Notes on some concepts commonly used for analysis of social relationships and systems

Prepared by Brian Martin

Science, Technology and Society
University of Wollongong



Division of labour

The market

The military

Ownership (1): hardware

Ownership (2): information

Participation and democracy




The state

Some generalisations about concepts

The concept of bureaucracy

Definition Bureaucracy: a way of organising work in which people are treated as interchangeable and replaceable cogs to fill specialised roles.

Some examples of bureaucracies

Some non-bureaucratic ways of organising work

government departments

individual initiative



political parties

feudal estates


free market

trade unions

self-managing collectives

the military


Characteristics of an ’ideal‘ bureaucracy

• hierarchy

• division of labour

• rules which describe the duties of members

• standard operating procedures

• impersonal relations between members


Some consequences of bureaucracy

• control is exercised from the top Æ low commitment from many at the bottom

• knowledge can be used to exercise power Æ top bureaucrats are reluctant to reveal information to outsiders or to lower level workers

• top positions in bureaucracies give power and privilege Æ preserving the bureaucratic structure can become a higher priority than accomplishing what the bureaucracy was set up for

• importance of standard operating procedures Æ doing a job according to standard procedures can become more important than doing the job well (means dominate over ends)

generally more suitable for bureaucracy

generally less suitable for bureaucracy

restricted access to information

freedom of information

centralised computer facilities

computer networks

standard software

custom-made software

specialists in programming, data entry, etc.


The concept of the division of labour

Definition Division of labour: the doing of different work tasks by different people



• gender division of labour: division of work tasks according to sex (e.g. male doctors, female nurses)

• manufacturing division of labour: detailed breakdown of work tasks so that each worker does one small part of the overall production process (e.g. automobile assembly line)

• professions: only some people are trained and allowed to do certain tasks (e.g. law)

• trades: only some people are trained and allowed to do certain tasks (e.g. plumbing)

• management and workers: organisation of work so that some do the actual tasks (workers) while others supervise them (managers)


Computing division of labour design, manufacturing, programming (systems analysis, programming, coding), operating, selling, accounting, cleaning, etc.


Some (partial) alternatives

• job rotation: workers move to different jobs at different times

• multiskilling: workers have skills to do different jobs

• sociotechnical design: designing work and technology around the skills and interests of workers

• desegregation, integration: involving different ethnic groups, sexes, etc., in previously segregated work tasks

• workers’ control: workers collectively organise their tasks, without separate management

• deregistration, deregulation: legal sanction (licensing) is withdrawn from monopolies over work in certain areas by trades, trade unions or professions


Usual rationale for the division of labour: efficiency

Some other reasons

• restrict competition, keep up wages (male trades, professions)

• control the workers (manufacturing division of labour)

• maintain power of managers (capitalism and socialism)

• tradition


How the division of labour can change

• law (licensing, Equal Employment Opportunity, etc.)

• social struggles (demarcation disputes, feminist movement, etc.)

• technological change (elimination and creation of work tasks)

• economic struggle

The concept of the market

Definition Market: a system of exchange based on selling and buying


Some types of markets

• goods exchanged for goods: barter

• money exchanged for goods: (the market)

• labour exchanged for money: labour market

• money exchanged for ownership of corporations: sharemarket

• money exchanged for money: money market


Some terms concerned with markets

• competition: rivalry between business enterprises in a market

• monopoly: control of a product in a particular market by a single buyer or seller

• oligopoly: control of a product in a particular market by a small number of buyers or sellers

• regulation: government intervention in a market

• deregulation: removal of government intervention in a market


Neoclassical economic theory: supply and demand


Some flaws in the ideal operation of the free (unregulated) market

• transaction costs

• externalities: costs imposed on the community, not included in the price (such as environmental impacts)

• imperfect information

• depression: collapse of aggregate demand

• oligopoly and monopoly

• creation of wants (advertising)

• infrastructure costs: natural monopolies

• government intervention: (a) goods market: taxation (e.g. tariffs), subsidies to business, marketing boards; (b) labour market: public education, licensing of trades and professions, EEO, legislation on employment conditions


A market is one way to allocate things among people who want or need them. Some other ways are

• centralised planning (socialism)

• moral rules (e.g., family obligations)

• collective cooperation (self-management)

• self-sufficiency


Market and non-market forms of some activities

non-market form

market form

parental care

paid child care




paid workers

vegetables from your own garden

vegetables bought at a shop

meal prepared at home

restaurant meal

knitting your own jumper

buying a jumper

fixing a tap yourself

having a plumber fix a tap

borrowing a car

buying a car, renting a car

government-subsidised education

full-fee education

public beaches

private beaches

conscript army

volunteer army, mercenaries

blood donations

selling of blood

free public use of roads

toll roads, road pricing, privately owned roads


private guards

Foundation of the market: ownership (property), backed by courts, police, etc.

