An Essay Featured In The Map Is Indestructible by O.G. Rose
On Self-Aware Societies, The Hawthorne Effect, and The Observer Effect
In teaching a theory, we risk rendering the theory meaningless. Economists, political theorists, literary critics, sociologists — all are in the same boat. Like scientists and psychologists, sociologists must take into account the Hawthorne Effect, which, generally speaking, is a theory concerning how participants alter their activities once they are aware that they are in an experiment.¹ The very presence of countless sociological and educational articles, lectures, and books online (which can spread quickly as memes) may change the very way societies act.² This may render what the data claims about societies wrong, making it seem as if the data was always wrong; on the other hand, the data may make societies suddenly act in the way the data suggests, making it seem as if the data was always right.
WWe now live in a world in which the majority is conscious of how societies historically change, function, and collapse; furthermore, we are (or at least feel) aware of how historical epochs come about, and we understand ourselves within the context of such epochs. Few during Modernism considered themselves Modernists in comparison to the number of individuals who consider themselves Postmodernists during Postmodernism today (assuming it’s still valid to call us today “Postmodern”). Through history, there has been a gradual increase in the number of individuals who readily align themselves with theoretical constructs that define the age they are living in, and this has transformed the way people live and act. Lacking modern technologies, those alive during the French Revolution would not have seen themselves as living during a time that was the subject of the works by Burke and Tocqueville. Though Burke predicted the rise of Napoleon, most were ignorant of Burke.³ Today, many are aware of Burke’s prediction; as a result, many feel equipped to predict which policy decisions will lead to a modern “Reign of Terror,” and consequently the way they think and act changes. Consciousness of historical periods transforms how present history unfolds. Perhaps this causes a “Reign of Terror” to be avoided; perhaps this causes something worse — I don’t know. My point is simply that societies are now conscious of themselves, and theories that do not take this into account will not be as valuable as they could be in determining how societies should presently act (assuming theories can be of service at all).
Julian Huxley claimed humans are ‘in whose person the evolutionary process has at last become conscious of itself.’⁴ Similarly, I believe the present world is in what history and socioeconomics have reached self-awareness (Geist knows about “Geist,” per se). There have been sociologists, anthropologists, and such for years, but until now we have lacked an awareness of our own self-awareness; the rampant access to information has made this self-awareness more influential and prevalent. This doesn’t mean we do or don’t have any expertise in these given fields of study, but that many of us think we have expertise (such as “the experts”). Consequently, sociological theories that predict how societies will act may no longer apply. When societies seem most predictable, they might be most unpredictable.
We often think of ourselves living within the schemas of various theories, and we often engage with the world through those theoretical lenses (rather than directly and with a clear mind — not that this is possible). This shift can be dangerous and wasteful, as is the shift to learning about a hammer by thinking about it versus using it (to allude to Heidegger); at the time, without a framework, how could we act?⁵ Still, we can “press” our thinking down upon the world rather than let our thinking emerge up from the world, and as a result the way people engage with and understand the world can change. For example, those who understand the American economy within the construct created by Adam Smith (having learned it from off YouTube or from a lecture at the University of Chicago) will understand and engage with the economy differently than the one who understands it through Keynesianism, and yet both people will be dealing with the same substance of exchange. Hence, “the reality” of the system changes relative to the observer in concordance with his or her mindset. This is similar to the phenomenon in Physics called “The Observer Effect,” in which a particle presents itself differently depending on who is observing it and how it is being observed.⁶
Humans select assumptions and beliefs based on what they observe. If what two individuals observe changes by their very act of studying (which is the act that combines the observation with their thoughts), those individuals may acquire differing opinions about what they saw and what theories the observation legitimizes. An example of this phenomenon can be found in how those who strongly believe in Capitalism interpret the 2008 Housing Bubble. They take it as evidence that government involvement caused the failure, while more Liberal thinkers often interpret the incident as proof that more government involvement is needed. Since it is the case that what the two parties observe transforms because of the act of observation itself, it is incredibly difficult if not impossible to show either side something that will make them change their opinion. The awareness the two sides have of economic theory and past events only further justifies the way they interpret their observations, for in studying the past, their act of observing it transforms what they see into that which justifies their positions. Awareness of historic interpretations of the economy by experts who too were prone to the same Observer Effect will only further influence the way those individuals engage with (or fail to engage with) the world.
