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unintended or unanticipated consequences

unintended or unanticipated consequences It is an old saying that things do not always turn out as we expect. The theme of the unintended consequences of action therefore has an understandably long pedigree in the social sciences. Many sociological observers have distinguished between the stated purpose or intent of social actions, and their generally unrecognized, but objective functional consequences. William Isaac Thomas noted how the co-operative institutions of Polish peasants served not just their specific objectives but also functioned to forge cohesion. More recently, Lewis Coser has argued that conflicts are not always destructive for an organization, but may, by their adaptive or safety-valve function, play a part in maintaining organizational stability (see The Functions of Social Conflict, 1965

The classic sociological example of unanticipated consequences is found in Max Weber's thesis about the connection between the protestant ethic and the spirit of modern capitalism. The Calvinist doctrines of predestination and this-worldly asceticism had the unintended consequence of creating a climate suitable for the growth of capitalism by encouraging the accumulation of capital as a duty or end in itself. More recent illustrations are given by Jon Elster in Nuts and Bolts for the Social Sciences (1989). One example deals with the way in which opinion polls can affect election outcomes. The publication of pre-election polls may actually alter the outcome of the election, either because they cause people to switch and support the leading candidate, or because people cast a sympathy vote for the apparent underdog. Of course, if everyone opted for the underdog, this would have the strange result of awarding victory to the less popular candidate. A somewhat similar example of the unintended is provided by the Hawthorne Studies, where the presence of the researchers inadvertently changed the behaviour of the workers they were studying, a phenomenon since designated the ‘Hawthorne effect’.

According to Robert Merton (Social Theory and Social Structure, 1949) the unintended consequences of actions are of three types: those which are functional for a designated system and therefore comprise latent functions; those which are dysfunctional for a designated system and are latently dysfunctional; and those which are irrelevant to the system since they have no functional consequences. As soon as these types are applied to a specific situation there are problems. Obvious questions include ‘Dysfunctional for whom?’ and ‘Performing a latent function for what?’ Moreover, it makes no sense to use unanticipated consequences to explain the function, because the consequences were not known at the time. An unanticipated consequence could, however, influence future actions. Think of a child throwing a tantrum in order to get an ice-cream. If the tantrum has the unintended consequence of attracting adult attention, then attention-seeking rather than ice-cream may motivate future tantrums.

Unanticipated consequences are important at the micro-level as social actors are often mistaken in their interpretation of the situation and can, by their action, bring unanticipated results. A special case of this is the self-fulfilling prophecy, in which the pronouncement of an erroneous belief may evoke behaviour that (apparently) vindicates that belief, thus making the prophecy come true. The labelling theory of deviance postulates precisely such a mechanism. Thus, to quote the early formulation by Frank Tannenbaum in Crime and the Community (1938), ‘the very process of making the criminal is a process of tagging, defining, identifying, segregating, describing, emphasizing, making conscious and self conscious; it becomes a way of stimulating, suggesting, emphasizing the very traits that are complained of …’ Unanticipated consequences are also important at the macro-level because so many events occur unintentionally. As Adam Ferguson observed, ‘History is the result of human action, not of human design.’ See also SELECTIVE VERSUS UNIVERSAL BENEFITS.

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