The Four Forces for Sociology

I’ve been fascinated by the idea of the four fundamental forces in physics ever since I first learned of the idea. I used it as a metaphor for Big History in A Brief History of the Corporation a few years back. Brian Skinner’s meditation on Coulomb interactions and some conversations with my favorite crazy engineer Artem Litvinovich (blog, twitter) have gotten me thinking about the four forces again.

I made up a metaphorical mapping of the four forces to sociology. It’s not pretty, but it’s interesting.

  1. Sex and kinship are the strong force of humanity. Just as proton decay (theoretical, not yet confirmed) is likely to be one of the slowest processes in the universe, this force keeps social groups together via the tightest, most enduring bonds. It is also the force the messes up every attempt to create truly impersonal institutions. There are probably more long, documented bloodlines than there are long-lived corporations, multi-generational friendships or business relationships.
  2. Trust is the weak force. It has transitive effectiveness (if A trusts B and B trusts C, then A trusts C type effects) up to about 1-2 degrees at most on the social graph. It is the core glue of Gemeinschaft and non-segmentary (irreversibly bonded) social structures. But it really does not do anything more than 2 degrees away. Try getting a useful 2-hop introduction to someone and you’ll see what I mean. Trust is probably the defining feature of subcultures, which are probably the biggest credible threat to kinship structures.
  3. Skills complementarity is the electromagnetic force. Responsible for all partly reversible, functionally-constituted entities. All the way from business partnerships to tribal alliances to a large corporation or army. If this force is being worked right, you can even work with people you don’t directly trust. You can trust somebody to fix a machine without trusting them with financial control for instance. Impersonal institutions tend to rely on this force the most, as do Gesellschaft structures in general.
  4. Brand attraction is like the gravitational force. It only becomes relevant in sufficiently high aggregation of humans that all act under the aegis of a powerful symbol. Even where this is a single human at the center of a brand, like a king or Steve Jobs, the branded persona that creates the attraction field is distinct from the person, and has brand equity via social proof. At the interpersonal, 1:1 level, trust, skills and kinship all easily trump brand. You can see this process visibly unfold when a charismatic speaker, with a significant halo effect, steps off the stage and interacts with the audience informally at a drinks session. Many of the finest stage-charisma speakers come across as completely wooden and unrelateable once they step off the stage. The halo of a speaker or brand really is a reality-distortion field in the same sense as large masses bend space around them. Jobsian reality distortion is a kind of gravitational lensing effect. I think brand attraction always has an egregore at its center.

I’m still playing with the metaphor and putting it through its paces. But it has already proved useful. For instance, we can think of the difficulty of creating true impersonal institutions (due to mechanisms such as nepotism, cronyism and regulatory capture) as being similar to induced currents and magnetism in neutral charged or unmagnetized ferromagnetic materials.

Brands are interesting phenomena. Two companies with the same revenue and employee headcount can have vastly different brand equities. This struck me forcefully several years back, when I was working at Xerox and had some indirect dealings with a company you’ve probably never heard of, Illinois Tool Works.

At the time, both companies were approximately the same size, but Xerox obviously had/has a vastly more recognizable brand. It struck me at the time that one contributing factor was organization structure. Xerox is a relatively coherently integrated business with only a handful of distinct lines of business. ITW on the other hand, is a conglomeration of a very large number of small businesses put together through M&A activity (in fact, an ITW speaker at an event I was at described the company’s main competency as M&A).

Another interesting mapping to consider any time you use a four forces metaphor is attraction/repulsion symmetry. As a crude approximation, the first three forces can be both attractive and repulsive depending on the interacting bodies, though there seems to be some doubt about whether the strong force can be repulsive in real conditions.

This seems true in the social metaphor as well. Are strong brands primarily attractive? I think so. You can’t anti-buy a product or anti-listen to a speaker. You can just neutrally get out of reach.  Competing brands can try to cast a negative light on a brand, but that’s arguably not repulsion proper.

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About Venkatesh Rao

Venkat is the founder and editor-in-chief of ribbonfarm. Follow him on Twitter

Comments

  1. I’ve had a similar fascination with the four forces. The big revelation for me happened years ago in a philosophy class where the professor was trying to explain the various words in Greek for love. It was during his meandering attempts to describe Agape that it dawned on me that it had a similar resonance to descriptions of Gravity. From there I then linked Eros to Electo-Magnetism which left Storge (family) and Philia(friendship) to handle the strong and weak forces.

  2. Autolykos says:

    “[…]though there seems to be some doubt about whether the strong force can be repulsive in real conditions.”
    I don’t doubt it. Have you ever seen a truly failed relationship (romantic or family) come apart? Not pretty.

    • mikecotton says:

      My thought was that family splits, in this model, mapped to nuclear fission, and that truly bringing two families into a meaningful whole mapped to nuclear fusion, both in being much more powerful, and in being much, much harder for humans to achieve.

    • Makes sense, yeah.

  3. I like this idea. I have not thought about applying the 4 forces as a mental model before. It got me thinking about mixing the idea with sociology and neurochemicals:

    * Oxytocin Strong Force: Holds us together. The stronger the bond the more resistance that it can endure
    * Dopamine Weak Force: Drives interaction, but most effective on shorter tasks
    * Seratonin Gravity: Draws others toward each other
    * Cortosol Electro Magnetic: Determines the openness to interaction

  4. Are there also forces of an a-sociology?

    Not even the neutrino escapes brand attraction according to the model, but is brand attraction really the residual force for Bartleby or our heroic sociopaths, who are seeking for exploits before they exit?

  5. I spent too much time in my formative years hanging around with the Theory of Everything dudes, but my first impulse—and flag that word for special irony—is to recast all these along a sort of habit axis, in the sense Dewey meant that word. Something like: Sex and kinship habits are the least subject to reconsideration or modification; trust relationships persist as long as there aren’t too many anomalies and inconsistencies that bring attention to the habits through which they are enacted and undertaken; skills complementarities require active attention and collective work to fall into place, and brand (or subculture or more generally “cultural” and “aesthetic”) attractions are medium-term states of habit.

    The trick with my use of “habit” in this sense, as always, is that what I mean is not the colloquial term but something Dan Little has explained pretty well in his work.

    Anyway, as you probably know by now, this is just a thing I do whenever anybody plops a bulleted list down in front of me.

  6. Amusingly, this quote from Herodotus was in the very next tab I had open in my browser.

  7. For a more deep analysis of this issue is better to refer to:

    “Images of organization” by Gareth Morgan