Hegelians will perceive the actions of their governments differently than will those who are unfamiliar with the German Philosopher. This will motivate the Hegelians to vote a certain way and may even influence the overall way the Hegelians choose to live. Though it is unclear whether it is good to think like a Hegelian, I generally believe it is unwise to title one’s self “a Hegelian,” as it is unwise to call one’s self “a Capitalist,” “a Kantian,” etc. — there are countless titles (and temptations). Our capacity to think for ourselves is at risk when we grant ourselves a title, for not only will our capacity to “observe” be affected, but to the degree we make such “a declaration” is to the degree we will be tempted to defend a position rather than pursue “the truth” (not that this is easy to determine). In line with the Observer Effect, since our act of observation will transform what we see, we will believe we have evidence justifying and necessitating this act of defense, and so be tempted to fall deeper into a self-enforcing cycle. Those who call themselves Liberals or Conservatives, Republicans or Democrats, etc. are those I believe uniquely threaten to truncate political thought. Likewise, those who readily call themselves Capitalists or Marxists threaten economics, as those who assert to being “a Faulkner” or “a Joyce” threaten literature. The granting of ourselves such a title can result in a transformation in how we conceptualize and understand our identities, acts, lives, and hermeneutics. Ironically, the more fields like economics, politics, sociology, etc. are taught, the more individuals will be tempted to grant themselves a title which could hinder those very fields.
The more we theorize, the more we might prove unable to theorize well, for a title is a lens. The moment an individual or group is aware of itself within a theoretical construct (like participants aware that they are in an experiment) their actions and attitudes might change. Through his extraordinary A Global Theory of Intellectual Change, Randall Collins shows that new ideas often form along the borders of intellectual circles that disagree with one another.⁷ Unfortunately, a society full of individuals who readily identify themselves “as Liberals,” for example, will naturally isolate themselves from the wrongheaded “Conservatives” (in choosing a place to live, social gatherings, etc.), afraid of having their identities undermined or constantly confronted and believing they see (immoral) evidence justifying such action (due to the Observer Effect). Today it is easy (in the name of justice, “saving America,” etc.) to separate ourselves from those with whom we disagree, and perhaps never before has it been so tempting. The more people fall into this temptation, the more idea-creation and empathy will decrease (to name some consequences), which (if Deidre McCloskey is correct) could lower wealth creation and intellectual advancement while raising existential angst, psychological tension, spiritual apathy, and depression.
On the other hand, thanks to the same technologies that have contributed to social, intellectual, and political divisiveness, the wide availability of theories, ideas, and material by brilliant minds enables societies to achieve levels of education and knowledge the likes of which the world has never before seen. With so much material readily available, the kinds of achievements that could happen today could far surpass the works that have come before — assuming people have not lost their capacity to be creative (something Ken Robinson warns that the education system contributes to), and assuming that people do not sacrifice their ability to think for themselves in order to be “a Kantian,” “a Marx scholar,” or “an INTJ.”⁸ We need our societies to cultivate citizens who can handle theories and ideas without being negatively altered by them, using them instead to create new, intelligent, and creative edifices. If we are to keep our theories from keeping us from theorizing well, we will need to learn to hold our theories with “an open hand,” like a bird resting upon our fingers which we do not clutch (to use Michelle’s image). Hopefully, this age is one that doesn’t lack the institutions which can cultivate such people.
Terms like “Marxism” and “Capitalism” represent a parameter for social development. Generally, people consider themselves a “Marxist” or “Capitalist”: they do not consider themselves a “John-ist,” even though John down the street might have a superior theory. This “John-ist” term lacks authority; maybe a hundred years from now, John will have passed the test of time and study, but for now to be a “John-ist” is to be no one. New ideas are naturally resisted, and those who try to align with new theoretical constructs tend to be exiled. In a social context, if a person is to be understood, he or she must align with a familiar and/or authoritative thinker or system; if the individual refrains from doing this, others will try to push him or her into some category, as those who desire to say “I am John” will be pressured into “I am a doctor.” Beyond Hegel, theories might rarely take into account how their very presence results in people pushing and molding one another into their constructs.
