Understanding Society blog: Downward causation

Tuesday, July 17, 2018

Downward causation

I’ve argued for the idea that social phenomena are generated by the actions, thoughts, and mental frameworks of myriad actors (link). This expresses the idea of ontological individualism. But I also believe that social arrangements — structures, ideologies, institutions — have genuine effects on the actions of individual actors and populations of actors and on intermediate-level social structures. There is real downward and lateral causation in the social world. Are these two views compatible?

I believe they are compatible.

The negative view holds that what appears to be downward causation is really just the workings of the lower-level components through their aggregation dynamics — the lower struts of Coleman’s boat (link). So when we say “the ideology of nationalism causes the rise of ultraconservative political leaders”, this is just a shorthand for “many voters share the values of nationalism and elect candidates who propose radical solutions to issues like immigration.” This seems to be the view of analytical-sociology purists.

But consider the alternative view — that higher level entities sometimes come to possess stable causal powers that influence the behavior and even the constitution of the entities of which they are composed. This seems like an implausible idea in the natural sciences — it is hard to imagine a world in which electrons have different physical properties as an effect of the lattice arrangement of atoms in a metal. But human actors are different from electrons and atoms, in that their behavior and constitution are in fact plastic to an important degree. In one social environment actors are disposed to be highly attentive to costs and benefits; in another social environment they are more amenable to conformance to locally expressed norms. And we can say quite a bit about the mechanisms of social psychology through which the cognitive and normative frameworks of actors are influenced by features of their social environments. This has an important implication: features of the higher-level social reality can change the dispositions and workings of the lower-level actors. And these changes may in turn lead to the emergence of new higher-level factors (new institutions, new normative systems, new social practices of solidarity, …). So enduring social arrangements can cause changes in the dynamic properties of the actors who live within them.

Could we even say, more radically and counter-intuitively, that a normative structure like extremist populism “generates” behavior at the individual level? So rather than holding that individual actions generate higher-level structures, might we hold that higher-level normative structures generate patterns of behavior? For example, we might say that the normative strictures of patriarchy generate patterns of domination and deference among men and women at the individual level; or the normative strictures of Jim-Crow race relations generate individual-level patterns of subordination and domination among white and black individuals. There is a sense in which this statement about the direction of generation is obviously true; broadly shared knowledge frameworks or normative commitments “generate” typical forms of behavior in stylized circumstances of choice.

Does this way of thinking about the process of “generation” suggest that we need to rethink the directionality implied by the micro-macro distinction? Might we say that normative systems and social structures are as fundamental as patterns of individual behavior?

Consider the social reality depicted in the photograph above. Here we see coordinated action of a number of soldiers climbing out of a trench in World War I to cross the killing field of no mans land. The dozen or so soldiers depicted here are part of a vast army at war (3.8 million by 1918), deployed over a front extending hundreds of miles. The majority of the soldiers depicted here are about to receive grievous or mortal wounds. And yet they go over the trench. What can we say about the cause of this collective action at a specific moment in time? First, an order was conveyed through a communications system extending from commander to sergeant to enlisted man: “attack at 7:00 am”. Second, the industrial wealth of Great Britain permitted the state the ability to equip and field a vast infantry army. Third, a system of international competition broke down into violent confrontation and war, leading numerous participant nations to organize and fund armies at war to defeat their enemies. Fourth, the morale of the troops was maintained at a sufficiently high level to avoid mass desertion and refusal to fight.  Fifth, an infantry training regime existed which gave ordinary farmhands, workers, accountants, and lords the habits and skills of infantry soldiers. All of these factors are part of the causal background of this simple episode in World War I; and most of these factors exist at a meso- or macro-level of social organization. Clearly this particular group of social actors was influenced by higher-level social factors. But equally clearly, the mechanisms through which these higher-level social factors work are straightforward to identify through reference to systems of individual actors.

