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A few remarks:

First, referring to the Guardian's paper: I am really fed up with these failed economists (like Thaler and Sunstein) who try to reposition themselves by recycling their poor thinking as bogus psychosociology. What particularly angers me is the fact that politicians and journalists don't even notice the paucity of their production (I would never call this crap a theory). That tells a lot about the said politicians and journalists level of education/knowledge (Only a handful of them, like Gillian Tett seem to be way above the lot). Hellooo! Never heard of Herbert Simon and the bounded rationality theory? Never heard of James March and the Garbage Can Model of decision-making? Never heard of Pierre Bourdieu's concept of habitus? Let alone Korzybski's General semantics...

I agree with most of what you're saying, however I think that most of what is said today (not especially by you) about the Enligthenment comes from a very narrow representation of what it was and produced.

What I would add is that, together with a structural narrative, a society is structured by institutions (in the wider definition of institutions used in socio-economics; i.e. money is an institution, markets are, too...). In this sense, I think the relevant concept is the concept of paradigm. It was first proposed by Thomas Kuhn for the scientific domain: a paradigm is a vision of the world which includes a set of definitions (what is to be thought), objects (what is to be perceived/researched: we could call this a map of reality), problems (what questions ought to be posed), methods (how research should be conducted/ knowledge must be produced) and ways to evaluate the results.

Outside the scientific world, it was further developed by Edgar Morin in "La Methode" (and by Michel Foucault with his concept of episteme): together with definitions, objects, problems and methods, a paradigm includes beliefs (often unconscious), rules (how we should behave), institutions and the relationships between individuals, groups and institutions.

Years ago, I wrote my DEA mémoire on change within organisations. In that research, based on Edgar Morin, Kuhn and Gaston Bachelard's epistemology, I proposed that significant change in organisations (it could be applied to larger collective structures like societies) follow the same pattern/process as the paradigm change process identified by Kuhn in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions:

  • the dominant paradigm has to be seen/felt as failing by a significant part of the community
  • there must be a new, robust "candidate" paradigm which seems to bring better answers/solutions to the problems encountered
  • given the new paradigm has yet to be put to work, it cannot show results, so the process by which it can be able to replace the old one is not demonstration , but seduction: the new paradigm (and those who promote it) must attract/seduce a significant group of people in order for the new paradigm to be implemented and tested against reality
  • the institutions and people who are part of (or play a central role in) the old paradigm (serious people?) are at great risk to lose their power/status (even if some of them can shift to the new one), so they are very likely to oppose change. Therefore creating new institutions and making new actors emerge is a necessary way to induce change.
  • the change process is not linear: internal and external events, as well as collective dynamics can accelerate (or slow down) the process.

Therefore, I agree with what you say, you don't change structural narratives (and paradigms) just by proposing an alternative one, because most people cling to it for cultural, psychological, sociological and economical reasons.  However, the big difference between organizations and (open) societies is that, usually, in the latter, several paradigms coexist, even if there is a dominant one.

There are many examples of change in institutions leading to a paradigm change (apart from the obvious case of revolutions): for example, the The 1905 French law on the Separation of the Churches and State triggered a major change in the French structural narrative.
More recently, the genius of the European Union founding fathers was to start the process by creating new institutions (the ECSC, the Common Market, Euratom) to induce change in the structural narrative of nation-states. Given the tremendous symbolic and economic  importance of money, the introduction of the Euro is a major step in the creation of a new European paradigm.

"Dieu se rit des hommes qui se plaignent des conséquences alors qu'ils en chérissent les causes" Jacques-Bénigne Bossuet

by Melanchthon on Sat Aug 29th, 2009 at 11:58:02 AM EST

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