Monday, 2 July 2012

A Science Of Society?

The premise of both Isaac Asimov's Foundation series and Poul Anderson's Psychotechnic future history is that a group of experts can apply a science of society to society, thus ensuring that a government, or a clandestine group monopolising the science, would be able to achieve its aims (an Empire can be rebuilt on schedule; discontent can be managed so as to prevent social breakdown) as readily as an engineer can build a bridge. The same idea occurs in works by Heinlein and in other works by Anderson.

Anderson's Maurai Federation has made some moves in this direction. Their paramathematical psychology is at an early stage but "...helps control population..." (1)

Ruori of the Maurai sees evidence that his current enemies sometimes fight each other and reflects that:

"The Federation's political psychologists were skilled at the divide-and-rule game." (2) 

Ruori, understanding social processes, sees that the settled Meycan civilisation can conquer the "Sky People" raiders not with an army but with priests (Christian missionaries), merchants, culture and learning. He advocates this because he wants to preserve the Sky People's scientific approach which the Meycans, for all their rote learning from ancient texts, lack.

How plausible is the idea of an applicable science of society as practised by Asimov's "psychohistorians" and Anderson's "psychotechnicians" and approached by Anderson's Maurai? The premise of the Maurai series is that the industrial technological civilisation of the Northern Hemisphere had destroyed itself in a nuclear war so that the Islanders in the Southern Hemisphere, lacking metal to cannibalise, have had to survive by applying scientific method not to oil, iron or uranium but to wind, sun and life. This could include their paramathematical and political psychology.

However, society is us, not an external substance or process that we can observe from outside and perform experiments on. Maybe we, by cooperation and education, can together acquire a better understanding and control of our own activities? The idea of the applicable science of society as presented in these works of sf seems to be the idea of a minority manipulating the majority. And, since society is divided into conflicting interest groups, this controlling minority is likely to serve either its own interests or the interests of whichever other group pays its salaries and funds its activities. Anderson's Psychotechnic History does show the Psychotechnic Institute being overthrown and society preferring to live without that kind of minority control.

(1) Anderson, Poul, "The Sky People" IN Maurai And Kith, New York, 1982, pp. 9-71 AT p. 22.
(2) ibid., p. 34.

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