Open and Closed Social Relationships

•02014.09.13 • 1 Comment

[Don’t get too excited; this isn’t a post on polyamory.]

Quite simply for Weber, a social relationship is open if its system of order does not deny participation to anyone who wishes to join and is actually in position to do so.  A social relationship is closed when, according it its subjective meaning and binding rules, participation of certain persons is excluded, limited, or subjected to conditions.  (43)

Intentional communities are to a large degree closed.  No one can just declare themselves to be a member and thereby become one, nor is joining as simple as mailing in a form and membership dues like many organizations in civil society.  There is usually always an application process, followed by formal approval, and potentially a period of provisional membership.

At egalitarian communities like Twin Oaks, there is a non-discrimination clause in the governing documents, preventing discrimination of members based on various aspects of their identity for the purposes of being able to join the community.  This makes the community much more open than some associations in terms of what is formally written, although not much more than what most corporations are required to do by federal law at this point.

In many ways though, Twin Oaks is much more restrictive.  There is a much more involved membership process for families joining the community than for individuals.  While people won’t be rejected out of hand for something like race or gender identity, there are all sorts of reasons that people can get rejected for membership.  In fact, the only officially invalid reason for a vote against someone becoming a full member is if the vote was for political reasons (something that I never saw invoked in my seven years in the community, and frankly have no idea what that means).  Reasons for rejections could be very reasonable things like seeming to disrespect women in general or not fulfilling one’s work obligations.  There are plenty of less clear cut reasons for people not being offered a membership space, such as “too quiet, didn’t get to know him/her,” or my favourite “not community-minded” (whatever the hell that was supposed to mean).

Openness versus closedness can also fit in nicely the spaceship versus lifeboat debate.

Why would groups choose an open or closed relationship?  According to Weber, this primarily comes down to what the group sees their interests as being.  If more members would appear to lead to an improvement of their situation, they will tend to be more open.  If their position is improved by exclusion, they will have a closed relationship.  Since income-sharing intentional communities provide for pretty much all of the members’ material needs, it’s not that surprising that they have some sort of membership process in order to make sure that those they are accepting will actually at minimum contribute the basic work expectations and not cause significant social conflict.  For an organization with limited resources, opening the group up to everyone is simply not an economically or socially sustainable option.  (For entertaining stories of the kinds of people who often lived at Twin Oaks when they were basically accepting everyone out of desperation in their first few years, see the first part of Kat Kinkade’s A Walden Two Experiment.)


Communal and Associative Relationships

•02014.09.06 • Leave a Comment

For Weber, a social relationship is communal if the orientation of social action is based on subjective feelings of the parties that they belong together.  This is contrasted with associative relationships, which are based on rationally motivated adjustments of interests, or agreements based on absolute values or reasons of expediency.  (40-41)

Like many of his terms, there is a lot of overlap here between the two.  Communal relationships can have associative aspects, such as members of a family using those particular relationships for their own personal ends, and associative relationships can have communal aspects, as people in the same workplace can often end up feeling a sense of commonality and friendship.

Directly related to the last post:

The communal type of relationship is, according to the usual interpretation of its subjective meaning, the most radical antithesis of conflict.  This should not, however, be allowed to obscure the fact that coercion of all sorts is a very common thing in even the most intimate of such communal relationships if one party is weaker in character than the other.  Furthermore, a process of the selection of types leading to differences in opportunity and survival, foes on within these relationships just the same as anywhere else.  Associative relationships, on the other hand, very often consist only in compromised between rival interests, where only a part of the occasion or means of conflict has been eliminated, or even an attempt has been made to do so. (42)

It’s interesting to consider this in the context of what I wrote in my last post.  Weber does seem to be allowing for the possibility of the elimination of conflict here (as he defines it) after all.  However, he makes clear that even if conflict (as he defines it) is eliminated, there still may be internal coercion within the communal group itself that is a significant part of its order.  He’s going to discuss types of order in a lot more detail later, so I’ll hold off on commenting on that further here.