The concept of the military

Definition The military: forces of men (and some women) and technology which use organised violence on behalf of a state.


• bureaucratic in form, with strict hierarchy and division of labour, rigid rules and duties

• typically divided into army, navy, air force (and rocket forces)

• used against militaries of other countries, and against internal revolt and unrest

• the officer corps are usually politically conservative, supporting traditional (privileged) social classes

• military elites and combat troops are almost always men


Relation to some political-economic systems

• liberal democracy: the military is formally subordinate to elected national leaders

• Communism: the military is formally subordinate to the Communist Party

• military dictatorship: military elites take over government functions

Examples of ‘legitimate’ (legal) violence

Examples of ‘illegitimate’ (illegal) violence

soldiers against enemy soldiers in wartime (combat)

civilians against soldiers in wartime

soldiers against enemy civilians in wartime (e.g. mass bombing)

individuals against individuals (assault)

police against suspects

(Normally it is illegal for police to use violence against suspects, but it often occurs and very few police are ever penalised for doing it.)

political groups against civilians (‘terrorism’)

husbands against wives

(In some jurisdictions it is illegal for spouses to use violence against each other, but men using violence against their wives are seldom penalised.)

employers against employees and vice versa (‘class warfare’)

parents against children

ethnic group against ethnic group (‘racial violence’)

Trends affecting the military

• increasing role of technology in modern war Æ civilian-style division of labour (engineers, technicians, computer programmers, accountants, etc.) to maintain sophisticated weapons systems

• weakening of traditional hierarchical institutions (church, workplaces, schooling, family) Æ less coercive, authoritarian control in the military; more manipulative, bureaucratic control


Characteristics of different methods of defence


offensive capacity
professional soldiers
males dominate
reliance on violence

nuclear-equipped military forces


conventionally armed military forces


defensive-only military defence



guerrilla warfare




nonviolent defence





The concept of ownership (1): hardware

Definition Ownership: legal right of possession

Some types of ownership

• ownership of people: slavery

• ownership of labour power (people’s work): employment, conscription, schooling

• ownership of productive resources (farms, factories, …): capital

• ownership of personal goods (clothes, stereo, …): possessions

• ownership of ideas: copyright, patents


Who can own?

• individuals

• groups (corporations, churches, trade unions, …)

• governments


How ownership changes

• purchase (buying goods, corporate takeovers, …)

• gift

• law (resumption, nationalisation, privatisation)

• force (conquest, theft)


How is ownership enforced?

The concept of ownership (2): information

Special features of information as property: the cost of copying is usually much less than the cost of production; the speed and ease of copying are much greater

Some types of producers of information

• scientists, social scientists: knowledge

• novelists, composers: art

• statistical bureaus: data

• computer programmers: software


Some areas for exercising control over information

• production: ownership of labour power producing information

• information itself: ownership of ideas or their expression (copyright, patents, trade secrets)

• dissemination: ownership of communications media


Types of information according to ownership and availability


Open availability

Restricted availability

Owner: individuals

copyrighted material

personal secrets; private correspondence

Owner: corporations

copyrighted material

proprietary information; trade secrets

Owner: governments

copyrighted material

classified information

Owner: no one

common knowledge; material in public domain

esoteric knowledge; tacit knowledge

Who should own information?

• according to capitalism: individual or corporate producers or purchasers

• according to socialism: government

• according to anarchism: no one


Ways of overcoming exclusive use of information

• purchase

• separate production

• law (Freedom of Information, etc.)

• theft (espionage, unauthorised copying, etc.)

The concepts of participation and democracy


Participation: involvement (in decision-making).

Democracy: rule by the people.

Levels of participation

General description

8 citizen control


degrees of citizen power

7 delegated power

6 partnership

5 placation


degrees of tokenism

4 consultation

3 informing

2 therapy



1 manipulation

Some ways of influencing decisions

• direct involvement in deliberations (as in a small face-to-face group)

• voting for representatives

• voting on policy (as in referenda)

• persuasion through letters, petitions, articles, advertisements, etc.

• pressure through lobbying, door-to-door canvassing, etc.

