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(Netherlands Universities Institute for Coordination of Research in Social Sciences, Amsterdam, The Netherlands)


(Dept. of Social Research Methodology, Vrije Universiteit, Amsterdam, The Netherlands)

1. Introduction

 The aim of this paper is twofold: to analyze the influence of Norbert Wiener's ideas on 1) the social sciences, especially sociology and political science, and 2) on the object of the social sciences: social systems, including society as a whole.

 Wiener's own rather ambivalent attitudes regarding the applicability of cybernetics to social systems will be depicted in section 2, followed by his ideas about their structure and modus operandi. Subsequently, Wiener's vision on the development of modern society will be described, especially with regard to the consequences of automation.

In section 3, our analysis will first of all concentrate on the reception of Wiener's ideas by sociologists and political scientists, as evidenced by book reviews, review articles and citations from Wiener's work. Next, attention will be devoted to a number of sociologists and political scientists who were inspired by Wiener's ideas and developed them for their own field - most notably Buckley and Deutsch. Finally, we will deal with a number of researchers from outside the social sciences who might be called sociocyberneticians, as they tried to apply the cybernetic ideas of Wiener and others to the study of social systems.

In our concluding section 4, we will evaluate to what extent specific ideas of Wiener really have penetrated and been accepted in the social sciences; and, more generally, to what extent cybernetic ideas - including those of the so-called second-order cybernetics - are now viewed as useful tools for the analysis of social systems by the social science community.

2. Wiener and social systems

 2.1 Wiener's ideas on the applicability of cybernetics to social systems

Wiener's world view, his ideas on the functioning and the future of social systems and society, will be described in the next paragraph. These ideas were obviously colored by the fact that he was a convinced and enthusiastic cybernetician - he even coined the term cybernetics in its modern sense, although it was first used by Plato for steering a ship, then by Aristotle for steering a community, and more recently also by Ampère for steering a government. Before discussing these ideas, however, it might be enlightening to investigate to what extent Wiener himself believed in the applicability of cybernetics to the study of social systems. The surprising discovery, when juxtaposing his different pronouncements, is that he was extremely ambivalent in this respect.

On the one hand, he was thoroughly convinced that the behavior of man, animals and machines could be explained by making use of the same cybernetic principles: communication, control and learning by means of feedback, etc. This is evident already from the titles of his two best-known books: "The Human Use of Human Beings" and "Cybernetics: or Control and Communication in the Animal and the Machine". In his introduction to the first one he outlines his cybernetic credo [1, p. 16]:

"It is the thesis of this book that society can only be understood through a study of the messages and the communication facilities which belong to it; and that in the future development of these messages and communication facilities, messages between man and machines, between machines and man, and between machine and machine, are destined to play an ever increasing part".

 And also [1, pp. 26-27]:

 "It is my thesis that the physical functioning of the living individual and the operation of some of the newer communication machines are precisely parallel in their analogous attempts to control entropy through feedback. Both of them have sensory receptors as one stage in their cycle of operation: that is, in both of them there exists a special apparatus for collecting information from the outer world at low energy levels, and for making it available in the operation of the individual or of the machine. In both cases these external messages are not taken neat, but through the internal transforming powers of the apparatus, whether it be alive or dead. The information is then turned into a new form available for the further stages of performance. In both the animal and the machine this performance is made to be effective on the outer world. In both of them, their performed action on the outer world, and not merely their intended action, is reported back to the central regulatory apparatus. This complex of behavior is ignored by the average man, and in particular does not play the role that it should in our habitual analysis of society; for just as individual physical responses may be seen from this point of view, so may the organic responses of society itself. I do not mean that the sociologist is unaware of the existence and complex nature of communications in society, but until recently he has tended to overlook the extent to which they are the cement which binds its fabric together".

On the other hand, Wiener was quite pessimistic about the applicability of cybernetics to social systems, and this for at least two reasons. First of all, social science data usually exemplify statistical runs, affected by varying environmental conditions, while one would ideally need long runs under invariant conditions. Second, Wiener considers the social sciences as the discipline where the coupling between observer and observed is hardest to minimize, a phenomenon one side of which is known as observer-dependence. In a sense, one might say these two objections are interrelated: the observer, among many others, inevitably influences the people he studies, thereby contributing to a disruption of the constancy of the conditions needed for longer statistical time series [2, pp. 24-25].