It is worth thinking though about if communities like Twin Oaks are more communal or associative.  At first it of course seems like a strange question, as Twin Oaks being a commune would by definition be communal.  But using Weber’s terms, I’m not so sure that’s the case.  Certainly it’s communal in the most basic senses that everyone shares the identity that they belong to the community, and share at least a basic sense of social belonging and familiarity with others, but these are things that almost any organization would have.  Intentional communities have this to a much greater degree because of the continued interaction members have with each other by virtue of living together, but I don’t think this is fundamentally different than the sense one gets from being a part of other organizations.  I’ve certainly felt that way about people in my union, or activist groups I was involved in in DC, yet my interactions with them were much more limited than those with anyone at Twin Oaks.

In many ways, going off of what I wrote in the last post, the associative definition seems to be more fitting.  Especially in terms of conflicts, many things are never resolved to the extent that seems to be necessary for the communal definition, only compromises between the main parties involved.  The result is a series of standstills until the next ‘incident’ where the conflict will come to the front again, and, depending on if the power relations have shifted, a potentially new compromise will be reached.  This process is repeated over and over in so many areas, from dealing with ‘problematic’ members to how certain areas of the community should be managed to housing issues.

It’s sort of hard to picture what a pure communal association would actually look like.  Perhaps it’s just meant to function as an extreme end of the spectrum to be useful for analysing social relationships, and not something that could possibly exist in reality.

Book mountain!

•02014.08.30 • Leave a Comment

The books I have to read for my courses this semester (now through the beginning of December), which doesn’t include things like journal articles:

Book mountain Fall 02014

I feel a combination of excitement and dread.

The courses I’m taking are Recent Political Theory, Political Ethnography, and Collective Action and Social Change, all in the Polsci department this semester.  I’m also TAing for American Foreign Policy.

I’ll almost certainly not have time to make new posts for a while.  However, I’ve already written enough posts on Weber that I have on an automatic posting schedule to get though the next several weeks, so there will still be regular updates on that topic for a while to come, even though I won’t be actively updating it.

See you in December!

Is competition inevitable (and is that a bad thing)?

•02014.08.28 • Leave a Comment

Some of Weber’s definitions:  (38)

  • Conflict– a social action oriented intentionally to carrying out the actor’s own will against the resistance of the other party or parties
  • Peaceful conflict– cases in which there is no actual physical violence
  • Competition– a formally peaceful conflict where one attempts to attain control over opportunities and advantages desired by others
  • Regulated competition– a competitive process whose means and ends are oriented to an order
  • Selection– the struggle between human individuals or social types for advantages and for survival, but without a meaningful mutual orientation in terms of conflict
  • Social selection– section insofar as it is a matter of the relative opportunities of individuals within their lifetimes

A lot of these definitions are pretty broad.  I think many people (on the Left especially) would object to many things being considered peaceful conflict as long as there is no physical violence.  There is certainly a large degree of difference between people taking money from you at gunpoint versus the system of wage labour and private property that systematically takes money from workers, but I don’t think it would be fair to call the latter peaceful.  Either Weber has a pretty narrow definition of peace (which unfortunately is the one that most International Relations scholars have used for decades, although often with the appendage “negative peace”), or he is showing us how limited our concept of peace is (the intro did say that there is a large amount of sarcasm and cold humor that doesn’t come across that well in the translation).

Accepting his definitions just to move on, Weber holds an evolutionary view of conflict, in that over a long enough period of time, despite accidental factors, it will lead to social selection, where those selected are those with the personal qualities important to success.  He clearly points out though that he means (like I think Darwin actually meant) that this isn’t some greater move to (an often racist concept of) perfection, but a selection of qualities that enable one to succeed in the particular conditions of conflict or competition, whether that is physical strength, loyalty to superiors, creative originality, and so on.

