The organic view of social behaviour

The organic view says in essence that we human beings are not so much in control of our behaviour as we think we are. We are predominantly emotional and not particularly rational creatures. We learn not by theory, but by trial and error, that is through failures. Consequently we should seek to understand human behaviour by personal experience and by studying values, which are the basis of character-formation, rather than by losing ourselves in the uncharted waste of abstract theories. The latter may be intellectually interesting, but do us little practical good.

All living organisms are nowadays studied in the light of evolutionary theory, except for Man. We have to ask why. Why should the social sciences be any different from zoology in this respect, unless we hold that Man stands outside biology? If we do hold that, as some Christians do by advocating creationism, then at least we are being consistent; but that is not the position of the social sciences today. Yet these sciences continue to define themselves as not part of biology. The intention here was good: this line was taken partly in order to emphasize that Man has moral obligations. But a problem arises when the morality and values assumed are ones which belong to and favour one particular civilization or viewpoint. Then we are facing not morality but moralism, the attempt of one person or culture to impose its values on others. We see this today in the struggle between Western and Eastern values. In the light of claims about value-neutrality of the social sciences, it is problematic that most social-science journals support Western values. The validity of Western values must be questioned, if the social sciences are to have any credibility in the 21st century. Or alternatively, the study of human behaviour must revert to the humanities, where moral positions are less problematic.

It is no more than a century ago that we eliminated the moral component from the study of economics. At the beginning of the twentieth century, but particularly after the Second World War, the discipline of economics decided to assimilate itself to physics and its logic of "dead material" (non-organic). The original motive for this was that physics was and is a successful science, and the social sciences needed greater rigor. It was also seen as a way to solve the normative problem, by literally taking the moral component out of the equation. Furthermore, it was an inevitable consequence of splitting the discipline of political economy into two instrumental parts, political science versus economics and, later, management. Over the past two decades, there has been criticism of this approach, and of the lack of results produced by ever greater specialization. Over specialization seems to have shifted much of our research away from reality and towards obscurity, abstraction, and dogma. The phenomenon of interdisciplinary studies can be seen as a reaction against this development; so we saw a significant growth of interest in interdisciplinary scholarship around the turn of the 21st century. But this only solved parts of the problem.

Another characteristic of twentieth-century social-science research and methodology was a tendency towards linear thinking. Everything in economics seemed to be explainable in terms of the intersection of straight lines on x and y axes. Our linear way of thinking - as opposed to the cyclical ideas of Ferdinand Tonnies (1887) and the pendulum ideas of Hegel (1820), his thesis, antithesis, and synthesis - can be traced back to the Old Testament and the introduction of Christianity to Europe. The notion was reinforced in the period we call the Enlightment. The linear paradigm peaked with the contempt for the historical method on the part of the social sciences following the Second World War. That is the direction that is now being questioned. We must question not only the lack of useful results, but equally the claim of objectivity. So what are the alternatives?

The discipline of geoeconomics is founded on an organic understanding of social behaviour. This is also a method borrowed from the natural sciences too, but from the discipline of biology. By "organic" we mean that Man and human organizations function rather like living organisms. They too are brought into life, grow, and fade away, some sooner than others. Evolutionary theory is a powerful explanatory tool for any science, including the social sciences. That does not mean that all social behaviour can be understood by studying evolutionary theory, but this is the model with greatest explanatory strength and most potential.

If it is the best choice, it may seem surprising that this line of thinking is not novel within economics. Evolutionary thinking got off to a good start in the discipline of economics in the USA with Thorstein Veblen in the closing decades of the nineteenth century. But economists chose to abandon evolutionary theory at the turn of the twentieth century, in part because it did not correspond to our political convictions about how Man should think about himself and society. The new slogan of the time was liberalism, individualism, and free choice - ideas that had been seriously challenged by evolutionary thinking, which had a relatively deterministic perspective on human life. The newly liberated discipline saw that as infringing on our ability to think of ourselves as free individuals with almost unlimited choices. Furthermore, a new world power needed to make a break with the existing scientific tradition, especially to the extent that it was associated with German thinking. The change of scientific paradigm corresponded in time to the rise of the American Empire and continuation of English-speaking world dominance under new leadership. Thus, although the original thought underlying the new empiricist paradigm was largely European (Austrian, French, British), its development was mostly American.

The organic view of social behaviour in fact goes back far further than the nineteenth century. A Venetian ambassador to France once said "States are like men in that their vigor and prosperity does not last forever; they mature, they grow old, they succumb" (quoted in Ross and McLaughlin 1981: 305). The Venetian diplomatic corps wrote some of the finest geopolitical analyses of all time, and their city's dominance lasted for more than three centuries. The methodological focus was not on algebra, 3x3 matrices, and Cartesian co-ordinates, such as we see so often in the social sciences today, but much broader. It covered observations on national character, ways of life, natural resources, and military strength and tactics. This methodological tradition later spread to Rome and to the Catholic Church. We find it, for instance, in the writings of Olaus Magnus, Archbishop of Uppsala, who in 1555 published an extensive book on the history of the Nordic people (Magnus 1982).

The methodology was representative for the time; readers wanted books to give clear answers to real problems. A modern-style empirical article would probably have provoked outright laughter - "How long did you live there? Where did you travel? Do you speak the language? You mean to say you know because you questioned 250 people at a supermarket?" Even if you put half a dozen of these research articles together it can still be difficult to say anything specific about a given social problem. Often it will be more useful to read a good magazine, like the Economist or some Quarterly Review. Consequently companies often complain that they get too little value from modern social-science research. If business-school academics largely ignore this critique that is largely because they are safe to do so: it does not threaten them. They are responsible not to the world of real-life business but to a promotion system which is based on the type of research that businesspeople are complaining about. So companies often look for the social data they need among other sources, by piecing together gleanings from geography (maps), history, and current events.

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