Sociological Entropy

I’m currently reading The Fabric of the Cosmos by Brian Greene. The current section is all about the concept of time from the point of view of entropy, which is a way to measure the tendency of a physical system to move from an orderly to disorderly state. It is the second law of thermodynamics and was initially intended to be used in the analysis, design and management of large scale systems and processes where a measurement of the probabilities are needed to calculate the likely-hood of losing efficiency to heat. But it was later discovered by physicists that the equations could also be used to measure the probabilities of any complex system to always move from a state of order to disorder. It occurred to me that the ideas of entropy could just as easily be applied to sociology – since society, at its most basic, is just a large complex system made up of individual human beings (as opposed to individual machines or atoms and molecules). I think there is a kind of social entropy that is constantly at work, forever moving an orderly group of individuals to a state of chaos and disorder.

Throughout recorded history we can see examples of groups coming together to form societies. Early humans huddled in caves to escape harsh environments and to benefit from the principle of “safety in numbers.” It’s much easier for a group to defeat a sabre-toothed tiger than it is for a single individual. What we learned from gathering together in caves was soon applied to food production and hunting. It is far easier to cultivate the land when you work together in a group, as is hunting wild game.

Our ancestors had no experience with this new lifestyle; they were making everything up as they went along. These early forms of society were indicative of what Durkheim called mechanical societies. However, as these early social pioneers began to compete for resources and separate their skills into individual divisions of labor, a more coherent form of society began to emerge. This slightly more advanced form would be an example of Durkheim’s organic society. These changes did not take place overnight. They evolved over many thousands of years and are still evolving to this day. Once these early societies reached a critical state of early order and cooperation, entropy had its chance to begin intervening.

This is the point at which I see the social entropy I described above beginning to come into play. As soon as we (as a civilization) reached the point where we were able to create cohesive and orderly groups, the natural force of entropy began to work against us. As early humans tried harder and harder to create organized societies around common cultural beliefs, entropy slowly worked to undue that progress. For examples, just look at every great “nation” or “civilization” that has come before us. They all rose on the lofty goals and ideals of their founders, only to crash in slow decay at best or complete anarchy at worst. From ancient civilizations like the Egyptians, Greeks and Romans, to more contemporary or modern societies like the rise and fall of the Dutch empire followed by the British empire – even the current decline of our own American empire. No sufficiently complex social structure seems to be immune to this entropic decline.

I am not sure if this idea of social entropy is true, or just my own nonsense rambling. But you have to admit that it’s an interesting coincidence that there is a natural law that describes exactly how the physical world tends toward disorder and how this is paralleled so closely in the history of social and cultural structure. At the very least it gives a new meaning to Conflict Theory. Whether we will ever be able to overcome this natural force remains to be seen. Human ingenuity and the desire to not only survive, but to thrive, may ultimately prove powerful enough to overcome the relentless pull of entropy. Hopefully we can survive long enough to find out.