As to this second objection, it should be noted that Wiener mentions here already all the arguments which only two decades later would lead to the formulation of second-order cybernetics, although he himself clearly did not believe in its potential as a workable research paradigm. Reacting to those who want to strengthen the homeostatic elements in society in order to combat its problems, he states [2, pp. 162-164]:

"All the great successes in precise science have been made in fields where there is a certain high degree of isolation of the phenomenon from the observer"......"It is in the social sciences that the coupling between the observed phenomenon and the observer is hardest to minimize. On the one hand, the observer is able to exert a considerable influence on the phenomena that come to his attention. With all respect to the intelligence, skill, and honesty of purpose of my anthropologist friends, I cannot think that any community which they have investigated will ever be quite the same afterward. Many a missionary has fixed his own misunderstandings of a primitive language as law eternal in the process of reducing it to writing. There is much in the social habits of a people which is dispersed and distorted by the mere act of making inquiries about it......In other words, in the social sciences we have to deal with short statistical runs, nor can we be sure that a considerable part of what we observe is not an artifact of our own creation. An investigation of the stock market is likely to upset the stock market. We are too much in tune with the objects of our investigation to be good probes..... There is much which we must leave, whether we like it or not, to the un-"scientific," narrative method of the professional historian."

Reading the above two rather contradictory sets of citations, one may wonder: was Wiener really ambivalent about the applicability of cybernetics to social systems, or was he just outright pessimistic, like he seems to have been on the development of society (see 2.3)? One can only engage in guesswork here. It is imaginable that at least two factors contributed on the positive side: 1) The exciting intellectual climate created during and shortly after World War II by the truly interdisciplinary effort of some of America's top scientists to develop cybernetics, as evidenced by the Macy conferences, with the accompanying and dizzying "eureka"-feeling that here was an emerging paradigm that could help explain the most diverse phenomena in a wide range of disciplines;

2) Wiener's well-documented desire [3, ch. 19; 4] to spread the "gospel" of cybernetics, once formulated, to the educated lay public; he certainly was enough of a realist to be fully aware that the intelligent layman would not be interested in technicalities about largely unfamiliar and specialized fields like neurophysiology or the mathematics of time series, but wanted to hear something new, stimulating and interesting about an area of interest to everyone: society, and what makes it tick.

 On the negative side, several factors may have contributed to Wiener's scepsis:

1) Reflecting on his initial enthusiasm, his rigorous training in the exact sciences may have gained the upper hand; hence his mathematically founded objection, the first one we mentioned, against short time series, produced under rapidly varying conditions as exemplified by most social science data sets;

2) His intensive contacts, already in the early stages of the development of his cybernetic insights [5], with a number of famous social scientists like Bateson, Lazarsfeld, Lewin and Mead may have convinced him of the thoroughly different characteristics of the subject matter of the social as compared to the exact sciences. That at least may account for his seond objection, caused by the sharp realization of the two-way traffic between the social scientist and the object of study, i.e., human groups of one kind or another: not only are the conclusions of the social scientist to a large degree observer-dependent, but the object studied also tends to be changed as a result of the observation.

These four reasons explain some of Wiener's ambivalence toward the applicability of cybernetics to the social sciences; an additional explanation might be found in the fact that sometimes the positive and sometimes the negative reasons were reinforced by his own apparent tendency to alternate between upbeat and despondent moods. According to Deutsch [6] Wiener went through what he himself called a pessimistic "tailspin" at least every three weeks. When they first met during the war, Wiener's first words were: "I am terribly depressed. How are things going?"

2.2 Wiener's views on social systems

It can be said without exaggeration that Wiener was a true interdisciplinarian, both in his education - he studied philosophy, logic, and mathematics - and in his later career where he worked on a wide variety of topics: learning machines, heart fibrillations, artificial limbs, neurophysiology, psychopathology, chess computers, filtering mechanisms for reduction of "noise", etc. Not only was he a true interdisciplinarian, but an extremely gifted one at that. As Deutsch [6, p. 369] remarks tongue in cheek: "I must have met about 20 people who had won Nobel prizes, or were to win them later, and quite a few people one meets around Cambridge, Mass., do not move their lips when reading, but it seems to me that Norbert was literally more gifted than anyone else."

 With such a background, it is not amazing that Wiener developed a holistic world view, and stressed the similarities between machines, animals, human brains and human societies. As to machines, he remarks [1, p. 32]: '.....there is no reason why they may not resemble human beings in representing pockets of decreasing entropy in a framework in which the large entropy tends to increase." The main point they have in common is that they are all based on communication of relatively low-energy information processes that are used to control relatively high-energy matter-and-energy processes.

This control is effectuated by means of feedback, in more complex systems often even nested series of feedbacks. The concept of feedback, the simplest and best known example being the ther- mostat, has solved the age-old problem of the apparent contradiction between causality and teleology, between what Deutsch [6] calls "pushing" causes and "pulling" goals. It is premised on the previously often neglected fact that most causal processes occur in loops.

