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How societies react to change

How societies react to change

Summary: Societies and social groups are much more cohesive, more unified in their response to events than the psychological types and individual predispositions of their members would lead us to expect. Consensus comes far more often than might be expected. Disagreement is much more orderly than the underlying variation amongst individuals would suggest. The behaviour of the group has a focus and a strength of its own. This expresses itself in many way, not least in the way in which the collective comes to understand and react to events. This paper reviews the notion of the "narrative", the interpretation which members of a society share in common. Such narratives vary sharply between nations and groups, and are therefore important in understanding how societies react to change. We look at how narratives evolve, influence institutions, reinforce themselves and undergo crisis. We review these thoughts in the light of interventions aimed at increasing stability and economic potential.



People can be "typed" by psychometric testing. That is, looking at the way in which a large number of people answer a standard set of questions allows one to determine statistical clusters amongst them. Technically, this is explained by there being "dimensions" of personality, such as introversion-extroversion, which offer a scale along which every person represents a point. (Or more properly, a circumscribed range.) Two such dimensions create a plane, so each person is then represented by a dot, a point that records their score on one dimension and on the other. Such dots tend to cluster together, creating "types". The plane is referred to as the "space" in which personalities vary. A typical survey will find four or five such dimensions, and the resulting four or five dimensional space provides a framework within which the members of the sample cluster as clouds or scattered dots.

Such a representation gives one a way of looking at human societies. One can, of course, ask three questions about the difference between societies when they are viewed in this manner. First, do they all have the same dimensions: do their inhabitants live in the same space? They do. Second, are there meaningful differences in the distribution of the points across this common space that reflect national differences? It turns out that there are some relatively small distinctions, but that the variation amongst people is much greater within any one nation that the average of them differs between nations.

This raises a real and important question. If the fundamental predispositions of the people who are encountered across the world are much the same, then why are nations themselves so very distinctive? Why do specific types - domineering extroverts, perhaps - gain so strong a voice in one nation, but are hushed into a corner in another? The very real distinctions which exist between societies appear to occur at a level of organisation which transcends individual preferences. This paper is concerned with how this occurs. (Please note a distinct but related issue around the fact of national stereotypes, which is discussed here.)

Narratives and institutions

Narratives and institutions

The conventional way of thinking about how societies make up their minds this uses the idea of "narratives", and sets this in opposition to the fact of institutions. When used in this sense, a narrative signifies a shared interpretation that a group of people have about their world. Such a story may be comprehensive or not, and may be either fully internally consistent or a ragbag of acquired opinion. It may focus on the individual or the group, and it may be predicated on explanations of adversity or prescriptions for success. Although frequently religious in tone, such stories may be entirely secular. (A further paper discusses national stereotypes, a particular and very significant type of narrative.)

What distinguishes a secular, consistent narrative from an objective, scientific description of what happens to be the case is, chiefly, the degree of challenge and renewal to which it is exposed. Scientific descriptions are a peculiar subset of overall narratives, too particular, technical and separate from daily life to be entirely useful. Narratives, by contrast, are smoothly integrated with daily life, and are held in common with many of the people with whom an individual will have to deal. They simplify, and they plainly work.

Narratives are useful, therefore, in that they bundle huge amounts of complexity into workable ways of thinking. These range from "how a person like me should behave" to a statement of corporate strategy, to scenarios about the future, to religious view and to what a given society regards as ethical or wicked. They are essentially social, shared amongst many people as a way of managing transactions: "you are this kind of person and I am that; and so we both know immediately that transactions between us should be constrained to look as follows". Readers from the industrial West who have gone shopping in regions where haggling over prices is commonplace will know the unease and uncertainty that accompanies the simplest of expeditions. That unease comes from having to arrive at an accommodation with an unfamiliar narrative, of how shopkeepers should behave towards their clients.

Institutions, by contrast, are formal structures which have been established in a society in order to manage its affairs. The law, the other engines of government, property rights and corporate governance are all examples of institutions, without which complexity cannot be managed and societies fail or fall into the exercise of brute force. (Some commentators have used the term "tacit institutions" to mean much the same as the word narrative, as discussed above.) Institutions have their own narratives - generic tales of what they are about, their ethos and history - and their justification to society is grounded in terms of narratives of this sort.

