Sociocybernetics

Sociocybernetics is an independent chapter of science in sociology based upon Systems Theory (a framework to analyze a group of objects that work in concert to produce some result) and cybernetics (the study of control and communication systems in animals and machines). It also has a basis in Organizational Development (OD) consultancy practice and in Theories of Communication, theories of psychotherapies, and computer sciences. The ‘International Sociological Association’ has a specialist research committee in the area, which publishes the (electronic) ‘Journal of Sociocybernetics.’

The study of society as a system can be traced back to the origin of sociology when the emergent idea of functional differentiation was applied for the first time to society by Auguste Comte. From his viewpoint, the principal feature of modern society was the increased process of system differentiation as a way of dealing with the complexity of the environment. This is accomplished through the creation of subsystems in an effort to copy within a system the difference between it and the environment.

One of the tasks of sociocybernetics is to map, measure, harness, and find ways of intervening in the parallel network of social forces that influence human behavior. Sociocyberneticists’ task is to understand the guidance and control mechanisms that govern the operation of society (and the behavior of individuals more generally) in practice and then to devise better ways of harnessing and intervening in them – that is to say to devise more effective ways to operate these mechanisms, or to modify them according to the opinions of the cyberneticist. The outlook that Sociocybernetics uses when analyzing any living system lies in a Basic Law of SocioCybernetics. It says: All living systems go through five levels of interrelations (social contracts) of its subsystems: A. Aggression (survive or die); B. Bureaucracy (follow the norms and rules); C. Competition (my gain is your loss); D. Decision (disclosing individual feelings, intentions); and E. Empathy (cooperation in one unified interest).

Recent investigation from the Santa Fe Institute (a sociology research organization) presents the idea that social systems like cities don’t behave like organisms as has been proposed by some in sociocybernetics. Perhaps the most basic challenges faced by sociocyberneticians are those that stem from Bookchin’s work ‘The Ecology of Freedom and the emergence and decline of Hierarchy.’ Bookchin’s argument is that what has often been described as ‘primitive’ societies are best thought of as ‘organic’ societies. People within them have differentiated roles as do the cells of a body, but this differentiation is largely reversible. Coordination between the cells is not organized by some ‘center’ but through a network of feedback (cybernetic) processes. Particularly important are organisms’ ability to evolve as well as reproduce. But simply saying that the process is ‘autopoietic’ (self-created) is to evade the task of identifying the multiple and mutually reinforcing cybernetic processes that are at work.

Yet Bookchin’s claim, which appears to be thoroughly documented, is that the evolution of organic societies into our current, vastly destructive, hierarchical societies – over millennia – has also taken place through some (almost cancerous) unstoppable autopoietic process. If we are to halt this process, which is about to destroy us as a species, probably carrying the planet as we know it with us, it will be necessary to map and find ways of intervening in the sociocybernetic processes involved. No centralized system-wide, command-and-control oriented, change will suffice. Systems intervention requires complex systems-oriented intervention targeted at nodes in the system, not system-wide change based on ‘common sense.’

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