Core concepts of Wiener's vocabulary are thus communication, control and feedback. He distinguishes different kinds of feedback: linear and non-linear feedback, negative feedback where deviation from the goal at the output side is minimized by corrective action on the input side; positive feedback, where this deviation is on the contrary enlarged, which can give rise to morphogenetic processes rather than goal maintenance; anticipatory feedback where corrective action is taken on the basis of an expected goal deviation in the future, as in the case of anti-aircraft batteries; and informative feedback, where small and still corrigible deviations are produced to test out the environment, as when testing out slippery road conditions.

With his strong background in mathematics and statistics, it is not amazing that Wiener developed a probabilistic world view. As Masani [3] states at the beginning of his biography: "This book attempts to trace the interaction between mathematical genius and history that has led to the conception of a stochastic cosmos". Although there have to be certain regularities in the world for science to exist at all, a system's past does not determine its future, but at best its set of chances for different possible futures. As Heissenberg and others working in quantum mechanics demonstrated, even a system's past cannot be completely determined, as location and speed cannot be measured simultaneously. Nevertheless, science looks for characteristics that remain invariant under transformation: "In a world ruled by a succession of miracles performed by an irrational God subject to sudden whims, we should be forced to await each new catastrophe in a state of perplexed passiveness" [2, p.50].

Apart from these ideas, which in principle pertain to machines, animals, brains and societies alike, Wiener expressed few ideas, cybernetic or otherwise, that are specifically geared towards an explanation of the structure or functioning of social systems and society, and transcend the notions of the average intelligent observer. However, he did devote a lot of attention to the possible effects of the application of cybernetics to society (see 2.3).

The few remarks he made deal with the following issues:

1) He considered learning extremely important, and stressed the survival value of learning through social feedback for human communities. If such learning is impeded, one ends up with "the aspiration of the fascist for a state based on the model of the ant [which] results from a profound misapprehension both of the nature of the ant and of the nature of man" [1, p. 51]. Ants are organized the way they are because they have an inefficient metabolism which limits their nervous system, and moreover loose much of their memory during their different metamorphoses. Human beings, on the other hand, spend much more time learning than other mammals - through different kinds of feedbacks.

2) Much of learning takes place through language. Human beings have not so much the gift of speech - which the apes also have - but rather the gift of the power of speech. Wiener views the human interest in language as an interest in coding and decoding, necessary preconditions for effective communication. As long as only human speech was at issue, human communities were rather simple, limited in size by hearing distance. With the written word, human social systems could grow larger and more complex, with couriers taking messages over greater distances. The modern communication media add speed to these messages and to the resulting interactions, and thus allow for the growth of even more complex social systems.

3) The integrity of its communication channels is essential for the functioning of society; and that integrity is threatened by the increasing cost and complexity of communication. Cybernetically viewed, the criminal law system produces a lot of "noise", as different goals are pursued by different parties: protection of society, education of the criminal, discouragement of others, etc. Information has no owner, as difficulties with establishing patents or copyrights prove, and anyhow it quickly loses its value in a fast-changing world. Moreover, there is no sense in keeping it secret: "There is no Maginot Line of the brain" [1, p. 122].

2.3 Wiener's vision on the development of society

While these ideas, though put in a cybernetic cloak, may be no more than the reflections of an intelligent outsider on the subject matter of the social sciences, Wiener was certainly very astute in forecasting the potentially negative social effects which the application of cybernetics to society would have. At a time when automation was hardly in the take-off stage, he already foresaw joblessness in the automobile industry and elsewhere as a result of the introduction of robots. His social consciousness led him to give speeches to managers, captains of industry and labor leaders, in which he stressed the need for better and different education to prepare labor for the cybernetic age. He concluded, however, that the labor unions were not really interested in a discussion about a future society which is based on other values than the buying and selling of labor and skills, and warned against making the same mistakes that were made during the first and second industrial revolutions, when labor was forced to compete with machines and automated administrative procedures [2, p. 28].

Influenced no doubt by the Cold War and the McCarthy era, he warned against the use of cyberne- tics for military purposes, although - or perhaps because - he knew about nuclear research already in 1943, and kept cordial relations with the military till the end of his life. His anger is directed at the bureaucrats who administer the funds for fundamental research and make it subservient to supposed military necessities, rather than at the military themselves.

"Or perhaps we may say that among the gentlemen who have made it their business to be our mentors, and who administer the new program of science, many are nothing more than apprentice sorcerers, fascinated with the incantation which starts a devilment that they are totally unable to stop" [1, p. 129].

