April 12, 2018

Social Technologists Must Be Powerful Leaders

Sociology the way we think of it here is the study of social technology for the purposes of engineering. Engineering is about practical effects. The domain of the effects is the organization of society. The ability to affect the organization of society is social power.

People tend to be very uncomfortable with social power as a concept, and those who talk about it much are regarded with suspicion. To some degree, this is understandable; many of our most salient experiences with power are of power being abused or applied badly. Positive experience with power tends to fade into the background and be almost invisible. Further, mainstream cultural ideology regards power as something illegitimate, or something to be distributed to vague abstractions like “the people”.

This is unfortunate, because social power is very real and very important. If we can’t think and talk about something, we can’t get better at understanding how to organize and use it. Indeed this seems to be one of the roots of the pathologies of our society: no one thinks clearly about power, so the power structures of our society are all in disarray. Our broken power structures cause lots of problems and perpetuate the myth that power is bad.

We think that power can be organized and used very positively. It is the glue that sticks social structure together and creates a strong social fabric. But to get these benefits, we need to be able to study power clearly, and that requires putting our prejudices and idealism aside and studying power through the hard lens of science.

Social power can be fine-grained, or coarse grained:

  • Fine grained social power is the ability to precisely modify the behaviors and beliefs of specific people or local groups of people. Usually this is a consentual and positive relationship, but not always. If we were to measure fine grained social power, it would be measured in complexity of intervention. What complexity of social structure or behavior change can you build? For example, a leader of a company needs fine grained social power to build company culture, aim people at the right problems, and organize them.

  • Coarse grained social power is the ability to achieve large social effects at large scale. If we were to measure it, it would be measured in size of impact. For example, a celebrity may be able to influence many people to vote, buy a specific product, read a book, or change their opinion on some subject. A king may be able to dictate what is prestigious in society.

These are not entirely distinct, but building social technology of any kind requires fine grained social power. If you are building something, you need to be able to delicately arrange a substantial number of pieces, the pieces being people’s action patterns and beliefs. This requires the ability to execute a complex intervention with some precision on a group of people.

The ability, specifically the skill, to influence people on a fine grain, and put them where you want them, and the ability to acquire this authority, is part of the skill of leadership. So to be a sociologist who actually builds social technology, and doesn’t just study it, one has to be a good leader.

Control over resources, human or otherwise, is useful. Thus it tends to be contentious: there are multiple actors who would like to exert control over any given set of resources. Multiple people or groups contend for the loyalty and leadership of useful people.

If there are multiple, say two, actors who could influence some people or other region of coordinatable resources, then there are a few states this system can be in:

  1. First, both could be trying to coordinate those people or resources. Confusion and disorder ensues in these cases. Construction of social technology, which is the carrying out of a complex plan, is not possible when there are multiple actors trying to plan the use of the same resources. Their plans conflict and violate each other’s assumptions.

  2. Second, they can fight and/or negotiate over the resources. The focus shifts from exerting control to securing control. They may try to directly fortify control, attack the other’s systems of control, inflict retaliatory pain, or make threats of such. Construction of some social technology is possible, but when fighting is going on, this ability tends to be used for military and political purposes rather than outside goals. The fight eventually resolves with one side having control, or with some partition of the resources.

  3. Third, they can be in a peace where the resources are either partitioned, or exclusively controlled. The peace can be achieved by either a truce, or the sides having achieved positive exclusion of the other from their domains, or a combination. In this state, it is finally possible to build social technology.

In order to gain and maintain secure control over human resources, besides leadership we therefore also need the skill set of playing this power game. This skillset we can call “political skill” or “power skill”.

Leadership and power skill are very closely related, and rely on each other. But they are distinct. Leadership must keep a vigilant eye on its political control, and to achieve that control, a degree of leadership is needed to organize the systems of defense and offense.

These are some bare prerequisites of sociological skill: to be able to acquire, defend, and organize human resources. The skills of power and leadership. Once secure ability to organize people is achieved, one can worry about what systems of social technology to build.

So students of social technology, when the time comes for practical exercises, should set their sights on gaining the skills of power and leadership, actualized in the ability to build an empire for themselves.

Again, this is all framed in more machiavellian and adversarial terms than we are used to using. In practice, one thinks in more positive terms, but the clear value free frame is a more convenient language in which to describe the fundamentals.


Edited and curated by Wolf Tivy

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