Social entropy theory: an accidental exposition of systems thinking at the park

Though we can characterize social systems by the relationship patterns that emerge from non-random orientations of system elements with a view to organizing, very few social systems frameworks adequately intuit the ends to which the system is organizing in the first place. These ends are quite distinct from the value neutral organizing principles of social systems themselves, meaning, the longevity (or even survivability) of the system should not be conflated with the ultimate goals underpinning its organizing functions. System longevity, in the context of the intent, purpose, or need for systems, can instead be interpreted as a value that is ascribed by a myriad of contextual factors (culture, economics, conflict etc…). This is to say that the ultimate meaning of a system is socially constructed, and though meaning is salient to our understanding of the how, why, where, and when systems emerge (social context), it is necessarily distinct from our understanding of the concrete and relationship properties of systems as entities themselves. All that said, and setting aside the socially constructed meaning behind systems for a moment, any system that emerges must constitute a counter relationship to something else. Hypothesizing the nature of those counter relationships illuminates the crucial distinction between contemporary social systems theory and its forebears, namely, the transposition of equilibrium with non-equilibrium as a dominant, counter-mediating force. Understood as an organizing principle, equilibrium (or homeostasis) assumes that social systems tend towards order as a default, or natural state. In this way, disorder is property that is introduced into the system by a host of human and non-human elements. Though empirically valuable (an equilibrium model lends itself to predictability), the epistemological shortcomings of this closed model of social systems are manifest, and ultimately led to widespread criticism of functionalist systems theory’s deterministic and teleological underpinnings. In practical terms, the pursuit of a predictive model based on the principle of equilibrium emphasized the primacy of abstract, role focused social systems that dispensed with the study of materiality and individual agency. In doing so, it precluded consideration of key socio-technological relationships that inform the ways in which individuals can overcome, or counter, dominant system forces. Non-equilibrium based models, contrastingly, assume that social systems tend towards disorganization as a default state, processing energy and information with a view to organizing against entropic forces. The distinction here represents more than an epistemological shell game, as by accepting disorganization as the default trend in social systems we can more descriptively account for the structuring influence of individuals (exercising agency) over role/structure, and the apparent ability of social systems to mediate their internal complexity by processing varying levels of energy and information (employing technologies etc..). Non-equilibrium models do not preclude the emergence of equilibrium in social systems, nor do they frame absolute equilibrium as plausible state. Rather, they frame equilibrium as a countering force to non-equilibrium (entropy), achieved to varying degrees depending on the nature of the social system (though never absolutely), and emerging from purposeful and organized action that is predicated on a system’s ability to process energy and information.

A leisurely picnic in the park illuminates this principle of non-equilibrium analysis by allowing us to intuit the organizing principles of the system in relation to maintaining non-equilibrium below maximum (keeping entropy at a manageable level). The vehicles, food, lawn chairs, toys and blankets all represent a range of material resources employed by the family with a view to sustaining their afternoon in the park. In the context of non-equilibrium analysis, these resources represent key energy and information processing relationships which enable the system to organize itself. In this case, the food providing energy, the chairs providing a place to sit, and the toys providing an activity focus for the children – all representative of system resource properties that help to maintain non-equilibrium at manageable levels. As the children went about a game of tag, they did so under the watch of two of the female adult members of the group. If one strayed too far into the brush, or became too rambunctious with the others, one of the adults would quickly step – the system (re)organizing itself against emergent disorder. My systems interpretive framing of the family picnic contains some concluding, but important observation regarding the interrelationships between neighbouring systems. In this case, between the family I observed and my own. As my focus drifted towards the family going about their activities, I nearly overlooked the amazement that overcame our 2.5 year-old son who was himself eagerly observing the children playing. Looking back towards us for moment (with an approval seeking glance), Sebastian proceeded to approach the group of children with caution. Having taken notice of our son’s desire to join their game of tag (though I’m certain he’s never actually played tag before), the children themselves looked towards the adults in their own group for similar approval. Sebastian’s eagerness belied the fact that he did not, in fact, know how to play tag. The older children guided him in his efforts with simple instructions and physical coaxing; stand here… count to 10… now run and catch us. One of the adult females, assuming more of a mentoring role, taught Sebastian what it meant to be “it.” When Sebastian’s unfamiliarity with the game seemed to slow down its pace, the second adult female offered him words of encouragement, as well as direction to the older children to “slow down.” This innocent scenario illuminates the porosity (the openness) of social system boundaries to external elements, energy and information exchange, as well as the ways in which system closure is maintained by the unique relationship patterns that bind any given system’s elements together. As two neighbouring, but seemingly distinct systems, our groups nonetheless experienced the interrelationship that can emerge between systems when elements are shared. Sebastian’s interaction with the family provided an interesting example of the ways in which social systems dynamically organize themselves in maintaining levels of non-equilibrium, as well as evidence of the co-determinant, structuring relationship between individuals and systems. Sebastian’s sudden and unexpected presence within the system (within its spatial and relationship boundaries) represented the sudden introduction of non-equilibrium (emergent disorder). This immediately resulted in an organizing system response, with individuals employing different resources in an effort to manage the apparent increase in disorder (the children including Sebastian in their game, the adults constraining the pace of the game). The system itself did not fail, pointing to its success in maintaining non-equilibrium below maximum, yet it was noticeably changed nonetheless. By informing changes in the characterization of the system he joined, Sebastian himself assumed a co-determinant, structuring role within that system. Alternatively, the system’s response to Sebastian’s presence (mentoring him on the game), informed subsequent changes within our son as an individual – the system informed a structuring influence on him.