This theme of the sorcerer's apprentice, of the dangers of magic, often recurs [7]. Wiener warns against gadget-minded people and stresses that a goal-seeking machine will only very literally seek the goal one has put into it beforehand, and nothing else. Mistakes can very easily be made: "The penalties for errors of foresight, great as they are now, will be enormously increased as automatization comes into its full use" [7, pp. 82-83]. Wiener admitted that he would never be the first to make a trial run in a cybernetically operated car if it would not have brakes and a steering wheel.

The paradox of homeostasis is that there is always an end to it: "Homeostasis, whether for the individual or the race, is something of which the very basis must sooner or later be reconsidered" [7, pp. 82-83]. Certainly with the increasing introduction of automation, the constant adaptation of the machine to human needs is necessary because society is always confronted with new problems. Both capitalism and communism are based on the now outdated philosophies of men (Adam Smith and Karl Marx) who lived during the early, resp. middle phase of the first industrial revolution:

"Permanent homeostasis of society cannot be made on a rigid assumption of a complete permanence of Marxianism, nor can it be made on a similar assumption concerning a standardized concept of free enterprise and the profit motive. It is not the form of rigidity that is particularly deadly so much as rigidity itself, whatever the form" [7, p. 83].

Wiener considers a reasonable degree of homeostasis only possible in small communities, like the one in New England where he grew up, with their strong social control and consensus about moral values. This consensus is lacking in larger societies: "It is only in the large community, where the Lord of Things as They Are protect themselves from hunger by wealth, from public opinion by privacy and anonimity, from private criticism by the laws of libel and the possession of the means of communication, that ruthlessness can reach its most sublime levels" [2, p. 160].

 Almost half a century before Toffler [8] he concludes that in the larger society of tomorrow the media people will form the new power elite: "That system which more than all others should contribute to social homeostasis is thrown directly into the hands of those most concerned in the game of power and money (...) one of the chief anti-homeostatic elements in the community" [2, p. 161-62].

With his rallying cries against bureacrats, gadgeteers and power elites - people whose influence in his opinion would only grow in an age of automation, where mistakes would be amplified - Wiener was certainly not optimistic about the development of society, if not slightly misanthropic. This is also evident from what he says about communication, where he distinguishes two groups: those that want to get a message across, and those who try to jam that message. In a larger time frame, Wiener's vision on the development of humanity as a whole was even more gloomy; he does not really believe in progress, and remarks as an aside that most of the world religions do not, while Buddhism is even explicitly against progress:

"In a very real sense we are shipwrecked passengers on a doomed planet. Yet even in a shipwreck, human decencies and human values do not necessarily vanish, and we must make the most of them. We shall go down, but let it be in a manner to which we may look forward as worthy of our dignity" [1, p. 40].

3. The reception of Wiener's ideas

3.1 Early reactions to Wiener's ideas in the social science press and elsewhere

Apart from his famous article with Rosenblueth and Bigelow [9], Wiener's most important publications for our purpose are:

1) Cybernetics: or Control and Communication in the Animal and the Machine [2];

2) The Human Use of Human Beings - Cybernetics and Society [1];

3) God and Golem, Inc. - A Comment on Certain Points where Cybernetics Impinges on Religion [7].

We have checked six leading American scientific journals in the area of sociology and political science, during the period 1948-1972, for reviews of these three books: American Sociological Review (ASR), American Journal of Sociology (AJS), Social Forces (SF), Social Research (SR), Political Science Quarterly (PSQ), and American Political Science Review (APSR). The results were rather meagre, and rather negative, to say the least. There were no reviews at all in the two political science journals, PSQ and APSR, and in SF. "God and Golem, Inc." was not reviewed at all. We found only three reviews:

- The first edition of "Cybernetics" was discussed quite critically by an anonymous reviewer in SF [10]. While the importance of Wiener's concept of feedback was acknowledged, his neurological ideas and his analogies between human beings and machines came in for heavy criticism. Moreover, apart from some positive comments about Wiener's Introduction, the book was considered too heavily mathematical for social scientists.

- The second edition was reviewed by M.L. Cadwallader somewhat more sympathetically in ASR

[11]; he likewise criticized the book for its heavily mathematical treatment of the issues, comparing unfavorably to similar works: "After working his way through Ashby's "An Introduction to Cybernetics", the reader will be in a much better position from which to dip into this important and provocative book".

