An email exchange with my friend and mentor, Chris Blantern, intrigued me so much that I decided to replicate part of the thread in this blog.
Chris: The more I think about it the less I know what a system is and hence what systemic can mean.
I get the impression that Social Constructionists are a bit obsessed with ‘relationship-with-other’ as the only ontological ground – leaving no room for our relationship to cultural ‘actants’ (non-human actors). As Latour said – “a man doesn’t behave in the same way as a man with a gun”.
Also, people don’t (on the whole) drive through the traffic lights at red – even if the car in front of you did. We have delegated some social actions to the lights (substitute police). Whether it’s traffic lights or ice cream vans you can’t study social behaviour without studying objects in use – like words in use. Inter-subjectivity suggests there is nothing outside the conversation. I maintain we act in relation to context – of which language in use is very important but by no means exclusive.
Me: Interesting thoughts. Can’t speak for all Social Constructionists but the Systemic Practice doctorate I’m pursuing is about human systems, hence it’s primary focus is on how reality is co-created through human interaction, in particular the implicative effect of speech acts and the constitutive effect of language. I like the description that systemic thinking is not an explanatory theory per se but rather a ‘theory about theories’, which is why I am curious to know more about the systems and objects (non human actors) position you are advocating. However, I think Social Constructionists would say that in order for humans to have a relationship with things, we first have to socially construct them as cultural artefacts; and that the language we use to talk about these actants, makes and does things.
That said, we had a guy come into TF two weeks ago to talk about his PhD on poverty, during which he made an interesting hypothesis. He said that, according to the bible narrative in Genisis 2:7, humans are part of things because we are made from the dust of the earth. Therefore, humans have a special relationship with things. He went on to talk compellingly about implication of this narrative on how we view our relationship with things, in particular, money, the lack of it (i.e.., poverty), natural resources and nature!
Chris: In reference to your PhD guy – I think Gaians have a notion of a kind of synchronous relationship between humans and things – but I’m talking sociology. That is the study of social behaviour and action.
Though it’s important I’m intrigued as to why linguistic inter-subjectivity seems to exclude other forms of relating. Meaning and possible action is also created through our relationship to objects, physical and abstract. So, for example, a progressive chief exec ‘says’ she wants to create a more democratic, less hierarchical organisation – but still sits at the ‘head’ of the table in meetings or has the only non-shared office, or has named, reserved parking spaces for the top team. Meaning and power relations are conferred through previous inscriptions in objects as constituents of context – not just the speech act.
Action is mediated by non-human actors (actants – Latour)
as well as with other humans and the lack of acknowledgement of the former seems to suggest that, in the old ‘structure versus agency’ debate – that Social Constructionists only see agency. There is no space for cultural artefacts that impart expectations of behaviour. Language or, more accurately, the lexicon itself can be seen as such. This is what Giddens refers to as performed structures – outwith the inter-subjective. He calls it ’structuration’ (i.e. social processes) that hold a sense of structure.
What’s interesting is that the notion of the ’system’ is more structural than it is inter-subjective – so there’s a paradox there. I think I am arguing for a 3rd possibility – that there are patterns rather than systems, and semi-stable, but they are socially performed.
I remember an occasion when I was standing in the security queue for Departures at Stansted airport. The queue is channelled by parallel rows of stainless steel barriers (you may well know it). Progress was very slow and a woman in front of me, obviously frustrated and maybe de-meaned by the experience, turned to me and said – “for this to work we have to be sheep.” She could clearly see the affect of the barrier ‘acting into’ the situation. Is it only folk ‘educated’ in learning and organisations that see behaviour as emanating deep within the individual, rather than the contextual environment? Wittgenstein and Burrus Skinner (he of lab rats and conditioning theory) may have been worlds apart in many ontological ways – but they both could see that context is an essential part of behaviour.