Weber argues that it is impossible for any social order to eliminate conflict completely:

But even on the utopian assumption that all competition were completely eliminated, conditions would still lead to a latent process of selection, biological or social, which would favor the types best adapted to the conditions, whether their relevant qualities were mainly determined by heredity of by environment.  On an empirical level the elimination of conflict cannot go beyond a point which leaves room for some social selection, and in principle a process a biological selection necessarily remains. (39)

The concept of competition was a constant source of conflict at Twin Oaks, in particular because it was cited often from a line in the Bylaws, where the community and members will use means:

Which strives to treat all people in a kind, gentle, honest, and fair manner, without violence or competition;

I can’t recall any serious disagreement about most of those terms as general goals (although we did disagree often about the definition of violence), but the last term was sometimes openly contested.  What exactly does not having competition mean?  Does it mean not competing in the capitalist sense, where we are all competing (‘nonviolently’, I guess) for scarce resources?  If so, I think most people agreed with that definition.  But what about other forms of conflict?  Does campaigning to have the policy that you and your immediate social group want passed constitute competition with those in opposition?  What about competing to produce tofu the fastest?  Or ‘beating’ others in earning the most labour credits?  Or keeping score when playing any kind of sport?  Video games?  Some of these things seem like even if they are a form of competition, they may produce outcomes that are overall positive for the individuals involved and the community as a whole, especially things like trying to be the most efficient at a particular job (as there aren’t many incentives to do so).  The lack of clarity on this point was often troubling to many people when others were behaving in a way in which they did not agree.

Rather than being a trivial point of bickering, the base assumptions one has about competition has major implications for the possibilities of political and economic systems.  For example, it’s pretty clear that the writers of the Federalist Papers thought that conflict was inevitable.  People would naturally form into organized factions to try to pursue their interests.  The task of designing a functioning government was to make one where no one faction could easily gain control, and even if they did there would be numerous barriers preventing them from pushing through quick changes.  The entire system is based on the assumption of organized competition, and how to try to mitigate the worst effects of it without resorting to a tyrannical government.

Other systems can have other assumptions.  Consensus systems, for example, accept that there is conflict between members of the group, but assume that these conflicts are resolvable, at least to the point of everyone in the group being able to consent to a compromise decision.  Consensus, in its ideal form at least, would not try to suppress dissent, but encourages it to be spoken, in order for a common solution to be reached.

A lot of the issue here are the assumptions that Weber and these other groups have about the nature of conflict itself.  Weber’s definition seems to suggest that people are often in, as the game theorists put it, zero-sum interactions, where any gain by any person must by definition come at the expense of another.  If one has this perspective, then of course one’s definitions are going to be phrased to make it seem like it is inevitable that one must carry “own will against the resistance of the other party” or to attempt to “control over opportunities and advantages desired by others.”  There are countless situations where one person’s gain does not have to be at the expense of another, and instead mutual gain can be found.

It’s also worth questioning whether even Weber’s definition of competition is something that is to be avoided as much as possible.  At Twin Oaks, for example, I regularly witnessed people complaining that individuals or groups trying to pass a certain policy or get a certain decision were being too competitive.  Setting the questions of specific tactics aside, it always seemed to me that these people were often lamenting that there existed disagreement in the community, and that they had to defend their position.  But aren’t such disagreements the basis of conversation that can lead to a decision that everyone can to some extent be ok with?  The alternative some people seemed to be expressing was akin to wishing that people didn’t have conflicting opinions, or if they did than they should keep them to themselves on sensitive issues.  It’s one thing to complain that the system one is living under does not effectively allow for a process for such a compromise decision to be made, but it’s quite another to wish that this kind of disagreement will not arise at all.


Bases of Legitimacy

•02014.08.24 • Leave a Comment

The actors may ascribe legitimacy to a social order by virtue of:

  1. tradition: valid is that which has always been;
  2. affectual, especially emotional, faith: valid is that which is newly revealed or exemplary;
  3. value-rational faith: valid is that which has been deduced as an absolute;
  4. positive enactment which is believed to be legal. Such legality may be treated as legitimate because:
    1. it derives from a voluntary agreement of the interested parties
    2. it is imposed by an authority which is held to be legitimate and therefore meets with compliance   (36)

Weber also sees this list as the basic sequence in which these types of orders evolved.  Sacredness of tradition is the oldest and most universal type of legitimacy, which was only broken at first due to prophetic oracles or other people believed to be sacred.  The purest type of value-rationality is natural law, where order is derived from (supposedly) naturally demonstrable truths. Legal order is the most common among modern nations today, although it coexists with other forms of order to some degree.