Let us look at an example. Societies which create mechanisms for social subsidy and support of the poor and afflicted almost always subscribe to narratives which are concerned with compassion. Societies which do not hold these views do not create such structures. Most people have lived - and currently do live - in exactly such societies. The Roman civilisation, for example, saw compassion as a personal weakness unless used specifically by the powerful as an element of policy and control. It is easy to project the narratives of one's society - and particularly of one's formal institutions, such as 'democracy', onto others; and with danger of self-deception onto others who do not share these assumptions. Children's' stories which anthropomorphise animals, popular histories which project contemporary values onto those who lived centuries earlier may be harmless or may have unfortunate consequences, but they are surely delusions.

It is, therefore, the stories which we tell ourselves that define the formal structures and informal regularities which underlie our societies. Formal systems tend to spend effort in promulgating their stories, as do elites which have captured resources and power. The weight of history and of what we have learned as children underpins our views of power and property, equality and amity, gods and enemies. The more integrated a set of stories becomes, and the more patrolled the orthodoxy, the more we tend to see this not merely as our way of seeing the world, but as the only valid way of doing so.

One theme of Western foreign policy has been to try to raise the institutional standards of developing countries, and to break the power of oppressive regimes over their populations. Plainly, to have systems that work is better than to have institutions which do not; and it is easy to show the objective harm done by, for example, corruption. There are some starkly awful regimes that are run either for the benefit of the ruler or an elite, to the detriment of the population as a whole.

To a Western eye, therefore, there is a logic to this situation which is implicit in its narrative. This predicates a desirable outcome on, roughly speaking, the weighted, long-term greatest good for the greatest number. Additionally, there is a concern about the stability of malfunctioning or oppressive states, coupled to a strong feeling that a world of nine billion will need stable and predictable societies if it is to be viable.

Into this chain of assumption and inference slips the easy conclusion, which is that with a little outside help, each of these societies can move from their present situation into a outcome in which they become more or less aligned with the Western narrative. Such an alignment is seen to be 'natural', a necessary outcome of the situation. This is, of course, counter to much of what we have already learned. One is reminded of Professor Higgins' song in the musical My Fair Lady: "Why can't a woman be more like a man?" Or an Iraqi be more like a model US cit zen..?

Those raised in a Western narrative tend to fall into the 'error of perfectibility', so much favoured by the British Victorians, whereby all societies will inevitably evolve to some common shining city on the hill. This can only occur if the diverse national narratives come into alignment. The West tends to see itself as having an innately correct, enlightened and successful narrative and to assume, therefore, that others will see their error and fall into alignment with this. This model, which is as old as human society, is not without its dangers. It does, however, over-simplify and important feature of how narratives change.

How narratives change

How narratives change

There are, essentially, three ways in which such a self-contained narrative can be altered: evolution, hybridisation and disruption. The evolution of an unchallenged narrative is usually towards ever-stronger internal coherence. Hybridisation, by contrast, borrows elements from other narratives, and this process has been extremely important in the development of the European societies. Asian and Asiatic themes have been mixed with the loosely coupled, but largely isolated agrarian societies that eventually fused into the complex bouillabaisse that is European culture today.

Disruption tends to come in two forms. In the first, a culture meets circumstances in which its narrative fails: the soils become saline, a conqueror arrives over the horizon and none of the old recipes work in dealing with this. The narrative is disrupted, being replaced by that of the invader, or by whatever else is on offer. Japan, for example, changed its narrative at least four times from the Meiji restoration to the establishment of democracy after World War II. Russia and Germany both fumbled through as many narratives during the Twentieth century.

The second form of disruption is chiefly driven by human capital, technology and access to information. It occurs when new capabilities make former limits irrelevant, and render obsolete the narratives that have been constructed about these. The most obvious expression of this occurs when agrarian societies, ruled by a small elite, evolve an urban scholastic and mercantile middle class and generate a surplus sufficient for large scale investment. Safe verities about the natural order dissolve in the new realities of independent thought and action, competition and wealth. This said, the unprecedented expansion in all three of these driving forces make this form of disruption the dominant influence on how narratives are to change in the next few decades.

