Top Menu

Choice in social structures

Alan Scott, TASA member and Applied Sociology Thematic Group Continuing Education Officer.


The social and economic order that the social scientist observes and describes is the spontaneous result of the inchoate, often contradictory beliefs, desires, and opinions people have at a given moment.  The patterns are not created by objective qualities of the items involved.  The patterns, if there are any, arise as an unintended consequence of each individuals conscious actions.  The social sciences, unlike the natural sciences, cannot make generalizations that allow for precise predictions of future events.  Economics can describe what choices people have made in the past, but the data about the beliefs and desires and shifting values of the agent are subjective, unique, and only knowable by an individual at the moment of choice.  There is no objective data on which a social scientist could base a general rule that would allow an accurate prediction of future beliefs, desires, and values.  Planning to satisfy someone’s desires before he or she is in a position to choose is impossible.  Any attempt to do so removes the freedom of the individual to make his or her own free choice at the moment.

The above quotation comes from the book “Philosophy & Terry Pratchett”, (Ed. J.M. Held & J.B. South, p118, ‘Palgrave-MacMillan’, 2014″,) in the chapter by Kevin Guilfoy.  He makes the point, in an academic way, which I have been making for a long while.  It speaks to me particularly, because I keep hearing mathematicians going on about algorithms, by which everything can be analysed.  They seem to be trying to say we don’t exist as thinking people and that they can produce an algorithm that will predetermine what we will do or say.   In a totalitarian society this may be possible, because people’s choices are limited to obey or be punished.  In Australia and other democratic countries, the choices people have for dealing with any issue are usually more than two.  Yet we must remember that Plato who invented the set of five names used for political social structures, suggested that these structures progressively degenerate from Aristocracy, through Timocracy, Oligarchy, Democracy, to the final step, from Democracy to Tyranny.


Mathematicians, together with a computer, want to believe that everything is fixed and you just turn things into numbers and the answer is a number.  The whole point about humanity and much of animal life is that they live with choices and up until the choice is made, right or wrong, good or bad, there is no certainty in the options they will choose, as has been demonstrated by the recent federal election. However, there are other ways which can determine how we are divided from others in society.  Stratification is one way which can be used.  Stratification is where people are ranked hierarchically by separating them by their wealth.  The very rich at the top and the very poor at the bottom.  This does not tell us much about the life stories of individuals, only the distribution of wealth in a certain place at a certain time.  Tȍnnies made the division between those who live in urban areas and those who lived in rural.  He pointed out how they do things differently particularly in their inter-relationships.  For instance, people living in a village would have gone to school with the others of the same age group and anything required more than one person to do or work at.  If they went to the local shop, they would exchange what news there was about the health of people, what they had done and what might be happening in their family.  In the urban community, the people serving in the shop only want to know what you want to buy.  They don’t usually know anything about your family and friends, or want to know.  Country towns are somewhere in the middle.  The important thing for the applied sociologist is, you can identify a person’s possible options, but not what their choice will finally be.