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 Paul A. Stokes: The Viability of Societies: Governance and Complexity Today

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PostSubject: Paul A. Stokes: The Viability of Societies: Governance and Complexity Today    Wed 15 Jun 2011, 1:47 am

by Allenna Leonard

Paul A. Stokes: The Viability of Societies:

Governance and Complexity Today

The idea that the concepts and insights of cybernetics might have something to contribute

to the discipline of sociology is not new, but, as Paul Stokes tells us, it has not been notably

successful so far.

In three Sections, Stokes attempts to rectify this with an examination of the current state

of the discipline and its metaphors, a recasting of the subject of sociology and a way

forward through a robust treatment of the concept of identity. He proposes a means,

Stafford Beer’s Viable System Model, to bring it into a contemporary view that has a

rigorous platform for future research and the design of social organizations.

The reason for the lack of connection between cybernetics and sociology lies in their

common, but not contemporaneous, histories. Classical sociology was a product of the late

nineteenth and early twentieth centuries and sought, for its metaphors, the most rigorous

ones then available—namely the matter/energy concepts of Newtonian physics. Unfortunately,

while human relations can be described in terms of force and equilibrium, those

metaphors provide little room for nuance. Moreover, human relationships are extremely

difficult to quantify and can only partially be explained according to logic. This has led to a

crisis of fragmentation in sociology. According to Gregory Bateson, social scientists pitched

their tents on the wrong side of a chasm they didn’t know existed. The sciences of

information, communication and control—namely cybernetics—did not arrive on the scene

until the mid-forties, by which time different schools of sociological thought had already

established their boundaries.

Stokes, having made this diagnosis, goes on to ask how a bridge might be constructed

over the chasm. He finds it in the concept of finalization. This work, done by the Sternberg

group, discusses the development of science as taking part in three stages. First, experiments

are done and discoveries made; second, a set fundamental theories are established

which account for the data; and third, they are applied in practical ways. But, there is a

catch: it is difficult to address practical problems by applying fundamental theory directly.

An intermediate conceptual layer is needed to transduce from the one to the other. This has

been missing in sociology and Stokes proposes the concept of ‘social organization’ as the

needed intermediate concept.

The possibility of social organization rests on the concept of control. This is the

capability of recognizing a current state, a preferred state and the difference between them

and being able to do something about it. He draws upon the work of William Powers and

his Perceptual Control Theory as elaborated in ‘‘Behaviour: the Control of Perception’’. At

the level of the individual organism, control is characterized by the ability to pursue

consistent goals (hierarchical reference standards) by flexible means. In groups, interdependence

further leads to pursuing control through collective action towards a relatively

small number of goals in the case of the animal kingdom and towards a far more complex

and variable set among human beings. Collective action requires control: both to perform

the action and to distribute the rewards. Among small groups, monitoring the actions of the

members and sanctioning those who could, but did not, contribute to the gains can be done

informally. As the group becomes larger, the more necessary it becomes to have rules, and

eventually, agents whose responsibility it is to enforce them, culminating in the development

of bureaucracy.

When we talk about people in their relations, he contends, we are talking about social

organizations: entities that range from the family to the nation-state and the many

assemblages in between. Social organizations are ubiquitous, but their commonality has

not been fully appreciated by many in the social science field. Partly this flows from the

fact that they are studied separately. Weber’s work on bureaucracy as the most mature

form of organization has dominated thinking and many other organizations, bureaucracies

or not, have been studied separately under topics of law, politics, economics, etc. Also,

popular dichotomies such as individual vs. society obscure the many intermediate


Social organizations serve as a ‘locus of connections between individuals’. They arise

and persist because they are effective instruments for obtaining resources: goods, services

and status to be sure; but also the requisite variety to deal with increasingly complex

circumstances. This notion of requisite variety accounts for the disruption of the growth of

centralized bureaucracies as mass production and mass society became more pluralistic.

What has been referred to by some as ‘disorganization’ is more aptly considered to be

‘reorganization’ as more agile networks of small entities prove to be more capable of


Stokes moves from there to focus on the nature and organization of identity. Identity is a

key concept for both individuals and social organizations because it provides closure. It is a

way of distinguishing a boundary between inside and outside and a framework for selecting

some aspects and not selecting others. One’s culture is a big part of this framework,

establishing many ways around the world to perform similar functions. His treatment of

culture as a control system, ‘the way things are done around here’, illustrates its characteristics

of efficiency and effectiveness and its function of attenuating deviations by

punishing them with high levels of noise, ineffectiveness and, at the limit, sanctions. At the

limit of deviation-damping social organizations are those that have become dominant in

their fields and become institutions. Institutionalization becomes both a result of the

conferring of legitimacy and an agency for conferring it on others.

His next step is to introduce Beer’s Viable System in sociological terms as a model of

identity; with its five stages of enactment, pattern, cohesion and homeostasis, anticipation

and closure and self-reference, repeated at every scalar level or level of recursion. This

enables him to look at individuals and the multiple social organizations in which they are

embedded according to a consistent set of functions and activities.

The penultimate chapter recaps the history of the formation of nation-states and their

increasingly hierarchical and centralized monopoly powers and looks at the limitations of

this form in terms of requisite variety. In brief, the more complex societies become, the

more difficult it is for governance to be accomplished by vertical relationships. Higher

variety means that mass society with its one-size-fits all prescriptions is being replaced by

an identity society in which directions are negotiated. Technology, especially communications

technology, and widespread literacy and numeracy accelerate the distribution of

control, or governance, to both individuals and a larger number of the organizations

comprising civil society. But, decentralization and self-regulation are not the whole answer

either because, alone, they can lead to fragmentation. A balance between autonomy and

cohesion, as illustrated in the Viable System Model, is required.

A concluding chapter recaps the arguments of the text and suggests avenues for future

research on applying the Viable System Model and other concepts from cybernetics as

discussed in Beer’s ‘‘Designing Freedom’’ to the problem of governance in an identity


Paul Stokes has put forth arguments that to me, coming from the cybernetics and

systems community, are compelling. They are extensively researched, with an exhaustive

bibliography, for all who wish to follow up on the many side roads that flash by in the

course of the book. And, I am looking forward to seeing the results of the research he

recommends. I might also argue that if these concepts had been understood and applied,

and if the false dichotomies between efficiency and transparency and between regulation

and creative entrepreneurship been dismissed, we might not be facing the economic turbulence

we are today. While it seems to be accepted that regulation failed to keep pace

with the complexity of the financial instruments and transactions, there is nowhere near

enough understanding that there is a discipline that studies this and could provide help and


This book is a step in this direction.

"For every thousand hacking at the leaves of evil, there is one striking at the root."
David Thoreau (1817-1862)
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