Monthly Archives: September 2012

Why Observers?

With the realization in mind that a notion of a multitude of non-person observers in society is rather unintuitive and requires in-depth explanations in most cases (one of which I attempt in this blog), why would we even start such a complicated endeavor in the first place? Why not just stick with the seemingly obvious notion of statements about the reality of society?

My personal answer is that the attempt is motivated by the concern that if observers remain unobserved, the notion of objectivity becomes plausible. This can lead to a situation where statements are postulated as equally binding for every possible addressee, without requiring any responsibility from the originator of the statement. In this blog, I will analyze such statements in an attempt to make explicit some underlying social structures which point back towards the observer of a statement that was supposed to be objective. Of course, all of this has already been explained to us by Heinz von Foerster. Yet, unimpressed, society and primarily language endorse statements that claim to be objective, and they also mostly neglect the social preconditions on which such statements are built.

This is not intended as a naive attempt to change the way society behaves. Instead, the focus is on adding another observer perspective, no more important than any other, but one that is directed towards the social functioning of the preconditions that lead to statements in society. The observer is, then, the ultimate precondition for a statement, yet he fascinatingly manages to stay out of the picture in many social phenomena. Presumably, this paradox is no accident, but indeed servers powerful social functions. We will come back to this later.

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The Form of the Distinction

One of the main advancements in recent communication and systems theory is the notion that communication is concerned with distinctions. Gregory Bateson’s description of information as a “difference that makes a difference” to a system (in his “Steps to an Ecology of Mind”) can, on an abstract level, also be found in Shannon and Weaver’s information theory (“The Mathematical Theory of Communication”), separating a signal carrying information from noise in the channel, as well as from other possible information. Niklas Luhmann then built his sociological systems theory (explicated e.g. in his “Social Systems”) on two sets of differences: Firstly, he described society as being differentiated by distinctions between functional systems, such as the economy, judicial system, or religions. Secondly, within these systems, he made out codes of distinctions in operational communication. Examples include distinctions between payment and non-payment for the economy, or lawful and unlawful for the judicial system.

The analysis of distinctions is depending on a clear and effective way to express the distinctions it wants to take into the focus of research. Language as a medium is not optimal for this, as it does not allow for the parallel expression of multiple distinctions at once, and it has no way to include the implicit other side of its statements, i.e. to say what is not said or to write the unwritten. In this sense, language is inherently positive, to the extent that even a negative statement is positive in its negativity. In order to gain the ability to discuss the other side of what is made explicit in communication, Niklas Luhmann already started to visualize distinctions using a notation developed by George Spencer Brown in his “Laws of Form”. There, the basic form of the distinction is visualized as follows:

The form of the distinction.

The form of the distinction.

The form on the right hand side of the equation sign is shorthand for a full enclosure being separated from the outside. It can – and regularly is – be represented by circles or squares, or any other form that is fully closed. However, this shorthand is convenient when it comes to more complex forms, with multiple layers of differentiation affecting each other. It is important to note, though, that this shorthand still represents a full separation between an inside and an outside. In his Laws of Form, Spencer Brown writes that “distinction is perfect continence”. This means that what is on the inside of a distinction is only on the inside, and definitely not to be found on the outside of the distinction. Moreover, what is on the inside of a distinction is fully enclosed by the distinction, and cannot itself be separated to be partly inside and partly outside of it. For this, further distinctions, and therefore further observations, would be required.

Dirk Baecker (e.g. in his “Form und Formen der Kommunikation”) then used the calculus proposed by Spencer Brown for the analysis of complex social phenomena, including the notion of the reentry, to which we will come in detail later. But first of all, I want to locate the analyses I will attempt in this blog in the tradition of communication theories viewing communication as being comprised of distinctions rather than humans, persons, or actors.

Observations and Distinctions

What, then, is an observation? I have mentioned some obvious examples in the previous posts, such as explicit judgements or whether or not something fits into a certain category. One thing all examples have in common is that they provide a distinction, separating different areas of meaning. In the case of a judgement, this could be good from bad, cheap from expensive, fast from slow, etc.

