File spoon-archives/bhaskar.archive/bhaskar_1996/96-05-20.182, message 49

Subject: Re: virtual social structures
Date: 	Tue, 16 Jan 1996 22:43:43 +0200

Colin asked me to clarify what I mean by 'virtual'. I think
most of the answer has been given now:

>There is nothing mysterious about this, despite
>what the word `virtual' may imply. For example,
>a wordprocessor program, spreadsheet package,
>email program etc. all supervene on the computer
>or terminal you are using. A wordprocessor operates
>on virtual pages, paragraphs, and sentences -- yet
>if you opened up the computer you wouldn't be able
>to find these virtual creatures. Just as if you
>opened up someone's brain you wouldn't find a
>single belief or desire.
>I'm labouring this point just to underline how
>unmysterious it is. Virtual structures are
>ubiquitous in science.

I think the term 'virtual' is just used in opposition to the physical 
limitations of the everyday, commonsensical, material world
(that was, in the early Modern era, reinterpreted in Euclidean-
Galilean-Newtonian terms). It is sometimes worthwhile
emphasising that rule- and meaning-dependent social 
structures are virtual *in some ways* in the same sense as
data storage in a computer memory (although perhaps not
in the same sense as the so called virtual memory that
can be part of RAM used as though it were a hard disk
storage page; rather it is like the hard disk itself). In other
words, there must be knowledge -- as memory traces -- 
of 'how things are to be done' on the part of the social actors.
This is the reason why I argued that:

     " is not true that rules cease to exist when they do not 
      function in a social system any more. Virtually, they 
      continue to exist as far as there are readable traces or 
      inscriptions of them somewhere, and as fas as their 
      functioning can be reactivated, even if perhaps in an 
      entirely different context."

However, the second point raised is bit more complicated:

>Therefore, I don't see how one can distinguish between
>`virtual' and `real' structures. Social structures are
>real: emergent properties of society, such as mass
>unemployment, falling rates of profit, market fluctuations,
>multi-national cooperations etc. etc. are just as `real'
>as the agents and the social relations that constitute them.

By no means did I intend to mean that 'virtual' is 'not-real'.
However, I am a bit doubtful whether "unemployment, falling 
rates of profit and market fluctuations" should be seen as 
social structures (in the sense of causally powerful wholes).
Looked at from one perspective, they are simply compositions
(that we would not, mostly, or at least not more than very, very
approximately, know without certain statistical state-practices 
that Foucault, among others, connects to the
historical emergence of 'political economy' and what he
calls 'governmentality'), from another perspective they are 
emergent properties of social systems (social system, in my 
def., is composed of (re)produced time-space-situated relations
between positions of actors and/or collectivities; social system
is partially organised as regular and interconnected positioned-
practices; but the positioned practices and actors of a social
system are also connected through unintended consequences
of action). These compositions can be causally effective only to 
the extent that they enter into certain practices via knowledge 
-- again as memory traces -- of 'how things are to be done' on 
the part of certain social actors, be they multinational corporations, 
transnational industrial organisations or state ministeries.

>There are many mechanisms that emerge from social relations. The
>most obvious one is Adam Smith's `invisible hand', i.e. the
>mechanism of the market allocates and reallocates the division of
>labour in society. This is not achieved by individuals but by
>changes in the productivity of labour in different branches of
>production leading to changes in the exhange-value of commodities.
>This is very much a social mechanism. There are many others.

It is very interesting that critical realism can be used to defend
some of the fundamental ideas of modern political theory. The
metaphor of mechanism was, indeed, invented in the modern
political theory already in the 17th century, and it became ever
more widesppread in the 18th century when the notions of
'balance of power', 'invisible hand', and 'checks and balances'
were developed by Hume, Smith, "the Founding Fathers" of the 
US and others. Originally, the source of this analogy was quite
conscious. It was, of course, Newtonian mechanics and the new
machines, including the mechanical clock. See A.O.Hirschman: 
"The Passions and the Interests. Political Arguments for 
Capitalism Before Its Triumph", Princeton University
Press, 1977. At the core of this problematic was the quest for
order after the collapse of Res Publica Christiana.
        It is my argument that there is no such "mechanism" as
'balance of power' or 'invisible hand'. There are unintended conse-
quences of multiple, socially conditioned actions and there is
interdependence of these actions, but they are not mechanical
at all (to Colin: why use the term 'mechanism' if the intention is
not to say that the production of effects is 'mechanical' at least
in some sense of the term?; and is not the term 'machine' at the
origin of both terms?).


                               Heikki Patomaki


Heikki Patomaki                                   tel. 358-(9)0- 490 100
Finnish Institute of International Affairs         358-(9)21-356 726 (home)
Mannerheimintie 15 A                           fax. 358-(9)21-490 989
00260 Helsinki                                     e-mail:




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