“Soylent Green is People!” But society isn’t.

I hope someone other than me will get the popular cultural reference.

Anyway, to elaborate on some earlier blog posts, if we start with the premise that society is a whole that consists of people as the parts, we then need to ask how social order emerges and how it is maintained, or what keeps all the people from scattering in every direction. The classical answer is that a society is held together by norms, beliefs, or shared values, along with a common language and history, etc. There is also the division of labor that establishes interdependence and alliances. As for how a society emerges in the first place, there are of course various theories, such as that early humans couldn’t survive on their own or in isolated nuclear-family units so they came together in clans for mutual survival.

But if we instead begin with the premise that society is a comprehensive communication system, then we go off in a different theoretical direction. For instance, rather than trying to understand how basic values or shared beliefs hold a society together, we will ask how communication is constituted. And if a social system consists of communication and only communication, then the only thing necessary to reproduce a social system from day to day or year to year is communication (in various media). Billions of people are born, grow old, and die, but if communication keeps circulating, then society is held together. Society doesn’t fly apart, and it doesn’t need to be held together by shared values. Communication just needs to keep reproducing itself. And communication doesn’t mean harmony or peace or common goals; it just means that one communicative event is followed up by another relevant communicative event (rather than a non sequitur).

Society, as one autopoietic system among others, must continually reproduce the distinction between itself and its environment, and it does this with communication. But if that were all there is to systems theory, we wouldn’t have shelf upon shelf of books on systems theory.

For instance, we must account for complexity. How can a social system persist in the face of increasingly environmental complexity? How does a society persist—how does it keep reproducing its system/environment distinction—when it must process so much communication and so many different kinds of communication?

Functional differentiation helps. Functionally autonomous subsystems of society—such as law, politics, the economy, mass media, science, and education–along with interactional systems (e.g., fleeting, face-to-face or technologically mediated conversations), and organizations—establish themselves. Law, for instance, can devote itself to legal communication and remain indifferent to every other kind of communication. And it must remain indifferent if it is to reproduce its system/environment distinction. Or if the conversation of a group of friends sitting at around a restaurant (an interactional system) wants to keep itself going for a least a little while, it must treat all other conversations in the restaurant as noise, unless it integrates conversational topics from other tables. But we must keep in mind that it’s not the people at the table who treat the other conversations as noise; it is the interactional system itself that does that.

Each subsystem has its own “norms,” or expectations or what counts as relevant communication–or communication that merits a response. Law, for instance, has its own sense of what counts as relevant or appropriate communication. The economy, politics, mass media, etc. all have their own criteria for what can be taken up as communication. The key point, though, is that there is not a central organizing authority that can police all of this. There are no “basic norms” that hold a society as whole together.


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