Think for a minute about materials science. The hardness of titanium causes the nail to scratch the glass. It is true that material properties like hardness depend upon their microstructures. Nonetheless we are perfectly comfortable in attributing real causal powers to titanium at the level of a macro-material. And this attribution is not merely a way of summarizing a long story about the micro-structure of metallic titanium.

I’ve generally tried to think about these kinds of causal stories in terms of the idea of microfoundations. The hardness of titanium derives from its microfoundations at the level of atomic and subatomic causation. And the causal powers of patriarchy derive from the fact that the normative principles of partriarchy are embedded in the minds and behavior of many individuals, who become exemplars, enforcers, and encouragers of compliant behavior. The processes through which individuals acquire normative principles and the processes through which they behaviorally reflect these principles constitute the microfoundations of the meso- and macro-power of patriarchy.

So the question of whether there is downward causation seems almost too easy. Of course there is downward causation in the social world. Individuals are influenced in their choices and behavior by structural and normative factors beyond their control. And more fundamentally, individuals are changed in their fundamental dispositions to behavior through their immersion in social arrangements.

Source: Understanding Society: Downward causation

Systems Studio newsletter July 2018

[As usual, the excellent monthly newsletter from The Systems Studio]

Source: Top Inspiration, Events and News on Systems Change 

C. West Churchman with Kristo Ivanov | 1987 | archive.org

Video is viewable through an online viewer, and downloadable in multiple formats (h264 MP4, MPEG2 VOB, OGG Video) on the Internet Archive at https://archive.org/details/Index_20180206_1053 .  This recording was producted by the department of Informatics of Umeå University in the spring of year 1987, with C. West Churchman interviewed by Kristo Ivanov.

Kristo Ivanov, in interview with C. West Churchman (1987)

The opening title reads:

Professor C. WEST CHURCHMAN

Universicy [sic] of California, Berkeley

Interviewed by professor
Kristo Ivanov
on April 30, 1987,
at the University of Umeå ,
Sweden – department of
Administrative Data processing.

The second and third slide read …

This interview was made during a visit of professor Churchman as guest lecturer at the University of Umeå , following his being rewarded a honorary doctor’s degree in economic science in the autumn 1985.

A summary of professor Churchman’s life and work is given at the end of the recording.

The background song “Der Lindenbaum” – music by Franz Schubert and text by Wilhelm Müller – is sung by professor Churchman himself!

Via:

#systems-approach, #systems-thinking, #west-churchman

System change consulting skills programme | Health Education England

[Full disclosure – I offer this kind of thing too 🙂 Look good]

System change consulting skills programme

Healthcare leaders are increasingly required to facilitate transformational change in and across their system and organisations, often without power or authority.


The network of Northern Leadership Academies in the North East, North West and Yorkshire & Humber have collaborated to offer an in-place programme for leaders tasked with transformational change within the system. This programme has been designed to challenge and support leaders to develop their confidence, skills and mindset to work in a ‘change consultant’ capacity when engaging in organisational, cross-organisation and system change transformation and programmes of work.

Invitation to apply

Senior healthcare professionals working on a transformational change project or leading/supporting a strategic, complex system change are invited to apply. Alternatively, you may be a senior OD/HR or transformation professional working in and/or supporting others with transformational change projects? For example:

  • a clinician leading transformation programmes associated with The Sustainability Transformation Planning (STP) / Integrated Care Systems (ICS) / Accountable Care Organisation (ACS) new models of care, primary care home
  • a senior leader working to strategically transform their organisation.
  • a system change leader working across organisations
  • a senior OD/HR and transformation professional working in strategic OD

This programme will provide you with an intensive development experience designed to extend your confidence and skills to step into a system change leadership role utilising a system change consulting approach.

About the programme

The programme is highly experiential, using live, real time system transformation challenges experienced by participants. Learning is highly practical and can be readily applied between modules and in on-going work supported by a vibrant network of peer consultants.

Being an enabler and leader of transformational change across a system draws on a blend of relationally based consultancy skills, mindset, processes and techniques. How we connect with and relate to others impacts our ability to influence. Impactful and effective systems change agency isn’t simply about advocating a point of view, but rather how you choose to use your informal authority and presence to benefit the wider system.

