Friday, September 18, 2009

Explaining social evolution: standard cause-and-effect vs. TIMN’s system dynamics

TIMN is supposed to become a theoretical framework, even a full theory, about social evolution. Such theorizing calls for a determination of causes and effects. This post addresses that, by offering pieces of what may eventually amount to a chapter.

The purpose of this post is to show that thinking in TIMN terms leads to an interesting set of propositions about system dynamics that go beyond standard cause-effect analysis. Some of the dynamics discussed here were mentioned in an earlier post about TIMN.

Standard approach to cause and effect

Social evolution depends on a flow of causes and effects. The standard way to theorize about them is to identify independent variables and assess what happens to dependent variables.

While scholarly debates have swirled around efforts to explain every phase of social evolution, the most vigorous debates I have encountered so far concern the transition from tribes, to chiefdoms, to states. The major explanatory factors (independent variables) that scholars repeatedly posit for this transition are increases in population, in economic production, in local and long-distance trade, in warfare and conquest, and in social stratification. Increases in such factors evidently generate needs as well as opportunities for increases in central control and coordination and for the emergence of specialized administrative and bureaucratic hierarchies — i.e., for a growth of the traits (dependent variables) that characterize the rise of the +I form, embodied in the state.

Of these causal factors, the one that has received the most agreement is population growth (Harris, 1977; Johnson and Earle, 1987; Sanderson, 1999; Carneiro, 2003). It, evidently more than any other factor, impels societies to intensify their capacities for economic production as well as for warfare and conquest. As Robert Carneiro (2003, p. 206) notes,
In the absence of concentrations of population, few if any chiefdoms or states ever arose. In its presence, many sprang up, responding to the demands that the increasing pressures of human numbers began exerting on existing political structures.
But are such factors primarily causes, or consequences? For example, consider an enduring debate about whether the growth of social stratification caused the rise of a hierarchical coordinating center, first as the chiefdom, later as the state. A view influenced by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels (notably Fried, 1967) claims that the state arose in order to expand and defend inegalitarian stratification. An opposing view (notably Service, 1971) observes that little stratification (or private ownership) preceded the rise of the state, and that the state’s primary aim was simply to defend its rise as an autonomous institution. In this view, inequality and stratification were a consequence of the state’s rise, not a cause.

However — and of course — for many theorists, truth resides on both sides of the argument:
[T]he development of the state involved the specialization of a governing bureaucracy, as argued by Service, and the emergence of stratification based on access to basic resources, as argued by Fried. The two factors are not mutually exclusive; rather, they must be considered together to adequately explain the origin of the state. (Haas, 1982, p. 151, italics in orig.)

Political stage and social stratification are clearly very strongly correlated with each other, almost inextricably intertwined. It is difficult to say which is the dependent variable and which the independent variable. It may be best to conclude that these variables are codeterminants — they ratchet each other up in the evolutionary process. (Sanderson, 2001, p. 314)
Indeed, a ratcheting, spiraling coevolution of cause and effect makes the most sense — and not only for this early stage of social evolution. In reviewing a range of demographic, economic, military and other causal factors and the debates about them, Robert Carneiro (2003) makes the deep point that cause and effect may spiral together over time across all stages of social evolution. Steven Leblanc (2003) reiterates the point in neat style, based on his work on the interplay among tool making, big-game hunting, and warfare in primitive eras. Here’s what they say:
Causation may be said to be spiral in the sense that factors may react in such a way that something that may be a cause at one stage of the process may in turn become an effect at a later stage. And then this effect may once more play a causal role in a later stage, and so on. (Carneiro, 2003, p. 190, italics in orig.)

The idea of coevolution revolves around the concept that as one trait evolves, it causes a different one to evolve as well, and as this second trait evolves, it causes the first to evolve more: A encourages B, and B encourages A in a sort of spiral or loop. (Leblanc, 2003, p. 79)
I believe that this is the best way to theorize about cause and effect in the standard manner. Even so, this remains a difficult area of analysis, and debates continue to simmer among anthropologists and other theorists about what factors cause what early stages of social evolution. Similar debates exist regarding the causes and consequences of the later rise of the market and network forms — with technology advances playing ever larger roles as explanatory factors for modernization. (For excellent overviews, see various writings by Stephen K. Sanderson (1990, 1999, 2001, 2007), who adds his own theoretical thrust in terms of what he calls synthetic materialism.)

However, while identifying the material and other causes of particular transitions and stages of social evolution is a major concern of many scholars — and a fascinating one at that — I doubt much is to be gained for the formulation of the TIMN framework at this point by dwelling on specific causal factors. Standard cause-effect analysis can be fit into TIMN, and may assist with explaining the progressions from monoform through quadriform societies. Moreover, I need to be aware — and show that I am aware — of the main theorizing in this vein. But my sense is that TIMN depends mainly on system dynamics, far more than on standard cause-effect relationships.