• direct action such as sit-ins, strikes, boycotts


Benefits of participation

• prevention of tyranny

• wider support for decisions made

• tapping into knowledge and experiences of more people

• satisfaction for those involved


Some obstacles to participation

• vested interests of powerful groups (governments, government bureaucracies, corporations, management, etc.)

• bureaucratic organisations designed for implementing orders from the top

• unequal distribution of knowledge

• lack of interest by most people in most issues


Some types of democracy

• representative democracy, liberal democracy, electoral democracy, parliamentary democracy: government by elected representatives. Approximate example: Australian government.

• participatory democracy, direct democracy: direct involvement of people in social decision-making (rather than via representatives). Example: local government by public assembly of all citizens.

• demarchy: rule by groups of randomly selected citizens, each group dealing with a specific issue. Partial example: the jury.

• industrial democracy: involvement by workers in corporate decision-making. Example: worker representatives on company boards.

• social democracy: socialism (government ownership of major economic enterprises) via electoral methods. Approximate example: Swedish government until 1980s.

• people’s democracy: Communist Party governs in the name of the people. Example: Chinese government.

• teledemocracy: use of telecommunications for discussing issues, voting for representatives or referenda.

The concept of patriarchy

Definition Patriarchy: a set of social relationships which provide for the collective domination of men over women

Note Sex refers to biological differences (chromosomes, genitals, etc.); sexual characteristics are referred to as male, female. Gender refers to socially shaped differences (clothes, hair, ways of walking and speaking, etc.); gender characteristics are referred to as masculine, feminine.

Symptoms of patriarchy

• sexism: individual bias against women

• sexual harassment; rape

• gender division of labour

• gender stereotypes of masculinity and femininity

• split between public sphere (e.g., paid work away from home) and private sphere (e.g., unpaid work at home)

Some ways patriarchy is maintained

• upbringing: expectations of parents, peers, self

• discrimination (in hiring, promotions, giving credit, giving opportunities, etc.)

• social arrangements: nuclear family, church, mateship, competitive hierarchical occupations, gender division of labour, etc.

• force (rape, battering, harassment)

• lack of facilities (for child care, contraception, training, etc.)

• laws and policies: exclusion from occupations, unequal wages, age discrimination, etc.

Some links between patriarchy and computers

• male domination in computer companies

• gender division of computing labour

• exploitation of female workers in computer manufacture

• more encouragement for boys than girls to enter computing

• computers treated as masculine technology

Some strategies against patriarchy

• liberal feminism: remove formal barriers and discrimination, allowing women to compete equally with men

• socialist feminism: replace capitalism (considered an essential support for patriarchy) with socialism

• radical feminism: challenge male domination at all levels, from personal behaviour to laws

The concept of profession

Definitions Profession: an occupation that controls its own working conditions and entry into the occupation. Professionalisation: the process of becoming a profession.

• The ‘classical’ professions: medicine, law, the ministry.

• Partly professionalised occupations: engineering, computer science, teaching, journalism, nursing (workers are usually employees who, collectively, only partly control the conditions of work).

• Non-professionalised occupations: hairdressing, gardening, bricklaying, writing, sports, banking.


Some typical characteristics of professions

• formal qualifications (e.g., degree in medicine)

• extended training (e.g., internship)

• legal barriers against non-qualified practitioners (e.g., laws against practising medicine without a license)

• control over entry into the occupation (e.g., medical school quotas)

• a specialised body of expert knowledge, about which practitioners claim the sole ability and authority to understand and apply (e.g., ‘scientific medicine’: antibiotics, epidemiology, double-blind trials, etc.)

• a set of ideas (an ‘ideology’) justifying special privileges (e.g., service to patients; the Hippocratic oath)


Two strategies for occupational advancement

(1) professionalisation

(2) unionisation

The development of a profession is not rooted in the nature of the work (e.g. medicine) but in the relationship of an occupational group to the wider society.

• Most physicians in Australia are private practitioners, working on a fee-for-service basis. This gives great occupational independence, high status and wages.

• Most physicians in Britain work for the National Health Service on a salary. This gives moderate occupational independence, moderately high status and wages.

• All physicians in the former Soviet Union were state employees. This led to low occupational independence, moderate status and wages.