- The third review we found, by H.D. Duncan in AJS [12], was extremely critical, if not sarcastic, about "The Human Use of Human Beings" (1950 edition). Here, a new element comes to the fore, perhaps also felt but not so clearly uttered by the other reviewers: the fact that Wiener, as an outsider in the social sciences, is felt to denigrate the achievements of social science, and to make rather arrogant remarks about the state of the art in social science:

"Perhaps it would be more seemly of Wiener and his colleagues to undertake a positive analysis of society. In doing so, it may be that what has been done in the past can be disregarded, yet there is a chance that some of our social theory and methodology is worth considering. Surely when a responsible scientist turns to the layman he ought not to convey the impression that there is no body of learning which might be of value in understanding society. Social science does exist. That it could be improved upon none of us would deny. But that it can be disregarded with so little concern by the "new scientific revolutionaries" who offer themselves as leaders in the analysis of society indicates a degree of arrogance, parochialism, or irresponsibility that is not without its dangers for the future of intellectual life in America" [12, p. 601].

 Apart from these three rather negative discussions of Wiener's books in the above mentioned six leading social science journals, a search on "Wiener" in "Sociological Abstracts for the period 1953-1993 (the first years by hand, later on CD-ROM) resulted in 16 items. A search in the Social SciSearch file (i.e. the computerized version of the Social Science Citation Index) for the period 1972-1994 yielded an additional 33 items. Many of these references deal with Wiener's mathematical and statistical work: Wiener filtering, Wiener-Granger causality, Wiener kernels, Wiener-Kolmogorov predictor, Wiener analysis of non-linear systems, two-parameter Wiener process, etc. Some of these procedures are incorporated in the statistical tool box of social researchers [38]. We will not discuss them here, as they are not directly relevant for an analysis of Wiener's influence on theory formation in the social sciences.

Another set of references consists of book reviews of books dealing with Wiener's life and ideas, though often in non social science publications. For example, 10 reviews were found of "John von Neumann and Norbert Wiener: From Mathematics to the Technologies of Life and Death" by S.J. Heims [14], only two of them in social science journals ("Social Policy" and "Theory and Decision"), while three reviews were found of Masani's biography "Norbert Wiener, 1894-1964", all in non social science journals. These books, and their reviews in a wide variety of journals, may have helped to disseminate Wiener's ideas to a wider audience of interested scientists in various disciplines.

 As to articles about Wiener in the social science press, Lilienfeld's "Systems Theory as an Ideolo- gy" [15] is interesting for several reasons. Lilienfeld is certainly not a proponent of what he calls "systems analysis", and warns against the naive and often even totalitarian ideas of those that apply the systems approach to societal systems and processes in unabashedly technocratic ways. But more importantly, Lilienfeld also gives us a clue why Wiener's ideas were often received with such scepsis and even irritation by the social science community at large: it is conceivably because the "disciples" like Laszlo, Forrester, and others that might be called sociocyberneticians, often made excessive claims about the potential of the cybernetic approach to solve social problems. As a consequence, the quite modest and realistic "teachers" - like Wiener, Ashby, and von Bertalanffy - are often blamed for the mistakes of their disciples.

Heims [16] stresses the differences qua social environment of some of the fathers of cybernetics, more fully worked out later in his fascinating intellectual history of the Macy conferences [5].

While Von Neumann's frame of reference consisted of high-level government and military men, and Bateson felt most comfortable with the members of the counterculture, Wiener's new audience, after the publication of his books, came from various segments of the general public: business, labor, and managers, for whom he became a speaker in great demand, warning them about the dangers of automation.

In the Soviet Union, Wiener's ideas were on the whole received rather positively, especially after his visit there in 1960, give or take a few of the usual and almost perfunctory nasty remarks about his being a naive and positivist bourgeois scientist in the service of capitalism; see Kösenithal [17]; Bychkov [18]; Batorojew [19]; Agafonov and Khasbulatov [20].

3.2 Social scientists whose work was inspired by Wiener

While short and obligatory references to Wiener as "the father of cybernetics" abound, among social scientists and others, there are few social scientists whose work was deeply influenced by Wiener's ideas. Two of the best-known ones are Walter Buckley [21, 22] and Karl Deutsch [6, 23].

Deutsch [6] has done 18 years ago what we are now trying to do again: i.e. to present an overview of Wiener's contribution to the social sciences. In the meantime, both cybernetics and the social sciences have changed, and it has consequently become harder to pinpoint precisely what Wiener's contribution was: his ideas in the meantime have been mingled with those of people like Ashby, Buckley and other sociocyberneticians. On the other hand, it may have been more difficult for Deutsch to present an objective appraisal of Wiener's influence, since he was both a personal friend of Wiener and an enthusiastic follower, as is evident from his major work, "The Nerves of Government", where his analysis is based on Wiener's core concepts: communication, control, and feedback [23].