System dynamics: a TIMN rethinking of causes and effects

By “system dynamics” — I don’t know what else to call them (and I’m open to suggestions) — I refer to patterned interactions among the TIMN forms that apply no matter which TIMN form is rising or settling, expanding or receding, influencing or being influenced. They reflect the ratcheting, spiraling coevolution of the four forms, rather than the specific causes and effects of each one. What is interesting about these dynamics is that they repeat whenever a form arises, irrespective of which form or transition it is. That is how and why this compact framework generates complex patterns.

I presumed that such patterns existed not long after I figured that social evolution revolved around just three or four forms of organization and their interactions. Since then, I have tried to cull from the literatures on social evolution those propositions that speak not to causal factors for each form, but rather to overarching dynamics that play a role in every TIMN transition, from monoform to quadriform systems.

What follows is an overview — in propositional style — of most of the dynamics I have spotted so far. I’d originally intended, over a month ago, to elaborate on these and other propositions in this one single post. But I stalled in the effort; also, it was becoming too long. Hence, I’m presenting this set of propositions here in a cursory, summary, rather abstract fashion. I hope to elaborate on them, mostly one at a time, in future posts.

As noted above, a few were already discussed in an earlier post that provided an overview of TIMN. But if that does not offer enough context, I suggest perusing other posts — here, here, here, and here — about the nature of the four TIMN forms.

A collection of propositions about TIMN system dynamics

During the rise of a new form, subversion precedes addition: When a new form arises, it has subversive effects on the old order that weaken the old forms, before it has additive effects that serve to consolidate a new order. This happens not only because of contradictions between the forms, but also because “bad guys” — e.g., warlords, smugglers, pirates, terrorists — may learn to adopt and exploit a new form quicker than the “good guys.”

Addition brings the creation and consolidation of a new realm: In the TIMN progression, each form, because of its unique strengths, operates to create and prevail in a particular realm of society. The new form and its realm take over functions and activities for which they are best suited, and which the older form(s) and realm(s) had been performing with increasing faults and inefficiencies as societal complexity grew.

Combination restructures and strengthens the overall system: As a form gains sway, combinatorial dynamics take hold vis à vis the established forms and their realms. The new form’s realm begins to separate from the older realms. The new realm cuts into parts of the older, takes some actors and activities away from them, and narrows and places new limits on their scope. The new form and its realm also have feedback effects that modify the design of the older forms/realms; they go through generational changes, which include taking on some attributes of the new form and its realm, perhaps partly to adapt to its growing strength. Yet, if all goes well, the addition of a new form and its realm ultimately strengthens the older ones; they emerge stronger — their capabilities grow within their scope of activity, even though that scope is newly circumscribed. Thus each new combination proves stronger than the old — e.g., a T+I+M society is generally stronger and more versatile than a T+I society.

Combination alters the nature of causation: Causation becomes more intricate as the TIMN progression develops. Whatever the causes that bring a new form into play, once it comes into play, it affects everything around it, altering the nature of adaptation and causation that had existed previously. The rise of the new form generates feedback effects that not only help to strengthen and spread the new form, but also to modify the prior forms and activities so that they better support (and resist?) the new form’s growth.

Successful combination depends on the development of regulatory interfaces: As societies progress in TIMN terms, the forms and their realms increasingly intersect and interact, such that a society’s functioning depends not only on which forms are present, but also on the nature of the interfaces between the realms. Regulatory mechanisms (laws, policies, agencies, etc.) enable realms — e.g., the state, the market — to function well together. Regulatory interfaces also help keep those realms separated and in balance, preventing one from overwhelming another. They provide a needed kind of connective tissue.

Balanced combination is imperative: In the TIMN progression, the rise of each new form depends on the successes and failures of the earlier forms. Each form (and its realm) builds on its predecessor(s); the development of each, in turn, may be crucial for the next to arise and take root. For a society to progress optimally through the addition of new forms, no single form should be allowed to dominate; and none should be suppressed or eliminated — some kind of balance and equilibrium should be sought. A society’s potential to function well at a given level, and to evolve to a higher level of complexity, depends on its ability to integrate these inherently contradictory forms into a well-functioning whole. Balanced combination is best for long-term evolution. Indeed, balance may be the key watchword of the entire TIMN framework. Otherwise, enormous structural and ideological distortions may occur; for imbalance — too much of this form or that — may bring out the worst aspects of a form.

Imperfect adaptation to a form may be optimal for continued evolution: The task of getting a form “right” does not mean that exact adaptation (or adaptedness) to its environment is best for a society’s potential for further evolution. Incomplete adaptation may provide for flexibility. Each form may well have an ideal type in theory and philosophy; yet, in practice, none operates fully according to its ideal — nor should it. One reason may be the presence of other forms, and the importance of having to function in relation to them. Another reason may be that imperfect adaptation may allow for opportune, innovative responses to environmental changes.

