Chapter 7 (pt.4)


Individual Actions Have Unintended Consequences: This statement may seem a commonplace, but we have only to remark the number of theorists and analysts who proceed as though actions were or could be limited by their intention to realize the extent to which it remains a 'new' concept. This is despite Merton's two classic treatments (1936, 1957). Indeed, it may always remain 'new' in this sense for, apparent as it is, it is a contradiction to some of our most central everyday assumptions about the way things work, and necessarily so. We tend to expect to be able to act effectively, and with conscious control over our effects in the world. This expectation is becoming less likely to be fulfilled as the world is more governed by the accident of coincidental intentions -- unintended consequences. Indeed, the inability to achieve our intended ends in the world without latent dysfunctions may be an important source of physical conflict. Be this as it may, the concept of unintended consequences is of vital importance to social theory.

In the context of his essay on manifest and latent functions, Merton offers this summary of the types of unintended consequences of action:

(1) those which are functional for a designated system, and these comprise the latent functions;

(2) those which are dysfunctional for a designated system, and these comprise the latent dysfunctions; and

(3) those which are irrelevant to the system which they affect neither functionally nor dysfunctionally, i.e., the pragmatically unimportant class of non-functional consequences. (1957, p. 51)

In his "paradigm for functional analysis in sociology" Merton posits the consideration of "the effects of the transformation of a previously latent function into a manifest function" as a "Basic Query" (op. cit.). It is important also to ask what latent functions cannot be transformed into manifest functions? One of the themes in our consideration of social order has been that latent functions are the only way to achieve long-term stability. It is primarily this with which we shall be concerned in our analysis of the insufficiency of rational social organization later in this chapter.

Unintended consequences will remain inevitable because planning will always be inadequate for the reasons noted above, particularly that no decision can be made as an absolute with regard to 'means' from the point of view of anyone's intention. Further, from the perspective of anyone's intention there will always be external intervening variables which cannot adequately be taken into account, and which reduce logical causality to weak implication (cf. Boudon 1974).

Although unintended consequences may be impossible, rational individualism as a social program has their elimination as a central aim. This is the chief motive force in utilitarianism. As Marx and Engels noted, however, there are inherent contradictions in this social system, of which that between privatized appropriation and socialized production is only one. Capitalism sacrifices the latent social order of feudalism for an attempt at control through concerted action and rationalization which results in overall 'anarchy':

The old bonds were loosened, the old exclusive limits broken through, the producers were more and more turned into independent, isolated producers of commodities. It became apparent that the production of society at large was ruled by absence of plan, by accident, by anarchy; and this anarchy grew to greater and greater height. But the chief means by aid of which the capitalist mode of production was the exact opposite of anarchy. It was the increasing organization of production, upon a social basis, in every individual productive establishment. By this the old, peaceful, stable condition of things was ended. (Engels, 1880, p. 97)

It is this process of rationalization and individuation (the two went hand in hand historically as well as theoretically) which we shall explore as a social form in the last section of this chapter. This process may be seen as, in effect, an attempt (or trend) to make action as much as possible intentional (a category of which rational is a subclass and for which individualism may be seen as both a necessary condition and outcome).

Time Spans and Plans

We have discussed at numerous points above the ways in which tradition and group commitment act to limit the number of options which any individual is likely to regard as feasible and consider in a given choice situation (see especially Chapter 6). This limitation serves to promote the maximization of long-term over short-term ends (commitment also does so directly, as a psychological variable influencing perceived risk). As an example of the potential positive functioning of these variables we may simply note the superior natural-ecological adaptations achieved by a wide range of traditional or 'closed' societies as compared to technologically oriented large-scale societies such as our own. Our culture tends to give a very low value to commitment, and to be characterized by very short-term planning. In traditional Tale society people not only make fewer individual social decisions (which in itself limits social variation) but they tend to make them with regard to longer term anticipated results. In their social and political careers they are investors, not speculators. This is in large part because of their greater social dependency, but it is also an important variable in its own right. We may illustrate with brief consideration of land acquisition, tenure and redistribution.

