Nassehi, Armin (2021), Unbehagen - Theorie der Überforderten Gesellschaft, Tübingen: C.H. Beck.
Social and cultural development in modernity comes at a cost. The discomfort experienced in modern culture is rooted in the tension between the individual and the demands of an increasingly abstract and norm-driven culture. The development of culture leads to greater conformity and individual self-control, which may be detrimental to individuals. But how does modern society respond to self-generated problems and why does it often fail to address them effectively? This is the subject of prof. Armin Nassehi’s book “Discomfort – Theory of the Overstressed Society”. Because the structure of modern society lacks central coordination and internal stop rules, uncontrolled developments happen in various domains. Why does society allow suffering and problematic situations to persist despite having the means to prevent them? Latent conditions are important for maintaining social order. Action, habit, and togetherness explain the functioning of society and shape social reality. Freud's original book about Discomfort described the idea that cultural progress leads to guilt and the need for compensation. On top of this, there is a gap between concepts and possibilities for action in addressing issues like the climate crisis, which emphasizes the complexity of societal structures and the challenges of implementing necessary changes. Conflicts between functional systems intensify during crisis situations such as the COVID-19 pandemic and the climate crisis. These crises reveal the coexistence of different perspectives and goals that resist complete integration or control. Crisis situations expose the difficulty of developing clear problem descriptions and solution concepts and highlight the latent problem of latency loss. Solutions can only emerge when the unconditional nature of one's perspective is questioned.
During stages of the COVID-19 pandemic, when infection rates were low, many actors behaved as if the problem was solved, disregarding warnings of potential future waves. This reaction cannot be solely attributed to political mistakes or lack of preparation but is also a result of society's tendency to focus on the present and overlook long-term consequences. Society is fixated on immediate present circumstances, with actors prioritizing their own interests and short-term planning. The lack of sustainable foresight and coordination in dealing with the pandemic demonstrates the difficulties of achieving unified action in a differentiated society. Societal failures in dealing with complex crises arise from society's own inability to address and respond to these challenges. The COVID-crisis revealed the vulnerability and interdependencies of various sectors of society, such as work, family, education, and politics. The disruption caused by minor changes in everyday life and decision-making processes emphasized the contingent and vulnerable nature of societal interfaces. The crisis also highlighted the predictability and patterned reactions of different actors, but it revealed the difficulty in finding solutions, implementing them, and navigating conflicting perspectives. Society struggled to confront the complexity of the problem, which lay not solely in the virus itself but rather in society's own reactions to it. The crisis shattered the protective shield of social habits and predictable institutional arrangements, exposing the true nature of society.
Intellectual conceptions of the world are influenced by practical habits and actions. The act of writing reflects the balance between consistency and the inconsistency of the world, shaped by individual practices. There is no perfect version of the world that can be achieved through implementation. But the normative potential of language can make it appear so. There is a tension between criticizing society and being part of it. Equating necessity with possibility is misguided. Societal changes require time and repetition to become stabilized, and evolutionary restabilization processes are often underestimated. There is an interplay between evolution and disruption in society, which highlights the importance of stability, patterns, and gradual change in social structures and practices. For instance, the global climate protest movement shows a slow and evolutionary societal change that occurs below the threshold of immediate attention.
Society is differentiated into various systems such as economy, politics, law, science, and family and synchronizing the different logics employed is challenging. Society relies on symbolically generalized communication media (shared symbols, meanings, and narratives in facilitating social interactions, coordination, and the construction of social order within modern societies) to maintain coherence despite diverse perspectives. One should look beyond community to create a more comprehensive understanding of societal order that goes beyond mere recognition and moral support and considers the functional differentiation of society and the complexity of social systems.
Differentiated problem-solving and the inclusion of marginalized groups are to be considered. For example, refugees are often treated by different societal institutions based on specific roles or labels such as refugees, patients, beneficiaries, students, employees, tenants, etc., rather than being recognized for their full range of identities. When refugees are able to meet society without being confined to specific forms, the inclusive power of society becomes effective, and they can integrate into various aspects of society. Of course, their life situations may still differ from those of the native population over time. The persistence of migrant markers indicates the lasting effects of migrant experiences across generations. Modern society demands simultaneous membership in various subsystems, resulting in a form of multi-inclusion. This does not eliminate inequality; it instead generates significant differences in the forms of inclusion. Society strives for homogeneity in the social dimension, despite the functional differentiation of modern society. The nation is a dual entity that politically generates emancipation and equality through membership while culturally producing forms of otherness. Prejudices against migrants reflect the stabilizing role of institutions in maintaining continuity in a discontinuous world. The unease triggered by migration is not solely due to the presence of migrants in a country but rather the confrontation and resentment toward migrant experiences, which reveal the fragility of the taken-for-granted aspects of society. In the social construction of categories like race, statistical differences among racial groups can be explained by societal inclusion rather than inherent differences.
