Functional Social System Sociology


This preface is really another Afterwords to my previous essay[efn_note][/efn_note] in which I ruminated on fear and danger in a social group and posited that the media are one source of our heightened perception of danger and fear despite living in relatively safe environments.  I want to return to two of the topics of that essay and add some detail.

I told the Pergola Story about the woman who exploded in fear and anger when her 4-year-old son played hide and go seek around a power pole and I thought that one source of her unreasonable response was to be found in the news.  I told about George, who was so enraged by a talk show host telling him of the danger posed by liberalism that he sputtered and spat upon me while trying to talk, is another example of the power of the media.  He listens to talk shows all day every day and is perpetually fearful and angry.  I think he likes those emotions for it gives him the illusion of having superior knowledge and thereby more power.  He displays complete cognitive capture by the media sources, unable and unwilling to think anything else.  He is a sentinel with knowledge beyond that of the dupes and sheeple, and continually warning of the dangers of liberalism and socialism.

I am not the only one to point at our media as one source of hyperactivation of our danger perception system:

We are unintentional experimental animals in the psychological and sociological effects of mass communication media and the problem of funding that media.  Advertising was chosen very early as the source of funding and it is essentially a tax imposed by business on consumers of their products and services.  It is necessary to deliver the attention of readers and listeners to the commercials and hold them long enough for the ‘buy’ message to be absorbed.  To this end, advertising has become so intrusive that I wish a ‘metered usage’ system much like our water, power, and other public utilities would have been devised instead.

My thoughts about the sentinel were triggered years ago by observing food danger articles in magazines on the displays in the checkout aisle of the local supermarket.  Why were there so many ‘don’t eat this’ articles?  What were the authors doing?  They were sentinels detecting and communicating danger and the buyer of the magazine is purchasing information to aid in avoiding that danger.  Danger sells, and sells well in a market that is already hyper-sensitized.  Fear motivates: “I cannot do much about the atom bomb but I can avoid this food or buy that one, and I and my family will be happier, healthier and live longer.”  Of course, they are also selling sexual attractiveness which is an equally potent motivator.

Food and Fear

There is a very significant difference between H. sapiens and our nearest great ape relatives, the chimpanzees and bonobos: we inhabit a much wider variety of environments.  We are characterized by wanderlust, adventure, and a high level of group fission and dispersal.  As dispersing foragers, we encountered new ecologies with different resources, plant and animals – foods.  And that presents a problem.  We need plant foods for vitamins C and E[efn_note]Other vitamins are available from animal sources.[/efn_note] and for minerals and fiber.  While we are obligate plant eaters, plants are not obligate foods.  Their function ab initio was not to be our prey, I mean food, and some have various weapons against predation upon them, in particular toxins.  They try to poison us.  Plants may be dangerous to eat.[efn_note]Some plants take a rather different view: if we can’t beat them, join them and they use animals as transportation systems for their seeds – grains and fruits in particular.  There is the old joke from the horse-drawn transportation days: how do you feed a sparrow?  Feed oats to the horse.  Some oats pass through the system undigested and are eaten out of the horse manure by the sparrows.[/efn_note]

It is not too much of a stretch to think that food fear is then basic and intrinsic to our survival rules.  I was visiting a friend who lives in a wooded area and noticed a tree with berries and asked if they were edible.  He did not know so I did not eat one.  On the way home I got to thinking that a foraging group dispersing into a new environment would have the problem of edibility knowing that it might be poisonous.  Someone has to do the experiment, ‘who eats the berry,’ and could get sick or die to gain the knowledge.  There are systematic methods of testing new foods for edibility and quite probably foraging hunter gatherer groups knew of them and used them to reduce their risk of poisoning.

Food and predator fears are a bit different.  Predator fear is acute and episodic, and we post sentinels to observe their presence and behavior – predators signal their hunting behavior – and we have flight or fight behaviors immediately available.  Food fear, because we eat more often than we escape predation (or die trying), is more existential.  There is the fear of starvation and then in the presence of potential new foods, fear of poisoning.  Plants present a much greater danger of poisoning than animal products and there are no visible signals, no sentinels, for the toxicity of plants.  So, who eats the berry and thus contributes, at some potential cost, to the learning curve?

Fear is then a natural attribute of a prey species, as we once were.  It is easy to generate and transmit, and hard to get rid of; and mass media has used it extensively in articles and advertising.  We have scared ourselves by the news media.  We are unintentional experimental animals in mass communication, and our psychology and sociology have been changed as a result.

