Gardeners, not architects - RSA

Gardeners, not architects


  • Leadership
  • Social justice

According to Wikipedia, Herbert Spencer the Victorian polymath whose achievements include being the founding father of British sociology:

'.... recognised three functional needs or prerequisites that produce selection pressures: they are regulatory, operative (production) and distributive. He argued that all societies need to solve problems of control and coordination, production of goods, services and ideas, and, finally, to find ways of distributing these resources'

These three social needs line up reasonably neatly with the three forms of power (and ways of thinking about power) which I have derived from cultural theory and other frameworks; respectively hierarchical power, individualistic power and solidaristic power.

Like most sociologists up until the sixties, Spencer started from the question of how societies function and adapt. But forty years ago, or so it seems to me,  a disastrous and mutually reinforcing split occurred in the social sciences. On the one hand, the core assumption of sociological theory came to be that society was a system of oppression and domination, practiced by the ruling class, and/or white people and/or men, and/or heterosexuals using a range of forms of economic and social control. On the other hand, economics came to be dominated by the assumption that markets function perfectly and guarantee the enhancement of human welfare.

As a consequence of this split, sociology became overwhelmingly a discipline of the left while economics became the science of the new right. Yet just a few years before this divide, functionalism was the most powerful school of sociological grand theory whole economic students were conventionally taught Keynesian lessons about the inherently dysfunctional nature of unmanaged markets.

Behavioural economics had already started to dent free market functionalism before the credit crunch came along and, in the immortal understatement of Alan Greenspan, revealed a 'flaw' in free market doctrine. If economics can rediscover market instability and even perhaps recognise gross inequality as a reflection of power and policy choice not simply the blind genius of the market, could sociology rediscover an interest in society as a functional system?

Given the generally downbeat way we talk about our society and its prospects, not to mention our current economic problems, this may seem unlikely. Yet social pessimism is arguably as much a symptom of our current ways of thinking as an accurate reflection of the what is happening in the world. As I have written before, distinguishing a trend from a cycle is the alchemy of social analysis, yet standing back from our current cyclical travails there is a strong case to be made both that societies are capable of solving hard problems and that most of today's challenges are in fact the consequence of past successes.

If I had time I would create a Twitter account which every day published an uplifting fact about progress in the world or just in our own dispirited country. On Sunday I could have pointed out the incredibly fast decline in global levels of absolute poverty. Yesterday, I could have selected the evidence that most young people have gone a long way to shedding the sexism, racism, homophobia and disablism which their parents harboured and their grandparents wore with pride. Today, I could focus on the extra years of healthy living now available to most of us and tomorrow, perhaps, remind the naysayers that not only are children in aggregate better educated than at any time in history but it even seems that as a race we are becoming  more intelligent. I might save for the weekend the fact that the human race is now less violent than at any time in its entire history.

With so much evidence of society's health and adaptability, why is it that theories of social functioning continue to be so unfashionable? It is a question I am mulling over as I try to plan out a possible book based on exploring the three power sources (never forgetting the ubiquity of the fourth, largely passive, mode of fatalism). For while my annual lecture last year explored the problematic consequences of an unbalancing of the three forces (weak hierarchy and stretched solidarity forcing individualism to do too much work and encouraging social fatalism), further thought suggests that there are mechanisms which lead to such unbalances being corrected (Read 'Power Failure', p.10).

Having said which, I want to avoid the criticism often levelled at functionalism (or a least a caricature of functionalism) that it had no account of conflict and collapse. Whilst imbalances between the three active (and one passive) social forces do tend to correct themselves, many terrible things can happen on the way.

The argument I want to develop is not that we should simply stand back and let society progress but that we should see the challenge as helping along those processes of repair which are inherent. In this sense social analysts and policy makers are gardeners, not architects. Wise gardeners need to understand nature to respect it, to work with it, to recognise the limits that it sets, but also to adapt its processes to grow what we want to grow.

Early sociologists like Herbert Spencer tended to see society as like a natural organism with evolved and functional processes that we could understand and perhaps benignly influence. For reasons good and bad such social positivism has become thoroughly discredited. Are there any grounds for a comeback?


Be the first to write a comment


Please login to post a comment or reply

Don't have an account? Click here to register.

Related articles