Modern societies rely on complex arrangements and flexible institutions rather than strict control mechanisms to navigate complexity. Institutions such as legal systems, labor markets, political systems, education systems, healthcare, mass media, and religion contribute to the formation of individual identities, career paths, consumer behavior, political affiliations, and personal beliefs. Modern societies embrace complexity and variation by allowing freedom and flexibility, but this presents challenges in ensuring social cohesion and providing sufficient opportunities within a context of inequality and differential access. Various other institutions, such as marriage and family, the social welfare state, parliamentary democracy and political parties, and civil and human rights, play crucial roles in maintaining continuity in individual lives and society as a whole. These institutions provide private spaces for fulfilling non-paid activities, address societal needs, generate political identities, and secure personal continuity and independence. Political conflicts and programs revolve around the variability, adaptability, and binding nature of these institutions. They connect the functional systems of society, enabling selective perception and high degrees of freedom within their respective domains. This discussion shows that a pure focus on the social dimension is limited; the tension between continuity and differentiation in modern society should be considered as well. Andreas Reckwitz's proposal of embedded liberalism and Jürgen Habermas' discussion on communicative rationality can be criticized for reflecting specific subcultures or offering a way to invisibilize the conditions of the common by confronting cultural differences. The reduction of society to the social dimension makes the complexity and structural reasons for goal conflicts and differentiation consequences more bearable. The social sciences have predominantly focused on the social dimension and the sociodicy of the communal, projecting premodern forms of sociality. This inclination towards the social dimension stems from a collective societal memory of premodern forms of sociality where natural forms of binding prevailed. The current prevalence of identity politics is connected to the logic of the familial, which seeks to protect certain spaces from intrusion by larger society. The shift in identity politics towards identification based on competing cultural offerings has both diminished and intensified the debate on identity politics, leading to challenges for social democratic parties. Arlie Russell Hochschild's book "Strangers in Their Own Land" shows that political, economic, and legal conflicts often get translated into identity and recognition issues. The loss of social and economic status leads to fears of recognition and reputation loss, and religion plays a significant role in providing continuity and identity. Describing and addressing society as a group or entity in the social dimension is problematic. We can instead focus on social groups of related speakers characterized by identity questions and differences. And we have to beware of the difference between subjective and objective class positions and the intersectionality of social positions based on various factors.
Both the criticism of moralism and the defense of identity politics often take moralistic stances. Moral arguments can simplify the complexity of societal interactions. Communication and mutual respect play a role in the simplification process. Examples of over-moralization include the polarization of American society, identity politics, outrage culture, and the intensified dynamics of communication during the COVID-19 crisis. Over-moralization is rooted in a reductionist understanding of society, where individuals tend to shrink into particular groups and perceive their own perspective as absolute.
Organizational power is necessary to bring about the ultimate goal of meritocratic leadership, which is to bring heaven back to earth. Society constructs self-descriptions that conceal the complexity of simultaneous differences, often focusing on political semantics to create a sense of social space as a differentiated collective. Democratic politics aims not only to identify majorities but also to maintain the loyalty of minority groups, while autocratic politics seeks to prevent resistance and dissent. Binding forces traditionally associated with religion need to be secularized in the modern context. We can shift the perspective from the micro-macro distinction to the system-theoretical differentiation of interaction, organization, and society. Organizations play a crucial role in modern society by providing dense communication networks, connecting decisions, and binding individuals. They create institutional arrangements that bring order to society and maintain the continuity of life trajectories. The binary coding of functional systems in the digital society enables a wide range of possibilities and diversity. Modern society is not solely defined by its semantic self-descriptions but can also exhibit characteristics that contradict them. The strength and weakness of modern society lie in its functional differentiation based on stable binary codes, which liberates society from hierarchical structures but also poses risks and challenges. Aligning actions and goals within society is difficult. Decision-making becomes paradoxical in unprecedented situations, and the complexity of a crisis/pandemic situation adds to the challenge. Organizations handle the paradox of decision-making by assigning decision-makers and limiting criticism. Treating societies as organizations would require overriding their openness and process-oriented nature, leading to authoritarian containment.