Deutsch seems to be rather laconical about the methodological problems of applying cybernetics to the social sciences which Wiener himself saw quite clearly. Deutsch mainly mentions the reactivity of the observations and the observer dependency of the observations made by the social scientist, but hardly addresses himself to the problem of the short time series in the social sciences as compared to the natural sciences. Moreover, he barely deals with Wiener's own "double bind" with the social sciences, as discussed in 2.1. Also, Wiener's stress on probabilistic models, quoted by Deutsch as "the second major intellectual contribution to the style of fundamental thought in the social sciences", may be a new viewpoint for politicians who hate to think of long-term alternative solutions that transcend their four-year term of office, but it is certainly nothing new to political scientists or sociologists, who have surely never been famous for testing deterministic hypotheses. The essayistic style Deutsch employs makes his contribution very readable, but also masks a number of problems which we tried to answer in the above:

1) Why was Wiener received so negatively in the social science community - with a few exceptions like Deutsch himself, and most notably Buckley [21, 22] and Easton [24] - and why did his ideas nevertheless penetrate slowly?

Here, an at least partial answer is perhaps provided by Duncan's remarks, mentioned above (3.1): many social scientists were irritated by an outsider, negating and not even cognizant with decades of social science research, claiming to have superior knowledge and to present a new paradigm, that could explain human actions just as easily as animal or machine behavior. Since Deutsch published his article [6], this resistance against similarities between humans, animals and machines may have somewhat receded into the background, as one has been able to watch "talk shows" on TV with intelligent gorillas conversing in sign language (and even understanding spoken English), while some well-programmed computers have come up with interesting psychiatric diagnoses, that
are not much worse than those of the average psychiatrist.

 2) How could something like sociocybernetics emerge, while the father of cybernetics did not believe in its possibility?

In this case, the answer is relatively simple, and has to do with Wiener's outsider conception of social science as a kind of inferior natural science. Social scientists do not try to uncover the laws of the universe, but are quite content if they can discover some regularities or changes in human behavior. For the latter, extremely short time series, in the view of the natural scientist, can be more than sufficient. Surveys of political attitudes, for example, in the period running up to an election, are often done with intervals of a few weeks, or even a few days. While they are surely not of cosmic importance, they at least suffice to satisfy the curiosity of the politicians; whether they forecast the elections, or influence them is quite another matter [25]. With the exception of longitudinal studies, rarely over more than a few decades, most of social science tends to look at synchronic correlations rather than diachronic longitudinal data. Often, the complexity of phenomena in the present and their correlation with other phenomena are at issue, rather than their development over time.

 Walter Buckley [21, 22] has made the same effort in sociology as Karl Deutsch in political science: while referring less to Wiener than the latter has done, he has certainly been instrumental as well in popularizing Wiener's thinking, and the cybernetic/systems approach in general. Buckley stresses the fact that Wiener, when developing his ideas, was already influenced by the social sciences:


"It should not be forgotten that borrowing and analogizing between the behavioral and physical sciences has never been a one-way street, and that cybernetics, and information theory in particular have been inspired by major clues specifically borrowed from behavioral principles, which then have been systematized in terms of the structural mechanisms involved. Furthermore, it is not without significance that the late Norbert Wiener, major pioneer in these areas, chose the analysis of society as the vehicle for presenting his cybernetic conception to the general public" [21, p. 3].

Buckley also points to contingency as an important concept in Wiener's efforts to explain complex adaptive organization:

"... the more recent concern with complex adaptive organization has led to the notion of contingency as the important key. Thus Wiener, while working in the field of communications and probability theory, became convinced 'that a significant idea of organization cannot be obtained in a world in which everything is necessary and nothing is contingent'" ([21, p. 82], referring to Wiener [26].

3.3 Reactions to Wiener's work by other social scientists and sociocyberneticians not active in the social sciences

Other social scientists who reacted to Wiener's thinking, and to cybernetics in general, were on the whole rather critical. Their objections centered on their perception of cybernetics as unfit for application to the social sciences, although for different reasons: its supposed implicit conservatism and technocratic bias, its assumed inherent reductionism, and its mathematical character and related stress on quantification.

To give a few examples: Lilienfeld [27, p. 221] reacting to Deutsch [23] and Easton [24], views their cybernetic approach as merely a translation in a different conceptual language that adds no new insights to existing political theory. Cadwallader [28, and also 22, p. 440] feels that sociology may continue to need more qualitative concepts, at least for a time, while Busch and Busch [29], p. 47 similarly maintain that the original cybernetics is "inadequate to the task of understanding humans and their organizations". Beniger and Nass [30] stress the negative reactions of the younger "Vietnam generation" of sociologists against cybernetics as not being in tune with their more progressive views.

