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The Associative Society of the Future

Paper presented to a panel on 'Cumulation in international relations; transnational relations' at the 20th annual convention of the International Studies Association, Toronto, March 1979. Printed in Transnational Associations, 1979, 6, pp. 259-265 [PDF version]

Abstract: Possible future environments for associative activity are briefly discussed to show that, irrespective of the conditions, it will continue to have a noteworthy function. Current influences on its quantitative significance are examined in terms of: constraints, technology, problem complexity, human and social development needs, and innovation. Trends determining the nature of associative activity in the future are then noted. The problems of current research approaches in apprehending such activity are considered and possible alternative emphases are discussed under the headings: 'conceptual surface', integrative perspectives, facilitation and design of alternatives, and the role of actors (including the research communities).

It is argued here that, whatever the official institutional future, associative activity will continue to play an important role. It is possible to move beyond the sterile IGO/NGO dichotomy and develop a new image of society consistent with the changing image of man (5). Expanding on McLuhan's classic phrase, the image is determined by the research method: the method is the image. We need a new method which will respect variety and interrelate its elements in a meaningful whole.

Possible future environments for associative activity

Before considering the nature of associative activity in the future, it is appropriate to consider briefly some of the possible conditions of society. These have been discussed on many occasions in the futures literature. Three factors will be considered here: order, technology and resources (non-technological).In the case of order, societies can be envisaged in which the predominating influence is any of the following:

  • government/military
  • business
  • media
  • ideological/religious
  • scientific/technical.

This influence could be relatively centralized or decentralised. It could be effective in ordering society (even to the 'big brother' limit of the 'brave new world') or it could be so ineffectual that society is primarily characterised by disorder and chaos (after the 'holocaust').In the case of technology, high, low and intermediate technologies may be characteristic of the society. And of course the same may be true of resources.

Clearly it is unlikely that the world society as a whole would be characterised by any particular form, or that an extreme form would persist for any great length of time in one area. A mix is more probable, particularly the co-existence and alliance between extreme forms as discussed below.

These points are made in order to show that, whatever the social environment, the associative form of activity will play a role which merits attention. The major reason for the increasing importance of associative activity is that countries, and even large institutions, are rapidly reaching a point of being ungovernable (1). By this is meant that it becomes increasingly difficult for the governors to formulate any decisions or plans which are:

  • (a) comprehensible to those whose interests they supposedly serve,
  • (b) implementable without compromising their value, and
  • (c) relevant to the condition of society.

Society is becoming too complex for existing institutional formulas. Those with power must obviously attempt to proceed as though this was not the case. The predominating ordering influence, or mix of influences, will generate a social environment ordered in some respects, however crudely. And this is the point. The extent to which the governing capacity can control society will always leave a 'vacuum' of uncontrolled conditions:

(a) to which its reach cannot be extended - except arbitrarily or temporarily;

(b) which it considers irrelevant to its preoccupations; or

(c) which it recognize as necessary in its uncontrolled state, whether as a safety valve, or as an arena through which certain things can be handled which could not be handled otherwise.

People have shared interests which lie beyond the perceptual horizon of governing bodies. Responses are required to problems to which the predominating ordering influence is insensitive or to which it cannot be made sensitive in time. It is this 'vacuum' which is filled by associative activity.

The governing body may attempt to reduce the size of the vacuum, if it is perceived as destabilising. Such activity may be regulated, administered or even suppressed. Alternatively development of such attention absorbents as the media may be encouraged to the point of saturation. The more pessimistic foresee applications of mind-control drugs (it some a) or extremely low frequency electromagnetic waves to achieve similar ends. It is doubtful whether such measures can be totally successful for any length of time, as the information on the inmates of concentration camps and slave societies has shown. Whilst the quantity of associative activity may be reduced, its significance does not decrease even if it is perceived as subversive of 'good' order or 'criminal'.

Furthermore, whatever measure is applied, sufficient individuals will adapt in terms of it so that its effectiveness is gradually eroded. On the other hand, rather than move to reduce associative activity, efforts may be made to harness or manipulate it to the ends of the predominating system of order. This may be done through cooperatives particularly at the rural level, through labour unions, sporting and cultural clubs, etc. Efforts to politicize such activity, for example, are evident in many countries, at all levels (2).

The United Nations makes considerable efforts to use association networks as media through which to mobilize public opinion in support of the U.N. (3).

But whether or not associative activity can be temporarily contained at the grass-roots level, it is found to be necessary between the individuals of the dominant establishment in order to compensate for the coordinative and liaison inadequacies via official channels. There are many examples of elite networks and clubs through which necessary contacts are maintained amongst the leadership, whether national or international. It does not seem that the interstitial significance of associative activity would be diminished by technological extremes or extremes of resources. Its nature is changed but it continues to play an important role. The point is clarified by a delightful description of the classic example of a highly technologized programme: the development of Polaris using the sophisticated management tool called PERT (Program Evaluation and Review Technique). A recent study of the management system for the Polaris activity finds that though PERT was 'as effective technically as rain dancing, it was nevertheless quite effective politically' (4 p. 246). The chief utility of the system was not control of the organisation, but the appearance of formal rationality which could be presented to outside agencies. The real management of the programme was carried out in an intensely personal fashion, through small, informal meetings and frequent telephone calls. 'The existence of an integrated, uniquely effective management system was a myth originated by the Special Projects Office. The further removed it was from the source, the more embossed the myth tended to become' (4 p. 106). One may ask how true this is of many formal organizations in a highly technologized environment.

may ask how true this is of many formal organizations in a highly technologized environment.

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