The theories and thinkers of the past are often the standards by which the present people act and understand those around them. The terms a society accepts will determine the theoretical lenses through which that society understands itself, and this self-awareness will often transform the way the society behaves, thinks, and develops. It is easily because people are aware of Marx and Lenin that the idea to protest on Wall Street dawns upon the people so readily, and it is through these thinkers that spectators of the protestors will interpret and understand what the protestors are doing. The spectators may call them “Socialists” or “Anarchists,” aligning the protestors with the theoretical constructs the spectators are familiar with. Believing they know what these people are all about (an impression made possible by their understanding of various theories), the spectators will likely feel immediate admiration or disproval, and it is this kind of “knowing judgment” which could cost a society its creative, holistic, bipartisan, and novel thinking (as I think is necessary for prosperity).
Ironically, despite the authority that various terms bear, those terms are ultimately arbitrary in themselves: their power comes more so from a kind of “social contract” than they do from any actual substance (not to say there isn’t substance, only that the substance seems to become secondary). If a term like “Marxism” was attached to the definition of “Capitalism,” individuals would, logically and rationally, call America “a Marxist country.” As numbers cannot be axiomatic or self-justifying according to Gödel, neither can theories.⁹ And yet people must live as if they are authoritative: citizens cannot live as if Marxism isn’t Marxism, as if “1 = 2” (though, as with theories, once a society is aware that “1 = 1” cannot be axiomatic, the society cannot approach 1 as it did before Gödel: numbers and theories are forever different). Despite their arbitrariness, terms of some nature are necessary for thought to build upon itself through time. Terms and theories will always be present, and so one must study society considering the presence, use, and internalization of these (arbitrary) terms and theories.
Since a society’s authoritative terms are ultimately arbitrary, we must also study society recognizing the possibility of citizens refusing to assent to the “social contracts” granting certain terms legitimacy. Also, in being arbitrary, the meanings of the terms aren’t self-evident; consequently, participants can misinterpret them and formulate interpretations relative to their interests and backgrounds. Therefore, social theories must consider not only “self-aware societies,” but societies with self-awareness that are always in flux and open to redefinition, even though the terms of its awareness may seem unchanging. What it means to call a society “Marxist” to one person will mean something different to another, and the two people will respond differently in becoming aware that their society is “Marxist.” Like weather forecasts, “self-aware theories” that take into account Theoretical-Awareness might better “map out” possible directions of a society based on the different ways a term like “Marxism” can be interpreted (though that would require studying the interpretations, human subjectivity, and the like). Such theories might ascribe likelihoods to courses of action based on the degree the society is enamored or repulsed by a term like “Marxism” (and so might go “full speed” in the opposite, socioeconomic direction upon being called it). Ultimately, the possible directions of a society far exceed what any theory can calculate, but since a society must theorize (if for anything, to at least have authoritative terms by which to understand itself and achieve a sense of stability), “valuable theories” will I think better consider how there is much more the theories cannot entail than can include. In this sense, theories should always be “anti-theories.”
Writers who are aware of James Joyce may see themselves “like Joyce,” and this simile could result in the writers acting and creating differently. The society that is aware that it is becoming less violent might not act the same as a society that is becoming less violent and unaware of it; the society aware of Marxism might not develop the same way as does the Marxist society unaware of Marxism. Furthermore, a society aware of Marxism cannot go back to being a society unaware of it; it must deal with the cards it has been dealt. This might provide reason for us to avoid theory or embrace it, but our chances of making the right decision will lessen if we are also unaware of personal incentives we might have for avoiding theory (theory easily overly-humbles or does the exact opposite).
As a scientist must stand on the shoulders of those who came before, so societies must do the same. As this “standing” robs glory from a scientist who invents a lightbulb on his own today, so too it may render the advancements of nations void. Therefore, it is important that societies today be aware of “Theoretical-Awareness” lest they simply keep “inventing the wheel” in their efforts to address real and present problems. Yet, ironically, the more a society becomes aware of previous modes of thought and accomplishments, the more the society risks rendering its own thoughts and accomplishments vain: the thrill of ignorance is lost. If it never runs this risk, it can never see the greatest distances, for it will stand in place, afraid of standing upon shoulders. To advance though, this fear must be faced, as we must also face the fear of a theory possibly coloring our experience of the world in favor of that (possibly false) theory.
