April 28, 2009

A New Map for Social System Theory

I would like to start overviewing the world of social system theory.

In my view, the theory can provide a new fundamental framework to understand the principle of collaboration, however it is almost unknown among the researchers of collaboration studies. It is not only because the theory is proposed in a discipline of sociology but also because the theory is quite difficult to understand.

But don't be afraid. I've drawn a map to walk around much easier!
So, let's start with my map.

Social system theory, which I want to take, was proposed by Niklas Luhmann (1927-1998), a German sociologist. Luhmann suggested a new framework for considering a society as an "autopoietic system" in his book Soziale Systeme (1984). English translation of this book was published under the title of Social Systems from Stanford University Press in 1995.
* Niklas Luhmann, Social Systems, Translated by John Bednarz, Jr. with Dirk Baecker, Stanford University Press, 1995

The theory design by Luhmann is highly abstract and complex. Although some sociologists criticize this abstract and complex theorization, we should know the abstraction is caused just by strictly employing a system theory and the complexity is caused by applying lots of concepts that related one another. This abstraction and complexity is unavoidable and necessary for the breakthrough to the situation in which "Sociology is stuck in a theory crisis" (Luhmann 1984/1995, p.xlv).

Luhmann himself confess "This is not easy book" and metaphorically "Thus the theory's design resembles a labyrinth more than freeway off into the sunset."(ibid, p.lii). In fact, it is quite tough to read a whole book. Especially, in most cases, you will be confused in the first several chapters, which introduce the fundamental concepts of system theory such as "system", "environment", "selection", "function", "autopoiesis", "operation", "meaning", and "dimension". These chapters are indeed great literature as a general system theory, but it is easy for readers who seek a sociological theory to lose their way.

So I want to choose the different path from Luhmann's. It must be permissible in light of Luhmann's accounts; "The sequence of chapters chosen for this book is surely not the only one possible"(ibid, p.lii) and then "The theory could have been presented in a different sequence"(ibid, p.li).

In my strategy, the first step is grasping Luhmann's viewpoint about society, and next is understanding communication. Well, then we'll take the first steps.

April 27, 2009

Society as Nexus of Communication

I would like to start overviewing the social system theory proposed by Niklas Luhmann (1927-1998), a German sociologist.

Luhmann suggested a new framework for considering a society as an "autopoietic system" in his book Soziale Systeme (1984)*.
* English translation was published as Social Systems from Stanford University Press in 1995.

The novel point of his suggestion is that the element of the society is communication, not human, actor nor action. In the social system theory, a society is regarded as a system which reproduces communication by communication. In other words, which I prefer, a society is nexus of communication. Since the viewpoint may look not so strange at a glance, and it is difficult to understand the novelty. So I shall explain it by comparing some viewpoints which we are familiar with.

In a naive viewpoint, a society is regarded as the group of people. For example, Oxford Dictionary of Sociology begins their explanation of the term "society" with this kind of naive viewpoint as follows;
Generally, a group of people who share a common culture, occupy a particular territorial area, and feel themselves to constitute a unified and distinct entity.
*from John Scott and Gordon Marshall (eds.), Oxford Dictionary of Sociology, 3rd edition revised, Oxford University Press, 2009
Of course, this viewpoint is rather daily-use than sociological definition. On the other hand, the typical viewpoint in sociology seems to be that society is regarded as relations or a structure among actors.

This viewpoint is necessary to understand the freedom and autonomy of individuals, otherwise the individuals must lose the freedom and autonomy if the individuals would be just parts of the society.

Based on this framework, Luhmann built a general theory of society and had applied the theory into a wide variety of social phenomena, including economy, law, politics, art, religion, education, science, mess media, family, and so on.

April 25, 2009

At the starting point

Hi, everyone.

I just start on a new blog to explore "social creativity."

I am Takashi Iba, who is interested in creativity of society as well as human creativity. My occupation is an academic researcher, so this exploration will be carried out as a academic study. It, however, does not mean our exploration depends on a specific discipline, but will be interdisciplinary or transdisciplinary study. We may walk across the border among research disciplines, and moreover the border between art and science. 

Since this is a first post into this blog, I would like to write briefly about my viewpoint of the theme. I use the term "collaboration" to indicate an activity when more than one person cooperates to aim for a goal that cannot be reached alone. In effective collaboration, nexus of communication gains "momentum," and it amplifies in the process.  This is why collaboration can lead us to go beyond the result by summing up individuals. 

In my view, collaboration can be classified into two types. One is "closed collaboration", and  another is "open collaboration". The former is a conventional type of collaboration which is conducted by team or organization. In closed collaboration, by definition, participants of the collaboration are almost assigned, therefore the border can be drawn at the same place as the border of team or organization.

The latter is a new type of collaboration which is conducted by an indefinite number of people.  Anybody can dive into the collaboration and leave at any moment. You might imagine this type of collaboration from the case of open-source development of Linux OS or open-editing of Wikipedia. I prefer the term "open collaboration" rather than "mass collaboration", because my focus is put on the distinction between openness and closeness.

I think that we need to study collaboration, especially about open-collaboration, with using the theory of sociology, although it is usually analyzed in the light of management theory or politics so far. There are some reasons. First, the creative process through collaboration is a matter of emergence, since it cannot be reduced into the level of individuals. Second, the theories to understand the formation process of social order by an anonymous indefinite number of people are provided in sociology, not in management theory or politics.

Thus, I focus on "social system theory", which was proposed by Niklas Luhmann, a German sociologist, as a framework to understand collaboration. My key concept, "nexus of communication", is derived from the theory. In this blog, I will mention the theory again and again in order to explore the principle of collaboration.

To analyze the nexus of communication quantitatively, I apply the method of social network analysis. So I will write about the theories, methods, and tools for analyzing network. They have been developed as "social network analysis" in sociology and "the science of complex networks" in physics. I also touch on the topics related to computer simulation, which is great way to understand how a certain order is emerged from the bottom up.

Furthermore, I will treat a pattern language as a method to support social creativity. The method of pattern languages was originally proposed in architectural design and became famous in software design for describing "knack" of experienced designers. In my view, the method can be applied into other domains related to a kind of "design", for example, learning design, research design,  policy design, community design, and social design.

I have pleasure in starting this blog and talk about the topics of social creativity. Please give me a feedback when you feel and think something by reading this blog. I am looking forward to hearing from you.

And I am also very grateful if you correct my English. :-)
I really need to improve my literacy in English.