In theory then, the best of these to fit Twin Oaks would be that it is a voluntary agreement of the interested parties.  However, there is a large amount of order that one could consider to be traditional: what is valid is what has always been.  Try to change some fundamental part of any of the major formal systems, and there will be a significant conservative backlash, even if only a small minority opposes, and that is usually enough to stop the proposal.  This may have more to do with the institutional dynamics of the community though, which I’m sure will be discussed later.  The point here is that those making those arguments against change often rely more on the argument of tradition (“we’ve done it this was for decades,” “if it ain’t broke don’t fix it,” “you new people just don’t understand,” etc.).  I think this is pretty natural for any institution that’s not specifically and intentionally oriented to experimentation and innovation of its social forms.

Submission to an order is almost always determined by a variety of interests and by a mixture of adherence to tradition and belief in legality, unless it is a case of entirely new regulations.  In a very large proportion of cases, the actors subject to the order are of course not even aware how far it is a matter of custom, of convention, or of law.  In such cases the sociologist must attempt to formulate the typical basis of validity.  (37-38)

It would be interesting to go through community meeting notes, O&I paper comments, and mailbox letters at Twin Oaks to see if people (or certain groups of people) are making their arguments in particular ways to try to claim legitimacy.  (Or maybe just look at what is posted at the moment, for those of you who are still there.)  I can think of many long papers where all of these reasons were used to some extent.

Types of Legitimate Order

•02014.08.20 • Leave a Comment

This is directly going off of the last post on legitimate order in general:

The legitimacy of an order may be guaranteed in two principle ways:

  1. The guarantee may be purely subjective, being either
    1. affectual: resulting from emotional surrender
    2. value-rational: determined by the belief in the absolute validity of the order as the expression of ultimate values of an ethical, esthetic or of any other type; or
    3. religious: determined by the belief that salvation depends upon obedience to the order
  2. The legitimacy of an order may, however, be guaranteed also (or merely) by the expectation of specific external effects, that is, by interest situations    (33)

Overall, I would peg Twin Oaks and other similar communities as being primarily of the value-rational type, in that there are certain core values that members to a large degree share in believing are the purpose they are living together (although there can be significant disagreement), and everything else about the order derives from (or is at least consistent with) those values.  Of course, just like for explaining social action, there is probably a lot of overlap between these types.  I imagine that affectual explanations are important for many people at these communities as well.

Related, Weber also gives two types of orders:

  1. convention so far as its validity is externally guaranteed by the probability that deviation from it within a given social group will result in a relatively general and practically significant reaction of disapproval
  2. law if it is externally guaranteed by the probability that physical or psychological coercion will be applied by a staff of people in order to bring about compliance or avenge violation  (34)

Here’s where it gets somewhat tricky.  I’ve already written about general social disapproval being one of the main ways in which social conventions are enforced.  Weber thinks that this is indeed a powerful enforcement mechanism:

A violation of conventional rules… often leads to the extremely severe and effective sanction of an informal boycott on the part of members of one’s status group.  This may actually be a more severe punishment than any legal penalty.  The only thing lacking is a staff with the specialized function of maintaining enforcement of the order, such as judges, prosecuting attorneys, administrative officials, or sheriffs.  The transition, however, is gradual.  (34)

So where do intentional communities fall under these terms?  Ones that are somewhat smaller, such as Acorn Community, are run by consensus meetings, without anything resembling these positions.  Larger communities like Twin Oaks are a bit different.  There are, to some degree, people in specialized positions that could be considered to fulfil these roles.  They don’t have the State-backed coercive power as the positions Weber names in the above quote, but I think it would be accurate to say that at least a major part of the function of the Process Team (the conflict resolution team) and the entire Planner-Manager system is “a staff with the specialized function of maintaining enforcement of the order,” if I’m to use “enforcement” in the broad sense that Weber is using it.  These positions are not full time functions, and again they have limited enforcement power compared to typical hierarchical organizations, but that does appear to be their purpose.  Considering how broadly he defines enforcing agency, this seems to fit.

