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Gardeners, not architects - Matthew Taylor, RSA

Matthew TaylorI am always a fan of the Royal Society of Arts (RSA), and enjoy Matthew Taylor’s blog (the RSA Chief Exec).

This recent post from Matthew caught special attention, as it addresses why “sociology” and study of societal trends seems to have a left-leaning reputation, and “economics” appears “right leaning”. The recent influence of “behaviourial economics” seems to start to redress this, perhaps?

What has this all got to do with Business Leadership? Well, Leaders need to be concerned with social organization and culture just as much as they are about economics if they are to help their organization and its people grow and prosper.

Yet too many see this as a “soft” (“leftie” and non-capitalist) subject.

Matthew’s blog helps to explain why and what we should do about this.

“According to Wikipedia, Herbert Spencer, the Victorian polymath whose achievements include being the founding father of British sociology:

…. recognised three functional needs or prerequisites that produce selection pressures: they are regulatory, operative (production) and distributive. He argued that all societies need to solve problems of control and coordination, production of goods, services and ideas, and,  finally, to find ways of distributing these resources’

These three social needs line up reasonably neatly with the three forms of power (and ways of thinking about power) which I have derived from cultural theory and other frameworks; respectively hierarchical power, individualistic power and solidaristic power.

Like most sociologists up until the sixties, Spencer started from the question of how societies function and adapt. But forty years ago, or so it seems to me,  a disastrous and mutually reinforcing split occurred in the social sciences. On the one hand, the core assumption of sociological theory came to be that society was a system of oppression and domination, practiced by the ruling class, and/or white people and/or men, and/or heterosexuals using a range of forms of economic and social control.

On the other hand, economics came to be dominated by the assumption that markets function perfectly and guarantee the enhancement of human welfare.

As a consequence of this split, sociology became overwhelmingly a discipline of the left while economics became the science of the new right. Yet just a few years before this divide, functionalism was the most powerful school of sociological grand theory whole economic students were conventionally taught Keynesian lessons about the inherently dysfunctional nature of unmanaged markets.

Behavioural economics had already started to dent free market functionalism before the credit crunch came along and, in the immortal understatement of Alan Greenspan, revealed a ‘flaw’ in free market doctrine. If economics can rediscover market instability and even perhaps recognise gross inequality as a reflection of power and policy choice not simply the blind genius of the market, could sociology rediscover an interest in society as a functional system?

Given the generally downbeat way we talk about our society and its prospects, not to mention our current economic problems, this may seem unlikely. Yet social pessimism is arguably as much a symptom of our current ways of thinking as an accurate reflection of the what is happening in the world. As I have written before, distinguishing a trend from a cycle is the alchemy of social analysis, yet standing back from our current cyclical travails there is a strong case to be made both that societies are capable of solving hard problems and that most of today’s challenges are in fact the consequence of past successes.

If I had time I would create a Twitter account which every day published an uplifting fact about progress in the world or just in our own dispirited country.

On Sunday I could have pointed out the incredibly fast decline in global levels of absolute poverty.

Yesterday, I could have selected the evidence that most young people have gone a long way to shedding the sexism, racism, homophobia and disablism which their parents harboured and their grandparents wore with pride.

Today, I could focus on the extra years of healthy living now available to most of us and tomorrow, perhaps, remind the naysayers that not only are children in aggregate better educated than at any time in history but it even seems that as a race we are becoming  more intelligent.

I might save for the weekend the fact that the human race is now less violent  than at any time in its entire history.”

Read the rest of Matthew’s post