But is this really the end of it? For an observation, do we need to make the other side explicit as well? I would argue that this is not the case. For any observation, it is usually enough to just state that something is good, bad, cheap, expensive, or indeed fitting a certain category. It is, however, not necessary to make explicit the opposite, i.e. to specify what exactly is not good, not bad, not cheap, not expensive, and not fitting the category. This can remain unspecific and only be made explicit upon request, e.g. when a judgement is challenged by an opposing observation. Then, however, such an explication will have to be viewed as a separate, additional observation. In the meantime, while the other side of the original observation is left unspecified, the observer attributed with the observation is implicitly accountable for the other side as well. After all, it was this observer who made the distinction between the two sides in the first place, so he can be expected to know both and make the implicit other side of what he communicated explicit if necessary.

One could even go so far to say that, indeed, the observer is the distinction, insofar as the distinction is entirely accounted to him, and he in turn is also defined by the distinctions he makes in communication. In communication, the observer is entirely invested in the distinction he makes in his observation. If he wanted to pull away from it, he would have to bring in another observer to whom the distinction could be attributed. However, this would then be another, different observation, separating the actual observer from the attributed observer. In this second observation, the actual observer would again be fully invested to the extent that he could be identified as the distinction itself. In cybernetic theory, this is known as the constant oscillation between observations of the first order (observations of an actual observer), and of the second order (observations one actual observer can make of other observations). We will come back to this.

Limits of Social Observation

I have postulated below that social observers are not equal to persons, and that, moreover, the notion of persons is primarily a social construction. This social construction is, again, not the same as the individual, i.e. the idea we have of a human organism turned loose in the world and making its own observations, assumptions, and mistakes. This individual and billions like it can exist, yet society does not know of it. The observations made by individuals, their feelings and intentions, cannot be observed directly by society. Instead, society has to make use of descriptions to find common grounds with which its participants can work. But any individual observation that does not fit such a common ground also does not have the effect on society this individual may have expected.

This does not mean that all of society has to agree on views expressed in communication, or on facts reported by a scientist, for example. Rather, the agreement has to cover the statements suitability for the category into which it was placed by being communicated – e.g. being an expression of religious faith or findings from a study on the breeding habits of tropical birds. Only when deemed suitable can the observation serve a social function, for example of strengthening a religious community, or furthering an ornithological discourse.

Observations that either are not communicated at all or cannot successfully be placed in a category recognized by society are not social observations. The reference of all observations I will discuss in this blog is, therefore, society, and the subjects are topics of discourse in communication. As a result, they are also accessible by taking part in communication, so any member of society can somehow understand them and, in turn, add another perspective as social observer.

What are Social Observers?

The obvious answer is that they are that which observes within society. But this definition is not very elucidating. It is tempting to answer that persons fit this description. After all, they can be seen as part of, or even constituting society, and they can also be seen as observers, giving accounts of processes within society. However, sociological systems and network theory has worked on the deconstruction of such notions of personhood during the past decades. It has shown that persons are indeed social constructions, nothing that can be observed to exist outside of society. Niklas Luhmann and Harrison C. White, for example, have both suggested to look at persons not as the constituting elements of society, but as one among different forms of constructions living inside of it. Luhmann has argued that society is made from communication only. It follows from this that anything attributed to society is also made from communication only. This would include the notion of persons, but also organizations, nation states, functional sytems such as religions, or, very generally, concepts and discourses.

Social observers are, then, observers within communication. As phenomena, we can have a look at communicated observations, and then investigate how they are attributed to specific observers. Obvious cases of communicated observations include newspaper articles, explicit judgements, or insults. In these phenomena, something specific is taken into focus, and then a certain stance is taken towards them. They are observed as belonging to a more or less defined category. And the observation is usually attributed to another social entity, the observer, who has to assume responsibility for it. Such observations could also be described as social perspectives, where communication focuses on some specific phenomenon, which must be possible to describe in communication, and specifies how a certain observer understands this phenomenon in terms of categories it belongs to. In this blog, I will investigate cases, functions, and processes of the roles social observers play in communication.