Human society can be viewed as a system. Within the bounds of this system the logic that governs how society works and unfolds can be scrutinized, characterized, and analyzed. Systems behave according to the logic of the interaction of their component parts, and this can be talked about in terms of patterns and processes. Myself, I am interested in discovering what the most salient, consequential, or interesting patterns and processes are in our societies and human groupings. 

Calling something a “system” does not have to make it impersonal. It is, though, a declaration that one plans to be scientific – with all that that entails. Parallel to investigating how society works, I focus on human welfare and a goal of positive social change. Framing problems in order to help solve them is one thing I undertake in The Power Conundrum: Exploring the Puzzle of How to Reclaim a Democracy and on the pages of this site.

Of the many things that we could track or evaluate in society, the social system feature that I concentrate on is the distribution of power. I define power as a quantitative measure of our ability to influence the cultural and natural environment around us. There are many factors that play into how much power individuals have, and the resultant distribution of that power has major implications for things like social justice and environmental integrity.

In the pages of The Power Conundrum I illustrate how and why democracy is a difficult thing to both achieve and to maintain. The relative equality of power that defines democracy is, I conclude, an unstable state that can gravitate toward inequality. I suggest that among the most consequential social system patterns in history is that the acquisition of power follows positive feedback logic: the more power one has, the more power one can get. This idea frames the “puzzle” of how to sustain a healthy democracy. It is also the basis for the conundrum of my book’s title: if power can lead to more and yet more power, then how can the less-powerful in a society ever hope to catch up?

When we refer to something as a “problem” it is important to be clear about whose problem it is. Much like externalized costs in economics, my feeling is that most of the talked-about problems in society are, in fact, the fallout from certain people getting their own plans and wishes fulfilled. This brings us to the importance of the equitable distribution of influence and power. If power in a country is spread equally through a population, then there should be a minimum of dissatisfaction and of problems – since people will choose things that they favor and benefit from. Is it possible that almost everything we, in the United States – or we, in the world – call a “problem” is due to the inability of people to adequately advocate for their own welfare? To put it plainly, are the country’s and the world’s problems due primarily to overly powerful people running the show for their own benefit? This is not a new idea, but it is the bedrock of why democratic decision-making is as important as it is. Name a major problem, follow this reasoning, and you will see the pattern.

The repercussions of concentrated power lead in many directions. Money and power have the ability to shape what people believe, and also what they value. These are primary factors in determining how people act. A capacity of powerful individuals to influence our knowledge, beliefs, and values is a major component in the system of society and is part of the feedback loop mentioned above.

One thing we are after in a science of society is a sound approach to explaining everything humans create. This covers a wide spectrum from the singular acts of an individual to emergent phenomena that are the product of vast complexity. At the base of all of this is the human being as active element or agent. Also at the base is the environment in which we act. Everything is built up from there. Because of this span from the simple to the complex it only makes sense that a range of analytical tools are needed to understand society. These tools fall to pursuits such as agent-based modeling, game theory, economics, systems thinking, multi-level selection theory, psychology, and dual-inheritance theory, to name a few. Fortunately, I believe the most important factors at work in shaping the world today are relatively easy to explain.

Entries on the linked blog are meant to further develop and explore ideas presented here and in The Power Conundrum. The material will straddle the worlds of social science and social change. For the time being I have not enabled comments to posts, but welcome emails.

About myself:

I have always been interested to hear people reflect on how a particular teacher, mentor, book, or experience in life was pivotal in shaping their future path. In my case there was actually one book – given as a gift – that had such an outsized role. The book was a portrait of the then relatively new Santa Fe Institute, written by a curious journalist. Reading about the specific projects and passions of the Institute’s members there were two ideas that rocked my reality. The first was simply the notion of self-organization. The second was that that organizing can include the wholly different outcomes which result from either positive feedback or negative feedback. These simple conceptual tools gave me new lenses with which to reconsider the universe around me and, in particular, the human-created world. A detour to finish a bachelors degree in cell and molecular biology provided what, for me, felt like indispensable insight into the workings of the natural world. Thus was launched the thinking that you will find in The Power Conundrum.

Stephen Shaw