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Social ‘Entropy’: Engineering Order and Chaos

Sociology exists as a ‘social science’ partially because it assumes human behaviour found in groups, institutions, organizations, classes, etc., can be objectively studied using statistics and other methods, to inform social policy through generalizations from the findings. For example, if a randomized statistically significant sampling of a given population, say, of all people with red hair who drive, repeatedly tells us that the majority of them each consistently cause (in the legal sense) four serious car accidents every ten years, then that finding may eventually affect vehicle licensing policies. It may also point us at the DNA level, to a correlation (but not causation) between a genetic trait (red hair) and behaviour. But it could also point us to the way these individuals are socialized, but that would be extremely difficult to determine due to the number of variables. So here, the observation of red hair and its relationship to driving, i.e., most red-haired people cause regular car accidents, is sociological because scientific ways were used to reach this conclusion about group behaviour. Social policy therefore, might require red-heads to never drive, or only with a non-red-head passenger accompanying them at all times.

Order and chaos are relative terms often applied in daily dicourse to describe the intenal states of societal groupings, and relations between nations and cultures. Most nation-states for example, are internally peaceful enough to represent an adquate amount of social order for normal lives to be led, economies to function, and governments to exert necessary controls. Peaceful relations internally and externally are the prevailing norm, while tolerating, adjusting to, and confronting common dissent, and skirmishes such as demonstrations  or protests. Social order is a meaningful concept therefore for the analysis of the status quo and of social change, as it provides benchmarks for comparisons, at the local, regional, national and international levels. For functionalists, it is the degree of shared values that ‘cements’ groups and societies into maintaining order. Change occurs through the introduction of new or ‘foreign’ values, forcing re-adjustments that result in a qualitatively new social system. This view differs from Marxian/feminist and symbolic interaction theories, in which conflict, and discourse over meanings, are central  to the maintenance of rights and responsibilities. Conflict and interpretation are necessary  aspects of all social systems, from micro to macro levels, in order to achieve qualitative change towards lasting order and peace.

Entropy (from physics) describes a tendency for order to move towards disorder in closed systems. The higher the entropy the greater the disorder (chaos). Real (qualitative) change brings this about.

It is common today to hear that social change is ‘entropic’, that change leads to more disorder and possibly chaos (‘unpredictable and seemingly random behaviour occuring in a system that should be governed by deterministic laws’; Oxford dictionary of Physics). A small difference could trigger large change, and hence, from applying this “second law of thermodynamics” to human society, social policymakers having a systems view are today guarded about permitting too much social change for fear of a society lapsing into uncontrollable chaos. Warfare among groups or nations must be limited to skirmishes that are controllable, and nation-states must cooperate to ensure at least this level of international stability is maintained.

ISIS for example, an ideologically religious based terrorist organization, with a mandate to return to past values and reject prevailing or “Western” world values, is an obvious case in point. It fails to realize that change is irreversible, and that promoting chaos within and among social systems that are predominantly stable and democratic, i.e., change through rational discourse, is self-defeating. Unbridled zeal without educated social, economic, and psyhological knowledge, predicts evetual failure.




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