As Fortes emphasizes,

The keystone of the institutional framework of Tale agriculture is security of land tenure. (1945, p. 180)

The general closeness of land to man's life as an unalienated social being (his only 'true' being) is emphasized by Engels in a lament on the immoral encroachments of the world of alienated property, of buying and selling on mankind's integrity:

To make earth an object of huckstering -- the earth which is our one and all, the first condition of our existence -- was the last step towards making oneself an object of huckstering. It was and is to this very day an immorality surpassed only by the immorality of self-alienation. (1844, p. 190; cited from Mészáros, 1970, pp. 314-5)

But land does always change hands, the difference is in patterned inheritance as opposed to free scale. But there is a further difference; the extent of redistribution which various forms of inheritance involve. Now, among the Tallensi, land tenure is quite secure over time, at a range of reckoning involving the descendants of an ancestor several generations distant, and inheritance is radically redistributive. Further, the land available for farming in Taleland is of greatly differing values, with quite limited quantities of the better grades (cf. Fortes and Fortes, 1936). Inheritance and other modes of acquiring land (e.g., 'begging' from matrilateral relatives) take place not all at once but gradually over the period of one's life and in accord with one's growing social maturity and (usually) responsibilities for the support of others. This pattern of inheritance and the differing values of land would seem likely to minimize active competition over land. The two foster a combination of (a) a rationale for patience, and (b) an analogue to a divide and conquer strategy.

Every adult male stands to inherit land and thus to increase the quantity and quality of his holdings (and his own use also increases the quality of his holdings) within the system as it is. His impetus for any radical change is thereby reduced: that would upset long-term chances which have a fairly high likelihood of realization. Further, in this process of inheritance each individual moves up gradually in a hierarchy of 'wealth' vis-a-vis his fellows, his past, and particularly his juniors. The fact that he does move up, but in small steps, is crucial. It is impossible for him to establish any dramatic edge (i.e., capital accumulation; see Chapter 2) over his fellows, thus disrupting the overall economic system. At the same time, he should not generally feel that he is in a hopeless situation, for his situation will normally see continual improvement. this is analogous in some ways to distinctions which have been made between the United States occupational structure and that of, say, England. The two have comparable overall mobility rates. In the former it is much more likely that people will move up in a series of small steps, thus weakening the formation of overall class polarization and radicalization. Immigration has helped (or hindered), especially as it allowed each wave of newcomers to feel in a somewhat better position than its eventual successors, as expansion allowed for continued overall growth (racial discrimination limited this process to certain populations). In Great Britain, on the other hand, there has been a lower rate of 'small steps' advancement, and sons are more likely to follow in their father's trades and social positions. Class consciousness -- indeed class formation -- has been more clear-cut (cf. Blau and Duncan, 1969, on the small steps in the American occupational structure). Interestingly, all of this yelds a situation in Taleland not too much different from some of Rousseau's utopian ideas (if indeed many of his ideas regarding primitive societies must be regarded as inaccurate):

Life in a social community can thrive only when all its citizens have something, and none have too much. (1762, p. 189)

The connection which this implies between long-term planning and economic equality (and indeed more general homogeneity) is quite real. Not least of all it operates through the greater incidence of commonality in situation definitions. It is also apparent inasmuch as variance in wealth is likely to produce (and/or be produced by) centralization of power. In addition to other less significant connections, both of these then influence the extent of social (in-)stability.