Social inequality and class formation are secondary effects of the modernization process rather than fundamental structural categories of society. Ideas play a crucial role in the dynamics of society and are initiators of economic change. They arise from interruptions in horizontal differentiation facilitated by the digital coding of functional systems. Ideas are evaluated based on their effectiveness and their ability to prevail over alternatives in market competition. Trade-tested betterment applies not only to economics but also to democracy, science, art, media, and jurisprudence. These fields rely on open-ended processes, testing and evaluating ideas, and engaging with an audience. The preference for openness and incompleteness in these fields is indicative of a structural inclination toward liberal institutional arrangements rather than a normative stance. Escalation – as in meaningful advancement - is inherent in functional systems. While organizational decisions can influence the direction of research, they do not guarantee desired scientific outcomes. The openness of processes is a functional requirement in structurally differentiated systems, and attempts to mitigate this openness require significant energy and organizational effort. The openness of modern society cannot be avoided, even if it manifests as a form of opposition. Openness leads to calculable structures and learning processes rather than structural preservation. In a culture often referred to as liberal, change occurs imperceptibly and sometimes against the intentions of actors. The pluralizations within the process of modernization, such as the critique of discrimination and the plurality of lifestyles, are expressions of trade-tested procedures in various functional systems. These processes highlight the incredible performance of modernity across its functional domains.
While modernity is characterized by openness, variability, and changeability; culture implies different cultural variations and possibilities. Modern culture exhibits self-stabilization and the formation of order but also has a latent and unpredictable nature. Culture manifests itself in various ways, including ethnicity, nationality, and regional cultures, and plays a role in making culture visible through narratives. Modern culture is dual in nature, encompassing both continuous change and remarkable regularity and calculability of processes. The loss of latency as a protective mechanism for securing meanings creates insecurity and is reflected in debates on naming practices and the possibility of naming itself. Culture protects itself through the invisibility of its conditions and establishes a minimal moral framework. When these assumptions become explicit, they can have unintended consequences. Identity politics destabilize cultural stability and trust due to increased transparency. The struggle for justice in communication and representation is guided by the socio-idea of the communal but undermined by overwhelming transparency and visibility. The fight for justice mainly occurs in the social dimension rather than in material reality, and the loss of latency is experienced as inconsistency and overwhelm. Digitization and the rise of data contribute to latency loss by making hidden patterns visible. The increased visibility can create discomfort within society as it exposes the regularity and predictability of behavior. The challenge lies in establishing latency protection to withstand differences and maintain a sense of stability and order. Latency is one of the societal functional requirements alongside adaptation, goal attainment, and integration. Achieving integration can be challenging due to the need for latency protection, which involves making social norms and values invisible.
Social inequality and consumption play a crucial role in societal unease and they remain blind spots in theories and diagnoses of modern society. Consumption is the complementary side of production and integral to the functioning of the economic system. It serves as a means of entertainment and a way to address societal complexities and challenges. Consumption functions as a form of compensation and relief from reflection, offering continuity and stability in a culture driven by pop culture and serial renewal. Consumption and entertainment provide material for the bored consciousness to continue. Brands and marketing communication play a role in maintaining consciousness and compensating for disruptions in modern society. Brands provide security precisely because they are ultimately meaningless. Consumption creates a world where everything has its place, offering continuity through adaptation and evolution. Consumption could replace work in terms of inclusivity for individuals, as consumption groups provide societal roles based on style and aesthetic decisions. In a functionally differentiated society, individual psyches seem challenging to bind, pointing to freedom and deviation amplification, but also to rootlessness, boredom, overwhelm, and disorientation. Consumption and brand communication generate orientations that do not need to be questioned, providing security through consistency.
Society is constantly in crisis due to its own structures and processes. Gender roles and racial differences persist in society; while lacking inherent meaning their use has practical implications. Structural conflicts and challenges arise in a functionally differentiated society, and effective problem-solving requires considering both social and problem-specific dimensions. It’s important to transform risks into opportunities through social arrangements and the establishment of institutions and regulations.
Extract of Armin Nassehi's introduction based on his book "Unbehagen" as part of the Salon Sophie Charlotte "Enlightenment 2.0" on May 13, 2023 in the Berlin-Brandenburg Academy of Sciences:
"There is a very stark difference between what we know constatively and normatively. We know how to stop global warming, but society ("we") does not seem to be able to react collectively. The sociologist, who is interested in how modern societies are disintegrated, diagnoses that it is not possible to react collectively to collective challenges, but that a society reacts to them with very different means at the same time. We know that everything that has to do with climate change will have economic consequences, and on different levels: different products are needed, different forms of development are needed, different value chains may be needed. Even though we know that, people who offer that in political spaces may not be elected for exactly these issues. We're all for fighting climate change as long as we don't associate our heating bills with it. We can see that in all empirical studies: that if we have abstract goals, the approval rates are high, if they have concrete effects, the approval rates are low, or even if they are still high, at least the mediating approval is in the form of political elections, for example , or public loyalty low. Modern societies are not collectives, but very complex systems in which very different things happen at the same time, which can hardly be coordinated, which is why I advocate almost never saying sentences of the type: "We have to"."