SOCIETY AS A COMPLEX ADAPTIVE SYSTEM

To recap Rosen, the perception an individual has of his own culture derived from his interaction with a limited and unique part of that culture is substantially different from the perception of that same culture by an outside observer. As a result, his perception of what behavior should be appropriate at any given point in time is inevitably faulty. Nevertheless, social systems are probably the most adaptive and persistent systems on our planet. Walter Buckley combined the backgrounds of a systems scientist and of a sociologist to give us some insight into how society seen as an adaptive system overcomes these problems.

Equilibrium systems, Buckley explained, are relatively closed and entropic. In going to equilibrium they typically lose structure, going toward a condition of minimum free energy. The homeostatic system is open and negentropic. Its main characteristic is its function to maintain the given structure of the system within pre-established limits. It has both energy and information feedback loops with its environment but they are geared to self-regulation (structure maintenance). Complex adaptive systems are also open and negentropic, but they are open internally as well as externally. The interchange among their components may result in significant changes in the nature of the components themselves. True feedback control loops make possible not only self-regulation, but self-direction. In adaptation to changing environments the system may change or elaborate its structure as a condition of survival or viability. Buckley's paradigm of complex adaptive systems is derived from cybernetics and information theory. Here is a brief look at complex adaptive systems in his words.

The environment, however else it may be characterized, can be seen at bottom as a set or ensemble of more or less distinguishable elements, states, or events, whether the discriminations are made in terms of spatial or temporal relations or properties. Such distinguishable differences in an ensemble may be most generally referred to as "variety". The relatively stable "causal" spatial, and/or temporal relations between these distinguishable elements or events may be generally referred to as "constraint". If the elements are so loosely related that there is equal probability of any element or state being associated with any other, we speak of "chaos" or complete randomness, and hence lack of constraint, but our more typical natural environment is characterized by a relatively high degree of constraint, without which the development and elaboration of the adaptive systems (as well as "science,") would not have been possible. When the internal organization of an adaptive system acquires features that permit it to discriminate, act upon, and respond to aspects of the environmental variety and its constraints, we might generally say that the system has "mapped" parts of the environmental variety and constraints into its organization as structure and/or "information". Thus, a subset of the ensemble of constrained variety in the environment is coded and transmitted in some way via various channels to result in a change in the structure of the receiving system which is isomorphic in certain respects to the original variety. The system thus becomes selectively matched to its environment both physiologically and psychologically. It should be added that two or more adaptive systems, as well as an adaptive system and its natural environment, may be selectively interrelated by a mapping process in the same terms. This becomes especially important for the evolution of the social system.

A complex adaptive system, Buckley said, must include four basic mechanisms.

1. Some degree of "plasticity" and˙irritability" vis-a-vis its environment such that it carries on a constant interchange with environmental events, acting on and reacting to it. 2. Some source of mechanism for variety, to act as a potential pool of adaptive variability to meet the problem of mapping new or more detailed variety and constraints in a changing environment. 3. A set of selective criteria or mechanisms against which the "variety pool" may be sifted into those variations in the organization or system that more closely map the environment and those that do not. 4. An arrangement for preserving and/or propagating these "successful" mappings.

A social system must deal with the variety in its environment. In addition to its structure-maintaining features, it requires a structure elaborating and changing feature. As a result, in considering the term "steady-state", Buckley said, it must "... not be identified with a particular structure of the system." In order to maintain a steady-state, the system must be capable of changing its structure. In describing these mechanisms Buckley uses the term "morphogenesis"

Persistence in an adaptive complex system requires that essential variances in the system be held within certain limits. This maintenance may depend on pattern reorganization structuring, destructuring and restructuring, at widely varying rates and degrees as a function of the external social and non-social environment. "The cybernetic perspective of control or self-regulation of adaptive systems emphasizes the role of deviation, seen in both negative and positive aspects." Buckley says that on the negative side deviation can provide signals that may be interpreted by the organizing centers of the system as a failure of the operating systems or structures relative to the desired goal-state. On the positive side deviation provides a pool of "potential new transformations of processes or structure that the adaptive system might adopt in responding to goal mis-match."Invoking Ashby's Law of' "requisite variety", the variety within a system must be at least as great as the environmental variety against which it is attempting to regulate itself, Buckley states that only variety can regulate variety.