The programme will help you to:

  • Be a confident, competent and courageous system change leader who can collaborate well, and influence system change and transformation ‘in place’ across your local healthcare system
  • Share the benefits of taking a more consultative and relationship-based approach to system-wide transformation, and follow a consultancy-led process
  • Have greater levels of self-awareness and a deeper understanding of how you impact others, how to use yourself more effectively to enable transformation and change, and identify your future development needs
  • Develop your perspective and mindset as to what creates successful transformation across the system and draw on a range of tools and approaches to assist you.
  • Identify how you could use your skills as a change leader and facilitator to work at a system level and support system-wide transformation outside your current organisation in the future.

There is an expectation that following the programme you will be more involved in working across your local healthcare system to support wider system transformation projects or work-streams.

Application process

Participation on the programme is dependent on a successful application , submitted by 25 July 2018. Participants should have ready opportunity for involvement in systems change/transformation projects

For further information contact leadershipenquiries.yh@hee.nhs.uk in the first instance.

Source: System change consulting skills programme | Health Education England

New article on entraining chaotic dynamics

woah… mind ‘splode.
literally… metaphorically.

Dr. Tom Froese

We show that it is possible for a participant to interactively control a chaotic system by entraining with its dynamics, with the effect that they become more regular while the participant becomes more chaotic.

This has implications both for researchers interested in controlling chaotic systems, and also for practitioners in movement rehabilitation.

Entraining chaotic dynamics: A novel movement sonification paradigm could promote generalization

Dobromir Dotov and Tom Froese

Tasks encountered in daily living may have instabilities and more dimensions than are sampled by the senses such as when carrying a cup of coffee and only the surface motion and overall momentum are sensed, not the fluid dynamics. Anticipating non-periodic dynamics is difficult but not impossible because mutual coordination allows for chaotic processes to synchronize to each other and become periodic. A chaotic oscillator with random period and amplitude affords being stabilized onto a periodic trajectory by a weak input if…

View original post 167 more words

“Use of Self as an Instrument of Change” Study – thanks to CoCreative Consulting newsletter, plus other links

Thanks to the excellent newsletter from the excellent CoCreative Consulting (The Work is Growing! News, resources, and tools for system change – have a look for much more on collaboration, systems change, and network building), I found this piece:

“Use of Self as an Instrument of Change” Study

Dr. Mee-Yan Cheung-Judge of Quality & Equality and Professor David W. Jamieson of the University of St. Thomas have released an intriguing new survey about how we as change leaders use ourselves intentionally as instruments of change. Although the research team is focused on the field of OD, we got permission to invite people who are leading and facilitating change in larger systems. With over 137 assessment items (the intent of the survey is to narrow their future inquiry), we found the survey to be a useful and compelling tool for self-reflection.To participate, you must have 5 or more years of OD practice experience, internally or externally, or 5 years of actively facilitating complex systems change. Find more information here

Also, (links with further info in newsletter link at top), two great visual pieces – agendas in collaborative innovation, and systems conditions guiding their (CoCollaborative) work:

Living Systems | James Grier Miller | 1978

The 1100+ page Living Systems book published in 1978 by the founder of Behavioral Science in 1956, James Grier Miller, became available as a softcopy on the Internet Archive in May 2017.

What is a living system and what does it do? Many scientists coming from diverse scientific backgrounds, when engaged in the search for general principles to integrate our understanding of the phenomena of life, have placed major emphasis on the notion of living systems composed of interrelated units. The various “systems theories” differ greatly in their concepts and definitions of basic terms. Their common goal is to organize the findings in some or all of the sciences of life and behavior into a single conceptual structure.