Functional Social System Sociology

The social group is more durable than any individual member and its individual members survive within the ambit of the group.  Membership in the group generates and grants fitness and reproductive success[efn_note]This ignores female choice in which a female will occasionally leave the group and mate with a male of a different group.  This is an entirely different motivation and is not considered here.[/efn_note] while the individual contributes via its behaviors to the durability and survival of the group.  The idea that individual survival is at least partly if not mostly dependent upon group survival led to this re-conceptualization: the sentinel, even the conspiracist, is a functional element of the social group, has a job to perform, and a temperament to suit.

The warrior also.  John Keegan observed that some men cannot be anything other than a warrior.  Why would this be?  The need for warriors is, hopefully, occasional yet the temperament is available at all times.  In the previous essay I told the ‘Alice Story’ about my neighbor who responded to the World Trade Tower destruction with the “desire to be of service.”  The warrior is a functional temperament within a social group, and while not permanently expressed, it may be released upon the perception of the correct trigger – imminent danger to the group.

And that led to the idea that a social group might have a characteristic temperament, vis, Sparta and Athens, two city-states with very different histories and temperament path dependencies.  Within those city states the temperament of the individuals was determined by the combination of genetics, epigenetics and learning.  The group molds the temperaments of the individuals comprising it.  The expressed temperament of the individual is functional within the needs and motivations of the group.

I then asked myself if the sentinel would be analogous to the eyes of the social group and the warrior to the muscles.  It was then only a short step to the idea that the social group was itself a functioning system and that temperaments were the attributes that mediated between the needs of the group and the function(s) of the individual.  In a social species the group, a set of individuals, is a higher-level system than the individual.  An individual is a functional element for the survival of the group just as an organ is a functional element within our bodies.  I can ask “what are the needs and motivations of the group?  How does the individual serve those needs?  And could the individuals together be the eyes, mind, and muscle of a system analogous to a body?  Are individuals part of an information system which has inputs, processing and outputs?”  I had arrived at Functional Social System Sociology.  It has been a long journey.

Thoughts From Yesterdays

I have used, and possibly overused, the trope “path dependency” by which I mean that today is, in some sense, the sum of all yesterdays.  In my thought yesterdays, there are many pieces that have summed into a new whole that incorporates those pieces and then reach out to grasp new thoughts, ideas and concepts and showing that they too are parts of the whole.  Here are some pieces, with a bit of editing and some additional material, of my yesterdays that sum into Functional Social System Sociology:

“Many more years ago than I want to think about, I wrote that urban gangs exhibited primitive small-scale group dynamics.  I thought of them as foraging hunter gatherers extracting resources from sources around them.  They exhibit strong group identity and protection, dominance structure, loyalty, and other tribal behaviors such as territoriality.  That is sociology rather than psychology.  Even then, maybe 20 years ago, I was reaching beyond the conventional sociology of individual ‘deviant behavior’ to the social group dynamics – functional system sociology – of a social species that produces those individuals.”

About a year ago, a video of a murmuration of starlings arrived in my email in-basket and I was immediately enchanted.  I did a bit of looking on the web and found that this complex behavior was controlled by a set of a few simple rules.[efn_note] [/efn_note]  We are not a flocking species: we are a social species with a preferred social group size (the Magic or Dunbar’s Number) and with characteristic behaviors.  But I thought that there were fundamental similarities between the flocking rules of the twilight flight of starlings and one of the survival rules of a foraging hunter gatherer of humans: “A social group needs to go in the same direction at the same time at the same speed and for the same reason.”

“H. sapiens is a social species with motivations that release behaviors that favor the individual, and motivations that release behaviors that favor the social group.  Those motivations may not be congruent, they may be very different and even conflicting.”

“The Christian religious canon has conceptualized salvation as occurring at the individual level.  Likewise, the Western intellectual canon conceptualizes survival and evolution as occurring at the individual level.  Both of these thus give priority to psychology.”  Visions of the individual standing before God on the Day of Judgment awaiting salvation or damnation have been depicted in art and written in many forms.  Evolution has been premised on differential individual  survival via advantageous traits developed by chance mutation as if evolution was the individual standing before survival awaiting its fate generated by those chance mutations.  Today our economics and politics are dominated by the individual.  Yet I write:

“Our brains were formed and forged within the ambit of a foraging hunter gatherer social group and the individual is a transient therein.  It is the group that survives through time so I am less interested individual psychology than in the group sociology thus prioritizing thinking about the functionality of groups – how they work and how they form individuals into functional units.  At one time I conceptualized sociology as a summation of individual psychologies.  I can now reverse this: sociology is the scaffold upon which individual psychology and temperament is constructed and within which it operates.  Psychology and sociology are mutual, but I will elevate sociology over psychology as more fundamental and powerful.  The individual must operate within the group for survival is in cooperation.  To be outside the group, outside cooperation and carinance, is to die with the loss of those genes demanding reproduction.”

