increasingly, hybrid systems are being used to refer to systems in which both humans and other material beings are part of the system. The abilities - or emergent properties - of these systems to produce outputs depend on the interrelationships between humans and these other beings. However, it is not at all clear how organically the axe in the previous example should be linked to the human being in the same system. Perhaps most people find the idea of an intertwining of human and axe in a human-axe hybrid strange; it seems more meaningful to speak of a human being who brings about change, but who simply uses the axe as a tool.

But what about, say, highly automated factories? It is probably natural for most people to think that, for example, in an electricity generating plant, where the role of the workers is simply to manage the plant, it is the plant with all its parts - including people - that is the entity that produces the electricity.

There are similarities with the above in understanding the relationship between human and non-human nature. On the one hand, nature can be seen as a resource or tool with which man extracts wealth for himself. As explained in the course ‘Introduction to Planetary Well-being’, the historical narrative of man emerging from the mercy of nature to become the master of nature is the frame story of Western progress. However, it would seem that both human and natural, and social and ecological processes, are missing something essential if their interconnectedness is not taken seriously enough. We will return to this in section 4.4.


Regimes of the system

Finally, we introduce one more important concept that clarifies the functioning of systems and their permanence and the rigidity of change. In the 1980s, the concept of regime emerged in the scientific debate, mainly from evolutionary economics. At that time, the 'technological regime' referred to technicians' beliefs about what was feasible in technological development, which in turn directed development along certain paths rather than others. Beliefs are still important building blocks for understanding regimes, but later the concept of regime has come to encompass much more. 

Above, we have looked at social dynamics, drawing on the links between people's beliefs, social norms and rules, and material things such as technology. We can now bundle all of these together into a single complex - the regime - which can henceforth be thought of as a set of established social paradigms of social practices, beliefs, methods, behaviours, routines and rules at any given moment in time, directed towards a particular system under consideration. It is therefore a kind of preconception or mental model of how a system works or should work. And since - as noted above - ideas can only reside in the brains of humans (and other 'evolved' beings), it is common to associate regimes with the social networks that support that paradigm and, as further discussed in this chapter, with material non-human beings. 

Thus, when we talk about energy regimes and food regimes in the following, we are referring to a (sub)system with three intertwined dimensions: 1) networks of actors and social groups, 2) norms that guide the activities of actors, and 3) material and technical elements.


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Last modified: Tuesday, 16 May 2023, 6:42 PM