Short-term planning then accompanies a number of the other variables we have identified with social disorder. Further, it is self-accelerating. In a situation of greatly reduced social predictability, a sound adaptation involves recourse to short-term maximizations. As we have seen, these themselves weaken social solidarity and reduce span of predictability. Geiger has remarked on the centrality of predictability:

Society as a way of life is the opposite of solitude. The concept of "society" implies interrelationship and interdependence between a number of individuals, a community life which involves an infinite chain of actions and reactions. In order to live together, people must be able to predict with reasonable certainty how others will behave in recurrent typical situations. These predictions then become the basis for the conjectural disposition of our own conduct. (1947, p. 39)

If we can only establish sound predictions for others over short periods of time, then we are likely only to make short-term plans ourselves. In doing so, however, we also limit the extent to which we will be predictable to others, and increase the frequency with which we will be faced with new (i.e., not already planned for) decisions. Our own adaptation thus increases the rate of change. In fact, planning itself is relatively short-term social adjustment or action, even when carried on by a centralized planning agency. As we have noted, many social problems are not amenable to solution through such procedures, but like higher states of consciousness in many mystic traditions, only as the unintended consequences of prescribed actions. In this case that means through the securing of some of the latent benefits available in tradition and group commitment in place of the latent dysfunctions of rational individualism. There is no way out through greater rationality, for it has by now brought freedom to the point of bringing alienation and anomie.

The Insufficiency of Rational Social Organization

In terms which sound unusually 'radical' for either author, Nisbet has paraphrased Weber thus:

Rationalization, having removed the traditional, the patriarchal, the communal, the "exchanged", along with the irrational, the personally exploitative, the superstitious, becomes, in the end, its own nemesis. (1966, p. 294)

But this is an unusual sort of radicalism. It is a radicalism close in desires to the 19th century conservatives and Toqueville, but unlike theirs it is not rooted in the recent past, but in the simply non-existent. In large part it is less the passing of community which Nisbet has witnessed and decried in America's last forty years, but the passing of the illusion of community. He is quite right, however, that it is rational individualism which has driven it hence, which has both loosed the bonds of community and the ideological security of its illusion. The conservatism here is more than simply retrograde; it wants more than stoppage or even reversal of time. In this one sentence at least, it is very near the conservatism of Marx. It is a desire not for a perpetual change and a perpetual liberation but for a new and better solidarity. There is an almost Toquevillian sense of nostalgia at places in Marx and Engels for the community to be found in aristocratic nations, but it is accompanied by no illusions about the aristocracies. The rationality of capitalism is the implicit and unavoidable working out of the contradictions inherent in the aristocratic form itself, inescapable, not imposed. The separate stages are one history.

The rationality which comes into existence as strain against the bonds of feudalism is no more complete unto itself. Much less. While it 'struggles' to gain the upper hand in its struggle with the aristocracy it is liberating, and the illusion develops that it can stand on its own, that it can be final. But it is dependent on the old order, on its state of rebellion; it takes its strength from that which it destroys. The motivation of individuals and the progress of the new ethos both depend on the security of the old identities and on the energy freed in the severing of the old bonds (if we may borrow such phrasing from the physical sciences). Rationality is an insufficient principle of social organization. In time it liberates too far, it seems at the worst, with only the tools of rationality to combat the disorder their very use brings. How can one plan for latent functions?

This is a rhetorical question, but one which does not admit of either a simple answer or a simple dismissal. There is first of all the problem to be faced that planning for any function implies a positively valued set of results (or more tenuously, system). Thus to plan for a future latent function, one must decide as well the context in which one will consider it a function. This is largely a matter of multiple variables, a positive score on each of which may or may not be valued depending on others. But it is possible to identify aspects of desired future states, including aspects which could only be achieved through latency. By looking not simply at the socio-cultural system as some postulated whole, but by considering the different variables which go o make up social order it becomes more possible to plan for the conditions in which various values may be realized. The situation is further complicated by the inherent contradictions between various social values, a matter which we shall take up in the conclusion. What it means, in brief, is that values cannot well be phrased in the absolute, but only in relation to the state from which they are a change, at least as far as social planning is concerned. To plan in this way means sacrificing short-term gains in favour of long-term goals. Sacrificing, for example, commercial profits or gross national products in favour of greater equity of redistribution and group solidarity. Two things should convince us to take the longer term course. The first is quite simply that 'profits' are generally spurious gains, and gross national products are neither all that is worthwhile in a nation, nor necessarily directly indicative of gains registered in the living conditions of the nation's citizens. Indeed profits in a capitalistic, and specifically a hyper-market-dominated system are often to be had without increase in real productivity. A company's profits may be increased by advertising while its products are made more cheaply with inferior materials. This is the result of a sort of illusion possible only in an alienated economy.

