Tuesday, November 7, 2017

Social qualities emerge from multiple interactions at multiple scales

Different qualities are used to describe and characterise societies: civil, fair, intolerant, racist, corrupt, free,  ….

Two big questions are:

How does a society make a transition between from a bad quality and a good quality?

What kind of initiatives can induce changes?

Initiatives can be individual or collective, political or economic, local or national, ...

For example, how does reduce corruption, which is endemic in many Majority world countries?
Or in the USA, why is public debate losing civility?

I think it is helpful to acknowledge the complexity of these issues. They have some similarity to wicked problems. They are problems that involve multiple interactions at multiple scales. Some of these interactions are competing and frustrated (in the spin glass sense!) and initiatives can lead to unintended consequences.

Whether you look at societies from a sociological, cultural, geographical, political, or economic perspective they involve multiple scales. For example, at the political level, one goes from local to city to state to national governments to the United Nations. In some countries corruption (bribes, extortion, nepotism, tax evasion,…) occurs at all levels. A policeman demands a bribe for a traffic violation. A university administrator changes records so his nephew, a mediocre student, can be admitted to medical school. The president of the country moves millions of dollars in foreign aid money into an off-shore bank account….
These phenonmena occur at multiple scales and involve multiple interactions. For example, an individual citizen will interact with many levels of government, and government agencies, and with each may be involved or impacted by a corrupt interaction.

Civility (respect, graciousness, politeness, listening) or uncivility (disrespect, rudeness, contempt, shouting) also occurs at many levels. These range from everyday conversations, comments on Facebook, to debate in parliament, to the Twitter feed of the President of the USA.

Michel Foucault, is one of the most influential (for better or worse) scholars in the humanities from the 20th century. He is particularly well known for his arguments that power operates at many levels and in many different ways in societies.

I find a multi-scale perspective helpful because it undercuts two extreme but common views concerning how we address significant social problems.
One view is the “top-down” perspective that if we just have the right national leader and the right laws a problem will be solved. This is argued for a whole range of issues ranging from corruption to sexual harassment, to “hate speech”.
The other extreme is the “bottom-up” view that the problem can be solved by individuals just making the right choices. Each individual should be polite to others and not give or take bribes. We need both approaches.

Moreover, I believe we need initiatives at all levels and interactions.
The importance of the absence of the intermediate scales (and the associated concept of social capital) was highlighted in Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community, by the Harvard political scientist Robert D. Putnam.
An example of a multi-scale perspective is in the Oxfam book, From Poverty to Power: How active citizens and effective states can change the world.

A question that is both practically important and intellectually fascinating is:

What are the critical parameters and their values at which a society undergoes a “phase transition”?

Such a question is addressed in
The Epidemics of Corruption 
Ph. Blanchard, A. Krueger, T. Krueger, P. Martin



The figure is from a paper, Small-World Networks of Corruption.

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