Without equilibrium: studying societies

Posted by mouthyb | Posted in | Posted on 11:53 AM


One of the concepts which is really challenging in the newer social sciences is the idea that societies don't have a single equilibrium point which can be found and studied as the 'real' reason people in that society do what they do. There have been a few thinkers in the history of the social sciences who were inclined to this point of view, but they were in the minority and their work was roundly criticized for being too complicated to test.

I'm going to weigh in as someone who believes multiple points of temporary equilibrium which indicate structures but don't dictate single paths of behavior or motivations. I say this because the actors in the system are thoughtful (able to evaluate, even if they choose not to or use a demonstrably false schema) and because I assume every system has competing influences on actor behavior.

As an example, the choice to go to a particular place for coffee, when there are several proximate places which sell coffee drinks at around the same prices. The college which employs and educates me has roughly five different places to get coffee within a block of or on the university campus. I typically pick the closest place to my department, a Starbucks, out of sheer convenience, but convenience is not always my rationale. In fact, there are a handful of rationale I use to pick a place to get coffee: convenience, the company and kind of conversation I'm planning on having (the need for more privacy means I have to get off campus), what kind of coffee I want to drink, whether I want to people-watch, what sort of background music I'm willing to listen to (I hate Christmas music), whether they're having a sale, what sort of food I want to eat (if I'm eating and having coffee) and whether or not I want to be alone (if I use an on-campus coffee place or the places closest to the university, I will run into someone I know who wants to talk roughly 80% of the time.) At any point where I make a decision, any of these factors could emerge as a deciding factor in where I buy coffee.

In practice, convenience tends to be the deciding factor, but it's augmented by those other factors. Because convenience tends to be the deciding factor, I might start an analysis at convenience, but it is not a consistent rationale for my actions outside getting coffee; I walk to work, which is highly inconvenient, as is the course schedule I'm taking and the amount of time I've volunteered to help others with study and/or tasks. For reasons like this, analyzing human behavior is always time and location constrained. Much of the generalization in the social sciences about all humans in all circumstances completely ignores the multidimensional nature of decision-making from the point of view of actors, and typically does so from the point of view of the actor/theorist looking.down from a position they suppose to be able to allow them to see everything clearly.

Which is one of the other problems with studying societies: observation changes the nature of events. If a theorist is willing to start analyzing society by assuming that the material fact of their observation has no effect on the thing they observe (for primary data sourcing or for how that data is filtered; ideas are contagious), they are highly unlikely to query the nature of the assumptions they make. This tends, in my readings, to result in the arbitrary disposal of some observations as 'unimportant,' based on the coding of the theorist, even though those observations may be influential.

The other problem is that people will change their behavior when they know they are observed. Coupled with the notorious problem isolating human behavior enough to rigorously observe it, and trying to figure out how to observe meaningfully and interpret meaningfully contains a great deal of assumption about the entire process.

Honestly, I prefer assuming that the process is dynamic and that a theorist should start with observation and the awareness that they influence the system they observe. It seems to me a more reasonable approach.

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