 MacRae [31] is more balanced in his criticism. Reacting specifically to Wiener [1, 2], he voices a large number of objections, though he is generally positive. He feels that Wiener's rather heavily mathematical treatment makes it difficult to judge the relevance of cybernetics for the social sciences: "... Professor Wiener is a better mathematician than sociologist". He shares Wiener's own objections about social science sampling procedures for small populations, based on small populations, brief runs, and probability theory. MacRae does agree with Wiener's predictions about the effects of automation, but otherwise tends to view cybernetics as an extremely refined behaviorism, with the connotation that "alternative forms of description and analysis in the sphere of human psychology and sociology will continue to prove scientifically adequate and heuristically far more convenient." While he doubts that "sociology will be revolutionized or even seriously modified by cybernetics", he is sure that every social scientist "will see the world rather differently as a result of this exciting work" [31, p. 149].

Some sociocyberneticians, operating from outside the social sciences, have also commented on Wiener's work, usually in a somewhat more positive way than the social scientists, though agreeing that the original cybernetics has to be transformed to some extent in order to be really applicable to the social sciences. To give just one example, Aulin [32] views sociocybernetics as completely different from the original cybernetics: "In other words, for sociocybernetics we shall have to choose another way and one that radically differs from computer-and-automaton-oriented cybernetics. We have to search for our roots elsewhere. We shall, nevertheless, have a good use for one fundamental notion that originally stems from machine-oriented cybernetics. This is the notion of feedback. Canonized by Norbert Wiener in his name-giving book, and coming from the theory of servomechanisms, the idea of feedback states that purposive behaviour of any kind is based on feedback of some kind" [32, p. 8].

While most of the above responses to Wiener's work - both those of the social scientists and of the sociocyberneticians outside of the social sciences - are ambivalent to some degree, it is our impression that Wiener's thinking has reached the sociological and political science communities especially through the work of Buckley and Deutsch, and to a somewhat lesser degree also Easton. We therefore checked the six leading journals mentioned sub 3.1, for the period 1963-1972, on reviews of their works, and found altogether six reviews: three of Buckley [33, 34, 35], one of Deutsch [36], and two of Easton [37, 38]. These reviews reflected the ambivalence of the social science community mentioned above: some were very favorable, while others were rather critical and sceptical.

4. Conclusions

Summarizing the results of the above, the following conclusions can be drawn:

 1) Wiener's ideas on cybernetics have penetrated only to a limited extent in the social science community, and few social scientists seem to have a direct knowledge of his works, although a few of his concepts, like feedback, have become popular though often misinterpreted terms.

2) The same is true for cybernetics/general systems theory generally, in spite of the ample research efforts of the sociocyberneticians. These, however, publish mainly in cybernetic journals, rather than in social science journals.

3) To the extent that Wiener's insights did indeed penetrate in social science circles, it seems to be mainly in an indirect way, through the works of a few highly respected social scientists who were more than superficially inspired by his works, and were widely reviewed in the social science press: notably Buckley, Deutsch and Easton.

4) There seems to be an ambivalence, if not resistance, to cybernetic ideas in the social sciences, which appears to have two main causes. In part it can be attributed to irritation, and rightly so, about the rather grandiose claims made by some proponents of the cybernetic approach, claims which Wiener himself certainly did not make. But also, it can be interpreted as a psychological reaction of social scientists to a perceived threat, an attack on the uniqueness of their specific territory: "human beings are not animals, let alone machines; how does Wiener dare to compare the three?"

5) As noted before, Wiener himself was quite ambivalent about the applicability of cybernetics to social science, although many social scientists correctly considered him quite naive regarding both his insight in social science, and his optimism regarding the solvability of social problems among people of good will.

6) However, Wiener's comprehensive insight in one aspect of societal development, the interrelated effects on education, job market, alienation, the economy, etc. of a progressively more machine-driven and information-oriented society, is generally acknowledged. Contradicting those social scientists who believed him naive, it should be stated that nearly half a century ago, he already presented a brilliant analysis of many aspects of the emerging information society, He not merely stood at its cradle, but was one of those who delivered the baby. Thus, while Wiener's influence on the social sciences so far has been relatively minor, his influence on the society which social scientists try to analyze has been enormous, because he was instrumental in changing one of its "meta-parameters": its rate of change.