Thus the concept of requisite deviation needs to be preferred as a high level principle that can lead us to theorize: A requisite of sociocultural systems is the development and maintenance of a significant level of non-pathological deviance manifest as a pool of alternate ideas and behaviors with respect to the traditional, institutionalized ideologies and role behaviors. Rigidification of any given institutional structure must eventually lead to disruption or dissolution of' the society by way of internal upheaval or ineffectiveness against external challenge. The student of society must thus pose the question--what mechanisms of non-pathological deviance production and maintenance can be found in any society, and what "mechanisms" of conformity operate to counteract these and possibly lessen the viability of the system.

Assuming sufficient deviance and variety in an adaptive system, the next problem is selection of the most appropriate modes of behavior and a means of preservation of the selected behavior. In biological systems w˙e have natural selection of some of the genetic variety. In psychological systems, we have trial and error selection by way of the so-called "law of effect", from the variety of environmental events and potential behavior repertoire to form experience and motor skills preserved by cortical structuring.

It is clearly in the area of' "social selection" that we meet the knottiest problems. For the sociocultural system, as for the biological adaptive system, analysis must focus on both the potentialities of the systems structure at a given time, and the environmental changes that might occur and put particular demands on whatever structure has evolved. In both areas the complexities are compounded for the sociocultural system.

In developing a typology of systems and their internal linkages we have noted that as we proceed from the mechanical or physical through the biological, psychic and sociocultural, the system becomes "looser", the interrelations among parts more tenuous, less rigid, and especially less directly tied to physical events as energy relations and transformations are overshadowed by symbolic relations and information transfers. Feedback loops between operating sociocultural structures and the surrounding reality are often long and tortuous, so much so that knowledge of results or goal-mismatch, when forthcoming at all, may easily be interpreted in non-verdical ways (as the history of magic, superstition, and ideologies from primitive to present amply indicate). The higher adaptive systems have not been attained without paying their price, as the widespread existence of illusion and delusions on the personality and cultural levels attest. On the biological level, the component parts have relatively few degrees of freedom, and changes in the environment are relatively directly and inexorably reacted to by selective structural changes in the species.

Not only are social systems capable of persisting within a wide range of degrees of freedom, they are often able to "muddle through" environmental changes that are not too demanding. These systems are capable of temporary shifts in structure to meet exigencies. And in Buckley's words, "Thus, although the minimal integration required for a viable system does set limits on the kinds of structures that can persist, these limits seem relatively broad compared to a biological system. And given the greater degrees of freedom of internal structuring (structural alternatives as some call them) and the potentially great speed with which restructuring may occur under certain conditions, it becomes difficult to predict the reactions of such a system to environmental changes or internal elaboration."

Although the problem is difficult, something can be said about more ultimate adaptive criteria against which sociocultural structures can be assessed. Consideration of the grand trends of evolution provides clues to very general criteria. These trends point in the direction of: (1) Greater and greater flexibility of structure, as error-controlled mechanisms (cybernetic processes of control) replace more rigid, traditionalistic means of meeting problems and seeking goals; (2) ever more refined, accurate, and systematic mapping, decoding, and encoding of the external environment and the systems own internal milieu (via science), along with greater independence from the physical environment; (3) and thereby a greater elaboration of self-regulating substructures in order--not merely to restore a given equilibrium or homeostatic level--but to purposely restructure the system without tearing up the lawn in the process.

"The advance of science," Buckley said, "has driven it away from the concern with 'substance' and toward a focus on relations between components of any kind." Thus, a concern with complex systems in which some kind of stable structure, often tenuous and only statistically determined, arises. Buckley continues, "In contrast to some of the general systems theorists themselves as well as their critics, we have argued that this is not simply analogizing, but generalizing or abstracting as well. (Although the form is important and scientifically legitimate also, when performed with due caution). To say that physiological, psychological, and sociocultural processes of control all involve the same cybernetic principles of information flow along feedback loops is no more a mere analogy than to say that the trajectories of a falling apple, an artificial satellite, or a planet all involve the basic principle of gravitational attraction."

Complex systems are open systems in intimate interchange with an environment characterized by a great deal of shifting variety (booming, buzzing confusion) and its constraints (its structure of causal interrelations). The concept of equilibrium developed for closed physical systems is quite inappropriate and usually inapplicable to such a dynamic situation. Rather, a characteristic resultant is the elaboration of organization in the direction of the less probable and the less inherently stable,

The concept of a complex adaptive system cannot be identified with the more-or-less stable structure it may take on at any particular time. The condition for maintenance of a viable adaptive system may be a change in its structure. Among the important processes for sociocultural systems are not only cooperation and conformity to norms, but conflict, competition, and deviation which may help to create (or destroy) the essential variety pool, and which constitutes the process of selection from it, To complex adaptive systems organization is the "control", the characteristic of which will change as organization changes,

The World as a Social System

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