The likely evolution of narratives

The likely evolution of narratives

The way that the world is likely to develop over the next few decades will provide ample challenges to our existing narratives. There will be more voices, more options, more information, more competitive pressure, more connections between previously isolated domains of experience. Some narratives will be disrupted, and some will prove resilient.

Narrative resilience is a measure of how strongly the forces of change are mitigated by an extant way of looking at the world. The Western narrative has proven extraordinarily resilient, for example, engrossing and adapting ideas from every source. The Nineteenth century model of capital and trade has changed in almost every aspect, yet retains its core mechanisms - the marketplace, competition, innovation - whilst grafting all manner of additions onto these. Be contrast, equally powerful contemporary religious narratives have been diluted, vitiated and reduced in both their perceived relevance and actual power.

The sources of resilience are not understood. It is clear, however, that resilient narratives are those which are widely shared within a society - as opposed to being held by a single class, or by a minority interest. They are renewed across generations. They have powerful propagandists, either in the shape of social groups or formal institutions. Most of all, perhaps, they contribute to positive outcomes for those who hold them, in a truly Darwinian manner. It is the narrative, not history, which is written by the victors. The marriage of science with commerce has, in particular, brought a strong analytical thread into Western debate which aligns explanations of what works with what actually does work.

Societies with resilient narratives usually have the confidence to allow dissent. That is, the dominant narrative is not merely tested, but surrounded by a cloud of latent or 'pretender' narratives, which may be minor variations on the theme. Consider the narrative transition from all that is implied by 'shareholder value' to its extension to 'corporate and social responsibility (CSR)'. It is not that nobody was talking about CSR in the 1990s, or the need to recognise shareholders as the owner of an enterprise a decade earlier. Rather, these ideas were present in a subliminal form, pushed by individual advocates, and bloomed into general awareness when circumstances were appropriate for them to do so. A managed diversity is a further flag of a resilient narrative.

The way in which this filtration of ideas works has been called the "battle of the memes". There is a close analogy which this has with biological evolution, eloquently popularised by Dawkins. (The word "meme" was invented by Dawkins to signify the cultural or narrative equivalent of a gene.) Subsequent computer modelling has demonstrated how this may work, and network analysis has shown how, in fact, ideas and new products do propagate through a population.

The analogy with evolution should also show us how unlikely the emergence of a social monoculture is likely to be. There is no one species that dominates the planet, and it is unlikely that there ever has been or will be one such. (A paper here explores this in more detail.) Neither organisms nor societies evolve to a common outcome, merely a variety of ways of dealing with common opportunities and constraints.

Poorly resilient narratives, by contrast, exhibit the negative of all of these features. They are a monoculture, suppressing all rivals. They are held by minorities, or those without power. They are forgotten by the young. They were set up to meet a momentary challenge, which has faded from relevance. Imperial narratives no longer have much to say to contemporary Britain. Most of all, however, they do not contribute to the well-being of their adherents.

We have already noted the many sources of disruption which the next few decades will bring. At issue, therefore, is to what a poorly resilient narrative evolves if it becomes disrupted by any of the mechanisms that have already been described. There are three generic outcomes: assimilation, re-interpretation and armouring.

Those assimilated simply take on a different way of seeing, either across the spectrum of their experience or in specific areas. This is the necessary outcome of, for example, contact between an isolated tribe and the full force of the industrial powers. Either they have no model at all by which to interpret what is happening to them, or they adopt a more or less simplified - and, alas, usually debased - version the one on offer.

Re-interpretation is a common outcome where the balance of forces is more equal. That is, a significant thing has happened which does not fit with the old way of thinking. One has, therefore, both to alter the former approach and also to retain some of its dignity. A common response is to see the old way as an impossibly nave but noble perspective, to be redeemed from attack by a renewed outlook.

Two examples of this are as follows. First, the late Nineteenth century idealisation of 'working people', and the identification of predatory groups who had to be resisted or overthrown in their defence. New Jerusalems were to be built to the ideal once the sources of disruption had been purged. Second, the evolution of radical Islam following the dismemberment of the (Islamic) Ottoman empire and its replacement by European mandates under the League of Nations. The umma was faced with invaders who not only had economic and technological superiority, but also a strong narrative of their own worthiness as 'civilisers' of an area previously noted for its civilisations.

