December 12, 2007

Fractals, Theories and Patterns

author_sally By Sally Raskoff

Have you ever seen fractals ? They are designs that show large patterns made up of smaller and smaller versions of that large pattern. They are discussed in mathematics, physics, and other fields where they notice large patterns consisting of the same pattern but in smaller units. 

clip_image003I came upon a book recently entitled Heaven and Earth that illustrates commonalities between those large and tiny structures through photos taken of tiny or microscopic items.The book progresses to photos of earth’s features from aircraft, satellites, and space. I was struck by how those different realms present seemingly identical images. It’s an intriguing idea to think that the small writ large is a pattern that also applies to human phenomena. 

Most sociological theorists are either micro or macro—they either focus on individual or small group phenomena or entire societies, nation states or global phenomena. Herbert Blumer and others who created symbolic interactionist theories focus on how human actions create meanings and how those meanings are both modified through people’s interpretations and serve to guide people’s actions. Although symbolic interactionist theorists note that humans create society by their actions, they often focus on individual actions and meanings rather than on those of society as a whole.

Some recent theorists, such as advocates of post modern theory, suggest that clip_image009the disconnect between individuals and society might even be a false concept—clip_image006because they see “society” as a false concept. They propose that society might be seen so differently by each individual that society is not a reality outside one’s own perspective. It is only the individual who might ”exist” and society differs for each person based on his or her unique experience and perception.

Rarely does one theorist apply their theories to both types of study. When they do, sometimes they go miserably off the road to understanding.

clip_image012 Emile Durkheim , for example, does a brilliant job of studying societal patterns in Suicide. He illustrates how suicide is not necessarily an individual issue—instead, various societies and communities have different rates of suicide because of varying types of social integration and moral regulation. However when he also explains four distinct types of suicide and uses individualistic examples for each of them, he loses some explanatory power. 

For example, he deals with gender differences in suicide rates by discussing how single men have higher rates than married men and married women have higher rates than single women. He continues to explain that when comparing widows and widowers, “woman can endure life in isolation more easily than man” and that society is less necessary to [a woman] because she is less impregnated with sociability.”

These conclusions are not only incredibly sexist, they also commit an ecological fallacy. This is when one explains individual behaviors with aggregate data (from societies or communities, in essence large groups). One is using one level of analysis (individuals) but uses data gathered from another level of analysis (groups or societies). This is a methodological problem and has an impact upon the theory guiding research.

clip_image015On the other hand, the social theorist Max Weber created theory that included all levels of analysis. He did not try to apply the same theories to all of those levels. His book The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism came from his studies on how religious ethics and economic systems interact. Class, status, and party rest within social groups and help explain the dynamics of power.

His insistence on verstehen, or understanding, links the individual and society and suggests that sociologists must understand the meaning that individuals give to social phenomena before they (the researchers) can truly understand that social phenomena. 

Taking into account both the contributions and challenges that sociological theorists offer us, fractals may explain natural phenomena but may not be applicable to human research. Social phenomena may be so complex that the sum of the parts are much more than the whole, that human interactions and meanings are building blocks but also create whole new structures that we call society.

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Comments

I found it interesting that durkhiems research found links between normal human behaviors to hirer suicide rates such a marriage or being widowed. I also think that Max Weber made a good point on "how religious ethics and economic systems interact. Class, status, and party rest within social groups and help explain the dynamics of power. " Society is really in the eyes of each individual and how or where they are placed in society be it by class or economic status. I thoroughly enjoyed this article

Taking into account both the contributions and challenges that sociological theorists offer us, fractals may explain natural phenomena but may not be applicable to human research. Social phenomena may be so complex that the sum of the parts are much more than the whole, that human interactions and meanings are building blocks but also create whole new structures that we call society. That is not true; there are no ‘whole new structures.’
If sociologists take an absolute position regarding society as an entity over and above the individual then Fractal reality is what we experience. Take for instance the fact that we cannot imagine anything beyond what we already know. Aliens look like compositions of what we already know, human constructs whether roads, buildings, computer programs contain pattern, repeating pattern and those patterns are socially constructed. One might say that math is at the helm of our constructs or science better yet; but as far as the sociologist is concerned or should be is that reality with its math and science is only that which we agree upon, including what math is and science is. We can even apply that to fractals, and of course we should because society and social life is a fractal experience. Read Castoriadis or Hofestadter.

You can read more at www.thesocialimagination.blogspot.com

Actually, I would re-word what you said in this way..."For too long, social scientists and their sociological theories have offered us the idea that the individual is the source of his/her own society; and hence, fractals though able to explain natural phenomena may not be applicable to human research. Social phenomena may be so complex that the sum of the parts are much more than the whole, that human interactions and meanings are building blocks but also create whole new structures that we call society." That is not true; there are no ‘whole new structures.’If sociologists take an absolute position regarding society as an entity over and above the individual then Fractal reality is what we experience. Take for instance the fact that we cannot imagine anything beyond what we already know. Aliens look like compositions of what we already know, human constructs whether roads, buildings, computer programs contain pattern, repeating pattern and those patterns are socially constructed. One might say that math is at the helm of our constructs or science better yet; but as far as the sociologist is concerned or should be is that reality with its math and science is only that which we agree upon, including what math is and science is. We can even apply that to fractals, and of course we should because society and social life is a fractal experience. Read Castoriadis or Hofestadter.

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