Academic journal article Review of Social Economy

Organizations, Naturalism, and Complexity

Academic journal article Review of Social Economy

Organizations, Naturalism, and Complexity

Article excerpt

Abstract The paper discusses the ontological aspect of naturalism by recasting the debate between reductionist and functionalist views of organization. Crude naturalism advocates the reduction of organizational goals to the presumed preconstituted preferences of its members, while antinaturalism maintains that the organization has an individuality to the extent that the behavior of members is a function of organizational goals. The paper argues that both camps ignore complexity. The idea of complexity highlights the context-sensitivity of the action of agents. The idea promises to supersede the simplistic reductionism/functionalism dichotomy and, hence, to embrace naturalism without falling into reductionism.

Keywords: Ontological individualism, functionalism, levels of complexity, context dependency, biological organization


The paper recasts the theory of organization in terms of naturalism. While there are diverse meanings of naturalism, it generally argues for the continuity of human sciences and the sciences of the rest of natural phenomena (Danto 1967; Bhaskar 1979). Naturalism raises questions like whether human organization introduces radical novelty which necessitates new principles beyond what is offered to explain lower-level biological organization. Also, it asks whether human institutions are the product of a deep human nature. Further, it inquires whether humans are purposeless entities, e.g., optimizers of utility, as nonhuman organisms are supposed to be. The naturalist agenda broadly advocates that human society, institutions, and purposes are part of nature in the sense that there is no need to appeal to extra-natural principles or separate qualities (like scientific reason, conscience, intentionality, or spirituality) to account for the human phenomenon. Naturalism simply completes the Copemican dethroning of man from any meta-natural position.(1)

With regard to organizations, it invokes the issue of whether higher-level organizations (like firms, tribes, and states) are fully explainable in terms of preassembled preferences of the members. If so, one would be advancing a crude naturalist position where only lower-level biological organizations have primacy. If one instead maintains that higher-level organizations are social individuals whose activity has a central dimension which cannot be explicated in terms of the preferences and behavior of lower-level members, he would be advancing an antinaturalist position. He would be constructing a solid wall between the social and biological levels which make up an individual organization.

So, if a social scientist appeals to metaphors borrowed from the natural sciences, would it entail a reductionist mode of reasoning? Does likening the firm or the state to organism mean that social organization lacks individuality? The answer undeniably depends on how one conceives the organism. If the organism is seen as no more than a "vehicle" to serve the interests of macromolecules -- as Richard Dawkins (1982) argues -- the social organization would be viewed as an association fabricated in order to meet the pre-constituted ends of its members. But in opposition to such crude naturalism, if the organism is conceived as an indivisible bundle of emergent capabilities which cannot be meaningfully reduced to lower-level biological organizations, the biological metaphor would suit the need of antireductionist social scientists (e.g. Hodgson 1993).(2)

The central thesis of the paper is that antireductionism need not go to the other end of the pole and advocate antinaturalism. Much of the misgiving about the use of natural metaphors to describe social individuals probably arises from misconceptions of the organization of organisms (Khalil 1995e). The antinaturalist outlook is not only pervasive among social economists -- like John Maurice Clark (1957) and Wemer Stark (1962) -- and mainstream sociologists and political scientists, it also colors the vision of some orthodox neoclassical economists. …

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