Sarah (Sally) A. Robinson, Ph.D.
I called on anthropologists to take an active role guiding American society in adapting to rapidly changing circumstances -- environmental, economic, technological, and political. Regardless of current political parties, there is an issue whether governance will be bottom up or top down, democratic or authoritarian or a mixture of both. Anthropologists generally have no more influence than any other citizen on the form of government at the national level, but we can use conceptual tools to help design new institutions and modify old ones better to adapt to the onrush of change.
It is instructive to look at the Continental Congress and the writing of the Constitution, itself an example of a mechanical model for a purposeful organization of many operations. The Continental Congress also is an example of a collaborative planning process.
A committee is rarely inventive, but two things can make a committee productive. The first is consensus about purpose and reasonable agreement on operational objectives. The second is leadership. In planning a mechanical model, the process goes more smoothly if a model is suggested for consideration. The designer can act as leader by submitting a proposal for discussion, modification and ultimate adoption.
James Madison did not have the conceptual tools we have today for planning a complex mechanical model. His ability was fortuitous. He drew inspiration from the league of Iroquois “states” in designing a federation for the 13 colonies. Madison seems to have thought primarily in terms of function in elaborating on a basic structure. Acting as a committee, the representatives from the various colonies discussed and modified Madison’s model until they agreed on a Constitution that could accommodate diversity of constituent interests. All present recognized that the consent of the governed was vital to maintaining the fragile federation. Decades later, the Civil War proved the point. The federated states are again under threat of disunity over a different set of issues.
The planning process the Founding Fathers followed is still effective in developing organizations that depend on voluntary participation and cooperation. Anthropologists can use it as a means of social therapy. In addition, there are scientific advantages for its use in the study of social dynamics.
A mechanical model projects results not only in the production of a certain outcome, but also in the way the organization will operate under given conditions. When a proposed organization is activated by real participants, the projections can be tracked in reality and thus “tested”. If the model needs adjusting to produce a desired outcome, the adjustments can be made and the model tested again.
As a first step, the modeler must determine the overall purpose for which some sort of organization is required. What is this organization’s reason for being? The operational boundaries of an organization can be determined by understanding why a particular purpose is basic. This is important in order to avoid various parts working at cross-purposes. It also aids in maintaining cooperation if everyone understands why interdependence is necessary to achieve desired ends.
The importance of purpose and boundaries is easier to recognize in tribal societies with kin-based structures. Their purpose is survival; their boundaries are biological. There are many operations to be carried out within the overall organization in order to achieve survival. These activities are assigned and integrated by tradition. They will be shattered if the boundaries of the kin-based organization are breached by abrupt environmental or technological change or by social intrusion.
In order to act as social therapists, anthropologists must identify the types of stakeholders predictably involved in an operation. What are their probable self-interests? What are the perceived requirements and the frustrations of people in certain positions? Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of human needs is a useful concept for understanding longings and discontent. It also can be used as a conversation starter.
If a constituent group agrees that there is a need for an organization to serve a given purpose, the next step is to define operational objectives. Operational objectives can be emotional as well as task oriented. They pertain to the character of an organization as well as to its operation and its product.
A mechanical model has structure, but it is more than a simple flow chart that is one dimensional and static. It is a complexity of responsibilities and procedures that work to produce certain outcomes. There can be systems integrated within systems. The longer the list of operational objectives, the fewer choices there are in designing a mechanical model that will do everything that is required.
Complexity can operate smoothly so long as operational objectives are not in conflict. Organizations with different basic purposes can be linked at the point of shared interest. Trouble results when a single structure is required to serve more than one defining purpose. If this occurs, accommodation can be reached but not without creating stress.
Consider the stresses within a contemporary university run for both learning and moneymaking. Students are educated, and faculty may do research. Thus, the purpose of a college or university can be defined as “learning”. The institution must also be supported financially. Raising money is a business requiring an organization that is very different from that of an educational institution. When the two purposes are served by one administrative structure, conflicts of interest result. To rectify or at least reduce the conflicts, the two operations can be structurally separated and then linked at specified points by prescribed procedures and by designating certain actors to perform as liaisons.
In order to structure an organization, consider status and role. A social structure is akin to a multi-dimensional Tinker Toy. In it, a status is the nexus of many conduits that carry rights and obligations. Depending on these rights and obligations, roles are established and assigned to a given status. They are like an actor’s script. So long as the script is followed, the actor is free to embellish with tone, pace, and gesture.
A mechanical model is empowered by people, individually and collectively. They make the structure dynamic. Therefore, they affect the way a system operates. Within any structured organization, power can shift. A person or a collection of people can sabotage the best design, yet an individual operant can make the most inefficient machinery productive. It is up to the planners of an organization to seek ways to discourage subversion and to make compliance to the rules both easy and desirable.
On the societal level, roles are cultural. Single deviants are suppressed or else become leaders for change. A culture can be altered by fiat or by a number of people who, in the aggregate, become a tipping point that alters custom. If there is disagreement about the script and who should be responsible for what obligations, or whether rights are even recognized, the whole system begins to falter. This seems to be where Americans are today.
It is why we need to rethink systems at every level and in every aspect of American society. The nuclear family is not designed to carry the load of everything an extended family once handled. The American economy is serving the interests of a smaller and smaller part of society, while the rest are struggling to meet their needs at the lower levels of Maslow’s pyramid. With increasing velocity, robots and AI are replacing human labor. We are in the midst of a pandemic with no coherent plan for abatement. The whole planet is showing signs of stress. People are losing faith in institutions of every kind including organized religion. It is time for social scientists to study what is happening and to test mechanical models aimed at solutions for discernable problems.
Sol Tax would recommend that we become action anthropologists and assume leadership in determining what can benefit a people then finding means to achieve what is wanted. Tax saw action anthropology in terms of organizing, organizing to meet social needs seen at a personal level. The aim of action anthropology should be to facilitate functional adaptation.