The second reason for long-term planning follows directly. We have noted at several points throughout this discussion various ways in which individual rationalism and its correlate social differentiation and mobility operate to reduce the investment of individuals in particular social relations and corporations. I suggest that where relationships are isolate and weak (as opposed to strong and multiplex) not only is their proportionate value less for the individual, but they provide him with less motivation for social participation. This I think is indicated in recent patterns from divorce rates to political participation, to a number of dissatisfactions which are recorded as having to do with 'work', but which may be seen as products of this more general social malaise. In other words, the alienation which is the condition of a free labor market eventually becomes also a limit on its productivity and profitability. It may do this both through the conerted action of labour movements and in less focused ways.

Rational social organization is, thus, insufficient to provide for either social stability or for a number of future-oriented values. It is necessary to ask, in Firey's words:

By what process, then, do some societies succeed in imposing their time spans onto their individual members so that the latter willingly seek the salus rei publicae rather than the salus individualis? (1936, p. 152)

Firey's answer is essentially "institutionalization", since he poses the problem largely as one of getting individuals to do what they already say they believe in. He is right that consensual beliefs are in themselves not enough, but we should be more specific than the word 'institutionalization' will probably ever be for sociology. In the first place, we have stressed that long-term maximizations are a matter of unintended consequences in many cases. Thus it is not merely a matter of 'plans' as Firey phrases it, or of convincing people of anything. It is a matter of bringing individual and social benefits into accord with each other. The 'institutions' necessary would thus not only order "sanctions and sentiments" (following Parsons) but would provide for an entire social ordering of investments, risk, stability. Firey does indeed observe that "future-referring values" depend on the stability of social institutions. Bur Firey runs into (a frequent functionalist) trouble when he goes on to discuss"minimum terms for survival of the social order ", in other words when he reifies social order and social boundaries. He then comes to see the communication of these minimum terms to the individual members of the population as the key "condition for the realization of values remote in time". He is thus led back into an assumption that conscious perception is what determines long-term stability or change:

Values that have already been institutionalized but which are no longer perceived as serving the ends of social survival tend to lose their controlling influence over behaviour. (op. cit., p. 154)

Despite the contradictions his essay incorporates, however, Firey points up crucial issues. Society and individual operate with regard to different 'objective' time spans, and the connection between the two is problematic. From our foregoing analyses, we know that much of the connection can better be seen once society and individual are recognized to be variable and not categorically defined units, at least sociologically. As individuals are sociated, are invested in group and relational identities, so society is stable over time. The partial causality of statement goes both ways. Firey comments that

even a single individual has a plurality of subjective futures, each pertaining to a different aspect of his life, and varying over time with changes in his age, his job, and many other circumstances. So, too different individuals have different subjective futures, the unlikeness of which lies in the concepts and ideas which those individuals have concerning prospective events. (op. cit. p. 148)

But we must remember (as Firey really does not) that populations vary on both of the variables this statement implies.

Firey's (very interesting) article assumes both the individuality of everyone and the similar rationality of each. He makes some, but only partial allowance for social constraints and influences on individual rationalism. Let us reiterate our definition of rationality: Actors are rational to the extent that they proceed with decisions be defining a range of available options; which they identify as associated with different 'ends' or results, with different degrees of predictability; and among which they choose by comparing options as differing measures of some perceived common value. This is obviously not the only way to make decisions. Neither are decisions made as often or with a great a range of potential impact by all persons in each or all social situations. It is most frequently and most effectively a way to make short-term individual decisions. And the more decisions are made in this way, the shorter must the mean term of planing in a population be.

Next chapter

Problems of Utilitarian Rationalism - Individuals are Variable Actors - Individuals are Complex Decision-Makers - Individual Actions Have Unintended Consequences - Time Spans and Plans - The Insufficiency of Rational Social Organization

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