Complexity increases with TIMN progress, but so does simplicity: TIMN treats the evolution of “complexity” as a cumulative, combinatorial process, in which a social system develops sub-systems that operate according to different forms of organization. Thus TIMN, like most theories about social evolution, emphasizes differentiation and specialization — but with a twist. In classical theory, evolution amounts to a movement from simplicity to complexity — with that complexity becoming evermore complex. But in TIMN, the successful addition of a new form spells a reconfiguration that amounts to a kind of simplification — a resolution of excessive complexity (or complicatedness) from trying to do too many new things with old forms. Thus a triform T+I+M society is more complex than a biform T+I society; but a T+I+M society is also more streamlined and efficient — in key ways, simpler, less complicated — than a T+I society that is trying to conduct and control complex economic affairs without adopting the +M form. The drive for differentiation cannot be unceasing; resynthesis eventually requires a simplifying kind of de-differentiation as well.

To advance through the TIMN progression, control must give way to decontrol: The evolution of complex societies is often said to involve increases in control (and coordination), partly so that all the differentiated parts work together. But social evolution does not revolve solely around ever-increasing capacities for control. Each transformational step in the TIMN progression requires some kind of decontrol — realizing that a new form and realm are taking hold, letting go of its activities, and allowing self-organization to develop around that form’s own rules. This is essential for the re-simplification and resynthesis process noted above. Over the long run, harmonious decontrol becomes as important as control; in advanced societies, power extends as much from decontrol as control. Thus, to refer back to the preceding proposition, the evolution of social complexity leads to increases in differentiation and control, but it also eventually requires some systemic de-differentiation and decontrol. Societies whose leaders exalt the tribal and hierarchical forms may have the hardest times with this.

The more entrenched an older form, the more difficult it will be for a newer form to emerge on its own merits: This mostly occurs where tribal or hierarchical actors rule in rigid, grasping, domineering ways; but it may also apply where pro-market ideologues hold sway. Much of getting a form right or wrong depends not only on applying that form’s distinctive principles, but also on balancing and relating it properly to the other forms, while protecting it from infestation by them. The more a form is infested by another form’s actors, the more it may be distorted, and the more likely may be “monstrous moral hybrids” (Jacobs, 1992) that disdain the separation and balancing of forms and their realms. Examples may include governments rife with a clannish tribalism, militaries wallowing in lucrative business enterprises, and ostensibly capitalist market systems fraught with collusive, protectionist cronyism. The stronger are tribal/clan tendencies in a society, the more likely are corrupt hybrid designs. A society of myriad monstrous hybrids is likely to be a distorted society, even a mean-spirited one. (This does not contradict the proposition, presented in an earlier post, that functional hybrids appear during transitional phases in the TIMN progression from monoform to quadriform societies.)

Wrap-up remarks for this post

Some of the preceding paragraphs look awfully sketchy to me, lacking in detail and nuance, not to mention references to other’s writings. But that has to be it for now. At least I’ve conveyed some propositions from TIMN that I haven’t said much if anything about before.

I have more propositions in mind — e.g., each form’s maturation leads to increases in social stratification; each form is associated with a different notion of democracy; each shift in the TIMN progression leads to new modes of conflict and cooperation. But while I’ll not elaborate on them in this post, there they are, briefly stated, as hints of what is yet to be laid out. And I remain on the lookout for additional propositions.

Most of what I have put in this post was drafted years ago, for potential chapters seven and eight for a possible booklength treatment that is still tentatively titled How Societies Work: Social Evolution — Past, Present, and Future. Who knows whether I will ever complete it. But meanwhile, I intend to continue using this blog to present pieces for readers to view, should they be interested. At least I’ve moved the ideas out of my head and home, up into the clouds for eventual, hopefully positive consideration.


Clay Spinuzzi said...

I'm really enjoying watching your thinking take shape here, and I just made a note to read more deeply about TIMN as I continue to evaluate the case studies I have in progress.

Re moving from a cause-effect relationship to a spiral relationship, this sounds a lot like dialectics (in a loose sense). See for instance Yrjo Engestrom's books. (Engestrom provides a potentially rival theory of social development, activity theory, although AT has traditionally been invoked at scales smaller than the one you're describing.) Will you be discussing the relationship between TIMN and dialectics at some point? I'd be particularly interested. CS

David Ronfeldt said...

hi clay -- thanks for the note. much appreciated. i've long presumed that TIMN is inherently somewhat hegelian (marxian too?), as well as darwinian and parsonian. quite a mix. maybe more than i will ever fully sort out. but always interesting.

as for dialectics, i'd make a few quick points (after visiting wikipedia for a refresher of what little i know about dialectics): i regard the TIMN "forms" as both ideal and material in nature (meaning they are "integral"?). i see no reason to get caught in the usual arguments about whether ideal or material modes and forces matter most. in my view, the concept of "forms" bridges the material and ideal. also, each form may be said to have its own structures, superstructures, and infrastructures; and these evolve and interact in dialectical ways -- but not in ways where the structure determines the superstructure. moreover, unlike "dialectical materialism," TIMN is not geared to making class struggles over modes and forces of production the center of attention.

nonetheless, i think TIMN is quite a bit about movement and flux, phase transitions, interactions between qualitative and quantitative changes, interplay between contradictions and negations, not to mention the transcendence of opposites. so i suppose there's a hegelian strain in TIMN.

thanks for the pointer to engestrom. but i'm sorry to say, a quick search hasn't led me to find much yet. -- onward, david