Total Drek

Or, the thoughts of several frustrated intellectuals on Sociology, Gaming, Science, Politics, Science Fiction, Religion, and whatever the hell else strikes their fancy. There is absolutely no reason why you should read this blog. None. Seriously. Go hit your back button. It's up in the upper left-hand corner of your browser... it says "Back." Don't say we didn't warn you.

Thursday, September 02, 2004

Would you like your police "regular" or in our new "thought" variety?

This post is basically going to consist of me talking out of my ass. Anyone who doesn't want to experience this bit of anatomical-wonderment is excused.

Yesterday, inbetween attending classes, working on a department network, and giving platelets, I took part in a discussion about social movement theory. Specifically we were discussing the issue: can a social movement exist separately from a social movement organization?

This may, at first, seem silly, but stay with me. I mean, sure, you could argue that a social movement can be spontaneous and undirected- simply rising up out of the social aether as it were and enveloping society. Fair enough, but if we think of social movements in such a way, how do we distinguish social movements from fads? A fad, too, is a kind of collective phenomenon that lacks any sort of real "organization."

Of course, we can all probably tell fads about from social movements whether we have a definition of them or not, but I've never been comfortable with that sort of "between us boys" approach to science. Either you can provide a formal definition, or you can't... there's no place for the ambiguous inbetween. Moreover, if you can't provide a formal definition of some kind, my money is that you don't even know yourself what you're trying to define.

So, if something distinguishes a social movement from a fad, what is it? Well, we might say that a goal separates the two, but this strikes me as equally iffy. Fads, too, may have goals. Granted, the goal may be ridiculous, like "acquire more beanie-babies," but it's a goal all the same. Perhaps we could place a filter on the sort of goal involved, but that strikes me as a highly dangerous procedure. We already suffer in this discipline from a certain myopia where non-liberal movements are concerned. What about conservative causes? What about right-wing militias? Sure, most of us don't like them, but are they really somehow less deserving of attention? Arguably, folks, anyone who feels so strongly about something that they are compelled to stockpile arms is probably deserving of scientific scrutiny.

So, if it isn't goal-oriented behavior, then what separates a movement from a fad, or a mob, or a riot? To me the answer has to be organization. A movement is organized in some fashion, setting it apart from mobs, which have the transient organization of group-think, and fads, which are characterized by atomistic behavior and even, in some cases, hyper-rational behavior to achieve the faddish end. Remember when people trampled each other over Cabbage Patch dolls? There ya' go.

That being said, however, perhaps what we really need to do is consider what we mean by "organization." Mostly when we think of "organizations" we think of charts, and hierarchy, and bureaucracy. This is, of course, why some groups (Like the European "New Social Movements") may seem leaderless and fluid- there's no hierarchy and no bureaucracy. Fair enough, but does that mean there's no organization?

Let's look at this another way: think of a flock of pigeons. There's no specific leader- no great bird fuhrer that orchestrates the entire thing. Yet, somehow, the flock manages to stay... well... organized. A researcher named Michael Macy at Cornell University has tackled this issue with the help of computer simulations. His work shows that a significant amount of complex social behavior can be explained by actors who share understandings about how the world works, and behave in a similar fashion. Each bird understands a situation the same way and therefore acts consistently in a similar way.

There's reason to believe this works for humans: think about Thomas Schelling and his concept of "Tacit Coordination." Put simply, Schelling found that humans can often coordinate with each other without the opportunity for previous communication. This is, at least in some situations, due to the possession of shared information about a variety of subjects. For example, you lose your spouse in a grocery store. Where do you go to wait? Well, probably by checkout. You didn't decide earlier that you'd wait there (Unless you're insanely paranoid), it just seems like a good place to wait, given what you know about grocery stores and how they work. In a sense, your underlying knowledge of the situation leads you to behave in a way that is predictable to others.

Now, let's consider a different example of coordination: driving. In this case, your underlying understandings of the situation may vary considerably. For some people, driving is simply a way to get from point-A to point-B. For others, it is a chance to experience the thrill of speed while scaring the shit out of others. For still more people, driving is an opportunity to play a stereo with so much bass it causes pedestrians' hearts to beat irregularly. Regardless of the motivations or understandings, however, the system itself works because everyone adheres more or less rigidly to a single system of rules. Further, what is punished by authorities is deviation from these rules, not deviations from a set of standards determining when it's allowable to drive.