“We were, on that African savannah, and still are in many aspects of our psychology and sociology, a prey species with needs for warnings of danger by the sentinel, and for group protection by the warrior.  In a group are individuals with a variety of temperaments comprised of their genetics, epigenetics, and their individual experiences and motivations.  Their temperaments will dispose them to take up and fulfill one of the social functions, sentinel, warrior or other such as the story teller around the fire in the long evenings, that are necessary for the survival of the group.”

“I build my model of survival upon the group within which we live, for our survival, particularly as youths, may depend upon others in the group – the sentinels and warriors, the food gathers and hunters, the caretakers and teachers.  Individual survival depends critically on the summed temperaments, motivations, abilities and knowledge of the individuals in the group.  To be outside the group is to be in greater danger of dying and of even higher importance, to lose the opportunity to reproduce.  It is the group that transcends and survives through time any individual in the group.  For a social species, fitness, whatever that is, let’s say ‘differential survival’, is both social and individual.”

Once I held the idea that as individuals, we were functional in a larger system with its own history, path dependency, motivations, and temperament, I immediately thought of analogous systems. Our liver and brains cannot live on their own, but together with all the other organs they form a functioning body – a system.  Cells in our body have much shorter lives than their organs and they are continually being replaced with no change in the organ or its operation – a system.  We give the microbes in our gut a protected environment and food, and in turn they process that food into a form they and we can utilize – a system.  Cells are comprised of functioning organelles which have different jobs and sum to a functioning whole– a system.  Our bodies, ourselves, are systems of the social group.  Systems have subsystems down to a very low level of organization.

If we as individuals are part of a functioning system, then how does it work, what does it need, what problems does it face and how does it solve them?  If individuals are analogous to organs, then how do we take up a specific function?  During the embryological development of the individual, cellular differentiation modifies the expression of the nuclear genes to form specialized organs.  There appears to be an analogous development of expressed temperaments and behaviors of the individual in the social group system to form specialized functional ‘organs.’

Temperament, Again

I remember in the mid-1980s, the ‘in’ trope was sharing.  We didn’t tell, we shared.  Some people would begin their verbal exudations with “let me share this with you.”  So, let me share something with you, something in my life that illustrates temperament and functionality.  I am the least sociable person I know of.  Introversion is my middle name and shy is my suffix.  One evening I entered our club meeting about 5 minutes late and the president pro-tem smoothly segued into “and here is our new president.”  Was I ever on the spot!  I stunned myself by walking to the front and taking over.  What else could I do?    I did not have a mentor or a role model and so had not learned how to be the leader.  I knew how to do it: how to bring out the quiet guys, how to end a pointless discussion, and how to quell disruptive side discussions.  I eventually served for ten years, did very well, and enjoyed myself.  I looked forward to every meeting.  But my underlying temperament did not change.  Outside of the functionality of leader, and once I stepped away from that role, I remained introverted and shy.  The socializing before and after the meeting was, and still is, difficult.  There was the social group need for a leader and I filled it with the necessary behaviors, but I remained the same fundamental temperament in the other respects.

There is more to be dissected from this story and it began with reading about regulation of the expression of genes.  The layman’s version goes something like this: the cells in my kidneys have the same genes in the nucleus of their cells as those in muscles of my fingertips, yet while my fingers are typing, my kidneys are filtering blood.  The expression of their genes is different, the proteins made on the templates provided by the genes are different, the cells types are different, the tissues made by the cells are different, and their functions are different.  There are inhibitory factors that prohibit the expression of some genes in specific cells of the body at some times and for some reasons.  Some of these factors are permanent, and some of them are variable and available to control the operation of the system under varying conditions.  A good example of the variable type would be the activation of a specific cell type in the immune system upon the perception of a foreign antibody or agent.  Activation of a particular gene is not a ‘turn on’ signal but a complex inverse system of ‘turn off the inhibitory factor that is currently inhibiting the expression of the gene:’ dis-inhibiting the inhibitor.

That last phrase, dis-inhibiting the inhibitor, is a general conceptual statement of one way to build a functional system.  It is a sophisticated version of cause and effect: the effect is mediated from its cause by a complex functional chain.  I got to wondering if this schema may have been used in our expression and regulation of temperament and behavior.  An individual has a complement of temperaments, and a typical pattern of expression.  Some of them are held in reserve and their expression is released by the dis-inhibition of an inhibiting factor.  In the case of my club story, my leadership potential is there available for use and normally inhibited – that is, I do not normally seek leadership in any form whatsoever.  But under some social conditions it is released and I take control of the group and its collective behavior.  I can toggle from reserved and shy sitting quietly in the audience to confident leader enjoying talking and leading.