1. One general theory of living systems

The general living systems theory which this book presents is a conceptual system concerned primarily with concrete systems (see page 17) which exist in space-time. Complex structures which carry out living processes I believe can be identified at seven hierarchical levels (see page 25) — cell, organ, organism, group, organization, society, and supranational system. My central thesis is that systems at all these levels are open systems composed of subsystems which process inputs, throughputs, and outputs of various forms of matter, energy, and information. I identify 19 critical subsystems (see page 32 and Table 1-1) whose processes are essential for life, some of which process matter or energy, some of which process information, and some of which process all three. Together they make up a living system, as shown in Fig. 1-1. In this table the line under the word “Reproducer” separates this subsystem from the others because that subsys- tem differs from all the others by being critical to the species or type of system even though it is not essen- tial to the individual. Living systems often continue to exist even though they are not able to reproduce. Subsystems in different columns which appear oppo- site each other have processes with important similar- ities — for instance, the processes carried out by the ingestor for matter and energy are comparable to those carried out by the input transducer for information. In general the sequence of transmissions in living systems is from inputs at the top of Table 1-1 to outputs at the bottom, but there are exceptions. [p. 1]

A generalized living system interacting and intercommunicating with two others in its environment

Fig. 1-1 A generalized living system interacting and intercommunicating with two others in its environment.

Subsystems which process both matter-energy and information: Reproducer (Re); Boundary (Bo).

Subsystems which process matter-energy: Ingestor (IN); Distributor (DI); Converter (CO); Producer (PR); Matter-energy storage (MS); Extruder (EX); Motor (MO); Supporter (SU).

Subsystems which process information: Input transducer (IT); Internal transducer (IN); Channel and net (CN); Decoder (DC); Associator (AS); Memory (ME); Decider (DE); Encoder (EN); Output transducer (OT).  [p. 2]

Systems at each of the seven levels, I maintain, have the same 19 critical subsystems. The structure and processes of a given subsystem are more complex at a more advanced level than at the less advanced ones. This is explained by what I call the evolutionary principle of “shred-out,” a sort of division of labor (see Fig. 1-2). Cells have the 19 critical subsystems. When mutations occurred in the original cells, the mutant could continue to exist only if it could carry out all the essential processes of life of the 19 subsystems; otherwise it would be eliminated by natural selection. The general direction of evolution is toward greater complexity. As more complex cells evolved, they had more complex subsystems, but still the same 19 basic pro- cesses. Similarly as cells evolved into more complex systems at advanced levels — organs, organisms, and so on — their subsystems shredded out into increasingly complicated units carrying out more complicated and often more effective processes. If at any single point in the entire evolutionary sequence any one of the 19 subsystem processes had ceased, the system would not have endured. That explains why the same 19 subsystems are found at each level from cell to supra- system. And it explains why it is possible to discover, observe, and measure cross-level formal identities (see page 17). [pp. 1,4]

Shred out
Fig. 1-2 Shred-out. The generalized living system (see Fig. 1-1) is here shown at each level. The diagram indicates that the 19 subsystems at the level of the cell shred out to form the next more advanced level of system, the organ. This still has the same 19 subsystems, each being more complex. A similar shredding-out occurs to form each of the five more advanced levels — organism, group, organization, society, and supranational system.  [p. 4]

For each subsystem I identify about a dozen variables representing different aspects of its processes. It would be easy to identify more if one wanted an exhaustive list. Each of these variables can be measured at each of the levels, and the sorts of variation discovered can be compared across the levels. The interactions between two or more variables in a single subsystem or in multiple ones can also be observed, measured, and compared across the levels. This is how cross-level formal identities, basic to a general theory of living systems, can be examined (see page 27).

This book is an effort to integrate all the social, biological, and physical sciences that apply to structure or process at any of the seven levels. Physiology, biochemistry, genetics, pharmacology, medicine, economics, political science, anthropology, sociology, and psychology are all almost entirely relevant. Physical science and engineering also contribute. Logic, mathematics, and statistics yield methods, models, and simulations, including some involving the relatively new approaches of cybernetics and information theory. [p. 4]

References

Miller, James Grier. 1978. Living Systems. McGraw-Hill. https://archive.org/details/LivingSystems.

#james-grier-miller, #living-systems