Upon further reflection, would even something like the consensus group at a community like Acorn be considered an enforcing agency?  In extreme situations, that does seem to be the purpose it would serve.  Maybe this will become clearer later on when Weber goes into more detail.  It’s hard to apply some of the modern organizational forms to this terminology from 100 years ago.

Legitimate Order

•02014.08.16 • Leave a Comment

Action, especially social action which involves a social relationship, may be guided by the belief in the existence of a legitimate order.  The probability that action will actually be so governed will be called the “validity” of the order in question. (31)

This is related to but different than the existence of action based on custom or self-interest.  In this situation, individuals obey certain rules of behaving that they consider to be created from a legitimate form of order.  As opposed to not following customs (Twin Oaks norms) and being inconvenienced or annoyed as a result by community members as a result, this type of orientation is based on the belief of the legitimacy of the decision-making system of the community.  A team or manager makes a decision, and others follow it.  It is especially apparent that people follow these ‘orders’ not primarily because of their fear of punishment (although that may certainly be a factor), but because they view this as a legitimate directive given by the appropriate person in the system of legitimacy that they have accepted.  As Twin Oaks doesn’t have anything approaching the coercive system of punishment that dominant culture has (although there are still many options beyond simple social disapproval), this seems to be one area where Weber’s understanding of legitimate order is more clear looking at anti-authoritarian organizations than dominant culture, because we can still see the issues of legitimate versus non-legitimate order without the complicating factor of enforcement by the State.  Even without government in the modern sense, there is still some form of order in any social group.

An order which is adhered to from motives of pure expediency is generally much less stable than one upheld on a purely customary basis through the fact that the corresponding behavior has become habitual.  (31)

This seems generally correct.  If people are only following an order based on calculations of self-interest, they could somewhat easily decide to act otherwise if the situation seemed to warrant it for them, regardless of the implications of order, potentially leading to instability or other crises depending on the situation.  Systems like Twin Oaks, as opposed to that of that which rely on State enforcement, are much more susceptible to this kind of instability.  Again, lack of the same coercive apparatus means that the ability for the community to enforce decisions based on noncompliance is much more limited.  In addition, structural dynamics such as high turnover rates means that there is always a large portion of the community adapting to the existing social order, which by definition is not habitual compliance.  On the other hand though, it seems to me that the other side of this is that a society where order is followed out of pure habit would be less willing to adopt changes and potentially be less resilient overall when changes in their larger social or natural environment required such adaptation.

It is possible for action to be oriented to an order in other ways than through conformity with its prescriptions, as they are generally understood by the actors.  Even in the case of evasion or disobedience, the probability of their being recognized as valid norms may have an effect on action. (32)

I think this is pretty insightful.  We can still try to deduce what the nature of the order is, even by looking at people who appear to be disobeying it, because they will often take into account the existence of the order in their actions.  Almost everyone I know who has tried to think of ways to get around the property code of the community, which severely restricts the personal assets one can use as a member, has one way or another accepted the existence of those rules.  They may try to completely hide what they are doing, try to make the internal accounting look like they are following the rules, try to do what they want by using legalistic technicalities, and so on, but I don’t recall encountering anyone who actually did not accept the existence of those rules, that they were the legitimate governing rules of the community, and they had to some way adapt their behaviour to that.

For sociological purposes there does not exist… a rigid alternative between the validity and lack of validity of a given order.  On the contrary, there is a gradual transition between the two extremes; and it is also possible… for contradictory systems of order to exist at the same time.  In that case each is “valid” precisely to the extent that there is a probability that action will in fact be oriented to it.  (32)

Weber here is trying to allow for deviations from a given order, individuals existing within multiple contradictory orders, and how orders transition to another and are ultimately replaced.  The existing in contradictory orders is good to remember to prevent us from lumping everything together in one homogeneous ‘culture.’  For example, there are different ways one would behave at Twin Oaks towards the same person depending on their places in whatever order they happen to be in during that particular context: a particular work area versus another, living in the same building together, etc.  All of these have different and often overlapping orders and roles within those.

I know that Weber is going to go into detail about different types of order later on, so I’ll hold off anything more in depth until then.