Development of a computer science profession?


entry open to anyone

computer science training commonly expected

skills learned on the job

knowledge learned in formal courses

recognition according to knowledge and skills

recognition according to qualifications and formal position

low barriers between different tasks

specialisation: programming, coding, operating

The concept of self-management

Definition Self-management: a form of social organisation in which people have a great deal of control over the things that affect their lives


Examples of self-management

• a group of chamber musicians (without a conductor)

• a group of friends (without a formal leader)

• a team of workers (without a boss)

• a study group (without a formal teacher)

• an affinity group of environmentalists

• a feminist discussion group

• an information routeing group


Some terms related to self-management

• anarchism: society without government, typically organised as federations of self-managing groups

• collective: a self-managing group

• self-sufficiency: ability by a group to supply its own needs without outside help

• self-reliance: ability by a group to develop its skills to meet contingencies

• semi-autonomous work group: a group of workers who decide how they will carry out their work within the framework of the enterprise as a whole

• soviet: a local self-governing body

• syndicalism: society run by federated groups of industrial workers

• workers’ control: direct control of enterprises and work by workers


Who controls?

• bureaucracy: control by bureaucratic elites

• market: control by the supply-demand mechanism or by oligopolists

• the military: control by military elites

• ownership: control by owners (or their agents: managers)

• patriarchy: control by men

• professions: control by professional elites

• (representative) democracy: control by elected officials

• self-management: control by all those involved

• the state: control by top politicians and bureaucrats

The concept of the state

Definition The state: a set of social institutions based on a monopoly over the ‘legitimate’ use of force within a territory.

In practical terms, the state is composed of:

• bureaucracies to administer and regulate trade, tariffs, taxation, transportation and communication;

• the legal, police and prison systems;

• bureaucracies for running or regulating education, medical and welfare services;

• the ‘government’, namely the political executive of the state;

• the military.


State socialism (Communism) The state directly owns and administers the large majority of economic enterprises. Also sometimes called state capitalism.

Capitalism Many economic enterprises are not owned by the state, but they are still very constrained by state ownership or regulation of transport, communications, land use, labour, permitted products, etc.

Anarchism There is no state.


A state is not the same as a nation. A nation is a group of people typically with a common language and culture and a set of traditions based in common religion, territory, and political, military and economic institutions. A nation-state is a state with exactly one nation. Examples:

Soviet Union: one state with many nations (Russians, Ukranians, Estonians, etc.).

Jews: a nation spread over many states (Israel, United States, Soviet Union, etc.).

Sweden: almost a pure nation-state (except for Lapps, non-Swedish migrants and guest workers, etc.).


Diplomacy, war, spying and much trade and foreign aid take place between states. ‘International affairs’ are largely relations between states, which are all part of the ‘state system’. International organisations such as the United Nations are composed of representatives of states.

state-based approach

non-state approach


private guards


informal mediation

Australian Broadcasting Corporation

Prime TV


"insurgents"; mercenaries

welfare system

private charities



Water Board

rainwater tanks

Electricity Commission

private electricity generation


agreements, social mores, standard behaviours

state schools

private schools; home schooling

University of Wollongong

Bond University

Some generalisations about concepts


1. Concepts are not reality

A concept is a way to describe reality; the concept is not the reality itself. (Actually, some philosophers argue that concepts are the only reality.)

‘The military’ or ‘ownership’ are only concepts. They can be used to describe, label, attack, justify or obscure what actually goes on.

Just because there is a concept, don’t assume that reality has something that corresponds to it. For example, there is the concept of ‘the information society’; there is not necessarily a real information society.


2. Concepts are tools for thinking

Concepts are useful tools if they lead to desirable ways of dealing with actual situations.

The process of conceptual modelling can break down at any stage, including abstraction, analysis and application.


3. There are different ways to model reality using concepts

There are often many concepts which describe something from different perspectives.

There are some things for which there are no concepts.


4. Concepts about social arrangements are blunt

Any concept about a group or pattern of behaviour, such as ‘market’ or ‘profession’, is a generalisation. It cannot provide insight about individual details.


5. Concepts are contested

Concepts do not grow on trees: they are created by humans. Different people and different groups use concepts to serve their own purposes: they contest with each other over the meaning and use of concepts.

For example, ‘democracy’ is widely considered desirable, so different governments each call their system democratic, even though it may rule by elected officials and non-elected bureaucrats (representative democracy), by a communist party (people’s democracy) or by generals (guided democracy in Indonesia).

Defining and using a concept is an act involving the exercise of power.


6. History is important

Most concepts about society assume a ‘snapshot’, namely a picture of society as it is at a particular time (a ‘synchronic’ picture).

But society has a history. The present is a product of developments over time. An historical (‘diachronic’) analysis is crucial.