Like any field, for Sociology to be current rather than historic, the field must understand not just societies, but “self-aware societies” (a sentiment expressed throughout Systems and Subjects by Cadell Last). Theoretical-Awareness, like self-awareness, can be good or bad. Awareness of the Bystander Effect has resulted in the phenomenon happening less, as awareness of revolutionary texts have increased the willingness of individuals to revolt and protest (though even when unjustified).¹⁰ Pessimistic news has increased societal capacity for violence and apathy, as awareness of Martin Luther King Jr. has increased capacity for love and justice. The Theoretically-Aware society is neither better nor worse; it is different. Overall, my point is simply that sociological, economic, and political theories that do not take into account the awareness of the participants of those theories will not address reality as well as they could. For one, the theories will fail to recognize that a Theoretically-Aware society is one that is prone to sudden and unpredictable changes or accelerations in development; for the very reason that it is self-aware, the society is “black swan”-prone, I think.¹¹ Whether this is good or bad depends on the nature and direction of the shift. Also, theories that fail to identify Theoretical-Awareness will not be theories that enable a society to “stand upon the shoulders of those before it,” for in failing to identify reality, the theories will fail to enable the society to advance as it could, thereby increasing the likelihood of social regression.
Driven by technology, Theoretical-Awareness has possibly contributed to the advent of a more unpredictable and rapidly altering world. Like a self-fulfilling prophecy, an individual who is aware of Capitalism may act in such a way that assumes that what the theory forecasts will be the case, hence making those forecasts come to pass and always seem right. On the other hand, a Christian who hears that America has become “Post-Christian” may be incentivized to launch a series of mass revivals that change the religious landscape of America for generations. The sociological studies that find that marriages are falling apart may contribute either to an increase in divorce or a rebellious increase in marriage stability. No one can say for sure: with knowledge, information increases uncertainty.
Those who believe they are in a Post-Christian world can act differently than those in the same world unaware of it; the student who has read Locke can act differently in a Lockean society, and may contribute to making it un-Lockean or too Lockean; an evolving society aware of Evolution might evolve differently.¹² As a television camera directed toward the screen it is hooked into will depict an eternal regression, so it is possible a society aware of itself will regress too, especially if it is unaware of its self-awareness.
Theories about the present world that fail to take Theoretical-Awareness into account might retrace old parameters long after societies have stepped beyond them, hence failing to provide direction that could save society from mistakes and regression.¹³ Yet even this paper may itself fall into the same trap: after reading this work, societies might be “Aware of Theoretical-Awareness,” then “Aware of the Awareness of Theoretical-Awareness,” and so on. It is perhaps futile to make people aware of their own awareness, for awareness may instantly become an awareness of facades. All theories might eternally regress, and yet theorize we must unless there be nothing to regress. ‘Man is a useless passion’, Sartre theorized, usefully unemotional.¹⁴ We regress if we don’t theorize, but perhaps even if we do.
¹For more information on the Hawthorne Effect:
³Edmund Burke, Reflections on the Revolution in France. Penguin Classics, 1986: 342.
⁴Huxley, Julian. “The New Divinity.” Essays from a Humanist. Chatto & Windus, 1964.
⁵Heidegger, Martin. Being and Time. Harper Perennial Modern Classics, 2008: 98–99.
⁶Please note that this paper draws a distinction between the Uncertainty Principle, which deals with measurement, and the Observer Effect, which deals with observation itself.
⁷Collins, Randal. The Sociology of Philosophies: A Global Theory of Intellectual Change. Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1998: 791 and “Meta-Reflections” (in general).
⁸For more on Ken Robinson:
⁹For more information on Kurt Gödel:
¹⁰For more information on the ‘Bystander Effect’:
¹¹For more information on ‘Black Swans’:
¹²Once humans became aware of evolution, humans started wondering why they should be moral, seeing they’re just animals. If evolution developed morality, then becoming aware of the Theory of Evolution worked against this development. Discovering evolution changed evolution, but perhaps this is a chance for us to make morality our (“creative”) own?
¹³The time it takes to study a subject in the academy may all make “keeping up” impossible, but to speed up the process is to make it increasingly unreliable.
¹⁴The conclusion of Being and Nothingness by Jean-Paul Sartre.