So, how is all this relevant to social movements? Well, a bureaucratically organized social movement is one that uses formal mechanisms to control the behavior of its members (And what is "coordination" if not "control," however soft the touch may be?). Formally-organized movements control the behavior of their members, but have little concern for their thoughts and feelings so long as the behavior conforms. These movements are, thus, like the system of driving discussed above. The opposite seems to be true for apparently unorganized movements.

For a leaderless flock of birds to act as a unit, they must share understandings about the world. Is there any reason to think this is different for humans? In order for a collection of people to, more or less spontaneously, take concerted action, they must share enough understandings to bring them all to the same place at the same time for the same reason. The thing is, unlike birds, our behavior is too complex to chalk up to simple evolution or childhood programming. No, our guiding understandings must be taught, absorbed and, most importantly, reinforced.

In a bureucratic system where behavior matters but thoughts don't, the cops enforce standards on behavior. The logical extension, however, is that in more fluid systems where shared understandings are relied upon to generate order the "cops" don't enforce behaviors, they enforce thoughts. What is important for a non-bureaucratic movement isn't conformity of actions, so much as conformity of thought.

Certainly one could argue that most non-bureaucratic organizations lack the uniformed enforcers of traffic laws, but is that really important? For most people, most of the time, no matter how suicidally they drive, the chances of an arrest are low. What restrains their behavior is the actions of their peers. If you drive so badly nobody will ride with you, odds are good you'll learn to drive a bit better. How is this different from the pressures for conformity that exist in any group, particularly groups that see themselves as "making a difference?" The point is only emphasized when we recall that social movements have been known to engage in violent action against both opposing forces, and their own members. The tools of enforcement remain available, even if they aren't formally defined on an Org chart.

Obviously, some of you have already noticed that conformity of thought leads to conformity of action, and that forcing us all to share a set of behaviors frequently leads our thinking into identical places. So what? To say that the problem of coordinating many individuals can be tackled from either direction is not to weaken the point. The difference between non-bureaucratic and bureaucratic movements isn't the presence or absence of organization, but the presence or absence of either behavior-directed enforcement or thought-directed enforcement. Ironically, the organizations that claim to provide more freedom for their members by not trying to control their actions might be even more intimitely domineering for their enforcement of a single world-view. Members must either conform or suffer the consequences.

Is this a drastic oversimplification? Sure. Is this potentially depressing? Undoubtedly. Is it a really interesting concept? You betcha.

So tell me, what do you prefer:

Police of the Body?

Or Police of the Mind?

5 Comments:

Blogger procfreak said...

two points:

first, don't be so quick to label fads, mobs, and riots as irrational acts. that's certainly the classical interpretation, but there's actually been quite a bit of work done lately that revises the previous thinking and shows that yes, not only can such phenomena be rational, but that there is also some level of organization involved.

second, i think you're conceptualizing "social movements" too narrowly. a single SMO does not constitute a movement. and on the other hand, social movements can exist separately from SMOs. take the woman's movement. there are SMOs involved to be sure, but the movement itself also exists independently of them (i.e., if a particular SMO were to die, would the movement die? not at all).

generally though, i agree with your point about formal organization.

Thursday, September 02, 2004 9:57:00 AM  
Blogger Drek said...

Hey Procfreak,

I'm not sure that I said that fads are necessarily irrational, I just said their goals may seem somewhat ridiculous. Emphasis on may. Still, I can understand where the implication is in what I wrote and I appreciate your bringing it up.

Good point about multi-organization social movements, although I think that moves a little beyond the scope of what I was discussing. I was really interested in whether or not a movement can truly exist without any form of organization, not whether that organization is necessarily unipolar.

As for the organization of fads: can you provide an example? I'm having a hard time conceiving of it. Still, if that's so, perhaps movements need BOTH goals and organization to count as such?

Thursday, September 02, 2004 10:14:00 AM  
Blogger Beth said...

OK, so this touches on the point I was trying to make in class. Sometimes social movements (both SM's and SMO's) shift culture. It's an open question whether it's a fad or it's some sort of response from a movement that was trying to increase cultural consciousness in that area. It's hard to know the causality.