7) While Wiener, as one of the fathers of cybernetics, was automatically and wrongly considered to be a rather mechanistically oriented first-order cybernetician, it is noteworthy that he fully shared the objections which second-order cybernetics voiced only much later against first-order cybernetics. However, while he fully shared its principles, he doubted whether it leant itself to empirical verification. In spite of the fact that it seems an interesting and promising paradigm, these doubts still have to be dispelled. 

8) Summarizing, one can only say that Wiener was one of those individuals, as such increasingly rare in a rapidly complexifying world, who was truly instrumental in shaping that world - the information-driven society we live in - while he was fully aware of its dangers. And to the extent that sociocyberneticians will doggedly continue to apply their conceptual framework to the interpretation of society, even Wiener's influence on the social sciences may still be on the increase.


Mifflin, Boston, 1950/1954; second edition Da Capo, New York, 1988

2. Wiener, N., Cybernetics, or Control and Communication in the Animal and the Machine, MIT Press, Cambridge, MA, 1948/1961

3. Masani, P.R, Norbert Wiener, 1896-1964, Birkhäuser Verlag, Basel, 1990

4. Masani, P.R., "The Cybernetics of Labor", in F. Geyer (ed.), The Cybernetics of Complex Systems - Self-organization, Evolution, Social Change, Intersystems Publications, Salinas, CA, 1991

5. Heims, S.J., The Cybernetic Group, MIT Press, Cambridge, MA, 1991

6. Deutsch, K.W., "Some Memories of Norbert Wiener: The Man and His Thoughts", IEEE Transactions on Systems, Man and Cybernetics, pp. 368-372, 1975 (Address presented at the Norbert Wiener Commemorative Symposium at the 1973 Annual Conference of the IEEE Systems, Man and Cybernetics Society, Boston, MA, November 7)

7. Wiener, N., God and Golem, Inc.: A Comment on Certain Points where Cybernetics Impinges on Religion, MIT Press, Cambridge, MA, 1964

8. Toffler, A. and Toffler, H., War and Anti-War - Survival at the Dawn of the 21st Century, Prentice Hall, Englewoods Cliffs, NJ, 1993

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13. Chatfield, C., The Analysis of Time Series: An Introduction, 2nd ed., Chapman and Hall, London, 1980

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22. Buckley, W. (ed.), Modern Systems Research for the Behavioral Scientist: A Sourcebook, Aldine, Chicago, 1968

23. Deutsch, K.W., The Nerves of Government: Models of Political Communication and Control, The Free Press of Glencoe, New York, 1963

24. Easton, D., A Framework for Political Analysis, Prentice Hall, Englewood Cliffs, NJ, 1965

25. Henshel, Richard, "Credibility and Confidence Loops in Social Prediction", pp. 31-58 in F. Geyer and J. van der Zouwen (eds.), Self-referencing in Social Systems, Intersystems Publications, Salinas, CA, 1990

26. Wiener, Norbert, I am a Mathematician; The Later Life of a Prodigyan, MIT Press, Cambridge, MA, 1973

27. Lilienfeld, R., The Rise of Systems Theory: An Ideological Analysis, Wiley, New York, 1978

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29. Busch, J.A. and Busch, G.M., "Sociocybernetics and Social Systems Theory", General Systems, Vol. 30, 1987, pp. 47-55

30. Beniger, J.R. and Nass, C.I., "Preprocessing: Neglected Component of Sociocybernetics", pp. 119-130 in R.F. Geyer and J. Van der Zouwen (eds.), Sociocybernetic Paradoxes - Observation, Control and Evolution of Self-steering Systems, Sage Publications, London, 1986; also in Kybernetes, Vol. 13, No. 3, 1984, pp. 173-177

31. MacRae, D.G., "Cybernetics and Social Science", British Journal of Sociology, Vol. 2, 1951, pp. 135-149

32. Aulin, A., The Cybernetic Laws of Social Progress: Towards a Critical Social Philosophy and a Criticism of Marxism, Pergamon Press, Oxford, 1982

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34. Dykstra Miller, A., book review of W. Buckley [21], Social Forces, Vol. 46, 1967-68, pp. 410-411

35. Johnson, H.M., book review of W. Buckley [22], American Sociological Review, Vol. 34, 1969, pp. 102-103

36. Brody, R.A., book review of K.W. Deutsch [23], American Political Science Review, Vol. 58, 1964, pp. 671-672

37. Converse, Ph., book review of D. Easton [24], American Political Science Review, Vol. 59, 1965, pp. 1001-1002

38. Thompson, D.F., book review of D. Easton [24], Political Science Quarterly, Vol. 83, 1968, pp. 632-634