Questions about whether and how society can be shaped by political interventions date back to early treatises on government by Aristotle, Machiavelli and other State philosophers. They have not lost their appeal in the context of multiple contemporary crises and the attempts to deal with them (e.g., refugees, the financial markets, terrorism). Social Scientists have produced countless claims about new instruments, new tools, new goals, new actors, new arenas and new procedures involved in such attempts at shaping society. Can a revised methodology of assessing systemic risks help predict and avoid financial market crashes in the future? Are novel forms of international co-operation, including so-called partnerships with countries in North Africa, a solution in the so-called refugee crisis? To what extent can the use of algorithms help identify terrorists before the idea of killing someone ever crosses their minds? Does ex-post criminal conviction become superfluous then? Are new social media an answer to the crisis of representative democracy as well as helping to overcome authoritarian regimes?

July, 30 2017   |   Regine Paul & Marc Mölders

Such and other foci on novelty risk understating a stable conceptual core at the heart of regulation and governance studies, namely a fundamental affirmation of social malleability. Certainly, much of the literature on novelty questions social malleability (a theme that dominated earlier discussions on regulation but which now seems to have faded into the background). This was particularly true of the literature diagnosing novelty in connection with 'the governance turn' in political sciences (which highlights the horizontal and vertical expansion of (non-State) actors and (non-hierarchical) forms of collectively binding decision-making). Yet, despite appearances, the same conceptual and analytical strings are being pulled. It thus seems analytically useful to identify a common core in the seemingly divergent conceptual approaches to regulation and governance by reappraising novelty claims.

We develop the notion of 'shaping society' to grasp such a common conceptual core. This serves as a bridging concept to acknowledge three features of intentional change which, from our perspective, unite regulation and governance research. They are: (1) the resilience of intentionality despite its (frequent) failures; (2) the role of unintended consequences; (3) the continuous background operations of the State and State Law.

First, both regulation and governance research is marked by a dual interest in (ever) new modes of societal control and analytical attention to the limited success of intentional societal interventions. Here, both regulation and governance failures. This observation addresses the ambivalent diagnosis that while scientific knowledge on the limits of intentional change is flourishing, we see an ever-increasing range of new instruments (such as risk analysis in regulatory approaches), new forums (such as publics) and new procedures (such as participation and networking as part of governance turns), which are deemed more suitable to shape society. Thus, from our viewpoint, 'shaping society' is strongly linked to a reluctance to give up on the evolution of tools, methods, procedures, etc., which are designed to (better) foster change, both among academics and practitioners. As Promethean humans cannot resist trying to shape the world according to their views, attempts at intentional change will keep outliving their own failures. Novelty claims, in that sense, point to a steady interest in fostering intentional change.

Second, the survival of even ill-fated attempts to foster social change further highlights that what seems to be taken for granted - namely that society whether in whole or in part is always undergoing change itself and the target of regulations and governance is a constantly moving one. Hence it comes as little surprise that many attempts at deliberate change fail as society morphs into something else, making it unlikely that policies will not have their intended effect.

Third, while the concept of governance has certainly expanded the analytical view of regulation beyond the 'usual suspects' of intentional change - i.e. the State, its formal rules and sanctioning power - at its very heart, it is still concerned with age-old notions of 'capacity, authority, sovereignty and autonomy' (chapter by Emma Carmel in our volume). Indeed, these may well be regarded as having always been 'uncertain, unpredictable, and variable across policy dimensions' (ibid) (even if perhaps for different reasons than the contemporary globalisation narrative suggests). With the resilience of intentional change, the State and its formal rule-making have by no means lost their conceptual or indeed empirical influence in a world of governance. Rather, they operate as background institutions for fostering and sustaining change (as in Fritz W. Scharpf's 'shadow of hierarchy') (chapter by Alfons Bora in our volume) but also, importantly, for dealing with the detrimental distributional effects of change and/or its failure (e.g. litigation on compensation or State-provided welfare).

The volume has eight chapters covering three widely-discussed examples of new arrangements through which social change can ostensibly be (better) fostered: risk-based reflexivity, public and social media, and participation. These illustrate how the concept of 'shaping society' can guide re-appraisals of societal and scholarly novelty claims. A few examples on the role of data journalism - a highly topical 'new societal corrective' - ought to suffice for such illustrative purposes here.

While the use of digital technologies and hubs is widely seen as speeding up societal shaping. Yet empirical evidence indicates that politics and law, respectively, still determine the pace of change in these fields. Indeed, data journalism outlets may well use new technology (such as unprecedented mass storage and high-performance word recognition software) to report much more persistently than before on topics of societal concern. Even so, their reporting is largely paced alongside the (slower) cycles of legal change. We also observe that the new correctives aimed at starting change are mainly of a legal nature (e.g. better implementation of existing laws or the creation of new ones). This suggests that just as any exclusive analytical focus on States and their political and legal instruments may limit the scope for grasping how modern society is shaped and shapes itself (as claimed in the governance debate), the same is true for the exclusive focus on non-State actors and non-hierarchical means of governing. Indeed, those deemed as more promising successors of the State and the Law in society-shaping processes turn to exactly these forerunners in seeking to influence social change. Further, just as suggested by the notion of unintended consequences, any change potentially resulting from reinforced (digital) media pressure cannot wholly predict (let alone: control), its effects. Consider the case of a widely-known database called 'Prescriber Checkup', which scrutinised the prescribing habits of hundreds of thousands of doctors across the US. Yet, such increased transparency did not steer the behaviour of patients in desired ways. Some readers - no doubt looking for a 'quick fix' - used the database to specifically search for doctors likely to prescribe widely-abused drugs.

To take the argument even further, some even consider a Fourth Estate 2.0 as belonging to the 'old world'. The contributors to the 'Digital Manifesto' suggest that entirely different - again: new - players actually shape society. Silicon Valley tech giants, the authors claim, meanwhile got bored with building operating systems for more or less smart devices and have moved on to working on operating systems for running society. We cannot settle here on whether that is an especially representative or, rather, a particularly far-fetched discussion according to our perspective of shaping society. As we hope has become clear, Society, Regulation and Governance encourages one to treat 'novelty' as a heuristic anchor in describing and explaining processes of 'intentional social change'. Of course, ubiquitous crisis diagnoses Challenge Regulation and Governance scholars to search for both, new conceptual means as well as find new practical tools to cope with crises. It seems to us that the many different accounts and labels produced to capture such crises and responses to them imply an ever more obscured conceptual and analytical landscape. To tackle this risk, we suggest focusing on the relationship between novelty claims - as an analytical heuristic - and intentional social change as a common conceptual core in regulation and governance research. Such a critical stance on novelty claims should not lead to overlooking truly novel attempts at and consequences of shaping society (whether or not such outcomes are intended). We look forward to reading and engaging in such discussion in the future.

Regine Paul is a post-doctoral Political Scientist at the Law and Society Unit of Bielefeld University and John F. Kennedy Memorial fellow at the Minda de Gunzburg Center for European Studies at Harvard University. Marc Mölders is Associate Professor in Sociology at the Law and Society Unit of Bielefeld University. He has published on and is interested in (new) societal correctives.


Paul, Regine, Mölders, Marc, Bora, Alfons, Huber, Michael and Peter Münte (eds.) (2017) Society, Regulation and Governance: New Modes of Shaping Social Change?, Cheltenham (UK): Edward Elgar Publishing.

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