I think there's a difference between fads and cultural changes, but they can be related. Some social movement organizations specifically set out to change culture. My example in class was this midwifery group that I looked at who wanted to get more people educated about midwives and what they do. They felt like the closure of their organization meant that they had succeeded in their goal of integrating midwives into the "regular" environment of a hospital. The general public was more knowledgable and requested their services enough so that the hospital wanted to institutionalize the role of midwife.

Now is this a fad? Maybe. But it has also been institutionalized and is not (anymore) a social movement organization (even though they very much saw themselves as one). So what is that? Is that still a social movement or is it a social movement that succeeded or is it a social movement that has been absorbed or merged into the mainstream?

Like I said I think fads could be interrelated with cultural change, but I also think that fads can be passing and more like your coordination question. For instance, the current trend of undergraduate women wearing "dresses" that look to me to be towels.

This is coordinated behavior that isn't driven by an organization per se (unless you want to call clothing merchants the institution that coordinates fashion - which hey, I'm up for that argument). Still no one tells these women they have to wear something that makes them look like they just stepped out of a shower. They do it because wearing such clothing somehow conveys coolness or being fashionable (or being half naked).

Eh. Perhaps, I've lost my focus here and have degenerated into a rant on undergraduate clothing. Sorry. Still, I do think there's some interesting stuff in the question of social movements and if they are necessarily an organization or group of organizations. The easiest answer is to just say there can't be a social movement without an organization (s), but in what form does that organization have to be? Is an informal network sufficient? And is cultural change organized enough via the more nebulous and hard to define strands of coordination (ala schelling?) a way to talk about social movement organization?

Thursday, September 02, 2004 11:44:00 AM  
Blogger Alan said...

On "organizing" fads, there's some interesting work by Aguirre et al in ASR a while back. As an added bonus, the paper is about running around naked: "The Collective Behavior of Fads: The Characteristics, Effects, and Career of Streaking." ASR, 1988.

- Alan

Thursday, September 02, 2004 12:04:00 PM  
Blogger Brayden said...

I'm late to the game, but I want to comment anyway. I want my voice heard!

Yes, you're right that this is an over-simplification but you're also right that it is a very interesting topic. I want to pick up on your idea that bureaucracies are enforcers of behavior and that "fluid systems" generate similar kinds of thought/feeling and that both can be mechanisms for the coordination of behavior. First, the kind of bureaucracy you describe is rooted firmly in this Weberian idea of organizations as rational systems. This was a dominant perspective for the first half of the century, but more recently organizational scholars have described organizations as natural and open systems. As natural systems, organizations end up working much like the fluid groups that you talk about. The rigid structure of bureaucracy may exist and try to control people and get them to follow orders precisely, but in reality people are very poor followers and need the support of a fluid, more human system to get anything done.

Next week I'm having my complex orgs class read about human relations theory. The idea behind it was exactly this. You can't control people effectively and trying to do so leads to very poor output. Instead you need to get them to commit to the organizations to which they belong by shaping their identity, thoughts, and feelings. The way to do that is to enhance their existing social networks, within the bureaucracy, and providing positive incentives. So according to this view, organizations overcome collective action problems by generating commitment, not by enforcing rules (of course, this depends on the relative fluidity of the membership too). Herbert Simon wrote a great article about this in the Journal of Economic Perspectives (vol 5, 25-44).

If this applies to business organizations, it certainly applies to SMOs. Research shows that people who actually participate in movement activities (as opposed to those who merely belong to movements) have much stronger social ties to the movement. People who protest often belong to formal organizations, but they are more likely to belong to cohesive protest networks. These, I think, are the two core features of a social movement - cohesive networks of people who engage in certain kinds of activity that we have come to label as social movement activities (i.e. protest, leafleting, boycotting, etc.). The problem with identifying the movement with the organization is that you quickly run into organizations that look just like movements but that act more like lobbying groups or advocacy groups. This is also why things like riots end up being more like social movements than we think. A great deal of organization, as procfreak said, underlies a lot of riot activity; it's just that this organization isn't always bureaucratized (although sometimes it is). Whether a bureaucracy instigates a riot or not, one thing is certainly in place - a pre-existing network of people who coordinate their activities (either tacitly or overtly).

Thursday, September 02, 2004 8:40:00 PM  

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