Expecting the unexpected

System irritation is always self-irritation. Irritation always arises from the internal comparison of an event with established structures, which in the case of social systems are expectations (or expectational structures). A system detects a difference between its own expectations and an internally constructed event. Expected events reinforce the system’s expectational structures, while unexpected events may be assimilated by being treated as if they were actually expected.  In other words, systems learn to expect the unexpected, which is a paradox. Every system has ways of processing surprises, which means that surprises are not actually surprises. In establishing expectational structures, a system creates predictability, in a statistical sense. This is important because nothing in a system’s environment is predictable. Thus, one difference between a system and its environment is that systemic events are relatively predictable.

For example, most formal organizations have some kind of code of conduct, and the organization expects members to follow the code; however, the organization also expects members to break the rules on a regular basis, and it prepares for this by establishing consequences for rule breaking. There may be warnings, disciplinary procedures, retraining, etc., which in systems theory are called programs. Organization members who keep breaking rules or break just one serious rule may be kicked out of the organization.

A rule is a two-sided form, and the boundary between the positive value and the negative value must be crossable. In other words, it must be possible to break a rule; otherwise, there is no reason for the rule. Rules, of course, do not prevent undesirable behavior; they just create the difference between desirable and undesirable behavior. It must be possible to move in both directions, which means after a rule is broken it must be possible to return to the rule-following side. This is what programs are for. But if an organization member refuses to come back from “the dark side,” they will be expelled from the organization—if they don’t destroy the organization first.

Things are different in social protest movements because these social systems don’t have formal members. If someone doesn’t want to follow the informal rules of a protest organization, they will likely be ignored by the movement and eventually walk away.


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