The results of this were very complex, but one thread is that of radical fundamentalism. One cannot renounce Islam, but the new thought was that excessive assimilation with the new narratives from the West constituted apostasy. The Muslim Brotherhood, in particular, arrived at the notion that the umma could be purified by killing not merely formal apostates, but those "Westintoxicated" by such assimilation. This led to mass killings in Algeria, for example, and lower-key but widespread murder across the Islamic world. People were supposed to be shocked out of delusions and into the third response mode, which is 'armouring'.

Armouring is a word taken from psychoanalysis, and refers to the defensive mental posture taken by people who cannot reconcile their inner drives and external circumstances. The put on, as it were, a suit of armour, shielding the two worlds from each other. This takes substantial overheads, and whilst it is acknowledged that everyone needs some element of dissimulation in order to get along with others, a permanent dislocation between what one is and what one wants to seem to be in not a recipe for ease or happiness. Much the same is true of societies.

An armoured society is one which has an Official Truth, a narrative propagated to the exclusion of any other, behind which all manner of contradictory events occur. Totalitarian states often operate in this way, as do - in the experience of the author - many corporations. Such societies are anxious, and greatly concerned with propriety, good form and status. They are not eager to reconsider the basic issues on which their well-being depends: in the case of companies, with economic or competitive fundamentals, and in the case of societies, with what the morrow may bring to their borders. Indeed, they are extremely keen to deny the existence of such challenges or to blame them on enemies. They dance on a thin, tight crust under which nobody much cares to look.

Armoured societies, whether they be theocracies battling with the Twenty-first century or medieval monarchies trying to see off a merchant middle class, are operating under great pressure. Narratives can consciously match what appears to be the case - and accept, at the very least, the cold winds of a universe which appears not to care - or they can seek comforting human truths, at the expense of adaptability.

There are, of course, other 'quality parameters' to the narrative integrity of a society, but this particular balance is crucial in armoured societies. It implies that the longer (and the further) that they neglect the adaptive aspect, the more extreme will be the adjustment eventually forced upon them.

In psychology, such adjustments tend to be a scattering rather than an annealing: that is, the patient does not come to terms with the internal and external contradictions as a whole, but rather fragments their life into parts where they continue to armour themselves and into other parts in which they let their hair down and party. Societies which try to do this will however fragment, as has been evident in many Islamic countries here fundamentalism has gone too far for the majority to accept. The result is a society-within-a-society, agitating against the wishes of the majority and fighting with all its forces against narrative re-interpretation. This affords the same overheads as unresolved neurosis does to an individual.

looking forward

looking forward

The 1960s Hippie movement took a then-common television error message to coin the phrase: "Don't adjust your head. There's a fault in reality." There will be few people on Earth who do not have to adjust the head in the next few decades. Not a few of them are going to find this difficult to achieve. What happens then depends entirely on the narratives on offer to them: they may feel themselves isolated individuals, or part of a massive protest movement against change. However, the combination of demographics, information technology and an entrepreneurial approach to politics suggests that at least some aspects of this will depend as much on trans-national solidarity groups as it does on national movements. Contemporary environmental and women's rights movements may signal this different kind of society-within-a-society.

It may well be that narrative-disrupting technologies (in biology, in cognitive science and computing, for example) find themselves under siege. It will certainly be the case that visible targets - such as major corporations, leading economies and international agencies - will be convenient entities against which to react.

Attitudes have been mapped in the transition from low income, low awareness states in agrarian societies to the most open and educated of societies. In broad terms, the portfolio of expressed attitudes alters along this in a fairly predictable sequence. Traditional narratives give way to bewilderment; bewilderment to single-dimension explanations of what has changed (re-interpretation, armouring); and from there into consumerism and other more structured approaches. (See here for more on this.) Many people are going to move considerable distances along this axis in the next generation. As we have seen, their destination depends on the stories which they tell to themselves, and which others make accessible to them.

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